Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/21/1996
Luke 21:5 And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, he said, 6 “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.” 7 And they questioned him, saying, “Teacher, when therefore will these things be? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See to it that you are not misled. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is at hand.’ Do not go after them. 9 and 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.”
10 Then he continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, 11 and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines, and there will be terrors and signs from heaven. 12 But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prison, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves, 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. 16 But you will be delivered up even by your parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 And you will be hated by all on account of my name. 18 yet not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives. 20 But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city, 22 because these are the days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23 Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days, for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people, 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword and will be led captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. 25 And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among the nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 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. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 And he told them a parable: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees. 30 As soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know that summer is now near. 31 Even so, you, too, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 Be on your guard that your hearts may not be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all those who dwell upon the face of the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place and stand before the Son of Man.” 37 Now during the day he was teaching in the temple, but in the evening he would go out and spend the night on the Mount that is called Olivet. 38 And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to him in the temple to listen to him.
We are looking today at one of the most difficult passages to interpret in all of Scripture. There are a number of perplexing questions which make it so, questions which the people of God have asked through the years. What parts of this discourse refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, and what parts to the Great Tribulation? What is the meaning of vs. 32? Jesus says that this generation will not pass away until all is fulfilled—but surely not everything in this passage has been fulfilled yet? How is vs. 19—by your endurance you will save your lives—consistent with salvation by grace through faith alone? And those questions are just the tip of the iceberg. Why is this passage so difficult? Couldn’t Jesus have made it plainer?
Part of the problem is the general difficulty of interpreting unfulfilled prophecy. Once the prophecy has been fulfilled, there is no difficulty at all. But until the fulfillment has arrived, you are trying to solve a puzzle without having all the data. Another source of our difficulties might be a discrepancy between the questions we are asking and the ones Jesus was actually trying to answer. For these reasons, we are going to need to take two weeks on this passage. Today we will look at the general problems surrounding the interpretation of prophecy, and then next week, with that background, perhaps we will be in a position to look specifically at this prophecy in itself. So I would urge you to suspend judgment and hear me out, for I am afraid that much of the confident assertions that many of you have heard about these matters were made by preachers who had not taken the time to do what we are going to do today.
There is an inherent problem in understanding any statement about the future before that future has actually come. Suppose in, say, July of 1985, some sybil said, “President Reagan will get a knife in the gut next week.” Let us assume this seer can actually perceive the future, but that the utterance is simply made and left unexplained. What can it mean? Will the president be assassinated by a knife attack? Or will his opponents in congress simply make some cutting remarks? No one can know until the week has passed—at which point it turned out that Reagan had surgery. Or suppose our sage pronounced that George Burns would not see his one hundredth birthday party. We might well assume that this mean he would die at ninety-nine. But that reasonable assumption would turn out to be false. In fact, he was still alive but unable to attend the bash they threw for him at Caesar’s Palace. Go ahead. You try to make a factual statement about the future which is not capable of more than one interpretation. It is not as easy as you might think.
Let we think that this difficulty only applies to hypothetical examples made up for the purpose, let us turn to the greatest predictive prophecy of the entire Old Testament, the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53. He was crushed and put to grief, he bore our sins, by his stripes we are healed. Let us imagine it is 700 BC. You have not read one word of the New Testament. Would you be able to discern the specific death of the Cross of Calvary in this prophecy? Be honest. You would not. You would have a general idea of what God was promising to do, but it would only be after the fact that you would be able to see that Calvary and Calvary alone is the fulfillment, which covers every base, dovetails every detail, and fulfills the meaning behind it all most profoundly.
Well, yes, you might say, but Scripture gives us the advantage of context. The prophecies do not appear alone, but in a matrix of meaning created by other prophecies and other teachings of Scripture, which should help us narrow down to the correct interpretation. Well, context is supremely important, but in the case of predictive prophecy even it is not sufficient. At least, it wasn’t sufficient to allow anyone—anyone—to correctly predict how messianic prophecy would be fulfilled before the first coming of Christ. You see, when you try to look at Isaiah 53 in context of other Old Testament statements, the problem only grows worse. There are at least four semi-messianic figures discussed in the Old Testament. There is the Messiah himself, the son of David who would restore the Davidic throne and reign on it forever. There was the Prophet like Moses. There was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. And there was the Danielic Son of Man. Now, pay close attention to what I am about to say, for it may be the most significant fact in this whole section of this message. There is not one single verse in the entire Old Testament which identifies these four promised Figures as the same individual. Not one. Not even a hint. There is of course also no verse which says they couldn’t be, either. The question is left open.
Well, the Jews made some assumptions about these four Figures, and if you had lived then you probably would have made the same ones. They took them as separate persons. The Messiah would of course be the Davidic king who would restore Israel to its Solomonic glory by overthrowing the Roman Empire. The Prophet like Moses would be a distinct person who would basically serve as his Press Secretary. And the Suffering Servant would be a military hero who would sacrifice himself in the war against Rome, thereby allowing the Messiah to win that war and bring in the kingdom of God. Do not laugh. This is what every pious Jew took for granted as the obvious meaning of the Old Testament prophecies when Jesus appeared on the scene. This preconceived notion was so deeply embedded in the minds of his own disciples that even after their forty-day graduate seminar in Old Testament prophecy after the Resurrection, at the very moment of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, they were asking, “Is now the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus was rejected by the Jewish establishment as a dangerous heretic. His heresy? The strange and novel notion that the Messiah and the Suffering Servant were one and the same person.
Now, here’s the point. These two conflicting interpretations of Old Testament prophecy could not have been decided based on the Old Testament alone. It is not just that they were not—they could not have been. It simply does not give us the necessary data for deciding between them. Both are theoretically possible scenarios based on the words of the prophecies. Now, the correct interpretation was decided, in no uncertain terms, by the Resurrection of Christ. Had Christ’s life and work contradicted the prophecies, had the Old Testament said plainly that the figures were separate individuals, then no strange event however impressive could have overturned the Word of God, for not one jot or tittle of it can pass away until all is fulfilled. Christ is revealed as the perfect fulfillment by the Resurrection—but you could not have known the details of this in advance. The perfect fulfillment of the prophecy is only seen after the fact. I repeat: nobody figured the First Coming out before the fact. What makes us think we are going to do any better with the Second Coming? When Christ appears, we will see that all the prophecies dovetail perfectly, and we will see how they dovetail perfectly. I would be very surprised if anyone sees this perfectly until it has happened.
What we have been seeing surely shows us our misunderstanding of the very nature of biblical prophecy. It is not, as our popular teachers have often called it, “history in advance.” Surely our brief look at Isaiah 53 makes this plain. One sees why this definition is popular. Prophecy does indeed refer in advance to events that will become history in due time. But one cannot read them as history to see what they will actually look like in history until those events have become history. The English word prophecy comes from the Greek pro-phemi, which means “to speak forth.” The essence of the prophetic message is not so much foretelling as it is forth-telling. The prophet gives the message of God, which is primarily a message of repentance. He gives this message of repentance in the theological context of God’s covenant and his promises, based on an understanding of God’s purposes in history. That is how predictions become a part of the message. God promises that certain effects will follow from repentance and others from rebellion, and so they do. He promises that he will send his Son as the ultimate answer to our need for repentance, and so he does. But the predictions—better, promises—are not given to enable us to write history in advance. They are given as signs by which we may recognize the hand of God when it moves in the fulfillment of his promises. “And they questioned him, saying, ‘Teacher, when therefore will these things be? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?’” (Luke 21:7). In other words, their purpose is not to allow us to predict what God will do in the future, but rather it is to enable us to recognize it when he does it. When God visits his people, he doesn’t want them to miss it. That is why prophecy has a predictive element. Its ultimate purpose is not to help us to predict the future but to drive us to repentance and faith so that we will respond properly to God’s mighty acts in the future when they do come. Prophecies are clear enough so that we are without excuse if hindsight and our knowledge of Scripture do not allow us to recognize the fulfillment of God’s promises when it happens. They are not clear enough to let us correlate our daily newspapers with our concordances. And that is a simple and unavoidable fact.
The practical conclusion of this discussion is rather appalling. It is that ninety percent of Evangelical and Fundamentalist study of prophecy is a pure waste of time! It is worse than a waste of time. It is all about sensationalism and the satisfaction of idle curiosity and has very little to do with the reasons for which prophecy was given in the first place: to drive us to repentance. It is a futile attempt to figure out in advance facts which prophecy by its very nature does not allow us to know until we recognize them after the fact. Does the resettlement of Israel by the Jews put us into the last generation? Maybe—maybe not. The current nation of Israel could be swept into the sea by the Arabs tomorrow, and God could have them back in the land again a thousand years from now. Is Gog and Magog Russia? Is the European Common Market the revived Roman Empire? Are we living in the last generation? I do not know. And neither do you. And neither does the next popular preacher who confidently tells you that he does. He cannot know these things, and the very claim that he does proves that he does not even understand what biblical prophecy is. He is trying to teach you to read between the lines when he does not even understand the lines themselves. I am sorry to disillusion some of you, but I must tell you the truth. This same Jesus is coming as you have seen him go, in power and glory to judge the quick and the dead. This we may, indeed must, cling to dogmatically. But beyond that, hold to the predictive details lightly. They will sort themselves out when the Lord appears, and it will all make sense then. In the meantime, what do we do? We wait faithfully. What else? Whether you are Pre-, A-, or Post-Mill, whether you are Pre-, Post-, or Mid-Trib, you must do that.
We have seen the difficulty of interpreting unfulfilled prophecy, which flows in part from a misunderstanding of the nature or prophecy, which is a message of repentance in the context of the promises of God which do have a bearing on the future. It does not let us predict the future so much as recognize God’s hand in it when it comes. So what is the purpose of prophecy? The purpose of prophecy is not primarily to predict the future, but to teach you to live in the present in the light of eternity. Let me repeat that. The primary purpose of prophecy is to teach you to live in the present in the light of eternity—which does indeed include certain promises that God makes about the future. But the focus is not on figuring out the future but on living a life of repentance in the present.
Now we are ready to start turning out attention back to the passage that is before us, the End-Times Discourse of Luke 21. Notice how it begins and ends with this concern. The whole conversation begins as a discussion of the impermanence of temporal things (vs. 5-6). Oh, you think the temple is impressive, do you? I tell you that not one stone is going to be left on another. Herod’s temple was an impressive edifice indeed. It had already been forty-six years in the making at the time of Christ (John. 2:20), and it would not be finished until AD 63, tragically only seven years before its destruction. Josephus tells us that it was made of white marble and looked like a mountain of snow. The doors were plated with gold. If you looked at them in direct sunlight they would blind you. Its columns were forty-foot high monoliths made each from a single block of marble. One can understand why the Jews were proud of it. But Jesus says it’s all coming down. The real temple is the one he plans to build in the hearts of his followers, where the Holy Spirit will dwell.
The disciples want to know when that destruction is going to happen, and so the middle of the discourse deals with that, laced with warnings about not being deceived and about being prepared for persecution. In all of this, Jesus’ main point seems to be not when it’s going to happen but about what we should do to be ready for it. And at the close he focuses on that point very specifically, with a strategy for prophetic living, that is, living in the light of eternity and of God’s promises.
34 “Be on your guard that your hearts may not be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all those who dwell upon the face of the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place and stand before the Son of Man.”
First, don’t get bogged down (vs. 34, lit. “weighed down”). When the trivial hassles of life get to you, when they threaten to distract you from the business of the kingdom, remember that this life is all temporal. A day will come when not one brick of your house will be left on another, but the people around you will live forever either in heaven or in hell. So don’t get bogged down by the cares of this life. Second, stay alert. Be on guard. Keep on the alert at all times. God has given us a promise of Christ’s return and a task to accomplish before it happens. Don’t miss your opportunities to give your testimony for him—and don’t sleep through Christmas! Finally, pray for strength, strength to live faithfully and be able to “stand” before the Son of Man. We are to be alert, to watch, not so we can read the prophetic score card and check off all the prophetic checkpoints in the newspaper, but so that we can minister and love and serve and witness and stand.
That is Jesus’ purpose in giving us this prophetic message. I am not going to ignore the predictive questions. I will deal with some of them next week. But let us not miss the point. The point is not for you to figure out the “when.” It is for you to not get bogged down, to stay alert, and to pray for strength so that you may be faithful—whenever it comes.
I do not know who Gog is. I do not know who the Antichrist is, or whether he is alive. I do not know if the Millennium will be Pre, A, or Post (though I have what I think is an informed opinion). But I do know this: Next week when we study the details of Jesus’ predictions, if we want to get out of it what he put in it for us, then we must bring to it this question. We must not ask how it helps us refine our prophetic timeline and perfect our dispensational chart. We must ask, how do these things help me live in the present in the light of eternity? If we ask that question, we might be able to answer it. If we answer it, we can ask God to help us live in the light of the answer. And if we do that, we will do well.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams