Every one of us would like to know what the future holds. If we had some “insider” knowledge of what the stock or commodities market was going to do we could become rich. In an effort to find the future people turn to horoscopes, fortune tellers and psychics. We think we would like to know how long we are going to live so that we could better plan for our retirement or forget about retirement and spend all our money now. We’d especially like to know when the Lord was going to return so we could get our priorities in order.
The text before us in Luke 21 (and in the parallels in Matthew 24 and Mark 13) is a passage that has spurred a host of books pointing to various world events as sure “signs of the imminent return of Christ”. Most of those books quickly find their way to bargain bins at bookstores because they often jump to conclusions that are not warranted.
I believe there is information in this text that can help us know what to expect from the future. As we work our way through Luke 21 we will be talking a great deal about what is to come. However, we must be careful interpreters of the text and listen to what is said without trying to make the text say something more spectacular and be more specific than it actually is.
The dialogue came about because some of the disciples of Jesus were marveling at the structure of the temple. The temple was a massive and incredible piece of architecture. During the lifetime of Jesus the Temple was undergoing a remodeling that had been going on for 46 years! The remodeling was not finished until some 30 years later in AD 63 which was just seven years before it was destroyed by the Roman army.
Herod expanded the temple complex to 400 yards by 500 yards which was about twice its original size. It was anywhere from six to twelve stories tall. As a point of comparison, a domed Professional football stadium would not overshadow the temple complex at all! According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod used white marble stones up to sixty-seven feet long, twelve feet high, and eighteen feet wide. These stones were about the size of boxcars on a train! The construction of the temple was an engineering masterpiece! How they were even able to move the stones was amazing.
The temple was covered with gold and what wasn’t gold was white marble. From a distance it looked like a snow-capped mountain. When the sun would hit it the reflection could be quite blinding.
As a result, when Jesus talked about the coming destruction of the Temple the disciples assumed this would take place at the end of the world. Matthew tells us that when they were outside the city at the Mount of Olives (giving them a perfect view of the temple) they asked for more information. (This passage is often called the Olivet Discourse because they were on the Mount of Olives). Note carefully the questions the disciples asked Jesus. We need to know what question He is answering before we can rightly understand His words.
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
Matthew has a more expanded question,
“Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3)
There are two and possibly three questions asked.
- When will the temple be destroyed?
- What is the sign of your Second Coming?
- What are the signs of the end of the Age?
As we read the text Jesus answers the questions but as we read the verses we must ask, “Which question is Jesus answering?” Is He answering the question about the destruction of the temple or is He telling us about the Second Coming of Christ and/or End of the world? I believe in the first part of the text Jesus is answering the question about the destruction of the Temple (because His words so clearly fit what we know happened historically). Next week we will look at the part of the answer that seems to be answering the question about the second coming of Christ.
Signs Before the End (7-11)
Jesus begins by warning the disciples of things that are NOT signs of the end.
8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 
Jesus warns us not to be alarmed by several things:
- Those who claim to be the Messiah and claim to know the exact time the Lord will return. We must not be deceived by such people. They claim to have “inside information. Jesus warns us not to be taken in by the alarmists.
- We should not conclude that wars and rumors of wars mean the end is near. There have always been wars and rumors of wars. Wars are the result of man’s sinful condition, they are a sign of the decay of the human race but they are not necessarily a sign of the second coming. For any person going through a war it would certainly feel like the end was upon them. If we were living in a city on which bombs were being dropped or was occupied by warring factions it feel like the end was near. In World War II if you knew the Jews were being executed by the millions or if you lived in countries today where you witnessed ethnic cleansing it would certainly feel like the end of the world. Jesus says, don’t jump to conclusions. Wars and life go together.
- We should not be undone by natural disasters,
11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
It seems like such these things are happening with greater and greater frequency (that may or may not be true because records are limited). Perhaps these things combined with the financial instability do point to the nearness of the end. However, they may just be more labor pains leading to a correction to the greed of our society. Again, Jesus warns us to be steady.
Persecution and the Fall of Jerusalem (12-24)
Listen to what Jesus says in verse 12,
But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.
Jesus is not talking about the end times Tribulation here. The book of Revelation indicates that a great time of persecution will come at the end but this is not what Jesus is talking about here. We know this because He said this persecution will come before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Jesus is warning his disciples of the imminent persecution of the church that was soon to be upon them. His warnings to His disciples should encourage us to prepare for the hard times of our lives.
Persecution. Jesus says the time of persecution will be an opportunity for the disciples to testify to Christ. That is always the case. Those who stand for Christ in hard times are those who testify most powerfully. Jesus is encouraging His followers to remain faithful even when things are tough. His promise is simple, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” (18,19)
I believe the message is this: the world can attack you and even kill you. However, you need not worry because no one can ultimately destroy you for you are a child of God. Christians were killed during the time of persecution but they only lost their earthly lives.
We must strengthen our faith so that we can stand firm in the time of testing as well.
The Fall of Jerusalem. Back in Luke 19:42-44 Jesus approached Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. At that time he mentioned His anguish about what was going to happen to Jerusalem. I believe Jesus is still thinking about the destruction of Jerusalem (in 70 AD) in these next verses in His discussion with the disciples.
20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
This was the time when the Temple would be destroyed. Jerusalem was also flattened. Jesus described that day in advance and reported that Jerusalem would be surrounded and the carnage that would follow would be devastating. The most vulnerable people would be in the greatest danger (pregnant women and nursing mothers). Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed by the Gentiles (the Romans). It would remain fallen until the “times of the Gentiles” was fulfilled.
The prophecy was fulfilled with precision. Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and the temple has not been rebuilt since that time.
We can draw several conclusions. First, The Gospels are reliable. We know that the gospels must have been written before 70 AD (when the temple was destroyed), because otherwise they surely would have drawn attention to the fact that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled perfectly. The fact that it isn’t mentioned means that the gospels were written before the destruction of the temple, and thus in the lifetimes of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. This is significant because if the words were not true, there would be people alive who could discredit them.
It is popular among some scholars to say the gospels were written in the 2nd century (well after the time of the disciples). They claim hundreds of gospels were written and the church picked out only those that fit their political agenda. There were hundreds of writings from the 2nd century that purported to be written by disciples. These were all rejected by the church because they were obvious forgeries (the disciples who supposedly authored the works were all gone). All of the writings were inconsistent with the words of the eyewitness testimony of the true record of Jesus’ life.
Second, we see that God has a plan. These words remind us that God is sovereign over creation. History is moving to an end which God has ordained. Westerners rebel at the notion of a sovereign God because they believe it takes away our freedom.
Two things we can say in response. First, the notion that we have total autonomy is a myth. We are influenced by genetic factors, cultural factors and the sinful desires of our hearts. True independence is actually very limited.
Second, the Bible affirms two things that seem contradictory to us. It affirms that God is in control and that we are given the freedom to make real choices that determine our path and eternity. Our choices bring real consequences. We are free to choose. However, the Bible also tells us that our free choices are accomplishing God’s set purpose and plan. I don’t know how all of that works together but I do believe the God who created all things can also work through the free choices of His creation.
Rather than rebelling at the idea of God’s control. We should be comforted.
- It means life has meaning and purpose. It is not aimless.
- It means justice will be done. Justice is not dependent on the fickleness and corruption of man.
- It means that the events of our lives are purposeful. Negative things are meant to correct us, train us, or open doors of opportunity to us. Life doesn’t “just happen”. There really is a reason (admittedly often difficult to discern) for the things that happen.
- It means God’s promises are more than wishful thinking, they are promises we can rely on and we can build our life upon them.
- It means we do not need to panic when times are hard. God is still on the throne. We know He is good, kind, wise, powerful and sufficient. Nothing . . . Nothing . . . Nothing . . . can separate the believer from His love (see Romans 8).
Our third application is that we should not be afraid. Jesus was talking to a generation of people who were going to face great trials as Rome destroyed Israel. Throughout the course of Christian history Christians have been persecuted. In 2 Timothy 3:12 we have the promise that no one wants to put on their refrigerator, “everyone who wants to live a godly life with Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us this to frighten us, it tells us this to prepare us. Hard times will come in life and we need to be prepared for those times. How do we do that?
First, we must make sure we are right with God. The Bible is clear, we have all sinned and because of that fact we have a debt before God we cannot pay. The Bible tells we cannot earn salvation. We cannot be good enough. Our only hope is for God to do something to rescue us. He did just that in sending Christ to earth. When Jesus died on the cross He died to pay our penalty. The Bible tells us that if we will put our hope and trust in Christ, if we will allow Him to live in us and change us, we will be forgiven and begin an eternal relationship with Him.
So the question that remains is this: have you taken hold of Christ and have you let Him take hold of you? There may be hundreds of years before the Lord comes again, or it may be today. You are free to choose but with freedom come consequences. Choose wisely.
Second, we need to focus on the big picture. We know from experience how easy it is to fixate on the problems of life. We must discipline ourselves to focus not on the problems but on the Lord who is greater than the problems. It is true that if we “turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face, then the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
Finally, we must learn to pray. I was reading a blog post from Pastor Matt Chandler. He had a tumor in the front part of his brain and had to have surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. One year later he reflected on what he had learned over the year. He learned,
- God really is enough
- The only thing that really matters is that I am His
- If it’s not by grace alone that we are saved, I am really in trouble
But it was the last observation that really struck me. The heading is “I learned I suck at praying”. He explained with these words
I didn’t think I did before this. I thought it was a strength, but I was wrong. When you realize that all you are is His, you realize or at least I did, that I don’t stay connected to Him as I have been commanded to. I would spend some time praying in the morning, but my life wasn’t saturated in it. I lived like I put my time in and now I can handle this. Although I knew I wasn’t wise enough, experienced enough or seasoned enough, I went and tried to be what others needed. I have grown exponentially in this area this year and I’m hoping that when I’m done with my race, I would be known not just as a faithful preacher of God’s Word but also as a man who communed with his Father without ceasing.
The message for all of us is that we need to keep working at prayer. We need to learn to pray before the hard times come so we will have the tools we need to face those hard times.
In this first part of the Olivet Discourse we are warned about the coming destruction of the Temple but the bigger message is that God is in control. It is a reminder that our job is not to point to the newspapers as evidence that the end is neat; our job is to point to the Savior who died to set us free and give us strength and peace; a peace that will hold even if the world does crumble around us.