Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 1/21/96
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.
One of the all-time best ways to make a fool of yourself is by trying to interpret unfulfilled prophecy, especially if your interpretation involves the setting of dates. William Miller infamously calculated the return of Christ for Oct. 22, 1844. A lot of people foolishly gathered on a hillside to await the event. They were disappointed. In 1969, Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth (p. 96) said that the European Common Market would become the United States of Europe by 1980. Even if we take the European Union as the fulfillment of this prophecy, 1980 was a bit early. When I was a little boy I remember hearing Billy Graham say on a televised crusade that he thought Christ would come back before his children graduated from high school. They have been married and serving the Lord for some time now. One of the best sellers of the late 1980’s was 88 Reasons Why the Lord will Come Back in 1988—followed by the sequel, 89 Reasons Why the Lord will Come Back in 1989. I was eventually driven by all this nonsense to commit the following limerick:
Though it’s something the Bible berates, Still it keeps coming out of our pates: We can’t seem to resist Much less cease or desist The incessant resetting of Dates!
Well, I would like to get through this passage without giving you one more example to add to our Eschatological Hall of Shame. Therefore, let’s begin by remembering what we learned last week. First, we should never forget the general difficulty of interpreting prophecy that is still unfulfilled, which can be summed up in the maxim that hindsight is always better than foresight. Nobody got the First Coming right until after it had happened, so why should we think we will do any better with the Second Coming? Second, prophecy is not “history written in advance.” That is, its function is not to allow us to predict the future but rather to give us signs by which we may recognize the promised work of God when it happens. Third, our purpose in studying biblical prophecy must be in line with the purpose for which it was given: to lead us to repentance. It is not there to enable us to predict the future so much as to enable us to live faithfully in the present in the light of eternity, in the light of God’s purposes and his promises. Now, having said all of that, let’s finally look at the actual predictions our Lord made in this passage.
The most difficult problem in this passage is trying to figure out how it can relate both to the Lord’s time and to our own. Verse 32 says that “this generation” would not pass away until all takes place. The most obvious meaning would be the generation to whom the Lord was speaking. But while much of what the Lord spoke of may have taken place in the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, surely he did not return on the clouds with power and great glory (verse 27) at that time. That is supposed to be an unmistakable event like lightning that shines from the east into the west, and all eyes are supposed to see it. The attempts of “preterists” (who believe the Lord has already returned) to get around those details are nothing short of lame. Yet if “this generation” does not mean “this generation,” how are we supposed to be able to understand anything? You have to have some sympathy with the desire of preterists to understand everything as having been fulfilled in the past, even if you cannot accept their view. So this is a difficult problem indeed. Let us try to solve it in steps. The first step is to understand what happened in AD 70 and see how the Christians of that time at any rate understood it.
The first thing to notice is that the disciples’ question in verse 7 is focused on the Lord’s prediction of destruction for the temple. His declaration that not one stone would be left on another is what prompts their question: When shall these things be? Therefore the answer has to be understood as relevant to the question, relevant to the destruction of the temple, which did in fact take place in 70 AD. Matthew’s version of the question in Mat. 24:3 shows that the Second Coming is also in view, for he adds, “ . . . and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” The and in Matthew’s account shows that the questions of the destruction of the temple and of the Second Coming are separate questions but also related questions. We need to try to see how they are related. Meanwhile, in Luke the primary emphasis is on the destruction of the temple.
Therefore, everything up to Luke 21:24a must be seen as having been fulfilled in AD 70. Jerusalem was trampled underfoot then, but the “times of the Gentiles” have not necessarily been fulfilled. Look at some of the specific details that were understood as having been fulfilled in AD 70 by the Christians living at that time. The “wars” of verse 9 certainly included the Jewish revolt against Roman rule which led to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s temple in reprisal. The earthquakes of verse 11 were thought to correspond to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 63. The famine of that verse was experienced by the citizens of Jerusalem during the Roman siege. And as for signs in the heavens, Josephus records a comet which hung ominously “like a sword” over Jerusalem. First-century Christians saw the persecution of Nero in the 60’s as having been described quite accurately by verse 12. But the thing which confirms the fact that the believers of the time were thinking this way is their response to the warnings of verses 20-21. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. 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.” They interpreted that material quite literally, and it saved their lives. The Christian community in Jerusalem were the only people to leave before the city was surrounded. They evacuated to Pella, a village outside the Roman lines, and thus became the only major group of inhabitants to survive! For once, a literal interpretation of prophecy turned out rather well. And if you are thinking that the devastation of that war doesn’t fit the horrific details of the passage, recall that Josephus records that one million Jews died from famine or sword, and that 97,000 of them were scattered as Prisoners of War throughout the Empire: they “fell by the sword and were led captive into all the nations” (21:24a).
But wait! If everything through 24a was fulfilled in 70 AD, does that mean that there won’t be wars and rumors of wars at the end of time? No, it doesn’t. Those wars are prophesied by other passages—1 Thes. 5:1-4, 2 Thes. 2:1-4, 2 Tim. 3:1—and they seem to continue even here in verses 25 etc. In other words, though the primary fulfillment of these words had to do with the destruction of the temple, that destruction was a foreshadowing of the Great Tribulation which is still to come. Similar conditions will occur. This passage can be about the destruction of the temple and still be relevant to the end times.
We can now make a more educated guess at the sequence of events. More educated, but still only a guess—I have not forgotten what I said last week! First comes the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, described through Luke 21:24a, which took place in AD 70. Then the Times of the Gentiles begin (24b). We may still be in that time, or it may have ended in 1948 (with the founding of modern Israel) or 1967 (with the recapture of Jerusalem). Many have thought these dates significant, but they cannot be more than guesses before the fact. The Arabs could push Israel into the sea tomorrow, and God could have the Jews back in the land again in a thousand years. We do not know. Then comes the Great Tribulation itself, described apparently in verses 25-26. After which is the Second Coming of Christ, in verse 27.
What is the significance of the sequence? The destruction of the temple is God’s judgment on Israel for its rejection of the Messiah. It is also the most profound statement he could have made that pre-Messianic, or non-Messianic, Judaism is obsolete. Christ has come! The religion of the Old Testament alone is over. Those who would follow the true God must now follow him on into the New Testament, or not follow him any longer at all. The detailed fulfillment of those parts of the prophecy related to AD 70 show the certainty of the fulfillment of the whole sequence. By trusting in and obeying these words, first-century Christians in Jerusalem saved their skins, as they were intended to do. Therefore, by trusting in and obeying the rest, by being on guard against dissipation, by alertness, and by prayer (verses 34-36), we may be faithful in our own day or even be enabled to stand in the Last Day. There is an organic unity to the whole sequence of events. The fulfillment of the first part sets in motion the fulfillment of the rest. And therefore, whether we are somewhere in the middle or close to the end, we may lift up our own heads, for our redemption draweth nigh.
Are we now in a position to understand what Jesus meant when he said that “this generation will not pass away until all things take place”? I hope so. There have been many attempts. Hal Lindsey and his school maintain that it means the generation born in 1967. (This would mean that the Second Coming would be expected by 2007, which would mean Lindsey’s pre-tribulation rapture should have happened in 2000. Oops!) Even if history had not already eliminated that option [by the time this message was posted to Dr. Williams’ website in 2007], it really made no sense even in the 1960’s. Jesus’ words were this generation, not that generation. It really would help if people would pay attention to the text! Many hold that Jesus was talking about the Jewish race: Jewry itself is the generation that will not pass away. God will preserve the Jews in existence until the Second Coming. This would alleviate the burden of seeing everything fulfilled within forty years or so of the 30’s AD. But if Luke had meant us to think that Jesus meant the Jewish race, he could have used the Greek word for race, ethne, rather than the word for generation, genea, to translate the Lord’s Aramaic. So that solution doesn’t work either. Besides, it does nothing to answer the disciples’ question of when the destruction would take place.
The solution lies in combining the organic unity of the sequence of events with the clearer perspective provided by comparing this passage with Matthew’s version in Matthew 24. In Matthew, the disciples ask a double question: when will all these things (i.e., the destruction of the temple) be, and what will be the sign of your coming? When Jesus said that “all these things” would take place before the current generation passed away, he was referring specifically to the first part of the question as phrased by the disciples. And indeed, the temple was destroyed forty years, or one generation, later. The phrase “all these things” could be taken to refer to everything being discussed, which includes the Second Coming. It is by forgetting the way the original question was phrased that we have taken it that way, creating the problem. But there is no problem if we pay sufficient attention to the context, which should tell us that the generation is a plain and simple generation, the one then living, and that “all these things” is an answer to the question that generation was asking, about the destruction of the temple. In other words, it is not “all these things” but “all these things,” i.e., the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, which would happen in the lifetime of the people asking the question. The Second Coming has turned out not to be in that generation after all. Will it be in ours? Possibly. But nobody knows.
What then is the bottom line? We cannot swear that we live in the last generation, but we do live in “the last days.” They started when the temple was destroyed. They may very well have progressed through verse 24 of Luke 21. In other words, while Jesus’ prophecy will not in fact let us calculate the time frame (based on figuring out who the “generation” is), it does tell us that an organic, unified series of events leading to the Second Coming has already begun to be played out. It has already been set in motion with the fulfillment of the first part concerning the destruction of the temple; it is in that sense “at hand.” Therefore, we should live in readiness, whether the final cascade of events toward the end should begin in our generation or not. That is the point. The readiness, as Hamlet said, is all.
A former parishioner’s father was told by his physicians that he only had a few months to live. As a result, he had to decide what the most important thing was in his life. Was it to build a new house, to buy a new car, to get one more promotion? Not on that time frame! It was to bring about a reconciliation between two of his children who had become estranged. To see that happen before he died was all that mattered to him. And so he rose from his death bed to drive one of them to that reunion with the other. Why? Because he had been served notice. The end was near! Therefore, he had to discern what was really important.
Brothers and sisters, we were all served that notice in 70 AD when the temple was destroyed and the series of events described by our Lord as leading to the end of the world was set in motion. So we had also better decide what is important in life. What is? “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. For it will come upon all those who dwell upon the face of the earth. 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.” So said our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us follow him.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams