Joyful Anticipation of the Second Advent
“And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” — Luke xxi. 28 — 31.
I HAVE already said that I conceive our Lord Jesus Christ to have regarded the destruction of Jerusalem as “the beginning of the end.” Although some eighteen hundred years have rolled away since that terrible event, we with him may make but small account of the interval, and regard it all as one dispensation of passing away. That beautiful city was the very crown of the entire earth, because God had dwelt there. It may be compared to the diamond in a ring, the jewel whose setting was the whole world; and when that jewel was destroyed, and God did as it were grind it to powder, it was a warning that the ring itself would, by-and-by, be crushed and consumed; for “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat , the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The destruction of Jerusalem was, so to speak, the uprolling of the curtain on the great drama of the world’s doom; it will not fall again until all the things that we now see shall have passed away, and only the things that cannot be shaken — the things of God and of eternity, which we cannot see, — shall remain.
Moreover, I think that, from this chapter, if we are to understand it all, — and it is confessedly very difficult to comprehend, — we must regard the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple as being a kind of rehearsal of what is yet to be. God’s long-suffering was displayed with Israel for centuries. The rebellious tribes had ample space for repentance. They had even been carried away into captivity; and, by the Lord’s gracious lovingkindness, they had struggled back again; yet, only changing the form of their apostasy, they continued to wander away from God. They were bent on backsliding from Jehovah even when their idols were all destroyed, and the seed of Abraham had come to hate every sort of symbol and image. Yet, then, they began to set up other kinds of idols in the traditions of the fathers, and the inventions of the scribes. Thus they lost the spirit of divine teaching in the mere letter of it, and became only formalists when they ceased to be idolaters; for, mind you, the truth, if it be dead, has no more virtue in it than falsehood has. When the Spirit of God is gone out of that which in itself is right, it becomes often a cover wherein a thousand evils conceal themselves. So, at last, God’s longsuffering had come to an end, and, according to current tradition, there was a sound as of the moving of wings in the holy place at Jerusalem; and it is reported that one priest, who stood to officiate at the altar, heard the solemn sentence, “Let us go hence,” for God was about to leave his temple. That temple had already rent its veil from the top to the bottom for very shame at what had been done to the Lord’s Christ; and now the fabric itself must be consumed with fire, even in spite of the order of the Roman emperor. With all his power, he could not save it from ruin, and so completely was the city destroyed that Zion was ploughed as a field, and the very site of the temple was for many a day a question in dispute.
Ah, my friends, this was a picture — a faint picture — of what shall be the case when the Lord Jesus Christ shall come again! Then, all external religion, — if it be but external, — shall perish in the fire, and only the spiritual and the true shall live. “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up,” as it was with the temple fabric. In the day that is coming, that only shall endure upon which fire can have no power, that only shall stand which is God’s own eternal truth. So, then, I regard that destruction of Jerusalem and its temple as the beginning of the end, and also as the rehearsal of what is yet to be.
The times before the destruction of Jerusalem were terrible to the last degree. If you have read Josephus, you cannot but feel your heart bleed for the poor Jews. They were utterly infatuated, they were so carried away with heroic madness that they fought against the Romans with a desperate valour, after the city had been surrounded. Never upon this earth were there braver or more fanatical spirits than were those who were cooped up within those city walls. When they were weary with fighting the Romans, they turned their swords and their daggers against one another, being divided into sects and parties who hated each other with the utmost fury. Jerusalem was a cauldron, a boiling pot, seething full of all manner of evil, and mischief, and misery. The land was devoured before the Roman armies. Everybody seemed to be either driven from the country, or else to be left dead around the city walls. They crucified the Jews in such numbers that they left off doing it because they could find no more wood upon which to nail them. Those who were taken captive were sold for slaves till a penny was refused as their price, they literally sold them for a pair of shoes. The precious sons of God, as the prophet said, comparable to fine gold, were esteemed as earthen pitchers, cracked and broken, and only worthy to be thrown upon the dunghill. But all the time, — the most awful time, perhaps, that any nation over endured, — the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ were altogether unharmed. It is recorded that they fled to the little city of Pella, wore quiet according to their Master’s command, and not a hair of their head perished. Indeed, it was to them a time of redemption, for the persecution which the Jews had carried on against them had been exceedingly cruel, and now there was a pause. Their own miseries were so great that they had no care nor thought for the poor Christians; they at least were secure, they looked up, and lifted up their heads, for their Master’s prophecy was verified, and the full force of the curse fell upon those who had cried to Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
Now, dear friends, it will be just so at the last. I am not about to enter into any prophecies of what is yet to be, but here are the Master’s own words: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
That is my subject, dear friends; and we will consider, first, the terrible time in which this precept is to be carried out: “Look up, and lift up your heads;” secondly, the remarkable precept itself: “Look up, and lift up your heads;” and thirdly, the encouraging parable which is given in order to induce us to look up, and lift up our heads: “Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”
I. First, then, here is A TERRIBLE TIME, in which we are told to look up, and lift up our heads.
It is evidently to be a time of fearful national trouble; and if such times should ever come in our days, — if there should ever arrive times that are worthy to be compared with the destruction of Jerusalem, — here is the Master’s word to us, “When ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.” Should great wars occur, as they certainly will, there is nothing, in them to terrify the Christian. Should they even come to your own doors, it is not for believers in Christ ever to be the victims of a scare. Whatever may happen, what is there for them to fear? The Saviour gives them this precept for a time when it will be impossible for them to carry it out unless it be by faith in him: “Look up, and lift up your heads.” Whatever chastisements shall befall the nations, you shall be secure in following to the full the principles of peace that your Master has enjoined upon you.
Further, this precept is given, not only in times of fearful national trouble, but also in times of awful physical signs and wonders in the world: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars.” It may be a season of preternatural darkness; or the solar system may be disturbed, so that the stars of heaven, which have been fixed for centuries, shall fall like unripe fruit from the trees, or as the withered leaves of autumn are scattered by the stormy blast. You know that, when there is some phenomenon such as they have never seen, and such as their fathers have never seen, how frightened people are! But suppose there should be visible in the heavens manifestations such as have never been seen before, yet even at such times the children of God are to look up, and lift up their heads, and if they should not merely be in the heavens, but if the earth also should shake and tremble, — if that which is supposed to be most stable should become most fickle, — yet even then we are to look up, and lift up our heads. And if the sea and the waves thereof should roar in a manner altogether unusual, so that landsmen should hear the noise afar off, or if, being out at sea ourselves, the waves should run mountains high, and the vessel should threaten to sink to the bottom, yet still this is the precept for the worst of times that are supposable: “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads.” Even in such a trying time as that, take up the language of the forty-sixth Psalm, and say, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.”
“Nature cannot rise to that height,” says one. No, I know it cannot; but grace can. “I cannot rise to it,” says one. Perhaps you cannot, but there is One who can raise you up to it, and it is he himself who bids you so to rise. “Then,” says Jesus, “when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads.”
This terrible time which our Lord describes is, in addition, a time of universal alarm: “Upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.” You know that fear is contagious; when one person trembles, many begin to feel the same sort of tremor; and when all the people, wherever we shall go, at home or abroad, shall be in distress, — when everywhere the hearts of men they shall seem to die within them, or turn as it were to stone, so that they cannot act or move, like those who guarded the tomb of Christ, who, when they saw him rise, were as dead men, — if it should ever come to that, and there should be a general panic, then you who have Christ for your Master, God for your Father, eternity for your heritage, and heaven for your home, even then you may “look up, and lift up your heads.
You ask, perhaps, “How shall we do that?” You cannot do it without your Lord. With God, all things are possible. In Christ, you can do all things; without him, you can do nothing. If you live away from your Lord and Master, in those days of terror that are yet to come, your hearts will quail for fear, and you will be like other men. If you run with them, you shall fear with them. If you strength is where their strength is, you shall be as weak as they; but if you have learned to look up, why, even in those stormy times you shall keep to the habit of looking up; and if you have learned to lift your heads above the world, you shall keep to the habit of lifting up your heads. If your portion is in heaven, it shall not be shaken when the earth rocks and reels to its very foundations; if your treasure is in heaven, then your treasure shall not be lost.
If God be with you, you can stand between the very jaws of death, or in the centre of hell itself, and feel no fear. With Christ by your side, you may be as calm amid the wreck of matter, and the crash of worlds, as your Lord himself is in his glory. He can work even this in you if you do but cast yourself on him, and live wholly to him.
Once more, the time when we are to be thus calm and quiet, and to look up, and lift up our heads, is to be at the coming judgment. My dear brothers and sisters, whatever I might say to you about the calamities that are yet to come upon the earth, whatever description I might give of wars, and earthquakes, and storms, — if I were to make each word as black as night, and each sentence as sharp as a killing sword, — yet could I not fully describe the final scene when the Lord himself shall come in all the pomp and splendour of the last dread assize. No human tongue can tell, as no human heart can imagine, the terrors of that tremendous day, especially the sight of the once crucified King when he appears seated upon his great white throne, and when the summons shall ring out, —
“Come to judgment!
Come to judgment, come away!”
when the grave shall not conceal the unnumbered dead, nor even the depths of the ocean suffice for a hiding-place from him that sitteth upon the throne, for all shall be gathered before him, every eye shall see him, and they also that pierced him. You will be there, my friend, you will be there as certainly as you are here. O you who are without Christ, all the fear and dread you have ever had in this life will be as nothing compared with the alarm and terror of that day! Your fears when you have been laid low with fever, and have been near to death’s door, will be but as child’s play compared with what you will feel at that tremendous day which is soon to come. Yet Christ says to his people, concerning even that time of terror, “Look up, and lift up your heads.” There is nothing for you who have put your trust in him, ever to fear. It is your Judge who is coming, but he comes to acquit you, and to exhibit you to the assembled universe clad in his own righteousness which you already wear. He who is coming is your Lord, your Friend, your Bridegroom; he who has sworn to deliver you is coming to call your body from the grave, and to raise you up to dwell together with himself for ever. That day of Christ’s appearing shall be to you a morning of the ringing out of harps, and a time of joyous shouts and blissful songs.
“There shall be weeping, there shall be weeping,
At the judgment-seat of Christ;”
but not for you who are in him; it shall be your joy day, your wedding day, the brightest day in all your history. “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads.”
I must leave this first point, concerning the terrible time when this precept is to be carried out, by just reminding you that, when the Lord Jesus Christ shall come, the heavens shall tell us: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars.” The earth shall tell us, for upon the earth there shall be “distress of nations, with perplexity.” The sea shall tell us, for the sea and the waves thereof shall roar. Men shall tell us, for men’s hearts shall fail them for fear, and for looking after those things are which are coming on the earth. And then, as all these voices shall proclaim his coming, our own eyes shall tell us, for they shall see “the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father;” and in anticipation of that glorious day, each believer can say with the patriarch Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.”
II. Now I come to THE REMARKABLE PRECEPT itself: “Then look up, and lift up your heads.”
My dear brethren, there are some Christian people who seem to think that it is almost wicked to look up, and lift up their heads. When they come before God, their cry is, “Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners.” Well, but surely a true child of God gets above that condition. He is a sinner, it is true; and as far as he is a sinner, he is unhappy; but still, he has been regenerated by the Holy Ghost, he has been washed in the blood of the Lamb, he has been adopted into the family of God, surely there is some nobler note for him to reach than that doleful dirge. If, amid plague and pestilence, or amid earthquakes and storms and wars, we are to look up, and lift up our heads, that ought to be our daily attitude.
“Why does your face, ye humble souls,
Those mournful colours wear?
What doubts are these that waste your faith,
And nourish your despair?”
Listen to your Lord’s gracious command: “Look up, and lift up your heads.” What does this precept mean? First, it implies an absence of fear. “Perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.” He that feareth is not made perfect in love. What cause has a Christian for fear? What is there that can harm the man whom God loves? Will he trample on his child, or allow anyone else to hurt him? Nay; for “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” The sun and moon and stars, the earth and the seas, wars and pestilences, all work together for good to God’s dear children. Let us therefore cast out all fear.
This precept, surely, also means the removal of all grief. While the Christian is here, there will always be more than enough to make him grieve as a man; but there will also always be grace in Christ to wipe every tear away. We are born to grief; but then we are also born again, so we must not give way to weeping more than is right, we must not be overburdened with sorrow, lest we become like a man drunken. It is as evil to be drunken out of the bitter cup of affliction as out of the sweet cup of sinful pleasure. Let us put away our sorrow, and grief, and misery, and say, with the prophet Habakkuk, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
“Look up, and lift up your heads.” This precept of our Lord seems to me to be very wonderful, because it does not merely mean that there is to be in believers no fear and no grief, but that, even in the worst times, we are to show the signs of joy. This expression implies to me signs and tokens of an outward kind: “Look up, and lift up your heads.” Our Lord seems to say to us, “Now fly your flags, and ring your bells; let your hearts be exceeding glad, so joyous that those who look at you cannot help seeing your happiness. ‘Look up, and lift up your heads.’” Let there be no looking down because the earth is quaking and shaking, but let there be a looking up because you are going to rise from it; no looking down because the graves are opening; why should you look down? You will quit the grave, never more to die. “Lift up your heads.” The time for you to hang your heads, like bulrushes, is over already, and will certainly be over when the Lord is coming, and your redemption draweth nigh. Wherefore, “look up, and lift up your heads.”
It will be a wonderful sight when Jesus comes again. It must have been a wonderful sight when Jerusalem was destroyed, but the true Christian knew all that was going to happen; and all that did happen, terrible as it was, was only a confirmation of his faith, and a fulfilment of his Lord’s prophecies. So shall it be when, at the last great day, we walk among the sons of men calmly and serenely. They will marvel at us; they will say to us, “How is it that you are so joyous? We are all alarmed, our hearts are failing us for fear;” and we shall take up our wedding hymn, our marriage song, “The Lord is come! The Lord is come! Hallelujah!” The burning earth shall be the flaming torch to light up the wedding procession; the quivering of the heavens shall be, as it were, but as the dancing of the feet of angels in those glorious festivities, and the booming and crashing of the elements shall, somehow, only help to swell the outburst of praise unto God the just and terrible, who is to us our exceeding joy.
I cannot speak as I would upon this glorious theme, but I think I catch some of our Master’s meaning when he said, “Then look up, and lift up your heads.” Did he not mean that then, and always, Christians are to be filled with an inward peace and with a holy expectancy mixed with it? Whatever happens, all is well with the righteous. I know not what is to be, nor do I wish to know; but I know that all is well, and that all shall be well for ever and ever. “Look up, and lift up your heads,” beloved, for it is better on before. There is something brighter and more joyful coming than we have ever yet known. All our earthly bliss is but as the vestibule of our eternal delights. The Lord’s kingdom is yet small and feeble, apparently; but it is to be world-wide, and he himself is to be manifested in his glory. Therefore, let us look up, and lift up our heads. Look up for him who is coming, look up for him who has already come. Lift up your eyes unto the hills, whence cometh your help. “Look up, and lift up your heads.” It seems to me as if the text itself is quite enough to make you march to the strains of martial music straight away to victory. Come, let us be a band of men who fully trust our Lord, and who henceforth say farewell to doubt and trembling, “Look up, and lift up your heads.”
III. Our text finishes with A PARABLE TO ENCOURAGE US TO OBEY THE PRECEPT: “Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand.”
First, notice the signs mentioned in this parable. Summer is the time of the bursting of buds, the unfolding of flowers, the forming and ripening of the fruit. There may come many a shower in the spring-time, but that will not hinder the arrival of summer; rather will it help summer to come. It may be cold and chill beneath the black cloud that hovers over us for a while; but that will not hinder summer. “April showers bring forth May flowers.” All these things are the tokens of the summer’s coming. So, brethren, when you are in trouble, expect that you are going to have a blessing. When you are passing through a great trial, look out, for there is another sign that summer is coming. Do not fear to look up, and lift up your heads, for —
“The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.”
“Look up, and lift up your heads.” I wish we could get into the habit of believing that every time of want, every time of pain, every time of depression, is but the commencement of a season of blessing. “Though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations,” remember that the Lord’s object in this experience is “that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, as you look at the black buds on the tree of your life, say to yourself, “I wonder what bright flower is coming out there!” Look at the dark bulbs, without any beauty at all in them, which we put into the ground, yet the flowers which come out of them are charming and fragrant. So, when God plants some black bulbs in the garden of your soul, do not cry out because of their ugliness, but look for the flowers that shall in due time appear, and expect something beautiful from God’s sowing. Ay, and if again the heavens should be darkened, and the earth should shake, and the sea should roar, and kingdoms should be dissolved, and pestilence should slay its myriads, yet still “look up, and lift up your heads.” Your Master bids you do so. He, the Crucified, who made a coronet of beauty out of the crown of thorns, he who is bedecked to-day with jewels which are the scars of his own suffering, he whose very glory it is that he once died, he it is who would have you see, in all the trials of the present hour, tokens of the benediction that is yet to come. Wherefore, “look up, and lift up your heads.”
Further, the signs mentioned in this parable tell of certainty. When the trees are in bloom, hastening to display their leaves, there may come a frost, there may come many cold days, there will certainly come rough winds and clouds; but the summer will come all right in due time. Every day will bring it nearer. All the devils in hell cannot keep the spring from going on to summer; it is not possible, the forces of nature are by God so ordained that the trees must come to their perfection at the crowning of the year; and, in like manner, the signs that God gives to his people, though they may not always seem promising, are very sure. Have you trusted in Christ? Then, to you he has given peace and joy. Are you still trusting him, and will you continue to hang alone upon him, and to trust wholly in him? Then, your righteousness shall break forth as brightness, and your salvation as a lamp that burneth. The Lord will light your candle. The night may be very long, but the morning must come when the Sun of righteousness shall rise upon you with healing in his wings, and, you shall “go forth, and grow up as the calves of the stall.” As for the coming of our Divine Master, and the triumph of everything that is right and true, as to the fulfilment of his covenant, and the perfecting of all his everlasting purposes, as for the salvation of his elect and redeemed ones, heaven and earth may pass away, but his Word shall not pass away till every jot and tittle of it shall be fulfilled. God is with you, God is in you, and who can stand against him? Trust you in the Lord, even in the mighty God of Jacob, and you shall never be ashamed nor confounded, world without end. Go your way, and say, “All is well, for it is in my Father’s hands; therefore will I look up, and lift up my head.”
And, as for you who are not his people, begin to look out for a place to hide yourselves, for Christ is coming. O ye earth-worms, begin to look for the holes into which you will wish to creep to hide yourselves! I wish that you would so look out for a hiding-place that you would find one in that Man who presents himself as the best hiding-place for every sinner who will trust him. God bring you all to find refuge in Christ! Amen.