[November 22, 2009] In today’s reading (Luke 21:20-36) Jesus concludes His last public sermon. He was responding to people who asked Him about when the destruction of the Temple would take place and what signs would tell them this was about to happen. He spoke to them about other saviors, wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilence, and persecution, and He told them that these signs do not mean the end is coming immediately. More importantly He told them that they were not to be terrified or distracted, they were not to leave their post or take their hand from the steering wheel under any circumstance, but rather they were to endure with steadfast perseverance in the Way of the cross. (Whoever would try to keep their soul will lose it.)
While Jesus speaks here about the destruction of the Temple, He associates this catastrophic event with the coming of the Son of Man (verse 27) and the kingdom of God (verse 31). We may find this confusing for while the destruction of the Temple took place in 70 AD, the coming of the Son of Man has not taken place in all the centuries since. We should notice two things: (1) the early Christians thought that the Second Coming would take place immediately after the destruction of the Temple and in the years following 70 many were scandalized and fell into heresy. And (2) around the early 90s when Paul’s letters were collected and began to circulate and when the Gospel according to John and the Book of the Revelation were written and published, the church got back on its feet and continued to believe in the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God in spite of the apparent delay. The church expressed its endurance during the next two centuries in martyrdom, and in the centuries that followed through evangelical, spiritual and scholastic zeal, while still holding to the faith that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The Judgment of God
We saw how Jesus came to Jerusalem for two purposes: to pronounce God’s judgment on the city and to offer Himself up to the Father as the Passover Lamb and the atoning sacrifice for our peace. These things are related.
The judgment on the city is an historic judgment resulting from their ignoring the message of the prophets, and thus it came about so that “all the things written may be fulfilled” (verse 22). The message of the prophets was that Israel and the whole human race were under God’s judgment and that salvation could come from God alone through the Messiah. To try to seize the kingdom of God by force, as if it were a matter of our own righteousness, courted disaster, and so it happened. While Jews around the world were devastated by the disaster, rabbinic Judaism learned from this and to this day their way of life has survived intact through the synagogue.
Jesus spoke these words as the overture to the crucifixion. He spoke them from the prophetic perspective, that the whole world is under God’s judgment (Romans 3:19). And He accepted the mistreatment of men against Himself and bore our judgment upon Himself (so that He was utterly forsaken of God) to reveal “the wrath of God from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). For while the human race stands under the judgment of God, the judgment does not yet come upon it. It suffers the signs of that judgment only. Only Jesus has actually suffered the weight of that judgment, and thus it is only in Him that the judgment is revealed.
The Victory of the King on Behalf of His People
However, contrary to all appearances, He went to the cross not in defeat but in triumph. For the cross fulfilled His faithful obedience to the Father. It completed the offering up of Himself in love. By the cross He triumphed over Satan, the world, the flesh and sin. For His love did not fail even when He came under the weight of the divine judgment in its totality and was forsaken of God. Nothing could get a foothold in Him, even then. Jesus knew that when He completed His obedience, His offering of love, then the opposition to God would be defeated and the kingdom of God would come immediately. The kingdom of God was revealed in His resurrection, but it will be universally manifested at a time shortly thereafter.
It is in the meantime that the church endures with steadfast perseverance. It endures in the light of the revelation of the kingdom, for the revelation of the kingdom—namely the resurrection—brought (1) the indwelling Spirit on Easter Day (when Jesus breathed into His disciples) to enable the church to bear fruit as it takes up the Way of the cross, (2) the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days later on Pentecost to equip the church for its work, and (3) the anticipation of the coming kingdom.
Already the church lives in the light of the kingdom of God revealed by Jesus’ coming and in the anticipation of its manifestation when He comes again. As a result, everything in our lives is forever disrupted. For all the things of the world are under the sentence of a judgment already revealed to us—so we can have no attachment to any of it—and forever the joy of what is to come is breaking in on us. The “world” is the evil shroud that covers the beauty of creation with a dark illusion. Jesus has defeated this. This is what the kingdom of God means. But the kingdom also means that the beauty of creation has been forever transformed by the anticipation of its glorification, of its being filled with and participating in the glory of God. From the point of view of eternity (which is beyond the illusion of time), this has already taken place and we can glory in it.
Wrath upon Jerusalem and the Gentile Nations (Luke 21:20-26)
On the darker side, however, as our individual lives are disrupted by the revelation of the kingdom of God in the Gospel, so the universal manifestation of the kingdom of God cannot come without a complete disruption of the world as we know it. This is what we see in the following verses.
When the Roman legions surround the city of Jerusalem—which they did in 66 AD—“then know that her desolation has drawn near.” Then run for your lives while you have a chance—woe to you if you are pregnant or are nursing infants in arms for your flight will be difficult—for after this, “there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people.” For in the coming years “they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive into all the nations,” and in the end, when the war is over, “Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
These things are quite literal and easily understood from history. The Second Temple was rebuilt in the days of Ezra but only as a sign. Unlike the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon, neither the Bible nor the Jewish writings ever speak of the Shekinah, the glory of God, filling this Temple. When the Messiah came its typological value was over. But its destruction served as yet another sign, the sign that Israel was still under the judgment of God pronounced with the destruction of the first Temple.
Even though the Messiah has offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin, the judgment of God over the world has not been removed. Instead, from now on it must become manifested by signs until the kingdom of God is manifested. Its revelation to those whom the Messiah has called to Himself (namely us) is a secret hidden from the rest of the world.
Not only will the Temple be destroyed and Jerusalem trampled, so there can be no illusion that the reign of God’s judgment is over, but there will be signs for the nations to see as well—“signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth anguish of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the billows, men fainting from fear and expectation of the things coming upon the inhabited earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” These cataclysmic events may accumulate at the end of time, but the point to notice is that in them the Gentile world comes under the judgment of God; it is not only Jerusalem and its Temple that suffer. The “world” cannot inherit the kingdom of God. It has been condemned and will have to get out of the way. The kingdom of God is going to be something completely new.
It is not the church that will bring it to pass. The church is called to faithfully endure with steadfast perseverance. The kingdom of God will come to the inhabitants of earth by God’s own hand and God’s own doing. The secret coming of the kingdom even in the church is a matter of God’s grace.
The kingdom of God will come to the people of the world when “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (see Daniel 7:13). This is when the kingdom of God will at last be manifested. Until then it is hidden in the creation and in the church.
Lift Up Your Heads (21:28-33)
The signs that the world is under God’s judgment are frightening, and can be distracting, but Jesus says “stand erect and lift up your heads.” Look up, not down. When He says to lift up your heads, He does not only mean to brighten up your mood. He means that we should look to Him—“look away unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2)—for the salvation that He brings.
Jesus says that when we see these things—which things? the desolation of Jerusalem, the signs in the heavens, or the coming of the Son of Man?—then we should know that the kingdom of God is about to break in upon the world. “This generation shall by no means pass away until all things happen.” What “this generation” means is also not clear. The obvious sense is that it refers to the people then living: these things would happen in their lifetime. But does “this” generation refer to the people living at the time Jesus spoke these words or to the people living at the time when the events of which He spokes will take place? Also, the word “generation” has a wider meaning as well, referring to the people who live according to the way of the world. In other words, the people of the world will not change “until all these things happen.” In any case, Jesus says these things to emphasize that for us “your redemption is drawing near,” “summer is already near,” and “the kingdom of God is near.”
“Lift up your heads” means that we are to persevere in the Way of the cross in the light of the nearness of the kingdom of God. How near is it? It is right on the other side of God’s judgment. Whenever we are touched by the judgment of God in our lives, we are touching a borderline, and just on the other side is the kingdom of God. Even though the “coming of the Son of Man” may not be imminent (though it may be), the kingdom is very close to us, and we are to live as though this is always so. For the kingdom is as close to us as Jesus Himself is. Though the presence of Jesus in ascension is hidden, for the church—through the Holy Spirit—He is very near. Indeed He is here, if we would only look beyond the façade of the divine judgment on the world. By the Spirit, He is already here in our trials, in our suffering, and in our dying (see verse 18).
Take Heed to Yourselves by Watching and Praying (21:34-36)
In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Paul uses the analogy of night and day. The world exists in the night of God’s judgment and when the signs of God’s judgment fall, it takes people unprepared, and when the Son of Man is suddenly manifested, they will be caught off guard as if by a thief in the night. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is the day which has not yet come. Nevertheless, we are the children of the day and are to live in the light of day, even though the night is still all around us. But we have a choice. Even though we have been redeemed and have been regenerated and born again, we may still look back (remember Lot’s wife). We may allow our hearts to be weighed down, if not with debauchery, at least with the anxieties of life. In other words, we may be caught up in the night as if that were our reality and not the kingdom of God. If we let that happen and we do get caught, then when we stand before the Son of Man as His redeemed, we may be unprepared and He may disapprove of us.
The problem for us is that the nighttime seems very real and the kingdom of God does not seem real at all. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke about living in the Jubilee even though the Messianic “Year of Jubilee” has not yet come, about living in the sight of the Father instead of the sight of men, and of being confident of the Father’s provision instead of worrying about our circumstances. We tend to live in the old that continues instead of in the New that is already here. What are we to do?
“Take heed to yourselves,” Jesus says, “lest your hearts be weighed down.” Pay attention to what matters, give it your attention. What matters is your relationship to God, the work of the Holy Spirit within you, and your appropriating Christ—abiding in Him. This means expending yourself on your spiritual life (on Christian terms) as if it matters as much as it does. How much does it matter? Even more than your life does. This vigilance—at every moment—is what is meant by the words “be watchful.”
The last thing Jesus instructs us to do is to “beseech” or pray. Besides actually praying—we need to do that!—what this means is that we are not to depend on ourselves but rather on God. We cannot do this—have this vigilance—without God’s help, God’s grace. So we need to pray hard that God will give us the grace that we need. If we are not taking heed to our spiritual life, probably it is because we have not yet prayed as if it really matters and as if we absolutely depend on God.
If we want to enjoy God’s kingdom now and be ready for the kingdom of God when it is manifested, we need to wake up, be vigilant and pray.