Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction and the signs pointing to it, warning of hardships arising from both nature and people in the days before “the end.” He also encouraged his disciples to endure their coming persecution, as it would lead to Christian witnessing opportunities and their gaining eternal life.
Introduction – Believe it or not, during my early years of college I was known by my Christian friends as the “Prophecy Guy”. Before I left home this didn’t describe me at all. I hadn’t learned much at all except that Jesus is coming back to take Christians to heaven. So what happened to change me? To make a long story short, I wandered into the local Christian bookstore and stumbled onto the eschatology shelf. After skimming a few titles, my curiosity and fear about the future was aroused. So I began to study the Bible’s doctrine of the end of the world, reading one book after another after another. After years of reflection, what did I learn? Two things: (1) the Bible has a lot of still-important things to say about the end, and (2) there are a lot of terribly misleading Christian books out there about the end! People are naturally curious and fearful about the end of the world. Will it bring happiness or hardship for me, my loved ones, my community, my country? How can we be well prepared?
Background – This passage is known as the first part of the Olivet Discourse, or Luke’s version of the synoptic apocalypse (the whole discourse is Lk 21:5-36), because Jesus gives this teaching on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. In Luke’s account, the length and significance of the Olivet Discourse (21:5-38) is comparable to Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49). This is an important teaching. The structure of Luke’s version more clearly delineates (compared to Matthew and Mark) the signs of the end of Jerusalem and the temple (21:5-24), and the signs of the end of the age (21:25-36).
Philip Ryken gives a helpful illustration. Studying the Olivet Discourse is like wearing bifocals. The passage is partly about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. These portions are up close and in focus so we can examine them in greater detail. But the end of the world is always in the background and needs to be kept in view. Those portions are further away and the focus is not as clear, so we interpret the details with greater humility acknowledging the presence of mystery, imagery, and apocalyptic symbolism. This is usually the way Bible prophecy works, with a near and far fulfillment. If we focus on the far horizon and ignore the near horizon, we miss the big picture, misinterpret prophecy, and deny God’s word is applicable to its original audience. But if we focus on the near horizon (the message for the original audience), we also miss the big picture, misinterpret in a different way, and deny God’s word is relevant for today.
I. The Bad News
A. The temple is doomed (vv. 5-6)
The Jewish religious leaders have already objected to Jesus cleansing and judging the temple (Lk 19:45-48). Their faith and life is bound up in the temple. They will not let it go, yet Jesus will not let it remain. Thus Jesus and the Jewish leaders are on a collision course with each other. The entire temple complex in Jerusalem was a magnificent structure, comparable in size and opulence to the ancient wonders of the world. The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes:
Now the outward face of the temple in its front lacked nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes: for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. 223 But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not golden, they were exceedingly white. 224 On its top it had spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it. Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits in length, five in height, and six in breadth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5:222-224).
That’s a stone the size of a boxcar weighing the same as 75 adult elephants! However, the temple’s religious and national value to the Jews was even more significant. But Jesus wasn’t so impressed. He knew its days were numbered, that God would bring judgment upon the temple for the people’s refusal and murder of their Christ.
B. There is danger in being led astray (vv. 8-9)
Many people, including the Jews, expected certain signs portending the end of the world—wars, rebellions, people claiming to be Christ. Jesus taught these were true signs, but not signs of the immediate end. Don’t be fooled by and follow the Christ-pretenders. Don’t be terrified by wars and rumors of wars. All these will happen. They are signs of a still distant end. Be patient.
C. Hardships in nature and between nations are coming (vv. 10-11)
Nature will be harsh before the end. Great earthquakes (Laodicea), and famines (Rome) and plagues in various places, frightening natural events, and even (astronomical?) signs in the sky (comets, solar eclipses). Nations and kingdoms will be raised up (the verb is future passive) by God to go to war against each other. It will be a violent, terrifying time, creating great hardships for many.
D. Persecution of Christians is coming (vv. 12, 16-17)
Before everything Jesus predicted in verses 8-11, Christian persecution will begin. The book of Acts (Luke’s second volume) records the details. Jewish unbelievers will hand over the disciples to synagogues and prisons for trial. The persecutors will bring disciples before kings and governors. All kinds of people will hate Christians for being Christians. Even close relatives and friends will betray Christians. Some disciples will be put to death. For verse 12 the ESV lists 14 cross-references from Acts alone showing how Jesus’ predictions were fulfilled in the lives of the apostles during the early expansion of the church.
II. The Good News
A. To be forewarned is to be forearmed (vv. 7-19)
Why does Jesus warn his disciples of their future? So instead of being caught off-guard and surprised, they will be prepared, living shrewdly and not reactively or aimlessly. They will know the coming hardship is God’s will and thus will not despair, even when the temple is destroyed. They will heed Jesus’ warnings to be patient, won’t be led astray by false christs, and trust God’s purposes in judgment.
Don’t go crazy with end-time speculation. Eschatology seems to bring out the worse theology in Christians, and usually leads them away from a proper focus on the gospel and living the Christian life. I know this because it happened to me. How do people go crazy? Philip Ryken gives a few examples. Some follow false christs (e.g., Jim Jones and David Koresh). Some try to forecast the future with complex theories and charts that are high speculative that leave people with wrong ideas about the future (e.g., The Late Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series). Some try to connect current events to specific Bible prophecies (e.g. newspaper eschatology like the Jack and Rexella Van Impe prophecy show that focuses on America’s foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East). Some try to predict Jesus’ return with complex numerical calculations based on various Bible verses (e.g., Harold Camping) or by gauging various world events (e.g., the Rapture Index). Jesus knew people would go crazy. So he didn’t give us a date, but rather sound pastoral advice: do not be led astray.
B. Persecution will foster opportunities for Christian witness (vv. 13-15)
God has a purpose for persecution: the spread of the gospel and the faith-building of disciples. How do Christians gain opportunity to bear witness to Christ before their enemies or people in power, i.e., the kinds of people we normally avoid or have no access to? Through persecution and being tried as criminals. Jesus promised to give supernatural words and wisdom during such trials, such that their adversaries won’t be able to withstand or contradict their testimony.
Trouble for the church often means opportunity to bear witness of Jesus Christ. What a refreshing way to interpret and respond to suffering, trial, opposition, and persecution! This is exactly how many of the leaders and followers in the early church responded. Consider Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), Peter (Acts 4:1-12), and Paul (Phil 1:12-18). Many Christians throughout church history have responded to the same with testimony to Jesus Christ. Verse 13 is a great verse to memorize. It is only 8 words long. Those 8 words are able to change your perspective whenever you suffer or are persecuted for being a Christian. Don’t respond with pity, despair, or a persecution complex. Respond with the gospel on your lips, adorned with a joyful attitude and life. “This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Lk 21:13). Don’t miss your God-ordained opportunities. Every difficult situation is an opportunity to tell others about Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the hope the gospel brings upon the situation.
C. God will protect the souls of those who endure (vv. 18-19)
In light of verse 16, this is not likely a promise of escaping death or other harm. It ought to be interpreted as a spiritual promise referring to the soul, as a metaphorical way of promising disciples they will not suffer any eternal spiritual harm. But of course this metaphorical promise may manifest itself in deliverance from temporal harm. This is one of the purposes of the Olivet Discourse, to warn disciples that they may escape the calamity coming to Jerusalem (Lk 21:20-24).
III. How to Live Today in Light of Yesterday’s News
A. View Redemptive-History as a pregnancy (Mt 24:8 || Mk 13:8)
Pregnancy is characterized by regular aches and pains, then birth pangs, and finally labor and delivery. Birth pangs are sometimes difficult to discern from labor pains, but as the time of birth draws near, they begin to distinguish themselves. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, with its accompanying “birth pang” signs, was a type of the final judgment yet to come. Live now in hope for the coming “birth” of eternity—when “this age” gives way to “the age to come.”
B. Recognize the goodness and severity of God
God deals with people on individual, church, and national levels. Sometimes the faithful will share in his severe judgment on the church or national levels. But his children will certainly gain eternal life. Not a hair of their heads will perish.
A minister in Eastern Europe during the Cold War years encountered an unusual prayer from a Polish believer. “We are praying for you Christians in the Western world because you have it too easy. The Lord must help you not to compromise.” Perhaps the changes in the western world on cultural and moral issues are God’s answer to the prayers of our eastern world brothers and sisters? Perhaps we will learn uncompromising faithfulness through suffering as being a Bible-believing and Jesus-following Christian becomes more and more difficult? Perhaps believers in the west are being refined in a furnace that is only beginning to get hot?
Jesus also comforted us with his words “Do not be afraid.” All of these terrible things (wars, tumults, earthquakes, famines, plagues, heavenly signs) that happened before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple stirred people’s fears about the end of the world. They should cause you to think about the end of the world. You ought to prepare your soul for that day. But without being afraid, because Jesus will save his people. He is always with us, even in the day of trouble. Whatever causes you to fear (terrorism, climate change, economic depression, nuclear war, natural disaster, government persecution, cultural change, secularism, widespread immorality), respond to it in faith by obeying Jesus, the Lord of nations and of history—do not fear. God is at work showing the world, for his own glory, his goodness and severity.
There is a message for Jewish people in this passage. A sober and sad, yet loving message. Israel lost its temple because they corporately rejected their Messiah and refused to repent of their sins. It is the church’s delicate task to proclaim the goodness and severity of the God of Israel. Jesus’ message of the temple’s destruction is cause for reflection. In her persecution of Jesus and his followers, Israel brought God’s judgment upon herself. Yet her fate is not sealed. Jesus is still the Messiah, the Savior of the Jews first and then of the Gentiles. The Church is the New Israel, composed of believing Jews and Gentiles together whom God has made into a new people—the people of God. According to Romans 11:17-24, if the natural branches (unbelieving Jews) were broken off from God’s tree because of unbelief and unnatural branches (believing Gentiles) were grafted into their place, God is certainly able to graft back in the natural branches when they believe in Messiah Jesus. The Lord is good to all, and he has not forsaken his people Israel, for he always reserves a remnant according to faith, who testify to the whole Jewish people that they may be saved by Jesus the Messiah if they would repent and believe the gospel.
To unbelievers in general, this passage is a call to recognize your accountability to God, and to contemplate your life without him. There is a judgment to come, and no one can escape it. To rely on your own record of goodness to get to heaven, or to pretend the end of the world will never come is a dead-end road. This text plainly describes where that road goes. Don’t make the mistake Israel made when the Savior was in their midst.
C. Trust God for the grace to endure and glorify him in trial
Endurance by faith through the coming trials is the means whereby Christians will participate in the full benefits of salvation (Lk 9:24; Rom 8:28; 1 Pet 5:10). Those who endure to the end will be saved (cf. || Mt 24:13; Mk 13:13). God is in control of whatever happens to Christians, therefore they ought to remain faithful, enduring through trial to the end. This has always been the way through trial for God’s people (Mic 7:7; Dan 11:32, 35; 12:1, 12). Heidelberg Catechism 1 says:
What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
Conclusion – Jesus didn’t stop talking about the future after verse 19. There is more. Some of it was in the near future for the original audience. It proved to be practical and vital for life, and for gaining eternal life. That which is fulfilled is now for us history with life application. But as we’ll see, some is still future. Therefore we need to learn how to apply fulfilled history to increase our faith in Jesus’ teaching concerning what is still future. Knowledge that was practical and vital then will surely be again, for life and for eternal life. May God give us ears to hear, hearts to believe, and lives that endure to the end.