Alfred Place Baptist Church

12:53-59 Interpreting Truly This Present Time

Luke 12:54-59 “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.’”

There is a fascination with this period of history in which we live, the shrinking of the world through the communication revolution; cheap travel opening up distant continents to the tourist so that they could walk along the Great Wall of China or visit Ayers Rock in the heart of Australia. There is also an immediate access we have this coming week to any sermons that have been preached in the power of the Spirit anywhere in the world today via the world wide web; the knowledge we’ve got at our finger tips of events in the past or present in all the detail that we need (and far more) is ours by the same means; there is the spread and conquest of the English language as the lingua franca of the world; the inroads followers of Islam have made into Europe; the collapse of the institution of marriage, the destruction of the unborn child; the rise of militant atheism; the shrinking of the status of politicians and man’s conviction of what politics itself can achieve; the economic crisis; the rise of China and India as world powers. Don’t we look at these signs of the times and many more and seek to understand them? That is our calling. As Christians we’re not afraid of truth and knowledge.

IT IS OUR DUTY TO NOTICE THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES.

What fascination people have in the weather, what utter obsession characterizes our world. There is not a news bulletin without a weather forecast. There are whole TV channels that do nothing else than talk about the weather all over the world. There are sophisticated computers that log temperatures in every part of the globe, the air flows and wind speeds. Then men read the print outs and they make predictions about the future based on what is there in front of them. They announce that a sharp air stream from the north will bring snow to the country by the end of the week, and so it is. Or, “There are westerly winds blowing and Wales is going to have rain,” and generally it does pour with rain. Men have always been eager to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. They did so at the time of the Lord Jesus, and on this occasion before us he seized on this fact to warn them how selective and limited was their reading of the times. They were not interested enough in what was of crucial importance. They were not showing any enthusiasm for moral choices, what was right and thus what was also wrong. He said “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (v.56). They were ignorant of the only age in which they would be alive, when God the Son walked the earth and they were eye-witnesses of his majesty. These were the most important three years in the history of the world and they were on the spot for them, yet they were shutting their eyes against events that were of stupendous significance. They were the fulfillment of prophecy.

About 2,000 years before Jesus was born, the Jews believed that the father and founder of the nation, Abraham, had been told by Jehovah their God that through his offspring, ‘All nations on earth will be blessed.’ To people in no nation other than Jesus’ nation could these words apply. You understand that every other family on earth except Abraham’s family was out of the running as far as producing a Messiah was concerned. The Christ had to be a son of Abraham, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking – sons of Abraham to a man – believed that with all their hearts. The Old Testament prophecies were specific; they showed that Abraham’s line of succession would run through Isaac (who was not Abraham’s oldest son), Jacob (who was not Isaac’s first­born) and Jacob’s fourth son Judah (bypassing his eleven brothers). Eleven generations later a man called Jesse was identified as being in the Messianic line, and of Jesse’s eight sons David was the one of whom God said that he would ‘raise up … a righteous Branch’. There was a constant refining and divine discrimination. This congregation to whom Jesus was speaking on the occasion before us believed all of this implicitly. There would have been scarcely one amongst them who denied it, and if one such man thought so it would have been worth more than his life to say so. He kept that disbelief under wraps.

So they believed that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would come from a line taken directly through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse and David. This special family tree precluded most of the human race. Then another proph­ecy declared exactly where it was that the Messiah would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” There were two Bethlehems, one in the region of Eph­rathah in Judea, and the other seventy miles to the north in Zebulon: the New Testament tells us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea” the one identified by the Old Testament prophet. Our Lord was born in the right place. Do you know that, O congregation who are hearing Jesus preaching to you?

Prophecy after prophecy about this Messiah had been made and they were all fulfilled in him. The nine­teenth-century Oxford scholar Henry Liddon in fact traced no fewer than 332 Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. These covered his family’s social status, his life­style, his general demeanour, his teaching and his extraor­dinary powers. Even more fascinating is the fact that these prophecies included minute details of the events surrounding his death. The prophets said that he would be forsaken by his followers, betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (which would then be used to buy a potter’s field), wrongly accused, tortured and humiliated (in response to which he would not retali­ate), executed alongside common criminals, and put to death by crucifixion (a form of execution never carried out by the Jews). They also said that at the time of his death he would pray for his executioners, none of his bones would be broken, his body would be pierced and people would cast lots to see who would get his clothing. He would be buried in the grave of a rich man, but God would not allow his body to decompose.

O congregation who were listening to the Lord Jesus, are you shutting your eyes against events that are occurring in your day of such gravity and relevance? John Blanchard tells us of a certain Peter Stoner who evaluated the biblical data using scientific principles of probability, and at one point calculated the chance of just forty-eight of the Messianic prophecies being fulfilled to be one in 10’57. To illustrate what this means, he used an electron, something so small that, at the rate of 250 a minute, one cubic inch of electrons would take 190,000,000 x 190,000,000 x 190,000,000 years to count. Stoner said that if we took this number of electrons, marked one of them, stirred them all together and then asked a blindfolded friend to find the one we had marked, his chance of doing so would be the same as that of finding one man fulfilling even forty-eight of the more than 300 Messianic prophecies. In Jesus’ case, all forty-eight (and another 284) were fulfilled to the letter. Not surprisingly, Stoner concluded that to re­ject the Bible’s claims that Jesus is the Messiah would be to reject a fact ‘proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.’ As John Blanchard says, since he called the quantity of elec­trons used in his illustration ‘a large number,’ we can hardly accuse him of being prone to exaggeration! Yet these men to whom Jesus was speaking, so confident at reading meteorological signs – “Tomorrow it is going to rain” – refused to look at the life of Jesus and acknowledge the obvious fact how their precious Scriptures were saying, “This is he of whom Moses and the prophets wrote about. He was born in the right place, and this is how he is living, these are his mighty acts, and this is what will happen to him.”

It would have been practically speaking of immense importance for them to notice the signs of the times. For example, one of the Messianic prophecies declared that the tribe of Judah would provide Israel with all its kings until the Messiah arrived: “The sceptre will not depart from Judah . . . until he comes to whom it belongs.” Oh congregation of Jesus you believe that prophecy, don’t you? “Oh yes.” Jesus of Nazareth was born in about 3 or 4 B.C. and throughout those years of his life Judah’s government was in steady decline. Are you noticing the signs of declension? The prophecy says that when the Messiah has come it will not be long before the sceptre will have departed from Judah, and then the nation is going to collapse. Did it? Yes, it did so with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70. How terrible and total would be that collapse. The tribal system went, the priests and high priests disappeared, the temple was destroyed never to be rebuilt, the kings were never to rule there again, the judges and prophets all vanished. It was then, I say, when the Lord Christ came, to whom the sceptre of rule and authority belonged, that the significance of David’s city Jerusalem ended for ever. Congregation of Jesus who look to the sky and say confidently, “Tomorrow will be a dry day,” are you looking at the life of Christ as it fulfils all of messianic prophecy, and are you constrained to ask, “When the Messiah comes will he do any more than this man has been doing, year after year? You know when the Messiah comes the sceptre will depart from the land. Let us be ready. There will be trouble ahead.” Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?

Think of some of Jesus’ extraordinary signs like feeding 5,000 men with five loaves and two fishes; speaking to the winds and waves and they obeyed him; raising three people at least from the dead; turning water into wine; walking on water; delivering people from Satanic possession; giving sight to men born blind. Miracles like that were a daily occurrence once his ministry began. The world had never seen anything like it. Sickness was completely banished from some of the villages of Galilee. The Gospels indicate that Jesus performed so many miracles that thousands of books could not contain descriptions of them all, and all this was done by virtue of his own innate power. This was allied to a personal sanity and modesty and wisdom and the most stringent ethic which he himself maintained as well as taught,and a loveliness and accessibility of character. Of course some of Israel’s prophets like Moses and Elijah and Elisha also did a few signs and wonders, but they all did so with derivative power. Oh, congregation of Jesus, listening to him and watching him, are you interpreting these events? Are you saying to yourselves, “Since these things are happening – and we all know of people whose lives have been transformed for good by Christ – what do they tell us of Jesus of Nazareth?” What manner of man is this that the winds and the waves obey him? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?

Listen to these words of Jesus; they are either the words of a megalomaniac or they are the words of God: “The Son gives life to whom he wishes” (John 5:21). That is not the statement of a mere disciple or a holy man. It would be blasphemy to make a claim like that if Jesus were just a mere preacher. Again Christ spoke of the resurrection and he said, “I myself will raise [them] up on the last day” (John 6:40). That is not the word of even the most exalted prophet of Israel. Again he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19); that is a challenge which admits of no parallel amongst even the greatest of the servants of God. Jesus’ disciples clearly understood this difference. Christ’s power was not only of a different order from theirs, but also had intrinsic authority and underived power.

Again, Christ claimed that he could unilaterally forgive sin. For instance, to the scribes of Capernaum, Jesus says: “in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I say to you [the paralytic], rise, take up your pallet and go home” (Mark 2:10-11). Elsewhere, he asserts his right to that authority by delegating a form of it to his disciples (Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:23). Who but the Almighty may forgive sins or delegate such authority? Men and women, why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? You make judgments about tomorrow’s weather, “red sky at night, shepherds” delight – but here is something eternally significant and you are refusing to consider these signs.

Again, the Lord Christ claims the right to be the final Judge of both men and angels. In the Old Testament this is the right of God alone, but according to Jesus himself, the Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). He has been appointed judge of the cosmos by God, and so he is your judge. You are going to meet Jesus the judge of your life! My friend Chris Rees told me on Monday that he was preaching recently in a small country congregation of Baptists and there he met a typical muddled old deacon who said to him that once he believed the Bible but now he believed only in the Sermon on the Mount. Chris refused to acknowledge that that man did believe in the Sermon on the Mount and he informed the man that he didn’t. This was a man who did not know how to interpret this present time. What does Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount? “Not everyone who says to me,`Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt.7:21-23). The Son of God claims that he will drive people from his presence eternally. In other words, he will put them in hell. You deacons, and your family and your neighbours, and all the world will receive the verdict of their eternal destiny from the lips of this Jesus. Many are going to hear the most terrible words any man can hear, ‘Away from me, you evil doers.’ That Baptist deacon didn’t believe in the Sermon on the Mount or in Jesus the Son of God. He believed in himself and in those select things that Jesus said that he happened to agree with. Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? The apostle Paul did, and he believed that we all faced Jesus the Judge. He said, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This is his inherent right.

Again, there is the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Have you considered it? Why not? I have had help here from John Blanchard in his book, Is God Past his Sell-by Date? (pp.208-210). Dr. Julian Evans considered it. Who is he? The Professor of Tropical Forestry at Imperial College, London and also the honorary chair of forestry at Bangor University. Just before he began his studies as a 19 year old student in Bangor his future wife gave him Frank Morrison’s book Who Moved the Stone? This famous old book examines the evidence in the Bible for the resurrection of Christ, and Julian became enthralled as he had to judge for himself what is right. That is what our Lord is asking you to do. Consider the resurrection. The record is quite amazing, there at the end of the four gospels, preceded in them all by Jesus’ repeated prediction that he would be crucified and rise on the third day. There you will read of the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the grave clothes there but the body missing, and then the appearances of the man Christ Jesus. On occasion he would kill fish and bake bread and eat and drink with them. These appearances went on for almost six weeks. What is fascinating about the resurrection event itself is that nobody claimed to have seen it happen. This may seem a weakness, but if the disciples had cooked up the story, they would surely have included at least one dramatic eyewitness account . . . “the flicker of the eyelids . . . the pulse . . . the smile . . . the voice . . . then standing erect . . .” No. There is no such description. It is omitted by God.

Again, at a time when a woman’s testimony was thought so worthless that it was not considered binding in Jewish law, the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus is said to have been to a woman. If the disciples were inventing all of this would they have been so careless as to build their message on that story – a woman? Again, the narratives in the gospels are not absolutely identical, and this also points strongly to their truth, rather than the opposite. If the disciples had invented the story, wouldn’t they have made sure that all the loose ends were tied up? What of the evidence of the resurrection? Of all the available material, there are three most impressive and for us unanswerable items.

i] The number of witnesses. The Bible records six independent, written testimonies (three by eyewitnesses) telling of eleven separate appearances over a period of forty days. Some sceptics write all these off as halluci­nations, but this idea breaks down because the appearances fail to conform to the relevant laws. There is no evidence that any of the witnesses were neurotic or psychotic, and Jesus rarely appeared in places where he and his followers had spent time together; and our Lord appeared to one person, two, three, seven, eleven and, on one occasion, over 500 people at a time. What is more, none of those to whom he appeared showed any signs of wishful thinking that he was still alive; on the contrary, they were con­vinced that Jesus was over and done with. These facts led a distinguished medical expert to conclude, ‘The resurrection appearances break every known law of visions.’

When the apostle Paul told friends at Corinth that Jesus had appeared to more than 500 people at the same time, he added, “most of whom are still living.” This means that sceptics could have questioned over 250 witnesses, every one of whom would have told the same story. “Yes he talked to me for a while and I heard him speak to the man next to me before he went on to talk to others. I’ll never forget it.” Why should they all have made up such a story and suffered impoverishment, divorce from their unbelieving husbands, persecution and death if it were all a conspiracy? Conspiracies are invented by a group of ten people not five hundred. Many of 500 people would be bound to spill the beans it it had all been a hoax. But here were testimonies that were utterly consistent and in a somewhat higher league than modern claims that Elvis Presley is still alive and well and living in various parts of the world . . .

ii] The sudden transformation of the disciples. The crucifixion of Jesus had left them a dejected, faithless and depressed rabble, frightened out of their wits and cowering behind locked doors, terrified that they might be next on the authorities’ hit list. Yet a few weeks later they had changed into a dynamic band of believers, fearlessly preaching the resurrec­tion and prepared to face torture, imprisonment and exe­cution rather than deny their convictions. Can you explain this? Judge for yourselves what is right.

It was the disciples’ transformation that convinced Charles Colson, special counsel to USA President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, that the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection was true. When the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its burglary of the Democrats’ Watergate offices in Washington came under scrutiny by the Department of Justice it took less than a month for three of those involved to turn state evidence. Some time later Colson wrote, “In my Watergate experience I saw the inability of men – powerful, highly motivated professionals – to hold together a conspiracy based on a lie . . . Yet Christ’s fol­lowers maintained to their grim deaths by execution that they had in fact seen Jesus Christ raised from the dead and eaten and drank with him. There was no conspiracy . . . Men and women do not give up their comfort – and certainly not their lives – for what they know to be a lie.” It is impossible to explain the disciples’ behaviour away; some hugely significant, objective event must have happened to kindle such a radical change, and this instant transformation from cowardice to courage leads Professor Norman Anderson to call it ‘far and away the strongest circumstantial evidence for the resurrection.’

iii] The growth of the Christian church. Within a few years, the enemies of the movement which these men began accused it of having ‘turned the world upside down.” By the early part of the fourth century it was recog­nized as the official religion of the Roman Empire, which had tried to strangle it at birth. Some 2,000 years later it is the larg­est religious movement the world has ever known — and it was founded not on some new ideas on morals, ethics or social issues, nor on a particular ritual or style of worship, but on one stupendous fact: the resurrection of Jesus. This can hardly be reduced to folklore. As the American author D. James Kennedy puts it, ‘The Grand Canyon wasn’t caused by an Indian drag­ging a stick, and the Christian Church wasn’t created by a myth.’ He who has ears to hear let him hear. Are you listening? Then why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?

Lord Darling was once Lord Chief Justice of England, and he had to interpret the resurrection appearances of Jesus, as you must. You have to come to some conclusion about this historical event. This head of the judiciary, with his lawyer’s brain, said this, “In its favour as living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.”

Have you no signs of the times to observe? Look around you at this moment. Can’t you see a group of men and women who don’t seem to be fanatics, or idiots, or gullible, or weak personalities who need a crutch to help them get by, or romantics who are looking back to the time of their childhood when lots more people went to church and people were kinder and society was more moral. We have not been brought here on a wave of nostalgia. We are very much a cross section of this town in age, and intelligence, and wealth, and political opinion. We don’t all come from the Middle East like some religionists. We are Europeans and Americans and Africans and Asian. Yet most of us have read the Bible and heard it preached and come to the conclusion that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who loved us, living and dying for our redemption. We worship him. He is our God. And we are just one church in this town. There are others of which all I’ve just said about us is also true of the people worshipping there.

We can expand that observation far outside the walls of this church or the borders of our little town. There is the wealthiest country in the world, the USA, and all that affluence has not bought the souls of millions of Christians. They will soon be rising and worshipping God in a million congregations on the prairies and the Rockies as well as in New York and Washington. Then there are some of the poorest countries in the world in Africa and Asia, and Christians there gain no material advantage from worshipping God on the Lord’s Day and following Jesus, but they do. Then there is Korea, divided into two nations, the north has hundreds of thousands of secret Christians in spite of terrible persecution and constant brain-washing. Thousands of Christians are in prison, while in the south of Korea churches are flourishing and tens of thousands of missionaries go out into all the world even to our own country. Then there is China where estimates speak of 50 million to 100 million Christians and the number increases rapidly year by year. No American missionaries work in China. Surely all this deserves to be called ‘signs of the times.’ Are you weighing these things up? All I have said to you is true.

J.C.Ryle says, “Let us remember the words of our Lord in the passage before us, and not err after the manner of the Jews. Let us not be blind, and deaf, and insensible to all that God is doing, both in the Church and in the world. The things of which we’ve just been reminded are surely not without meaning. They haven’t come on the earth by chance or by accident, but by the appointment of God. We ought not to doubt that they’re a call to watchful­ness, and to preparation for the day of God. May we all have an ear to hear, and a heart to understand! May we not sleep, as do many, but watch and discern our time! It is a solemn saying in the book of Revelation, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Rev. 3:3).

IT IS OUR DUTY TO SEEK RECONCILIATION WITH GOD BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.

Do you see how Jesus ends this sermon? He really lays it on them. He doesn’t give them an opportunity to complement him or let them murmur, “Stimulating . . . you really made me think.” No. He warns them about their personal conduct in the light of his coming, his teaching, his great atoning death, his resurrection and the throne of judgment that we must all have to stand before. He says to them, “Then what about your sins in the light of all that I am and all that I have said? Let me just mention one sin, the hostility that there is between you and your adversary.” You know someone, a member of your family, maybe your ex-, or a man who did some work for you with whom you have a dispute, or a colleague at work with whom you have a difference, or a neighbour who has planted a hedge that reaches the heavens and you cannot bear to see him. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau say that the top two reasons people go to them are debt and neighbours.This is what Jesus exhorts, “As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (vv.58&59).

You see the picture Jesus paints. The day you’ve dreaded has finally come and you are going to court with your solicitor. It’s a bad day. Jesus says, but this is you today, you are on your way to the Judge of all the earth because this is a moral universe and what you have sown that you will also reap. We shall all stand at the bar of God. Like the man Jesus mentions, we have an adver­sary: the holy law of God is against us, and contrary to us, and its demands must be satisfied. Like him, we ought to give diligence to get our case settled, before it comes before the Judge. Seek pardon and mercy and forgiveness long before you die. I have urged you today to consider the facts; face up to truth; judge for yourselves what is right. Jesus pleads with you. Like this man, if you let this opportunity slip, will you have another? If you let this opportunity slip you will grow harder and more cynical and more resistant to the truth! The judgment will go against you, and then you will be cast into the prison of hell. That’s the application of this parable in the passage before us. That is why God brought you here today. This is a picture of the care which men and women ought to take in this great matter of being reconciled with God.

Peace with God is the principal thing which the gospel of Christ offers to you. Truth, peace and pardon are here in the forefront of its list of privileges, and are tendered freely to every one who trusts and obeys the Lord Jesus. Here is one who can deliver you from the adversary. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.

23rd January 2011 GEOFF THOMAS