History and archaeology documentaries have made us more aware of past civilizations and the splendor of their buildings. However, while ancient buildings can be awe-inspiring, they testify to the rise and fall of nations. No matter how great an empire may have been, no matter how rich its accomplishments or powerful its armies, it didn’t last.
All of which makes Jesus’ response to his disciples comment about the magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple significant. During the week leading up to his arrest, they remarked on the magnificence of the Temple: …Some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings (Luke 21:5).
At the time, the Jerusalem Temple was some fifty years into an eighty-three year reconstruction facilitated by Herod the Great. The temple was immense, constructed of massive stones – some over sixty feet in length. It covered a thirty-five acre site, more than twice the size of the original World Trade Centre Twin Towers site in New York City. Tacitus, a contemporary Roman historian, commented on the grandeur, the beauty and wealth of the Temple (History 5.8.1). Luke himself notes the extensive decoration that adorned it.
The unexpected. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ comment was unexpected: ‘…the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down’ (21:6).
Just as it would have been outrageous for anyone to have predicted the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City before September 11, 2001, it would have been even more so for Jesus to say the temple would be razed to the ground. As N.T. Wright observes, ‘The temple occupied central place in the life, religion and imagination of the Jewish people’ (Wright, NT., Luke for everyone (2001), p.251).
The temple signified God’s presence with his people. It was also the place where sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people were made. Foreshadowing its destruction, Jesus pointed to the obsolescence of what the Temple materially represented in terms of God and his people.
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus warned of catastrophic events yet to come (Luke 12:35-48; 17:20-37). It’s therefore not surprising the disciples asked: “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Luke 21:7).
Their words, these things, are key to the themes that unfold. Three of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record Jesus’ words about the last things.
However, there are differences. Matthew and Mark for example, weave together Jesus’ words about Jerusalem and the end of time, making it difficult to unravel the themes. Luke however, sets out the two scenes more clearly – perhaps because he writes primarily for a non-Jewish readership.
Central to Jesus’ response about the timing of these things are his words: ‘…And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once’ (21:9). He restates a tension he had already spoken of, namely the tension between immediacy and delay regarding the timing of events (Luke 12:41-48 and Luke 19:11-15).
He expands this by identifying the first two sets of events that we should expect as, under God, the world moves towards an end time: convulsions and persecutions.
Convulsions (21:8-11). He begins with a specific warning about false prophets who will come in his name making predictions about the end of time. Don’t be taken by surprise, he continues. There will be an end of time, but before that ‘nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven’ (21:10f).
Jesus warns of wars and conflicts. Three years ago, who would have expected a global pandemic and, twelve months ago, the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Furthermore, Jesus also warns of natural disasters and upheavals.
Consistently he taught that by our own efforts we are not good enough to create a world of universal peace. Nor can we control the massive forces that lie beneath the earth’s crust – forces of such magnitude that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
We should not be taken by surprise by the rise and fall of nations as well as seismic and climatic events. As Paul the Apostle writes in Romans chapter 8, verses 21 and 22, the present creation is subject to decay and groans in travail awaiting the day when we will enjoy the perfect fulfilment of all God’s promises. Why is it that we live with our eyes so focused on life now that we fail to walk in the light and wisdom of the Lord?
Persecutions (21:12-19). Jesus also warns of occasions when God’s people will be marked out as undesirables – some will be imprisoned and even brought before the heads of state. However, he assures us, we will not be alone. He will equip us with any defence that might be needed: ‘settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer’. To which he added a promise no one could make, except by the authority and power of God: ‘for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’ (21:14-15).
While Christianity offers light and love, joy and hope to the world, it is the faith the world loves to hate.
We need to take hold of Jesus’ words of warning and encouragement when we encounter the unexpected – praying for his grace and wisdom to remain strong in our faith, secure in his promises. No matter what we may experience, our life with him is assured (Luke 21:19).
Let’s also pray for and support those who are persecuted for their faith and look for opportunities to talk with others about the joy and the hope that can be found in Christ.
A prayer. Almighty and most merciful God, out of your bountiful goodness keep us from everything that may hurt us, so that we may be ready in body and soul cheerfully to accomplish whatever you want us to do: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.