Here’s a question from a podcast listener named Scott: “Pastor John, in our current day, we see a spectrum of persecution developing for Christians: from beheadings by ISIS to the suing of bakeries by gay rights groups. In preparing his disciples for persecution, Jesus noted that this persecution would ‘be your opportunity to bear witness’ (Luke 21:13). Clearly, persecution is an opportunity to glorify Christ.
However, Jesus goes on to instruct, ‘Settle it therefore in your minds NOT to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’ (Luke 21:14–15). And yet, the apostle Peter (in a similar context of instruction on responding to persecution) notes, ‘Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, ALWAYS BEING PREPARED to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:14–15).
As we seek to make much of Christ while enduring persecution, how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction between Jesus saying don’t prepare with Peter’s always be prepared?” How would you put those pieces together?
Well, let’s get the whole textual picture in front of us. There is one other piece that I would want to stir in besides those two apparently contradictory passages. And that would include Matthew 10:19. So all three of the texts that I am going to mention, two of which Scott already mentioned — picture the Christian life in a hostile setting given the opportunity to testify about our faith. That is what it is addressing, so incredibly relevant for our day.
Luke 21:14–15 says, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer.” I am going to come back to that because there are alternative translations than the word meditate there, but there it is: “not to meditate beforehand how to answer for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand.” And the one that Scott didn’t mention is Matthew 10:19 which says, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say.” And then comes the one from 1 Peter 3:15: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy always [always, always being prepared — not just getting ready the night before — always] being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
So what Scott sees rightly is an apparent tension or contradiction between “do not meditate beforehand how to answer” in Luke and “always be prepared to make a defense” in 1 Peter. So let’s state the obvious first and make sure we don’t miss the forest for the trees. The aim of these texts is to bear a faithful witness to the truth and the glory of Jesus Christ. This will include facts about him. And it will include some kind of explanation for why we believe in him. It is also clear, it seems, to me at least, that we approach this chance to witness in our lives with trust in God for his help because he has promised that he would help us. “I will give you a mouth and wisdom” and so on.
In that way, then, we will honor him. He will get the glory, not only for what we say, but for the fact that we have trusted him to help us say it and to show us what we should say. Now to me the most difficult question here is not, first, how 1 Peter 3 and Luke 21 fit together, but what does Luke 21:14 even mean? The ESV translates, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer.” It is not completely clear where the emphasis falls here in this Greek word promelaton.
It might carry a heavy emphasis on “don’t practice your speech ahead of time” because that is what the word was used for in some contexts. I looked them up yesterday just to see if that was so, that this word was used for practicing your speech before you gave it. So it might have an emphasis there. Or it may carry a connotation of anxious preparaton because the world is going to hate you and not care at all about what you have to say. And the word promelatao has that melaton word in it that does mean “carry a special care or be anxious.”
Now in view of those possibilities, I am inclined to let Matthew 10:19 shape the way I see Luke 21:14. So Matthew 10:19 says, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious.” Luke didn’t say “anxious.” Luke just said don’t meditate ahead of time or don’t practice ahead of time or don’t give a lot of attention ahead of time to how you put everything together. This text says, “Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for the Lord will give you in that hour what you are to say.”
So it seems to me that Jesus is warning against excessive, anxious, overly scripted, rhetorically planned preparation. I think it is a good exercise to think about yourself lying in prison the night before your trial. What would God want you to be thinking about and praying about? Ask that question. Put yourself there. He probably would not want you to be thinking about the Olympic games. You are going to die tomorrow. It wonderfully focuses the mind if you are going to be hanged, someone said.
So not the Olympic games that you attended a few years ago. He probably doesn’t expect you to be thinking about how good or bad the food in the prison tastes or about how cold it is in the cell or whatever. Surely, God would want you to be meditating on his Word — his promises. “I love you. I am going to take care of you.” And you would be thinking of sustaining promises in this worst-of-all crisis in your life and you would be praying.
What would you be praying? You would be praying the Lord’s prayer at least. You would be saying, “O God, let your kingdom come. Let it come in this room right now to sustain me with your kingly power and let it come tomorrow morning when I face the judge so that I would speak the truth.” In other words, you cannot not pray about that event tomorrow morning, right? You cannot not pray about it.
It would be absolutely irresponsible not to be thinking about the Word and to be asking for God’s help in view of his promise that, when you show up before the judge in the morning, you would be filled with the Holy Spirit and he would bring to your mind the words that you would speak. In other words, it seems to me that it would be sinful not to be thinking about the very things that would be the kind of preparation that your heart and your mind would do for tomorrow’s challenge.
So when 1 Peter says, “Have no fear of them nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you,” that is not a contradiction of Luke 21 or Matthew 10. It is not a command to get all your books out the night before your trial and write a careful defense and memorize it thoroughly and practice it in front of the mirror and nail down your rhetorical devices and think of all the ways you can sway the judge or the jury tomorrow morning. That is not what Peter has in mind at all when he says, “Always be prepared.”
When he says, “always be ready to explain why you are hoping in Jesus,” he means, “live in a constant awareness of the all-sufficiency of Christ by his promises in your life so that you are always ready. Cultivate such a relationship with Jesus and such a knowledge of God and his Word and such a deep dependence on the Lord moment-by-moment so that anywhere, anytime, if anybody asks you about Jesus, there is the overflow of your constant communion with him and awareness of him and his promises.”
So I think that is the main lesson of these texts. Live in such constant, clear, open, sweet, authentic, humble, Bible-saturated, faith-filled communion with Christ that you will have the spiritual resources to speak on the spur of the moment or to spend an evening meditating for your soul — not out of fear for the judge, but because you need the promises of God. And then when the judge says, “Why do you believe on this?” that is what you have been thinking about all night — but not in an anxious way, not in a defensive way, but rather for your own soul.