Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with teaching from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah then move to one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to a young church in the earliest years of Christianity. Finally, we look at a prophetic portion of the Gospel of Luke. These are not easy passages to understand, but we’ll take a careful but brief look at each one.
Introduction to the First Reading:
It’s helpful to remember that Jeremiah lived during the time of Judah’s spiritual downfall and the beginning of her captivity about 500 B.C. Assyria had been the dominant nation of the time, but was tottering on the brink of ruin, while Babylon and Egypt were struggling to take over world control. Jeremiah warned of Babylon’s victory, but Judah failed to repent and ignored his warnings. As a result, Judah suffered destruction, but the prophet announced that she would one day be restored and come into worldwide blessing.
Jeremiah’s prophecy reveals God in two aspects like the two sides of a single coin. The book demonstrates His demands and judgment, but it also shows the tenderness of His love. He had chosen this particular prophet to give His message, perhaps, because of Jeremiah’s sensibilities and tenderness. One writer has suggested that in that way Jeremiah was “the true forerunner of our Lord.”
The purpose of this Old Testament book is twofold: to reveal God’s attitude toward sin (thus, the punishment of Israel who had sinned against Him) and to reveal the coming restoration of Israel under their coming king.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 NAS95 14 ‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 ‘In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. 16 ‘In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the LORD is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 33 is the final chapter in a section, beginning with chapter 30, that has to do with the restoration of Israel. The opening words in this passage are obviously prophetic; that is, they are referring to some events yet in the future. But there is no clear indication of when these events will occur—relatively soon or at some distant point in the future. There are a few inferences, however, that give us some understanding of God’s plan for His people. It’s evident, for example, that the writer is revealing God’s program for “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” These terms identify the two segments of the nation of Israel that had been divided after the reign and death of King Solomon. God’s “good word” about His chosen people will be fulfilled. What He has planned and now intimates will be completed at His chosen time.
At some future point in time (“in those days and at that time”) a “Branch of David” will appear. This term takes us back to chapter 22, verses 2 and 4 where the writer makes reference to the “king of Judah, who sits on David’s throne” and “kings will enter the gates of this house, sitting in David’s place on his throne.” Again, we are made to think of God’s covenant spoken of in 2 Samuel 7:8-17 where God promised that David and his heirs would rule over Israel. God said, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
The promises of verses 15 and 16 of today’s reading should have been a great encouragement to Israel, who was to suffer certain captivity and removal from her land. In the future, the promised king is to execute justice and righteousness on the earth.” As a result, “In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell in safety.” That will be a time unlike anything in Israel’s previous history. She has always been attacked by godless nations, and, even in our day, the persecution continues for today’s Jewish people. Praise God, some day that will end!
The final statement of our reading suggests an unusual name for God’s people. Jeremiah wrote, “And this is the name by which she will be called: the LORD is our righteousness.’” Perhaps the intention is to remind Jeremiah’s audience that righteousness is not the result of anything one can do—offer sacrifices, observe the sacraments, serve others, etc., but righteousness is found only in Jesus Christ. As the Christian identifies with Jesus and His finished work on the cross, it is the righteousness of Jesus that is conferred upon the believer. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:9).
Introduction to the Second Reading:
Some scholars think that 1 Thessalonians may have been the earliest book written in the New Testament. The church in the city of Thessalonica (in modern day Greece) was launched in the second of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. He was there for about three weeks, teaching about the suffering and resurrection of Jesus, whom he identified as the Messiah (Christ). Some responded well to Paul, but others rejected his message (because of jealousy, Acts 17:5) and forced him to leave town.
Paul wrote this letter to encourage the Thessalonian Christians and to give them further teaching, especially about the return of Christ, which is a common topic in the book, referred to in all five chapters.
In many of his letters to the young churches in the first century Paul offers significant prayers on the readers’ behalf, also asking them to pray for him. Today’s reading begins with a part of one of those prayers (3:11-13) and concludes with a challenge to the people (4:1-2).
1 Thessalonians 3:12 – 4:2 NAS95 12 and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; 13 so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. 1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
Paul’s great love and concern for his learners is evident in his frequent mention of wanting to visit with them and his continual prayers for them. Before his prayer, beginning in verse 11, Paul tells them that he prays “earnestly . . . night and day” that he might see them face-to-face. Why? Not only because he loves them, but he also wants to continue his ministry to them, completing “what is lacking in your faith,” that is, giving them a full understanding of the truth they have adopted.
In his prayer, Paul makes four requests: 1) that God might clear the way so that he could see the Thessalonians again; 2) that he might be able to supply what was incomplete in their fledgling faith; 3) that their love for one another might increase; and 4) that they would be spiritually strengthened and be found blameless and holy.
Regarding their love, we should note that it begins with one another and then includes “all people.” Jesus said that his disciples were to be known by their love for one another (John 13:35). It’s truly unfortunate that Christians and churches are sometimes criticized by outsiders because of the divisions and animosity that seem to characterize some groups of professing believers. As the people of the church learn to love one another more fully, their testimony to the world will be enhanced. But, love is not to be limited to within the church family. As God “so loved the world” (John 3:16), so should His people love those who need the Savior. Paul uses himself as an example of love; he says he abounds in love for them. And, of course, the greatest example is Jesus himself, who gave his life for those He loved, the perfect fulfillment of John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
Somehow Paul relates the fulfilling of the instruction to love with a proper standing before God as “blameless in holiness.” It is the clear teaching of Scripture that no one can stand in the presence of God on his own behalf. A holy and perfect God cannot be approached by anyone tainted by sin—and we all are (Romans 3:23). Paul refers to the “coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” an event to occur when Jesus returns to establish His promised kingdom on earth. The saints who return with Him will have been saved by His grace and clothed in His righteousness (Revelation 19:8). At that point they will be blameless and holy. Perhaps Paul is suggesting that when the Christian demonstrates godlike love toward others, he is giving evidence of his genuine conversion, a born-again experience that, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, presents him holy and blameless before God.
Paul then moves in chapter 4 to admonish the brethren. He does so “in the Lord Jesus,” that is on the authority of Jesus. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit in the writing of the epistles (see 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21), so his exhortation can rightly be said to be the Word of God. He encourages them “to walk and please God” as they had been instructed by him (v. 1). He commends them for doing so, “just as you actually do.” It’s easy to accept someone’s admonition and instruction, when he also commends you for how you are responding. Of course, while they had done well, they could still do better, so he challenges them “that you excel still more.” Christians should always seek to excel—not to be better than others, but to improve for the glory of God.
Paul’s final statement in this passage is a reminder that he is not speaking for himself or on his own authority. He is speaking “by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” The Christian should never read God’s Word without the full realization that, whoever the human author, these are the words and instructions that God has given, and they must be obeyed out of love and gratefulness for His having provided the way for us to have an intimate relationship with Him by faith.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, stories of the good news of Jesus’ incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and return to heaven. Why four Gospels, you might ask? While they all generally cover the same story, they offer a variety of events, stories, and sayings of Jesus. They give them from different perspectives, and together we get a more complete picture of the truth. Luke acknowledges in his opening paragraph that there were many stories about Jesus, but he had a particular story to tell. While the others may present Jesus as king and Messiah (Matthew), or a servant to man (Mark), or as the Son of God (John), Luke emphasizes Jesus as Savior, a divine man. He stresses the humanity of Jesus Christ and his perfection as a human.
Luke’s audience probably consisted mostly of Gentile Christians, but he wrote to show his readers that the gospel is for both Jews and Gentles. He affirmed that what those early Christians had been taught was indeed true and trustworthy. Like Matthew, Luke records significant teachings of Jesus regarding end times. He shows that Jesus did not teach that His return would be immediate; rather there was to be an indeterminate time between His resurrection and the second coming. But Jesus is to return in bodily form. The Apostle Paul writes later to clarify certain misunderstandings about end times, also. (See 1 & 2 Thessalonians.)
Luke’s account is more chronological than the other Gospels. Today’s reading is taken from Christ’s teaching as He approaches Jerusalem for the climactic final days of his earthly life. In this passage, which could be titled “The Signs of the Times,” He speaks of the coming of the Son of Man (the title He frequently uses to speak of himself).
Note: Verses 29–33 which were omitted from the reading have been included below.
Luke 21:25-36 NAS95 25 “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 “Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN A CLOUD with power and great glory. 28 “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then He told them a parable: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 “So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. 32 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. 33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; 35 for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. 36 “But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Immediately preceding the return of Christ, there will be signs and wonders in the heavens. In a parallel passage (Matthew 24:29), quoting from the Old Testament prophets, it is said that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” As might be expected, the text tells us that people will be dismayed and men will faint from fear. That fear is the result not only of the fearsome celestial events, but also from the expectation of things that are yet to come. It is not difficult to image the rampant terror on the earth when “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
It is then that the Lord Jesus will return to earth. “The Son of Man coming in a cloud” is a quotation from Daniel 7:13 in which the prophet also writes of the glory and dominion that is to be given Messiah at that time. The careful Bible student may recall that 40 days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven “and a cloud received him” (Acts 1:9). Luke is also the writer of the Book of Acts, and he went on to record the words of the angels at the ascension. They said, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Jesus warns His hearers that they must be prepared for the day of His return, even though that date has not been revealed. When the signs begin to appear, it’s a warning to the faithful to look beyond the frightful circumstances and anticipate their final redemption. Redemption is a significant term regarding the believer in Christ. He has been lost in his sin and, as a result, separated from God. But in God’s grace and out of His unending love, He has provided a way for the sinner to be redeemed—to be bought with a price and restored to God. That price, of course, is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross where He paid the infinite penalty of sin.
Jesus broke into the narrative to tell a story about trees. When trees sprout leaves in the spring, you can begin to anticipate the fruit they will produce in the fall. Parables are stories that use the common elements of life to illustrate spiritual truth in language anyone can understand. Jesus makes the application. As buds on trees anticipate a harvest, so the signs of the times anticipate the culmination of God’s plan in the return of Jesus and the establishment of His eternal kingdom on earth. The last statement in the paragraph is the wonderful affirmation that God’s Word is eternally true. But the sentence preceding that has been difficult for Christians to understand. What did Jesus mean when He said, “This generation will not pass until all things take place”? Obviously, it cannot mean the generation to which Jesus was speaking. They’re gone, and the predicted events have not yet occurred. It may be best to understand that Jesus was likely referring to the generation that would be alive when the predicted signs actually occur.
The passage concludes with additional warnings to the believers alive when the signs of the end times appear. They are to be prepared so the events don’t fall on them like an unexpected “trap.” These events, Jesus says, will come upon every living person at that time; none can escape. He is specific in his warnings. They must “be on guard,” and he names the dangers to avoid: “dissipation” (harmful self-indulgence) and its frequent companion “drunkenness.” A third is more subtle, “the worries of life.” Elsewhere Jesus had taught that His followers need not be concerned about such things: clothing, food, and so forth. God is faithful to provide for His own when their trust is in Him (Matthew 6:25-34). In those last days, Christ-followers must be giving their attention to spiritual and eternal matters rather than mere physical and temporal concerns.
The final admonition for those living in the end times is to be “on the alert at all times.” That includes praying for the strength that only God can give in perilous times. Only He can enable His children to escape all the terrible events of those last days. In doing so, they will one day stand before “the Son of Man,” to worship Him and to receive the crown of life that He has promised (James 1:12).
1. In what ways are you trusting in your own efforts to please God or in the sacrifice of Jesus and His resurrection for your righteousness?
2. Describe how your life reflects the love of God in the way you act toward other Christians and to the people of the world?
3. In what ways are you heeding the warnings of Jesus so that you are “on guard” and “on the alert,” as you anticipate the return of Jesus? List two ways in which you are doing this.