[November 15, 2009] In the reading for today (Luke 21:5-19) we come to the end of Jesus’ public ministry. In verses 8-36 Jesus responds to people’s question about when the destruction of the Temple would take place. Jesus associates that catastrophic event with the coming of the Son of Man (verse 27) and the kingdom of God (verse 31).
Behind us is the entire ministry of Jesus. After His baptism by John and His trial in the wilderness (3:1—4:16), He came to Galilee and announced the Messianic Jubilee foretold by the prophets of old, a time of liberation and salvation, which the coming of His own person inaugurated (4:16—7:15). All who committed themselves to Him could participate in the Jubilee before its manifestation to the world. He prepared those who came to Him to know who He was (and continues to be, 7:16—9:50) and to follow His example and be in the world as He was (9:51—19:27): to engage in the work of apostolic mission and to be His community the church.
Ever since 9:20 when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus set His face to go to the city of Jerusalem where He would offer Himself as the Passover lamb and an atoning sacrifice (9:22). His ministry in Galilee ended with His transfiguration on the mountain, and from then until 19:28, for ten chapters, He traveled to the city. He entered the city on the Sunday before Passover hailed by His disciples as the King—the Son of David—who comes in the name of the Lord. He came as the King but since the city was not prepared to receive Him as such, He was the Prophet-King announcing God’s judgment on the city. He wept as He entered the city, foretelling how the Roman armies would “encircle you, and press you in on every side and level you to the ground.” He confronted and exposed the “vinedressers” of God’s vineyard, the chief priests and scribes and elders of the people. Now, in chapter 21 He pronounces the sentence. After this came His final role in the city, when as the Priest He would offer Himself as the sacrifice.
We spoke before about His pronouncing judgment and how this was completely in sync with the proclamation of all the literary prophets in the Old Testament. Ever since the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, Israel and all the nations of the world had been under the shadow of God’s judgment. Their sin was not new; what was new in the events of the exile was the revelation of God’s judgment on it. By rejecting Jesus their sin is fully exposed, and on the cross “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). The judgment that falls on Israel with the destruction of the Temple was not because of their unwillingness to recognize Jesus. Rather it was because of their unwillingness to repent and render to the “Lord of the vineyard” the fruit that was His due (20:9-19; see 3:8). The historic judgment of which Jesus now speaks is an indictment of the whole world (Romans 3:19-20), only symbolized by the destruction of the Temple.
This final public message then prepares us for the events that follow on the next day, namely the arrest of Jesus and His crucifixion by the Roman governor as “the King of the Jews.” Let us now pay attention to these words.
The Destruction of the Temple (Luke 21:5-7)
In 21:1 Jesus was with the crowd and His disciples on the Temple grounds. The Temple was an impressive site, very large and gilded with gold, “adorned with beautiful stones and consecrated offerings,” and the visitors were naturally admiring it. As they did so, Jesus says to them, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left a stone upon a stone which will not be thrown down.” This is what the prophets had foretold of Solomon’s Temple and now they hear it again from Jesus concerning the Second Temple.
No longer would Judaism have a functioning priesthood. The old cult that typified so many things would end. For the Jewish people the Scriptures themselves would replace the Temple, as to a large extent it already had in the life of the synagogue.
But it was hard to imagine a world in which God did not have some sort of physical place to put His foot and to signify His presence. Stephen in Acts 7 would show that God never needed this, while the Elder John in his gospel—who wrote after the destruction of the Temple—would show that Jesus Himself and those who are “in Him” replace the Temple.
Still, the people ask Him, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” Their question has to do with the destruction of the Temple, and so does Jesus’ response to them. But implied in the question is the expectation of the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man in glory and judgment.
What Jesus describes is the event that took place in 70 AD at the conclusion of the Roman siege of Jerusalem (AD 66-70). In the years prior to that the disciples of Jesus were persecuted, especially in Rome under the emperor Nero when Gentile Christianity officially became a crime and both Peter and Paul were executed (around 63-65 AD).
This much seems pretty clear. Some interpreters however insist that the events Jesus foretells will not take place until the end of history and in order for them to take place the Temple will need to be rebuilt. The reason that they say this is because Jesus seems to be saying that His coming again will take place in association with the destruction of the Temple and it obviously did not take place when the Second Temple was destroyed.
Be that as it may, since these things are in God’s hands and we do not know when or how events will unfold, it nevertheless seems clear that Jesus is referring to the building that He and the people with Him were looking at. The apostles and evangelists expected Jesus to return shortly after this event took place. It was the scandal that the Second Advent did not take place that opened the door to the heresies that arose in the years following 70 AD (see 2 Peter and Jude). It was partly in response to this scandal that John wrote His gospel.
We will interpret Jesus’ words in the way that His first disciples would have heard them, and allow the Holy Spirit to overcome the scandal of our own incomprehension.
False Messiahs, Wars, Earthquakes, Famines and Disease (21:8-11)
The Jewish historian Josephus tells us of a number of people who claimed to be the Messiah or a prophet like Moses. Even the Herod of Acts 12 may have had messianic pretensions. Jesus predicts this and tells us not to be distracted by other saviors. Even those who call themselves Christians can be distracted by those who offer worldly salvation. Most notorious are the “German Christians” of the Third Reich. The temptation is to think we can believe in Jesus and in another savior. The Theological Declaration of Barmen says that Jesus must be the lord of our entire life; no piece of it can be given over to another.
Nor are we to be distracted by wars and revolutions, earthquakes and tsunamis (verse 25) and the horror of famines and pestilences that accompany these. This is not to say that we should not care. Rather, we should not let any of these events that throw our lives into turmoil distract us from daily discipleship. They do not prove that the end is here. “These things must take place first; but the end does not come immediately.”
These events may escalate with time or not. The point is that we must keep our eye on the road and our hand on the steering wheel. We are called to follow Jesus and not get distracted by all this “excitement.” Christians constantly get caught up in rumors of the end-times. They identify events in the news with predictions in the Bible and eventually identify their Christianity with the way they interpret these events. We all are familiar with this. It is part of American culture. It is a distraction from real discipleship, however, and lures many Christians into foolishness and error, even heresies, and it is at least a waste of our time, energy and gifts.
As Christians we have a sure and certain hope, but our hope is in the Lord Himself who will bring our salvation to completion, and not in our understanding and expectation of events. The path of discipleship is in learning the Scriptures, worship, prayer and the obedience of love.
Before these things, whether before the destruction of the Temple in the first century or before the yet-to-happen coming of the Son of Man, the church will be persecuted. In the early days the persecution came from both the synagogue—because early believers were affiliated with it—and the gentile rulers. They also experienced much popular persecution. Today believers experience both persecution from the government (as in China) and popular persecution (as in the Middle East and India). They can still be persecuted whenever the state sponsors the church.
Jesus surprisingly tells us not to prepare for it! Do not react against it, He tells us: It may be a good thing in that “it will turn out to you for a testimony,” an opportunity to give witness, to testify as though you were in court. Rather than prepare for it, you should “settle it in your hearts not to take thought beforehand how to reply in defense.” Jesus Himself will take care of that and give us the words when we need them. The point is emphatic that we should not let ourselves be distracted by such concerns.
Alternatively, we can live in a progressive secular society like the United States or Europe where Christianity is tolerated but many consider it a prejudice, superstition or fantasy (because it often is).
In any case, Jesus tells us that we will be “hated by all because of [His] name” (because the world as a system is antithetical to the church), even by those closest to us, and we may even be threatened with death, but we are not to let this distract us from our Christian path. We need to be steady and stable, not looking for something exciting but rather preoccupied with the daily way of discipleship, that is, with faithfulness to Jesus and His call to us.
Possessing Our Souls (21:18-19)
Even though we may be put to death, Jesus says, “A hair of your head shall by no means perish.” Jesus speaks about a preservation of our souls rather than of our bodies, for the next verse says, “In your endurance you will possess your souls.” The word for endurance (hypo-mon?) means steadfast perseverance, that is, persistence in the way He has shown us.
But what does He mean, “You will possess your souls”? In Luke 9:23 Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake, this one shall save it” (see also 17:33). We know a present salvation in our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins and justification, and the gift of eternal life, but there is also a future salvation: the salvation of our souls and the resurrection of our bodies. The epistle to the Hebrews says, “We are not of those who shrink back to ruin but of them who have faith to the gaining of the soul” (10:39). Peter says that at the revelation of Christ we will receive “the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Unlike the gift of faith, it is conditional upon our fidelity, purification, spiritual growth and service. It still depends on grace, but if we do not acquire it now, we will have to pay for it latter—during the time of the kingdom—when we stand accountable before our Lord Jesus at His coming. The kingdom is the time when God overcomes all opposition to His rule (1 Corinthians 15:25) and during which all things will finally be headed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28; see Ephesians 3:19).
The soul is our individual psychological existence. We need to die to our self in order for our soul to be saved. This “self” is the one that we have constructed in our alienation from God, and therefore it is actually a delusion, a false self. The world is simply the collective soul. We die to this self when we no longer identify with it and all the things with which our ego identifies. To be spiritual means that we let go of this dis-spirited (and thus disembodied) “flesh” and are in direct relationship to reality. Reality is our created-ness and the presence of God in everything. We know both death and life through our union with the death and resurrection of Christ.
The condition here for the salvation of our soul is endurance in the face of opposition. Can we deny our soul and our identification with the things of this world, for the sake of fidelity to Jesus? Or have we put our spiritual needs on hold while we fulfill other delusional needs? Do we so identify with our own agendas—our desires and practical goals—that our spiritual concerns come second? Are we fooling ourselves by making excuses and rationalizations? Or are we spiritually distracted, caught up in the fears and excitement of the times? Our spirituality—centered on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—needs to be steady, stable and strong.