The Lord described our age as one full of distress, turbulence, anxiety and bewilder­ment (Luke 21:25-26). We should not be surprised therefore at the increasing pressures that seem to come upon us daily. For the world around us there can be no escape from the impending doom that it deserves. But for the people of God, the Lord offered us a way of coping. He said this: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).

At first glance this seems to be an unusual anti­dote to the evil of today. How can this advice help us in our adversity? How can these words assist us in surviving the last days?

Firstly, it has a great deal to do with tim­ing: “when these things begin to come to pass”. Whatever counsel the Lord was suggesting must be embraced when the turmoil begins to emerge, not when it is fully developed. By then it will be too late for us to respond. The Lord foresaw inter­national distress and perplexity having an effect upon the people of God and he counselled an early response. The events in the world will produce fear and uncertainty in society but we have to make sure that this anxiety does not overwhelm us and rob of us of our faith. Hence the Lord’s advice: tackle these problems when they begin to confront us, not when they are so strong that we drown in the roaring waves of despair and doubt.

Secondly, it has a great deal to do with attitude and perspective. The fact that he encourages us to “look up” implies that he has found us looking down. Looking up is a quality of faith found in Abraham (Gen 13:14, 22:13). It is the disposition of one who is steadfast in prayer and looking heavenwards for strength (Psa 5:3). It was a constant activity of the prophets who repeatedly looked up to observe and understand the visions of God (Dan 10:5, Zech 2:1, 5:1,9, 6:1). It was the direction Stephen looked to when all earthly help failed (Acts 7:55).

And this is what the Lord is seeking from us. He expects us to seek those things that are above (Col 3:1-2). He understands the tendency we have to be downcast, pessimistic and negative. But we have to rise above this. Strong faith, earnest prayer and an intense focus on understanding God’s ways are all implied in this simple command: “look up”.

Digging a little deeper, we find that the Greek word is used to describe Jesus lifting himself up after he had been stooping down to write (John 8:7,10). It is also used to describe the plight of the woman who was bowed down and “could in no wise lift herself up” until Jesus loosed her from her in­firmity and made her straight (Luke 13:11-13). There is then a sense of standing up straight as well as looking up. Like Paul we may be “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9).

But the Lord does not leave the matter there. He asks us to “lift up [our] heads”. The world will only lift up its eyes when the Lord bursts unex­pectedly upon them (v27); but the disciple has to be looking ahead well before then. This repetition of ideas – looking up and lifting up the head – is language associated with the work of the watch­man, whose duty was characterised by both these actions (cp 2 Sam 13:34, 18:24). The Lord’s call to watchfulness suggests someone who is alert, keenly aware of any potential dangers; someone bound to those whom he cares for by a solemn link of accountability. Being a watchman is more than just appreciating the signs of the times. It is a responsibility involved in guarding the welfare of those whom he feels responsible for. It is more than looking and calling out; it is the work of guardianship and protection. The Lord is asking us all individually to accept this responsibility in the face of distressing times. It is a call to stay alert and to care for each other by watching over each other. An age of anxiety and fear breeds inward-looking and selfish people. We are being asked instead to look to God and to each other as the means of surviving this dreadful world.

In addition to these thoughts, the phrase, “lift up your heads”, is drawn from Psalm 24:7,9. It is one of David’s psalms, most likely written on the occa­sion of the ark entering through the gates of Zion. It is a psalm of eager anticipation by a generation who seek the face of God reflected in the faces of the cherubim (v6, Exod 25:20). They yearn to be close to their God.

The ark itself is emblematic of the king of glory and as it approaches the holy city the command goes forth: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in”. The gates and doors are personified as representatives of the gatekeepers and watchman who were appointed by David (1 Chron 15:23-24). They demand to know the identity of the one who approaches. “Who is the king of glory?” The reply is loud and clear: “Yahweh strong and mighty, Yahweh mighty in battle”.

But the explanation is not accepted the first time round, because the command has to go forth a second time: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in”. This development is the unexpected turn in the drama. The king of glory is seeking entrance into the city and he has to ask Zion twice.

Now when the Lord entered the city at his first advent, Matthew 21:10 records: “And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?” It is the same type of question found in Psalm 24:7. But instead of the answer coming back: “Yahweh strong and mighty” the response was altogether different: “And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee” (Matt 21:11). To them he was not a king, just a prophet from despised Nazareth. This is why Jesus used the expression “this generation” in Luke 21:32 because it was not the generation that was seeking his face.

And this is why the question is repeated in Psalm 24. Because he will return to the gates of Zion a second time and demand entrance with the same command: “Lift up your heads O ye gates”. And this time the gates will be opened.

So when the Lord encourages us to “lift up our heads” he is asking us to become part of that generation that seeks the face of God; part of that generation that will openly receive him. He is asking us to be upright watchmen who have clean hands and a pure heart and who are prepared to welcome him with eager enthusiasm.

The reason why we can look up is because we are being asked to develop a confidence born of faith. Redemption is near. There is no uncertainty or hesitancy about any of this. It is our firm belief that though we are unworthy of any of God’s gifts, we believe that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6). We need to shake off the effects of an anxious age, dismiss self-doubt and look with keen anticipation to this wonderful promise of redemption.