I’m asked fairly regularly, in one way or another, whether the world is getting worse, and if somehow that means something biblically. Usually people have in mind a somewhat vague notion that the Bible says something about things getting worse before Jesus returns.
So it is a good question: Are we supposed to be connecting the dots? Is there a decoder ring we can get and figure out “when these things will happen”? And what then? We’re not going to cover the breadth of this question in a post of a few hundred words. (I’m guessing you knew that.)
For now, it is helpful to remember that “the good old days” always look better in hindsight. Taking the long view, it did not go well for the first family, with Cain killing his brother Abel. Sodom was not a lovely place to visit in the springtime. Few of us would choose to live in the Mad Max neighborhood of the Judges, where “everyone did as he saw fit.”
But we just read two remarkably dense, poignant, and frightening chapters from Luke that move through these (and many other) questions.
We are wise to take what the Lord says in Luke 21 seriously. Do not be frightened; many will come with false claims; wars, earthquakes, revolutions, and famine will happen, with nation fighting nation, and family fighting family; the end will not come right away. Personal suffering and betrayal are to be expected by many of us, and the days will be harsh—even dreadful. We will gain no sympathy or help from those we might expect to be helpers.
In the midst of all of these descriptions, we note that Jesus promises that we will never be left alone, even as we feel utterly alone. He promises to give us words and wisdom, sufficient for the day. The consummate realist, he said much more about what we caricature as the Apocalypse (which means revelation).
Luke 21 leads us to Luke 22: in some ways, an apocalypse of our Lord. As many times as one may read these accounts in the Gospels, the narrative is always bracing. Here we see many coming forward with false claims against Jesus, and we see friends betraying, denying, and abandoning him. Help does not come from where it seems it should. He experiences intensely personal suffering and has the greatest dread of his tomorrow—the cup that his Father has prepared for him to drink.
Betrayal, isolation, desolation, anguish, discontent, and the certainty of suffering that comes tomorrow. It is an apocalypse: a revelation or disclosure of that which is. It is a revelation of the very work Jesus came to do – the work he will finish – the work for the sin and brokenness of the world and its entire history, from the first family forward. It is a judgment of the way things are and a decisive act upon which the history of the world turns.
Is it the end of the world as we know it? Luke adds a penetrating detail at the end of Chapter 22. After Peter denies Jesus for the third time, “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” This glance marks the end of the world as Peter knew it, his own apocalypse, revelation, and judgment of the ways things are within him (and us). It undoes him, for “He then remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him … and he went outside and wept bitterly.” [NIV translation]
Let us stop here for now, in the midnight of Maundy Thursday, somewhere in the hours before the dawn of Good Friday. A dark time, to be sure: a strangely revealing, disclosing, clarifying night.