expecting Christ’s Return 

(Luke 12.35-48)

Over the last year we’ve been going through the gospel of Luke, verse by verse. There are two ways to use the word gospel (a Greek work that simply means “good news”). A “gospel” can refer to one of the four biographies of Jesus Christ we find in the New Testament (we’re reading the gospel, or the biography of Jesus, that Luke wrote). 

The word “gospel” can also refer to the overarching message of the Bible: the good news that Christ lived the life we should have lived, and suffered the punishment we deserved for our sin, in order to reconcile us to God. Because of what Christ did for us, God calls us all now to turn away from these sins, and to accept the free gift of his grace, and to eagerly wait for Christ’s return, when we will be welcomed into eternal life with him. That’s “the gospel.” 

And in recent weeks, we’ve been looking at some very practical and far-reaching implications of this gospel. We’ve been following Jesus, who has been speaking to the crowds and to his disciples, warning them against hypocrisy and encouraging them to not be afraid to follow him, regardless of the cost. Last week, we saw him encourage his disciples to not be afraid of how they will provide for their needs, but to seek the kingdom of God above all things, and to trust that God will provide for their needs (v. 31) and that he will joyfully give them the kingdom if they seek it (v. 32).

It’s a wonderful call, but it’s a deadly serious call. In today’s text, starting in v. 35 (so with no interruption from what we saw last week), Jesus gives us a series of images to help us see how serious it is. 

He gives us four images, in fact, in four parables, and his argument is a bit cyclical. So just to help us grasp what he’s saying, I’d like to start in the middle, with v. 39-40.

The Son of Man Is Coming (v. 39-40)

The first image Jesus gives (which is actually the second image, chronologically) has always surprised me, because essentially, Jesus compares himself to a thief.

V. 39:  

39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

You can see why it’s surprising. In this analogy, we are the masters of the house, and Jesus is the thief coming to break in. He says, “In the same way that a thief breaks into a house unexpectedly, the Son of Man”—one of Jesus’s favorite titles for himself—“is coming when you’re least expecting him.”

In other words, Jesus says, I am coming, and it’s going to happen when you least expect it.

Now, we need to take a minute to clarify what he means when he says he is “coming.” Isn’t he already there, when he says this to his disciples?

Jesus said a lot of things that would have been confusing to the disciples at that time, but that they would understand later. At this point, saying he’s coming when they least expect it would probably have been confusing to them.

But what happens later on? (Spoiler alert!) Jesus dies on the cross, he’s buried, and three days later, he rises from the grave. He stays with his disciples for about forty days.

Jesus is with his disciples, resurrected—he’s not a ghost, he’s not a spirit. He’s eaten with them, he’s touched them. He’s physically there with them. 

And as he’s standing there talking to them, we read in Acts 1.9-11,

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 

Just as he left, he will return.

We see this teaching all over the New Testament.

Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4.16:  

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.

John tells us in Revelation 1.7:  

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. 

So here’s the point. One day, Jesus Christ is coming back. He’s going to come back in the same way he left—in his body, physically present on this earth, for all to see.

We don’t have time to go into all the various possibilities of what this might look like—there are several different schools of eschatology which come to different conclusions about exactly how this is going to play itself out. And we don’t really need to go into all of that, at this point, because even if they disagree on the details, all Christians for whom the Bible is the final authority agree on the end result. 

The end result of Christ’s return will be judgment for those who have rejected this call, and eternal life for those who have accepted it. Those who have rejected him will be eternally separated from God in a place of torment (that the Bible calls hell), and those who have faith in him will live with him forever in the new heavens and the new earth, where there will be no more sin, no more pain, no more sorrow.

That moment—the moment of Christ’s return—will be quite literally earth-shattering. It will be a moment of unspeakable horror for those who persist in rejecting Christ, and it will be a moment of unspeakable joy for his followers.

And Jesus says that this moment—the moment of his return—will happen unexpectedly. 

…the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

There are charlatans out there who claim to have discovered hidden signs in the Bible, or interpreted world events (sometimes even trying to use the Bible to do so), to be able to say when Christ will return. Let’s be clear: if Jesus is telling the truth (and he always tells the truth), then anyone who claims they know when Jesus will come back is either hopelessly deluded, or they are full-on lying to you. 

No one knows when he’s coming back—or to put it another way, he could come back literally at any moment.

That’s what Jesus is saying when he likens himself to a thief breaking into a house. I’ve often wondered why Jesus used this particular analogy, in v. 39-40—it’s not exactly a positive image! But after all these years, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. 

People are afraid of having their homes broken into. Even considering the idea fills us with a kind of unease, with the feeling that we should be doing something to prevent it. This feeling is what drives people to put security alarms in their homes: no one likes to be caught off guard like that. 

And that’s exactly the point. When Jesus comes, it will be unexpected; and that truth should make us somewhat uneasy, not for the sake of unease, but rather to drive us to conduct ourselves a certain way. Remember Home Alone? A kid who knows his house is going to be broken into does something about it. He doesn’t sit idly by.

So the question is, what is Jesus calling his disciples to do, in the light of that truth?

Be Ready (v. 35-38)

Let’s go back to v. 35.

35 “Stay dressed for action...” 

Now stop for a minute. This phrase—“stay dressed for action”—literally translated, says something like this: “Let your loins stay girded.” It’s an embarrassing image, but it’s perfect

Men in Israel at the time of Christ wore long robes. These robes were not made for getting places in a hurry. So the men had a particular way of pulling up their robe, wrapping it around their upper thighs and tucking it into their belts, so that they could run fast, without tripping over their robe. This was called “girding up your loins”—your sensitive parts were protected and your legs were free to move.

So when Jesus says “stay dressed for action,” that’s what he means—be ready to move, all the time. 

So to illustrate what he means, Jesus tells the disciples two parables which are very similar—one is positive and one is negative. He gives the positive first, v. 35:

35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 

So many Christians—maybe even many of you—can look back on your Christian lives, and point to the period in which you fell asleep. When you met Christ, you were on, all the time—every moment was a divine appointment; every conversation was an opportunity to learn from God or to speak about him; every choice was an opportunity to obey. 

But then, after a month or a year or several years, you got used to it. You saw that even after meeting Christ, routines settle in. You still go to bed every night and wake up every morning. You still go to work every day. Your conversations begin to look like most of their other conversations. 

And self-sufficiency took over. You stopped feeling like you needed God to provide for you at every moment, because you fell to the mistaken impression that whatever you’ve done well, you’re the ones who did it. You’ve fought temptation so many times in the past that you forget it was God who made that fight possible. 

So you don’t pursue God with as much vigor; you don’t fight sin with as much zeal; you stop paying attention to the opportunities God gives you to grow in him.

You’ve fallen asleep.

But Jesus says, “Don’t fall asleep. Stay awake. Stay alert. Keep your running shoes on, keep the lights on.” And notice, Jesus appeals to our desire here: he says that if he returns to find us awake, we will be so happy we did.  

37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.

Those Christians who stay awake, who stay dressed for action, enjoy an intimacy with God and growth in him most Christians never experience, and will enjoy him all the more for it when he returns.

That’s the positive image. The next image is much more frightening, which is I think why Jesus precedes it by likening his return to the coming of a thief in v. 40:

Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Be Working (v. 41-46)

V. 41:  

41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”

It seems like a weird question, but it does make sense. Peter doesn’t yet know the specifics of Christ’s return—will it be a kind of rallying call for the disciples, or will something bigger happen that includes everyone else?

As he often does, rather than giving a direct response, Jesus answers Peter’s question with a question.

V. 42:  

42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 

Now again, we have a similar encouragement to the one we just saw. A house manager was a servant who was tasked with taking care of the master’s house—the manager is responsible for making sure the house runs per the master’s requirements, that those in the home who need food, get food. Such a servant is constantly aware that the master could be coming home at any minute, and if the master comes home and finds his servant doing what he was meant to do, that servant is “blessed”—literally, he is happy to be found doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

The whole of the Christian life is humble service. And this is why Jesus’s answer to Peter’s question is that this parable isn’t just for the disciples, but for everyone who serves Christ, in any capacity, large or great.

You don’t have to be a pastor to serve faithfully. For everyone who comes to know Christ, and who places their faith in him, their life becomes one of faithful and humble service to him. As Paul says in Colossians 3.23:

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.

Whatever it is we’re doing, whatever service he’s placed in front of us—whether it’s being a pastor or being a teacher or stacking chairs or pushing a broom—we’re doing it for him. And we will be blessed if Christ finds us faithfully serving him, where he has placed us, when he returns.

But there is a flip-side to this coin: Jesus gives a very solemn warning afterward, v. 45:

45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.

If you read that, and you find it somewhat jarring, good. That’s what he’s going for.

So many Christians, throughout history and still today, have done exactly what he describes. 

It doesn’t always seem as if Christ is coming back soon—so much time has passed already, even in our own lives, and Jesus hasn’t come back. So we begin to forget that his coming will be at a moment we didn’t expect it: we forget that he really could return at any moment.

And what happens when we forget? 

Firstly, abuse happens. Christians set themselves up as the masters of the house. They set themselves up as the arbiters of salvation, and hold it over people’s heads until they give them what they want. 

We have a historical example in the selling of indulgences. This was one of the main practices of the Catholic church which spurred on the Protestant Reformation. The church at that time taught a false doctrine about a place called purgatory—a place where you’d go after you die in order to “work off” the sin you committed in your life, which you hadn’t confessed. And mainly to finance St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the church began selling “indulgences”—basically, tickets to get out of purgatory early. The more you paid them, the more time they shaved off your sentence in purgatory.

This was abhorrent. It was abusive. It was absolutely unbiblical. And thankfully, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for at least one German monk named Martin Luther. It still happens today. American televangelists tell people that God has spoken to them, and if you give them a hundred dollars towards their private jet, you’ll receive ten times as much from God. In France, too, so-called “apostles” in fancy suits hold seminars in churches which draw huge crowds, claiming to be sent by God, and promising the people prosperity if they will invest in their ministry. 

Brothers and sisters, if these people actually believed that Jesus could come back at any moment, they wouldn’t dare act this way. They wouldn’t dare be caught taking advantage of the Master’s children.

Secondly, when we forget that Christ could return at any moment, we get lazy. We eat and drink and get drunk. We spend all of our time stuffing ourselves with entertainment, with frivolous things that may be fun, but which are of no eternal significance. We lose sight of what our treasure should be, and we replace it with a million counterfeit treasures.

You see, this doesn’t just happen because we’re greedy, but rather because we aren’t entirely convinced that Christ could return before I finish this sentence.

Think of it this way. Consider what you spend the bulk of your time doing, and how you spend your time doing it. (You can do good things for the wrong reasons.) Now ask yourself, Would I be happy if I was in the middle of doing this when Christ came back? Would I be happy if Christ found me like this?

Of course, all of us sin. All of us sin every day. Jesus isn’t just talking about a moment, but an entire disposition of the heart. This servant says, “My master is delayed in coming,” and so allows himself to become something other than the faithful servant he was called to be.

And what is the result, if the servant pursues this course until the end? He proves that he was never actually serving Christ, but himself. People like this servant, who claim to be Christians, but who persist in rejecting their Master’s reign and will, prove that they were never really Christians to begin with. 

And upon his return, the Master will put them in with those who have nothing to do with him: the judgment reserved for those who reject Christ—eternal separation from God—will fall on them. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful, because he is unfaithful.

This is a sobering reality, brothers and sisters, because many Christians today, even if they won’t say it out loud, live out of an attitude of heart that says, “My master is delayed in coming.” They never consider the imminent return of Christ; they never imagine that today—before their next breath—they might be standing face to face with Jesus. They think they have all the time in the world to work their faith out in practice. And all the while, they’re unwittingly digging a hole for themselves that is getting deeper and deeper, never realizing they may well be in the process of proving they have no faith in Christ.

It’s sobering. But Jesus is going to add one last image that, while ramming the point home even more, reminds us of God’s justice in all of these matters.

do what you know to do (v. 47-48)

47 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.  Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. 

Let me put this another way. God will never punish someone for something they didn’t know. No one will be punished for not obeying a revelation they never had.

Now, Paul tells us in Romans 1.18-23 that all human beings, without exception, have access to the knowledge of God, simply through the world that he has created; so everyone, Paul says, is without excuse. Even that small knowledge is enough to deserve punishment from him if we reject him.

However, Jesus makes it clear that God’s punishment on unbelievers is not uniform—he will not mete out the same punishment for everyone. Jesus says that the punishment for rejecting God will be fair, because it will be based on what every person knows: those in the first category, who know God’s will but refuse, it will receive “a severe beating,” and those in the second category, who didn’t know God’s will, will receive “a light beating.” 

The Bible never says what the difference between a “severe” beating and a “light” beating will look like. That’s not the point. Jesus’s point here is that the judgment of God on every human being will be fair, because it will be in accordance with what they know. If you’ve never heard the gospel, you will be judged according to what God has revealed to every human being, in the things he has created, and how you respond to that knowledge; if you have heard the gospel, you will be judged according to how you respond to the gospel.

But here’s what you have to consider (I have some bad news, and I have some good news). 

If you are here this morning, then you have heard the gospel. We sung about it before I got up here; we spoke about it during the worship time; and at the very beginning of this message, you heard it again. 

You have all heard the gospel this morning. And if you persist in rejecting the gospel, then you are in the first category. 

You know the Master’s will, but you are not getting ready or acting according to his will; so unless you turn away from your sins, accept what Christ did for you, and follow him, your punishment will be severe. Because you know better. You’ve heard the gospel; he’s told you his will. 

In terms of knowledge, you have been given much.

And everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required. 

But even in the midst of what seems like a massive heap of awful news, if this is you, and you have rejected the gospel up to this point, there is still good news here. And this good news is for everyone here, Christian or no.

God gives warnings in the Bible for two main reasons, often at the same time. He gives warnings, first of all, so that no one who has heard the gospel can stand before him and say, “I didn’t know.” God gives us warnings to be as fair with us as possible.

But he also gives us warnings for the same reason that any loving parent gives warnings to his children. “Don’t touch the stove. Don’t put your fingers in an electric socket. Don’t eat that thing you found on the ground.” How much of our time is spent telling our kids the bad things will happen if they do stupid things? 

Why do we keep doing it?

Because we love them. Because we want them to be happy, and healthy, and whole. Because we know that although encouragement and promises are good and necessary, sometimes they need warnings too. 

So here’s the good news: as of this moment, Jesus Christ still hasn’t returned. 

So it’s not too late.

In these warnings, Jesus isn’t just assuring us that God’s judgment will be fair: he is calling us to change. To repent. To not assume we have all our lives to figure these things out. To not wait until the Master comes home before deciding to do what he says, because then it will be too late. 

I hope you understand the massive stakes here. This is not merely an intellectual or a philosophical exercise. 

This is a matter of eternal significance for all of us—a matter of great and wonderful promises for those who respond to these warnings by running to Christ for salvation, and of great and terrible consequences for those who persist in rejecting him. 

If you know the gospel, if you’ve heard what Christ did for you, then accept what he did for you. Come to him in faith, and begin your life as the servant who isn’t condemned, but blessed because at Christ’s return, he found you doing what he created you to do.

And if you’re a Christian, if you have faith in Christ, I hope you see that Jesus is not suggesting those who have faith in him will be cast aside because of bad behavior. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1). 

God’s goal in all that he does for those who are in Christ is to make us like Christ. Christ took the punishment we deserve on himself, and he gave us the perfect life he lived in our place, in order that through faith in him, we might become like him. 

And like the loving Father he is, he warns us of danger to protect us from danger; he uses these loving warnings to shape us into the image of Christ.

So don’t be afraid of what Jesus says here: rather, get to work. Let the knowledge that Jesus will return when we do not expect it, that he could return at any moment, stir you to action. 

Let the knowledge that God judges fairly reassure you. Many Christians live under a constant fear that they will miss out on something God has called them to do, and inadvertently suffer the consequences. But God judges fairly, according to what we know. He doesn’t expect you to be or do anything you don’t know to be or do. He doesn’t expect you to take the full weight of Christian doctrine—and even Christian obedience—on yourself today.

He calls us all to be faithful to do what we know he calls us to do. 

So do what you know he calls you to do, even if at this point, all you know is, “love God and love others.” There’s a lot more than that, sure, and you’ll learn that stuff as you go. But don’t let what you don’t know today stop you from obeying what you do know. 

Because that’s Jesus’s point. His point is not that all Christians should be on the same level at the same time; it’s that all Christians should be hard at work, serving him and serving others, eagerly waiting for his return.

So get to work. Be ready. Stay dressed for action. Stay awake. Let the knowledge that Jesus could return at any moment stir you to action. 

And above all, be happy in the work. Remember that the servant whom the Master finds so doing will be “blessed.” Remember that the work Christ calls us to is the work of seeking God’s kingdom above all else, of providing ourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.

Eagerly await Christ’s return, because at his return, we will finally see everything we have been working toward. We will see our treasure face to face. This is our highest aspiration, our greatest hope, our eternal joy.

To quote the very last verses in the Bible (Revelation 22.20-21):  

20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.