Simply put: it's easy to mess up a difficult passage like Luke 21. You may find yourself applying something regarding Jerusalem's destruction to the end of the world—and vice versa. You may get bogged down in so many details that you miss the big picture. You may not foster the right tension of fear and hope. Mitchell sets the ground rules early on in the sermon: humility is the best attribute to guide you through this labyrinthine text. In the shadow of that humility, Mitchell helps the audience see the big picture nature of the text first and foremost, with extra attention given to those details that matter most to correct interpretation. Along the way, he also stirs a profound Christological witness.
The day before terrorists attacked New York and Washington, a fifth grader in a Dallas suburb told his teacher that World War III would begin the next day. Rhonda Lucich, the director of elementary education for the school district, said the boy approached his teacher on the afternoon of September 10 and casually told her: "Tomorrow, World War III will begin. It will begin in the United States, and the United States will lose." The child then missed the next two days of school. The statements were passed along to the FBI, but Lucich didn't know whether the agency had acted on the tip. An FBI spokesman couldn't be reached for comment. "It's one of those things I sincerely want to believe was coincidental," Lucich said.
I don't know about you, but I'm skeptical about that kind of stuff. I think it probably was a coincidence. You have to consider the source. But let's face it: the idea of predicting the future fascinates us.
What if I told you that Jesus Christ made an amazingly accurate prediction of a future event—one that was substantiated by three different gospel writers and later confirmed by non-believing historians? You'd probably believe me, because the prediction wasn't made by a fifth grader; it was made by Jesus.
In Luke 21:5–36 Jesus delivers one of his better-known sermons—the Olivet Discourse. It's all about the future. This sermon has been the subject of more scholarly debate than any other passage in the Gospels. No scholar has perfectly unraveled all the knots, and neither will we. We have to approach this passage with humility, but I want us to look at the broad strokes of the passage and nail down the things that are clear.
Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem at the time. In the final days of his earthly life, Jesus taught in the temple during the day and spent the night on the Mount of Olives. On one of these days, Luke writes that "some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts (NASB)." They weren't kidding! The temple was considered one of the great wonders of the Roman world. It had been under reconstruction for 46 years and was almost done. Its location on Mount Moriah made it look like a mountain of gold. Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote that when the sun shone on it, "it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes." It was breathtaking—kind of like the Twin Towers. Yet listen to what Jesus says: "As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down." That's quite a prediction! His words were tragically true. In 70 A.D. the Romans invaded the city and ordered both the city and the temple razed to the ground. Soldiers gutted it by fire and then literally pulled the stones apart in an attempt to reclaim the melted gold.
When Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, the disciples are stunned. Later, probably back at the Mount of Olives, they question him, saying, "Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?" They want to know the times and the signs—the "when" and the "what" that will proceed this terrible event. Jesus goes on to answer their question, but some of what he says goes beyond the end of the temple; he also talks about the end of the world, when he will return to judge the nations. One of the challenges of this passage is that some of the things he says about what will happen prior to the fall of Jerusalem also apply to what will happen prior to his return.
We can divide Jesus' sermon into two parts. The first part, verses 8–24, deals with the period of history before the end. The second part, verses 25–36, deals with the return of Christ and the end itself.
Difficult time will precede the end.
In verses 8–24 Jesus says that difficult times are coming. He lists a number of what we might call "signs of the age." In verse 8 he talks about false Christs: "See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am He,' and, 'The time is near.' Do not go after them." Throughout history, many have either claimed to be Christ or made claims about themselves that are only true of Christ: Jim Jones and the People's Temple; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians; Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate.
In verses 9–10 Jesus speaks of war: "When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately." He then said, "Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom." Historian Will Durant once wrote: "War is one of the constants of history and is not diminished with civilization and democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war."
Along with false Christs and the ongoing presence of war, Jesus also mentions natural disasters: "There will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven." Soon after Jesus preached this sermon there was a terrible earthquake in Laodicea in which many were killed. Famines and plagues often go hand in hand with such natural disasters, because many are left disenfranchised and diseased. We don't know exactly what Jesus means by "signs from heaven." Perhaps he is speaking of things like the vernal equinox, a lunar eclipse, or the Hale-Bopp comet lighting up the night skies.
Jesus also mentions a time of persecution that will be especially difficult for those who follow him: "But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name's sake. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name." Using strong language, Jesus points out that God's people will not be "bubble wrapped" during this trying time. Verse 12 actually describes what would soon happen to his disciples in the Book of Acts. They were imprisoned and brought before both Jewish and Roman officials. Jesus also says families will turn against each other. A friend of mine was sharing his faith with a man from an Islamic country who was captivated by the gospel. When my friend asked him to pray and put his trust in Christ, the man responded, "If I do that, when I get back to my country, my family will disown me, I will lose my job, and my children will never be allowed to attend a university." In many parts of the world, what Jesus predicted in this sermon is coming true.
In verses 20–24 Jesus also speaks of Jerusalem being destroyed:
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Jesus describes in detail what would happen in 70 A.D. Roman legions would surround the city, and many would fall by the sword and be taken captive. The Holy City would be trampled upon by Gentiles. The fall of Jerusalem happened exactly as Jesus said it would. But at the time of Jesus' prediction, he must have sounded as crazy as that fifth grader who said World War III would start on September 11.
This sermon does not paint a pretty picture, does it? But this is what Jesus tells us we can expect between his first coming and his Second Coming. One of the mistakes Christians often make is to associate these things with the end. But Jesus clearly says in verse 9 that "the end does not follow immediately." In verse 24 he speaks of "the times of the Gentiles" being fulfilled. Jesus is talking about the extended period of time we're in now—a time when God's purpose is focused on Gentiles coming to Christ. Paul spoke of that same time in Romans 11:25: "A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in." We're still in that period, and it's not all a bed of roses. So how do we handle all of this? What do we do during these difficult times? If we go back through these same verses, we can see that Jesus tells us not to do several things.
God's people should respond with wisdom and faith.
Jesus insists that we should respond with wisdom and faith. First of all, this means that we shouldn't be misled. When speaking of false Christs Jesus says, "Don't be misled … don't go after them." Many will make claims that are similar to those of Christ, but that means they're lying.
How spiritually gullible are you? Are you able to see through the proud claims of those who say they know when the end will take place? They are the ones who are saying, "The time is near." We have to be more discerning. We have to know the Word of God well enough that when something is off, we instinctively know it.
Jesus also says, "Don't be terrified." When we hear of wars, we shouldn't be freaked out. As Jesus indicates: "These things must take place first." That "must" is a divine must. In other words, we mustn't freak out, because God is working out his plan.
I see a lot of fear in Christians when we talk about the things this passage addresses. A lot of people prefer to believe that God's people will be raptured before all this happens. It's okay to believe that if you see it in Scripture, but don't believe it out of wishful thinking or feelings of terror. It may seem like things are out of control, but they're not. Everything is on schedule.
Jesus also says that we shouldn't figure out ways to defend ourselves. It's hard to figure out why God would allow some of these things to happen to us as part of his plan. Christ does say, however, that when we're arrested and brought before kings, something positive happens: "It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute." This is an opportunity for you to be a witness. God is at work in all of this. Don't prepare what you're going to say when persecution comes; God will give you irrefutable words of wisdom. Forget about the 3x5 cards! Forget about bringing along a tract! Just trust God, and he'll give you the words.
Jesus also tells us that we shouldn't give up. It's kind of strange, but right after Jesus says some will be hated by family members and even killed, he says, "Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives." How can you be killed but not have a hair on your head perish? I believe Jesus is saying that not a hair of your head will perish apart from God's sovereign control. Even if you do die, you will gain your soul. That's why he says, "By your endurance you will gain your lives [or souls]."
I don't think we talk enough about the value of endurance in the Christian life. Some of you are going through some real trials and testings right now. What is God doing in those? He's producing endurance. You don't learn endurance when everything goes your way. Long distance runners don't gain endurance by sitting on the couch; they learn it by being tested.
Finally, Christ tells the people of his day not to stay in Jerusalem. Jesus is saying: If you're in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., don't stick around. Don't try to find refuge within the walls of the city, because it will be destroyed. Flee to the mountains. This "fleeing" is why it will be so hard for those who are pregnant or nursing.
Sometimes Christians think that it's faithless to flee. In this situation, however, Jesus says it's the best thing to do. Why? Verses 22–23 say the people must flee, "because these are days of vengeance" and "wrath to this people." Make no mistake: God was judging Israel through these events. They had rejected his Son, and they were paying a price for it. Where do people get the idea that God won't judge and that his judgment won't be fierce? Not from the Bible!
Part of what we're supposed to learn from the fall of Jerusalem is that God is serious about sin. As painful as the fall of Jerusalem was, it will be nothing compared to the judgment to come. Jesus warned the audience of judgment, and it came just a few years later. His prediction was fulfilled to the letter. Today he warns us of judgment as well. What will we do? In a sense, all we can do is flee from the wrath of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But that's not all. In the second half of his sermon, Jesus speaks of signs of his unmistakable coming.
Christ will return in an unmistakable way.
In verses 25–36 Christ tells the people that he will return in an unmistakable way: "There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken." Jesus is using apocalyptic language, much of which is borrowed from the Old Testament. For example, Joel 2:30–31 says, "And I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes." All of this speaks to some kind of violent change in the natural order. We will experience "unnatural disasters."
Jesus also says his return will be marked by dismay, perplexity, and fear among the nations. In other words, there will be widespread panic throughout the earth. Have you seen thousands of people panic at once? Imagine 5 or 6 billion people in a state of panic!
We don't know how long this widespread panic will continue, but amidst this universal confusion, verse 27 tells us that Christ will appear in an unmistakable way: "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." How different this Second Coming will be from his first! He won't come as meek and lowly, but with power and glory. He won't come riding on a donkey, but on a cloud. He won't come bearing a cross, but a sword. So how do we respond to this? What do we do in light of this?
God's people must be ready.
First of all, God's people must be ready. Jesus tells us that we must "look up" in hope. In contrast to unbelievers who are in a state of panic, "when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." We look up in hope, because something wonderful is happening. Redemption is near, and we're about to be delivered. That's something to look forward to!
When my oldest daughter got married, we had a big floral arrangement in the middle of the lobby. Right before I walked her down the aisle, the two of us hid behind that arrangement because she didn't want to be seen by the groom. When they swung the doors open, and we stepped out from behind the flowers, both bride and groom locked eyes on each other. She was ready, dressed in white. When Christ returns as our bridegroom, we'll gaze on him as longingly as any bride has ever looked upon her groom.
Secondly, we must recognize the signs. In his sermon Jesus talks about when all of this will happen: "Then he told them a parable: 'Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.'" Jesus says that when these final, cosmic signs take place, then we will know that the time is here. Notice, though, that he doesn't give us a calendar. The confusing part is that he goes on to say, "This generation will not pass away until all these things take place." This verse has confused a lot of people. Who does he mean by "this generation"? Is it the people he was talking to? If so, Jesus was wrong; he didn't return while they were still alive. It's safe to conclude that Jesus was talking about the generation of people living in the end times—those who are alive to see these signs described will not die off before Christ returns.
Third, Jesus tells us that we must be alert and prayerful. He says, "Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." Jesus wants us to be ready and able to stand before him when he comes. He wants us to be prepared.
This preparation demands a couple of things of us. First, we have to guard against being lulled to sleep by the things of this world. This includes worldly pleasures and worldly worries; both can be deadly anesthesia for the soul. For example, we must avoid dissipation, or excess. How many of us are drunk on the things of this life? We have our families, houses, cars, vacations, bills, retirement plans, and television sets. Life seems so good. Jesus says we must not be so preoccupied with the things of earth that his return becomes nothing more than an afterthought.
Secondly, Jesus says we have to keep alert and pray for the strength to escape all these things he's mentioned. He doesn't mean "escape" in terms of not having to go through them, but in the sense of standing firm against temptations. We're in a battle, and it's not easy to follow Christ. We can't do it ourselves. We have to be dependent on him. Prayer is the answer to those who wonder if they will be able to make it through all of this without denying Christ.
Several years ago I ran a marathon. I trained hard to be as prepared as possible, but there's a part of a marathon that's always hard to prepare for. A marathon is just a little over 26 miles, but experts tell you not to run over 20 miles in your training. That means the last six miles of a marathon are "no man's land." You don't know what you're getting yourself into. You may hit a wall. You may have cramps. You only know that it's going to be tough. But you also try to believe that if you train hard enough, you will be ready and will be able to cross that glorious finish line.
We read a passage like Luke 21, and it's like we're reading about the last six miles of a marathon. We know it's going to be hard, and we know that there is nothing we can do now to replicate what it will be like then. But Jesus has told us what to look for and how to be prepared—how to cross the finish line. We prepare by being wise and discerning about the false claims of religious hucksters. We prepare by resting in the fact that God is sovereign and whatever happens to us is part of his plan. We prepare by trusting that he's creating opportunities for us to bear witness, and he'll give us the words we need when we need them. We prepare by learning to endure hardship so that when greater hardship comes, we don't fall by the wayside. We prepare by refusing to allow ourselves to buy the lie that the things of this world are the most important things. We prepare by praying each day for God's strength to face whatever the last six miles of life may hold for us.
In his poem Let Me Get Home Before Dark, Robertson McQuilkin writes:
It's sundown, Lord.
The shadows of my life stretch back
into the dimness of the years long spent.
I fear not death, for that grim foe betrays himself at last,
thrusting me forever into life:
Life with You, unsoiled and free.
But I do fear.
I fear the Dark Spectre may come too soon
- or do I mean, too late?
That I should end before I finish or
finish, but not well.
That I should stain Your honor, shame Your name,
grieve Your loving heart.
Few, they tell me, finish well …
Lord, let me get home before dark.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.