Luke 21:5-19 New International Version
The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times
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.
The catastrophic bush fires that have been raging for weeks over such a large area have produced another type of firestorm – a firestorm of anger over the government’s unwillingness to face-up to what an overwhelming majority of scientists say is the greatest challenge to humankind in history – global warming.
Four days ago all the former fire and emergency commissioners went public in their condemnation of governmental failure to face up to sort of things we are witnessing, saying that for years they’ve been warning governments about this, and now we are paying the price.
Three days ago, the Australian Medical Association came out with a similar condemnation of inaction. Even our defence planners have been warning of the consequences, predicting that threats to food and water supply for much of the world’s population are likely to become the major threats to world peace.
It makes me think of those words Jesus spoke when talking about the time near His return. He said: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noahentered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.’
When I first got involved in the Church in the early 1960s, I’d often
hear sermons about the end of the world and the return of Christ. Preachers would come with charts detailing events that were soon to happen and would mean God’s judgment on the world.
Nowadays one rarely hears a sermon about these things. I think most preachers feel a bit embarrassed about all those predictions of the end of the world that never actually happened, and don’t want to be thought of as religious cranks and prophets of doom. But nowadays it’s scientists who are the new prophets of doom.
However, there is one church leader who has expressed alarm. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a close confidant to Vladimir Putin, recently said the signs from the Book of Revelation are now apparent. “All people who love the Motherland must be together because we are entering a critical period in the course of human civilization. You have to be blind not to notice the approaching awe-inspiring moments in history that the apostle John was talking about in the Book of Revelation,”
One thing we can’t escape is that the New Testament is full of references to the end of the age as we know it and the return of Christ to set up God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke - the synoptic gospels, record what the Apostles remembered of the teachings of Jesus. Some of his teachings only appear in one of them, and others in two. When something appears in all three, we can be sure it was a teaching that had really impressed itself strongly on their minds.
And one of the most startling was something he spoke about shortly before his death concerning the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the events that would mark the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
The thing that gave rise to this was the disciples’ sense of awe as they looked upon the temple in Jerusalem and marveled at it. It was one of the great wonders of the ancient world. It was a magnificent structure whose outward face was covered with gold plates that reflected the light of the rising sun. The splendour of it took the disciples breath away. It was the symbol of Israel’s glory.
So, you can imagine their amazement when Jesus told them the day was coming when it would all be utterly destroyed. That prediction came true forty years later when the people of Israel rebelled against their Roman masters and the Romans laid siege to the city in what turned out to be one of the most horrific sieges in history and led to the great Jewish Diaspora.
The difficulty we have in understanding this passage, and especially the bit that follows it, is that Jesus seems to be describing two totally different events which in the text merge into each other. Some of what is written here clearly refers to the destruction of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” This was fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70.
But then Jesus goes on to say: ‘At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’ These words refer to more than the destruction of Jerusalem. They echo the words of the Old Testament prophets who warned of a coming Day of the Lord when God would finally intervene and bring to an end the age of human misrule and abuse of the world He’d given to us.
But why is this so? Well in the Old Testament it was common for prophecies, which had an immediate application, to also refer to the fulfillment of some greater event in the more distant future. Scholars call this “Prophetic Perspective,” like looking at a distant mountain range and seeing what seems to one line of hills, only to find out as you get closer that it actually consists of several lines of hills and valleys, which, from a distance, blend into each other.
It seems that this is what is happening here and in the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark’s gospels. Jesus was predicting what was soon to happen to Jerusalem, its magnificent temple and to the Jewish nation; and this prophetic message got merged into his greater prophetic teaching about the eventual end of this age, with all its wonders and achievements – and all its injustice and oppression, and his return to set up God’s eternal kingdom.
The doctrine of the return of Christ became one of the major themes of the early church and was enshrined in the ancient creeds which still form the basis of Christian doctrine. In the Gospels, Jesus often referred to it, and the apostles speak of it repeatedly.
And central to it all is the theme of hope. That’s why it has always been referred to as: the great hope of the Church; that one-day human misrule of this planet, and all the evils that accompany it, will be ended; not by political action, not by education, not by social evolution, But by divine intervention.
But in today’s gospel reading, Jesus refers specifically to certain events that will precede his coming. Here, in this passage of the gospels, and in the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to be aware of the signs of things to come.
Probably the best known of these is of ‘wars and rumours of wars…earthquakes in various places, and famines:’ Luke says ‘When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen, but the end will not come right away.’
There are different ways you can interpret these words, but most biblical scholars think Jesus meant that we shouldn’t worry when we see calamities like terrible wars and major disasters happening. It’s natural for people to feel overwhelmed and think it’s the end of the world, when really, it’s just the way things have always been.
But Jesus then goes on to talk about fearful signs in the sun, moon and stars, and on earth anxiety, perplexity and anguish. “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. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
It's this that causes people like Patriarch Kirill to wonder if what we see happening in our physical environment and in the things likely to flow from it are the signs Jesus was talking about. Not just war – dreadful though any war is – but the sort of war that could destroy humankind. Not just natural disasters – fearful though they may be – but the destruction of the world’s whole eco-system.
Now most people react to all these warnings with a feeling of helplessness in the face of things over which they have no control. But there are two important things Jesus said for us to remember.
The first is: “do not be alarmed.” Don’t worry. The second is: ‘Be always on the watch.’ Be alert but don’t be alarmed.
The last thing He said to His disciples was: “You don’t need to know the time of those events that only the Father controls. But the Holy Spirit will come upon you and give you power. Then you will tell everyone about me in Jerusalem, Judea and everywhere in the world.” So, don’t waste your time speculating or worrying about when it’s going to happen. Just get on with the job I’ve given you, and then you’ll always be ready and always be at peace, because you’ll know that ultimately, all things are in my hands.
That’s why I love the story that the late President Kennedy told during his Presidential campaign, at a time when fear of nuclear war was high. He quoted a Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives who, one day in May 1780, when the sky outside suddenly turned dark, and some members of the house began to panic that the Day of Judgement had arrived, called for calm. Then he said: ‘The Day of Judgement is either approaching or it is not. If it is, I choose to be doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought to this chamber.’
Rather than fearing what is to come, we are to be faithful until Christ returns. Instead of fearing the dark, we are to be lights in the darkness as we watch and wait.