The end of the beginning
What is something that you have had great love for and use for which one day you needed to throw away?
Jesus arrival into Jerusalem after the long journey with his disciples was met with the teachers of the law being unhappy with Jesus’ actions and teaching. They had asked him for some credentials for the authority he was displaying. Jesus did not answer them directly but his interaction with the leaders of Israel throughout Chapter 20 was to underscore the lack of authority that they possessed.
He finished responding to their various questions in Chapter 20 with a harsh description of the teachers of the law loving to parade around in long robes and be recognised in public and be given special treatment. Their religion is empty as they fail to teach correctly about the Messiah and fail to care for those who are in need. Jesus watched both the wealthy and the very poor giving financially for the upkeep of the Temple and the wages of its ministers. We move now from the description of the Jewish teachers to the disciples remarking on the beauty of the Jewish Temple itself. If the Jewish leaders have lost their religion, what about the future of the central hub of the Jewish religion? What is to become of the house of God?
Read Luke 21:5-38
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
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 uprisings, 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.
12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.
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.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
37 Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, 38 and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.
What did you see?
Please note that this is a particularly long blog this week. The benefit of starting with the structure is to draw the eye to the flow of the passage. It may be enough just to recognise what Jesus is saying by thinking over the structure. More details are given for some moments in the passage that can cause confusion or controversy.
- Investing in rubble (5-6)
- Watch out for false prophecy (7-11)
- Firstly, the Jews will reject Jesus’ ministry (12-19)
- Secondly, the Jews will be judged by God (20-24)
- Then, the end of days? (25-28)
- So, live like you know what is coming (29-36)
- So Jesus routinely taught and prayed (37-38)
This passage has parallel accounts in Matthew 24; Mark 13 and Matthew 10:17-22. They embrace the same themes and message but the sequence of Jesus’ sayings differ. While studying all of them together in order to piece a picture of the future is a worthwhile exercise, it seems that Matthew, Mark and Luke have each placed this account in the context of their own accounts of Jesus’ ministry and it is best to listen to each of them individually. The issue is not about contradiction but about order and emphasis. So, let’s listen to Luke’s narrative of Jesus answering the disciple’s question about the future of the Temple and the kingdom of God.
Investing in rubble (5-6)
“…remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.” The story of the poor widow is the immediate context of this statement. She has given her all as a dedication to God it would seem. The Temple was looking awesome! Tours across Europe and the UK can be filled with church watching and there are many buildings which look impressive and tell of a great history of people dedicated to the glory of God. Standing in some churches can literally lift your eyes up to the heavens. Many of them, however, are empty of true worship.
“…the time will come when not one stone will be left on another…” Think of all that money and effort that has gone into maintaining that Temple – a building that God Himself had designed and instructed Israel to finance and build with great precision and skill (Exodus 25-26) – and yet Jesus declares that it is going to be smashed to nothing. That poor widow is giving her livelihood to something that God is about to abandon and destroy.
The theme is now set for the rest of what Jesus is going to teach: be careful what you invest your life and faith in. God has plans for the future and it is important for us to have our hearts and minds in line with God’s plans. The age of the Temple made of stone has passed.
Watch out for false prophecy (7-11)
“Teacher…when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” A good question. Jesus is going to answer this one pretty well but also lead us all to a greater lesson and that is to always be ready. The question is specifically about the destruction of the Temple but Jesus will expand his answer to include the end of all things.
“…Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name…” I often forget how controversial Jesus is/was. He is announcing right here that his name will be used in the future as an identifier of authority. What is he insinuating when he says “in my name”? He is announcing that many will proclaim the name of Jesus and that they come in his name and have a new announcement to make – in his name! Jesus has not died or risen yet but he knows that he is the man to follow and nobody else can imitate him. So, Jesus is already announcing that his name is important – that he has authority. He is not just a prophet coming in the name of the LORD – he IS the LORD! Next, we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a Christian church? That is, how do we identify a true church of God versus a church that simply has Jesus in the title? Well, his following words suggest that they will speak something more than what Jesus has allowed them to know.
“…claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ One characteristic of a cult is that there is one leader who claims to be more informed and authoritative than everybody else. Even if they do not claim to be the Messiah, they will try and convince their followers that they have a unique and special revelation from God. Having a certain knowledge of the future is a notable clue that someone is not speaking the word of God but simply scaring others with false knowledge. Jesus continues to expand on such knowledge.
“…do not be frightened. These must happen first, but the end will not come right away…There will be…great signs from heaven.” Scary events will come and go and have come and gone and while they do communicate something to the world, it is not that the end is necessarily at the door. Verses 10 and 11 list international conflicts and natural disasters across the world which are signs from heaven but none of them are a signpost that the end is coming right away. The Black Death came and went about 1,000 years ago. It wiped out 1/3rd of Europe. We’ve had 2 World Wars and yet the world is still spinning. Tsunamis, draughts, ice-caps melting or Aids have all been international news for some time. Which of these is telling us that the world is about to end? None of them and yet all of them. They all signal that the kingdom of this world is under the curse of sin. They all signal that this world is broken. None of them have announced that this is the final end. International conflict and natural disasters all communicate that the end is coming – none of them specifically tell us that it is time now.
Jesus does have insight into the future, however, and he goes on to describe a few things to look out for AND what response to make to each…
Firstly, the Jews will reject Jesus’ ministry (12-19)
“But before all this…” Jesus does communicate an order of events here. Prior to nations rising against nations and prior to earthquakes and famines and fearful events and great signs from heaven. Before we get to those things, Jesus informs his disciples of something to look out for.
“…they will seize you and persecute you.” On the day that the disciples talked with Jesus, admiring the beauty of the Temple, Jesus told them that they would be seized and persecuted. The Jewish people from the synagogues (local places of Jewish worship like a church) would put them in prison and have to stand in front of kings and governors as ministers of the gospel. Because they speak in Jesus’ name, they will be persecuted. Ironic that Jesus says not to be deceived by people who claim to come in Jesus’ name and that they will be rejected themselves because they speak in Jesus’ name. As they look and admire the Temple of God, Jesus prepares them not to expect to be doing ministry in that Temple. Perhaps they even expected that they would move in there with Jesus and establish that Kingdom of God with him. Jesus instructs them to put that out of their minds completely.
But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words…” They have been told now that they will be persecuted. What they are to do with that info now is to decide not to be concerned about how to respond since Jesus’ words will be with them. At this point I am hearing this as a promise from Jesus to those disciples. It is not given as a promise specifically and globally to all followers of Christ. The apostles will be equipped to testify about Christ in a way that cannot be resisted or contradicted.
“Everyone will hate you because of me.” Jesus is speaking in extremes. His speech to the disciples is in the context of admiring this great Temple. His response to them is a warning about what is to come. When they choose to speak in his name, they will receive negative reactions. While Jesus is speaking directly to his 12 students, we can nod to this ourselves. The message is not that every single person that you meet will hate you because you are a Christian. But there will be great strain on relationships on account of Him. Jesus will be the source of great division in the world.
“Stand firm and you will win life.” What a great sentence! “Winning at life” is a humorous phrase someone might say when they have a small win or discover a new habit that is and works etc. Jesus is perhaps the first to coin the phrase. It may seem odd or quirky and a bit of an afterthought in the whole speech from Jesus but I wonder if this phrase is really the key to it all. The disciples were in awe over the Temple. Jesus tells them straight that the Temple has no future. Don’t look to that and don’t look for the praise of people. In fact, even your own parents will turn away from you. But stand firm testifying in the name of Jesus and you will have life. Gain life. Win life. This ends the first phase of Jesus’ answer to them. His point: know where to direct your attention – the authentic testimony about Jesus. It will be distorted by others and rejected by the rest. But when you stand firm, you win.
Secondly, the Jews will be judged by God (20-24)
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies…” Jesus begins to describe something that takes place in 70AD. The content of his description here in Luke and the fact that the intense event is not even alluded to in the book of Acts gives a lot of weight to the book of Acts being finished before 70 AD and therefore the book of Luke completed much earlier than that again! It is one significant key to the early authorship of the gospels. I will not go into the detail further here but thought it right to mention.
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies…” (part 2) Perhaps think like one of the disciples for a second. They might be still holding out hope that Jesus will stand up in Jerusalem one day and declare himself to be the true heir of the kingdom of David and it is time to take over. So what might they expect Jesus to say about armies surrounding Jerusalem? To trust God that he will fight for them? No. In fact, Jesus continues to inform them now that the destruction of Jerusalem is in God’s plans.
“…and let those in the country not enter the city.” When Jerusalem was taken, it began at the time of the Passover when people living outside the city would visit. They were allowed to enter but not allowed to leave.
“For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Leviticus 26:31-33 and Deuteronomy 28:49-57 will be enough to scratch any itches over what has been written. They are to be taken as both specific and general. The blessing of God on Israel was on the basis that they would be His people and He would be their God. There general rejection of God over the generations and especially in this generation that has met the Messiah is to be fulfilled. It is not a coincidence that the destruction of Israel after the rejection of the Son of God has been continued to this day! Luke wrote of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem on other occasions too. See Luke 11:49-51; 19:41-44; 20:9-16 and 23:28-31.
“How dreadful it will be in those days…” The graphic scenes of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD are documented by historians. It was ugly. Terrible. Horrifying in fact. Jesus’ first forecast for the disciples to hear is of something that will happen in their very generation.
“Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” He then transitions from this event fulfilled in 70 AD to the next phase of the future. The age of the Gentiles where there will be no focus from God on a people group like the Jews. But that age will come to an end – its’ purpose will be complete also.
Then, the end of days? (25-28)
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars…for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” Jesus’ language becomes slightly apocalyptic. His attention moves from 70 AD to the end of time and he alludes to imagery depicted in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 13:9-10 and Joel 2:30-31. The apostle John describes the same imagery in Revelation 6:12-13. Whether this is an actual description of the future (sun stops, moon turns red and the stars fall) or simply the familiar imagery that the bible has used to point to the end – it doesn’t matter. It is describing the end of things before the Son returns.
“…will see the Son of Man…lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus speaks to the disciples now knowing that he really speaks to all future disciples of Christ. In this life, we will find sorrow and hardship – all are reminders of a broken and aching world. But there will come a day, which all of this brokenness points us to, when we will see the Son of Man and we will lift up our heads because he will come to take what he has purchased.
We live in the age of the now but not yet. Jesus’ words here encourage us to not think of the world as we know it as the true reality of eternity. We live for the kingdom to come. Jesus warns us to look at the world around us and choose to stand firm rather than run around confused and scared.
The Son of Man is a title that Jesus often used of himself. It finds a neat Old Testament reference in Daniel 7 but even that reference is an allusion to the idea of a true human that lives and reigns as humans were truly made to. Adam failed. But Jesus wins life and has won it for us who stand firm.
So, live like you know what is coming (29-36)
“…when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus has warned us before not to get scared by people claiming that the time has come! What he means now is that we will see things that our anxious minds will want to be fearful of, but they are all signs that the kingdom is near. The plans of God will not be stopped. Use the signs to affirm you faith rather than crush your spirit.
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” While ‘generation’ can be interpreted to mean something like ‘the age of this earth’ or something like that, it seems reasonable to think that Jesus is referring to the destruction of the Temple as definitely happening in the very generation of the disciples. His second sentence about his words not passing away fit neatly with his prediction of the end of all things.
“Be careful…be always on the watch, and pray…” Jesus prescribes the right approach to waiting. It is not to load up baggage in our life with things that put this life on a pedestal. Jesus lists carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life. Are these not good illustrations of a person who is putting an emphasis on this life? Making the most of this life as if it is the one chance we have for fun? When it is not working out for us then we get all anxious and worried. But our concern ought to be about standing firm until the end. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and all who practice it gain understanding. It is an act of grace and dependance on God that enables us to stand firm and so we watch and pray.
So Jesus routinely taught and prayed (37-38)
“Each day Jesus was teaching…and each evening he went out to…the Mount of Olives…” Rather than entering Jerusalem to take a seat on David’s throne, Jesus continued his mission to teach people about the kingdom of God. He left the Temple area by evening to stay on the Mount of Olives. We read in Luke 22:39ff of him praying there and it seemed like a common thing for him to have done. The Mount of Olives was his base for the week he stayed in Judea prior to his arrest. Jesus watched and prayed.
“…and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.” His habit was established early and he committed himself to teaching the people. While the teachers of the law were not happy with him, the people in general were.
What did we learn?
God’s plans for the future will centre around the return of His Son. Those who follow Jesus are not to expect warm receptions by others nor a life on this earth that will bring satisfaction and joy. The joy will be found in knowing that we are included in God’s plans for the future as his redeemed people. The rest of the world will not be ready. We are warned to watch and pray. The age of the Temple is past, the age of the Gentiles is present but the age of the Son is near.
Topic A: Beware of being deceived about the times. It is tempting to conclude that the end must be really soon because of the great rejection of God going on around us. Or because of global warming. Or because of floods and droughts and heatwaves etc. Evil has been in the world since before Cain was a boy. Natural disasters are nothing new. Some are drawn toward certain parts of the bible that seem to describe the end of days and pour their minds into the interpretation of them. Jesus’ warning here is to not be deceived by such talk. The end will come one day. That is a certainty. We can get blindsided by the real purpose of life, however, when we are drawn toward conspiracy theories or to church leaders who preach too specifically about the future.
Topic B: Turn the calamity of life into clarity about the future. The other way of being deceived is to think that this life is where meaning is to be found. When we have bought that lie, then every moment of suffering, every relationship breakdown, every unfulfilled dream can seem like the end of the world. Our prayers can be nothing more than “please God get me out of this one.” But knowing that we live in a world just waiting for the second coming, will keep us clear headed when disasters big or small come. International conflict and a small child’s broken leg are all signs that we do not live in God’s house yet. When our focus is on getting this life right, then we take our eyes off living for the kingdom above. When we focus on this age as the best there will be, then we will be crushed when we find out that it is not that good. When we know that the best is yet to come and that the crumbling state of this world are just labour pains then it can direct our thoughts to prayer and being thankful that God will one day take home what he has already purchased through His Son.
Topic C: Stand before the throne of God today. Jesus applied this passage by saying, “Be always on the watch, and pray.” We can put this into practice now. Pray with your Growth Group right now about the broken nature of this world and the promise of redemption. We can also pray every day that we shall live our life ready to stand before the Son of Man. Perhaps today will be the day!