Luke 12:35–48 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

How to Wait for Jesus' Return

Jesus has been teaching about material things: greed (with the Parable of the Rich Fool) and worry (that there won't be enough, with assurance that God cares for the ravens and wildflowers), concluding with a call to focus on what is really important — the gift of the kingdom that the Father bestows. But the teaching in today's passage shifts into a different vein altogether: waiting for the eventual coming of the Son of Man.

None of us enjoys waiting. And our culture isn't inclined to wait. Biblically, waiting is one thing that men and women of faith are called upon to do. All of those named in the "hall of faith" in Hebrews 11 had to wait for the promised blessings of God. Their wait has been considerably longer than we'd like to contemplate; they were still waiting when they died; and they're still waiting!

Jesus calls upon his disciples to wait, for although he will return to the earth to rule over it as Messiah, it may be a considerable period of time before this happens. Our text implies that we must wait. History confirms this, for the church has been waiting nearly 2,000 years for his return. Starting with v. 35, Jesus instructs us as to how we're to view and use the time that remains until he comes.

If we're to wait, we had better learn how to do it right. In our text, Jesus teaches us "the way to wait" for his return: in vv. 35 and 36, he spells out three elements involved in waiting, three descriptions of the readiness for and expectation of his return; vv. 37 and 38 are a promise of the blessedness of those who wait for Jesus; and vv. 39 and 40 contain words of warning, for some don't wait in readiness for his return.

In v. 41, Peter asked to know to whom Jesus was speaking. Jesus answered indirectly, with a question (v. 42), which leads to his promise that God will honor that manager who has greater responsibilities in the kingdom and has been a good steward in his earthly responsibilities (vv. 43–44). Vv. 45–46 are yet more words of warning, addressed to those who use our Lord's delayed return as an excuse for sin and self-indulgence. The final verses (47–48) conclude our text by highlighting the principle on which divine discipline is based. Let's jump in and examine each verse.

Waiting and Watching for the Master to Return (12:35–37)

In this Parable of the Watchful Servants (found only in Luke), Jesus sets the scene: A master has gone to a wedding banquet; his servants are waiting up for him, though he's delayed. The image seems to come from a rich household, perhaps Roman, where slaves are expected to anticipate their master's wishes. The banquet in our passage is simply an element of the parable reflecting uncertain length; it indicates that the master is relatively close by and can return at any time. Similar to the waiting servants, the disciples are to be dressed and ready for the master's momentarily expected return.

Look at the three distinct characteristics of a "good waiter" as described by our Lord: (1) Preparation — "be dressed ready"; (2) Maintenance — "keep your lamps burning"; and (3) Expectation —"[and be] like servants waiting for their master." The mood of the master's arrival would be joyful and festive. The eager servant would be ready, able to immediately open the door for the master.

The lamps referred to in v. 35 are small clay lamps. To keep them burning required an expenditure of effort and resources, refilling them periodically with olive oil, trimming the wicks occasionally, and protecting the flame from the wind. Until the master comes, the lamps are to remain lit so that when he arrives, the house will be ready for his entrance. The master shouldn't have to bang on the door and wait while his servants get up and come sleepily to the door, stumbling over things in the dark. When the master arrives, the servants must be dressed and ready. His coming should be their most important priority; their own weariness and self-indulgence isn't to take over; they are servants!

The Blessings of Waiting (vv. 37–38)

In vv. 37 and 38, Jesus promises blessedness, for "it will be good" for those who wait for his return. The word rendered "watching" in v. 37a is Greek gregoreo, "to stay awake, 'be watchful,' to be in constant readiness, 'be on the alert.' " It comes from a word meaning "to wake or rouse up someone." The parable takes a strange twist in v. 37b, where roles are reversed: The master serves the servants. The master, for whom they've so eagerly prepared, tells the servants to sit at the table. He prepares to serve them. Jesus upends the world system by making the poor rich and the rich poor, the meek inherit, and the mournful leap for joy. And so, in Jesus' remarkable parable, the servants who wait up, dressed and alert to welcome their master with style, are rewarded a meal that the master himself serves to the servants. What a wonderful and unexpected blessing!

In verse 38, Jesus repeated his blessings promise to those who wait for his return, even if it's delayed (to "the middle of the night or toward daybreak"). Jesus thus implies that his return may well be later than we'd wish or suppose. Regardless, the blessings that accompany this return are in no way diminished; they're as certain as his word. Thus, waiting for the saint only enhances his expectation.

Words of Warning (vv. 39–40)

Jesus now moves to a very different image: from master/servant to owner/thief. Let's carefully compare both images. The master/servant image was intended as an encouragement to those who'd wait as Jesus described; the owner/thief image is a warning to those who don't expectantly await the Lord's return. In the first image, Jesus is portrayed as the master who's welcomed and comes with a reward; in the second, Jesus comes as a thief who's not welcomed and whose arrival spells disaster. In the first story the master owns the house, but in the second, the man owns the house (and Jesus is viewed as the unwanted, unauthorized taker) and loses his possessions. In the first image, the master is welcomed and let inside; in the second, the thief isn't welcome, so he enters by digging through the wall.

What makes both accounts so different? What determines whether Jesus is a "welcome Master" or a "dreaded thief"? Quite possibly, the difference deals with "relationship." There's a loving bond between a Master and his servants; they know and love each other; they await his return because of who he is. The homeowner doesn't know the thief or doesn't wish to; he hopes the Lord never comes, for his arrival is viewed as bringing a loss.

Peter Probes, Jesus Promises (vv. 41–44)

Let's read the next five verses now to better appreciate Peter's concern and the Lord's response. . . Peter must have been getting a little uncomfortable (v. 41). Jesus' words contained both an encouraging promise of blessing, as well as a warning. Peter didn't know to whom Jesus was referring, so he asked. Jesus purposely avoided giving Peter a direct answer. Why? Perhaps Jesus didn't want to let Peter or the other disciples off too easily since he was dealing with those principles that applied to all. Both the warning and the encouragement needed to be heard and heeded. The Lord's question implied to Peter that he needed to think further, based upon what Jesus said.

Next, Jesus gets more specific as to the blessings that will accrue to those who eagerly await his return. He speaks of the blessing of the "manager" (likely the disciple then and today) who is faithful and wise in his service, and who's rewarded with greater responsibility in God's coming kingdom. The key to understanding these words of our Lord is to understand who is being referred to as the "steward" (NKJV, NASB, RSV) or "manager" (NIV, ESV), and by the "servants" for whom the steward provides food at the proper time. Likely, the promoted steward/manager in heaven would be in charge of the very same type of ministry he'd handled in life.

To better understand these words of encouragement we look at the contrast in the next four verses — words of warning that Jesus speaks in vv. 45–48. Let's examine that specific message, seeing what our Lord seeks to convey to his faithful followers.

Judgment and Punishment Are Based on How One Waits for Jesus (vv. 45–48)

In the closing verses, we return to the imagery of servant and master; but this time the servant is wicked. He doesn't eagerly await his master's return, his lamp isn't lit, and he's not dressed ready for service. The Lord gives a clear warning here, so let's listen well.

The parable here is a simple one. A servant's master has gone for a period of time; apparently, there may be a considerable amount of time before the master returns. The servant is a steward, in charge of both men and women servants. From the Lord's words (v. 42), it would seem that this steward has been put in charge of feeding the servants. Because the steward is convinced that the master won't return for a long time, he decides to use his master's riches for his own pleasure, rather than to use them as he was commanded to do. He indulges on food and drink, consuming those supplies meant for others, while at the same time abusing the servants under his authority. That man, Jesus said, would be cut into pieces and would be assigned to a place with unbelievers. He then concludes by laying down the principle that judgment is meted out in proportion to the knowledge that one has received yet rejected.

What does our Lord's parable teach us? Let's first try to understand this difficult text by determining this servant's fate. He's "cut into pieces" and "assigned a place with unbelievers," i.e., hell, the place of torment. Most likely, Jesus is aiming his "servant" barb at the unbelieving nation of Israel. In contrast, the faithful servant is God's church body, those who've trusted in Jesus as being God's Messiah and who wait expectantly for his return. Those who'll eagerly await our Lord's return are those who've eagerly accepted his first coming, while those who didn't receive Jesus as the Messiah will surely fear his return.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  What qualities does wealthy master look for in his servants (vv. 35–36)?
  • Q. 2  Describe the energy and investment required of the servants to be ready during their nighttime waiting?

This Week's Passage
Luke 12:35–48

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 12]

You Must Be Ready

35"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. 39But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."

41Peter asked, "Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?"

42The Lord answered, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.

47"The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.