Watching & Waiting for the End

Chatswood Baptist Church

Luke 21:5-38

I remember someone close to me, a thoughtful and devout Christian, mentioning that he was concerned about what he was hearing in the news about what was going on between Russia and some other eastern European country, because it was a sign that the end of the world could be coming soon – maybe within 10 years. I was surprised and didn’t quite know what to say at the time. But I think our passage today in Luke 21 has something to say about it. And I think it should cause my friend to reconsider his views… You see, some Christians are drawn to discussions about the end times. They think the Bible gives us all sorts of coded predictions about the last days, and that it’s our job as Christians to be carefully watching the world around us for signs that it’s all about to happen. On the other hand, some of us go in the opposite direction and feel like all this talk about the ‘end of the world’ is a bit ‘enthusiastic’. It can feel like the ‘wacky’ side of religion, and it’s better to just focus on getting on with life here and now.

In Luke 21, Jesus explains that neither of these approaches are helpful. He encourages us not be deceived about false claims about the end of the world, or to confuse the signs that the end is coming with the end itself. But he also urges us to be people who do watch and pray, expecting the end to come and letting that reality dominate our lives. And as we live in these last days, waiting for the end, Jesus also warns us that things could get very rough for his followers, and encourages us to stand firm. Don’t be deceived, don’t be distracted, and don’t be discouraged. 

This passage is part of our series in Luke 19-24, Jesus in Jerusalem. And our passage today brings to a close the first major section, where Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. You can see in the last few verses how Luke summarises, ‘Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each night he went out to the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.’ And as we’ve seen, the whole time Jesus is in the temple teaching, the religious leaders are in conflict with him, trying to get rid of him, but Jesus keeps coming out on top… and we should appreciate that this passage is really the climax of this conflict.

Questions about the End…

Now Luke 21 is a tricky passage. Just like it’s parallel passages in Mark 13 and Matthew 24. It’s basically a long and complex speech from Jesus to his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world – and how they are and are not related. You can see from verse 5 it all starts with some of his disciples remarking about how impressive and beautiful the temple was. Apparently the stones were enormous – most of them bigger than cars, and some like the size of a bus! Herod, who had the temple redeveloped was trying to make a name for himself through building projects, and the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus explains that the Temple was his masterpiece. But Jesus simply responds by saying that ‘the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ And in response to this shocking pronouncement, the disciples want to know when, and what will be the sign that these things are about to take place? And so Jesus responds, although perhaps not exactly as they expected him to…

Don’t be Deceived

Instead of saying directly when it will happen and what the signs will be, Jesus starts by telling them, “watch out that you are not deceived”. He wants to challenge some of their assumptions about the end and the signs of the end, and to warn them that it will be easy to be led astray in the context of these things. What he wants us to understand, so that we’re not deceived, is that the signs of the end are not the end itself. The signs of the end don’t mean the end is now, they mean it is coming, and so we should be ready.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world

Now we need to appreciate that when Jesus’ disciples ask ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’, they are asking about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, but they’re also assuming Jesus is talking about the end of the world itself. Their understanding would have been that the destruction of the temple would have to be part of a final, great battle of the nations against God’s people, with the final outcome being the judgement of God against the nations and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. So when they hear Jesus saying the temple will be destroyed, they hear him predicting the end of the world, and they ask him what will be the sign that ‘these things’ are about to happen…

And Jesus corrects their understanding of the relationship between these events by saying: The end of the world will not come with the destruction of Jerusalem, nor will there be any sign to indicate that the end of the world will come at a particular time. Rather the destruction of Jerusalem, which must happen soon, will be the sign that the end could come at any moment. And the reason is because Jerusalem must first be judged in fulfilment of what is written in the scriptures, ushering in the ‘last days’ – the age of the gentiles, in which the Son of Man could come at any moment to establish God’s kingdom.

Understanding Jesus’ argument: Jerusalem as THE sign

Let’s step through the logic of what Jesus says a little more to see this… (you might need to buckle up and put your listening ears on and your thinking cap on, cause this is the hard part!)

First, in response to their question, Jesus says (from verse 8), in the midst of what’s to come, don’t be deceived by people who claim that I have come or that the end, the time, has arrived. Don’t get swept up in the zealous hopes of militant messiahs. Don’t follow them. There will be wars and uprisings. These things must happen first – Jerusalem must fall first – but the end will not come right away. This is a really important to note. He’s establishing a clear chronology. These things, the destruction of the temple and the wars and uprisings surrounding the judgement of Jerusalem, must happen first, but ‘these things’ are not the end. The end will not come right away.

Then Jesus does something helpful, but confusing in verses 10 and 11. He elaborates on the disturbing realities of ‘these things which must happen first’ by alluding to Old Testament passages that describe the judgement of God on the world and the terrible signs which will accompany it. And I think he does the same thing down in verses 25 and 26, after he has spoken in detail about the destruction of Jerusalem.

Every single phrase in verses 10-11 and 25-26 can be connected with one or more, often many!, passages in the OT prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Joel who are announcing the judgement of God on the nations, or even on Israel. And often these passages speak of this judgement as ‘the great day of the Lord’. The OT prophets described such judgements in dramatic and cosmic language and saw them as bound up in the great day of God’s justice. Isaiah 13, for example is a prophesy against Babylon and it says things like, “The day of the LORD is near, every heart will melt with fear, terror will seize them, the stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light, the rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty…” And Isaiah 19, a similar prophesy against the nation of Egypt talks about God stirring up ‘city and against city and kingdom against kingdom.’

The fulfilment of all that is written

Why does Jesus allude to these prophecies here in the context of talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem? He does it first of all to highlight that the destruction of Jerusalem to come should be understood as the fulfilment of OT prophecies of judgement on sinful humanity and on his people for breaking covenant with him. As he says in verse 9, ‘these things must happen’ – that’s the language of divine necessity in fulfilment of Scripture. And down in verse 22, where he’s discussing the besieging and destruction of Jerusalem, he explains, “For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.”

The story of Israel in the OT is a sad story of God warning them for their unfaithfulness and punishing them for it again and again, climaxing in the exile to Babylon. And Jesus is saying that all these warnings and punishments are building up to this final judgement of God on this generation of rebellious Israelites. History is repeating itself one last time. Even the warnings against the other nations will be brought down on the nation of Israel, because they have given themselves over to sin just like them. 

Earlier, in chapter 11, Jesus had condemned the religious leaders and declared that because of their attitudes and actions, ‘this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world…’ (Luke 11:50) And more recently, we’ve seen how Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he arrived, knowing that their ignorance and rejection of him as God’s Messiah would bring about their destruction, so that their enemies ‘will not leave one stone on another’ (19:41-44). And of course, in his show down with the religious leaders in the temple courts, he declares that because they have resisted God’s authority over them, determined even to kill God’s own son rather than give God what they owe him, God will destroy them and give his inheritance over ‘to others’. So Jesus describes the coming destruction of Jerusalem in the dramatic and cosmic language of the OT prophets to show that it must happen as the fulfilment of God’s judgement against this people.

Jerusalem as thesign of the end

But secondly, he also does it to indicate that this terrible event (and the turmoil surrounding it) should be understood as the signs themselves that the end is imminent. The judgement of God on the city of Jerusalem to come is a pointer to the reality of judgement to come on the whole world, just as these prophecies indicated in the first place. In fact, the destruction of Jerusalem and all the turmoil surrounding are the signs of these OT passage – it is ‘nation rising against nation’ and ‘the earth shaking’ and ‘great signs from heaven’. He’s not necessarily saying that they will see ‘the heavenly bodies shaking’ or ‘nations in anguish at the roaring and tossing of the sea’, but rather that (v20), ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies’ and the ‘great distress in the land and wrath against this people’, who are ‘falling by the sword’ and being ‘taken as prisoners to all the nations’… then they should understand that they are witnessing the signs of the end – they are seeing the heavens shaking! Jesus knew it would be a terrible reality that spoke powerfully about the coming judgement of God on the whole world. And so, at any point from then on, as Jesus explains in verse 27, ‘they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’ This is an allusion to Daniel chapter 7, which talks about one like a Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven after all the raging of sinful nations against God’s people to establish God’s kingdom once and for all. The end will not come right away, but once they see these signs, they can know it will come.

So in summary, Jesus wants to say two things about the destruction of Jerusalem – two things which can seem almost contradictory at first: that the end will not come with the destruction of Jerusalem, but that it’s destruction will be the sign that we are now in the last days and the end could come at any moment.

That’s why he finishes saying, from verse 28, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And then he tells them a parable to make exactly the same point: Just like when a fig tree, or the other trees, sprout leaves you know that summer is near, so, you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 

And the final thing Jesus wants to say about all this – a very significant thing – is that ‘all these things’ will happen within a generation. 32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Jesus puts himself out on a limb. He makes a prediction that can easily be proven right or wrong. He’s very clear elsewhere that no-one, not even him, knows the time of the final day, the day he will return in glory. But here he declares that ‘all these things’ – the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that he is prophesying, it will all happen before this generation passes away. And within one generation of Jesus speaking, and likely within a decade of Luke writing his gospel, these things had all happened, and Luke’s readers could know that ‘the kingdom of God was near.’

Signs Today

So for us reading Luke 21 today, the fundamental sense in which we ‘look for the signs’ and ‘see all these things happening’ is to look back on the fact that Jerusalem was indeed destroyed by the Romans in AD70. There were wars and uprisings and rebellions and Jerusalem was surrounded by Rome’s armies, and then it fell and the realities of that time were shocking beyond imagination. We look back and we know that Jesus got it right. And we know that we are now therefore in the last days – the time when the Son of Man could come in the clouds with glory and power at any moment.

But beyond this particular event, which marked a key transition point in history, I think Jesus does intend us to see every rumbling amongst the nations, every disturbing act of violence, every natural disaster and every instance of suffering as a kind of echo of the message of the fall of Jerusalem. The turmoil and disturbing realities of life in this age – these last days before the return of Jesus – are reminders that this world lives under the shadow of God’s coming justice and that Jesus is on his way. And just as an aside, this is the basically how we should understand much of the middle chapters of the book of Revelation. It’s not a coded timetable of when and how the world will end. It’s a glimpse of God’s perspective on these last days – a series of reminders through the turmoil of the nations that his judgement is coming.

And what we need to remember is not to confuse the signs with the end itself. The sign of Jerusalem, and any echo of that terrible event through history, tells us that Jesus could return at any point, but they don’t tell us when in particular he might come. There won’t be special signs, just before he comes, or a decade before he comes, so that everyone can ‘get ready’. Jesus makes clear a number of times that he will come suddenly, and obviously, like a flash of lightening. 

So don’t be deceived or let astray by people who get caught up in predictions that the end of the world is going to come on a particular date, or that wars between Russia and whoever mean that the end is going to come soon. There’s not necessarily going to be a period of intense warfare leading up the end as a sign that it’s coming now. No, the signs simply remind us that the end is near and encourage us to be ready.

Don’t be Distracted

And that’s really the main application Jesus wants to impress upon his followers, and that we are left with as readers. Don’t be distracted from the fact that the end is coming and could come at any moment. Don’t be deceived – know the truth; and therefore, don’t be distracted.

From verse 34, Jesus concludes his speech by saying “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

We live on this side of the great sign of Jerusalem’s destruction, with the knowledge that Jesus could return at any moment in glory to establish his kingdom. And we don’t want that day to fall on us suddenly like a trap, because we’ve become distracted and absorbed by the realities of life in this world. 

Jesus is coming, but the question is, are you actually waiting? If you’re waiting for a train, you stay on the platform, glancing every now and then down the tracks or towards the live timetable. You’re actively waiting. You don’t wander off to do some window shopping in the mall. And you certainly don’t pop down on the tracks to check out some glittery thing that’s caught your eye! If you know a train is coming, you don’t want to miss it, and the last thing you want is to be caught on the tracks suddenly facing a train bearing down on you. You’d only wander off or get down on the tracks if you didn’t really believe a train was coming… or somehow had forgotten what you were there for. 

And sadly that’s a very real risk for us isn’t it? We know, or apparently we know, that Jesus could return at any moment, but we somehow end up living as if he wasn’t. In the words of Mike McKinley, we are tempted “to settle in here, to make this life our ultimate home, and to begin to live for it alone.” (Luke 12-24 For You)

Jesus urges us to be careful not to be caught up in the pleasures or anxieties of life. Numbing our minds against the difficulties of life with alcohol and partying, distracting ourselves with possessions and travel, or becoming consumed by the goal of trying to control our lives and our environment. If you do, that day will close on you like a trap. Instead we want to watch and pray. Not watching for special signs so we know when it’s actually coming. No, we are watching for Jesus himself, focusing our hearts and minds on him and his kingdom. And of course that is the key to being faithful to Jesus and his will for us while we wait isn’t it? Again Mike McKinley writes that “No one ever looked at pornography, flirted with someone who was not their spouse, or ran up credit-card debts on things they cannot afford with their hearts set expectantly on the reality that Jesus would return.”

And as we watch and wait, we pray. Praying that we endure the trials and temptations of this age faithfully, so that we can stand unashamed before him when he comes. I wonder, when was the last time you prayed, “God keep me faithful today. Help me endure the temptations and pressures I will face today so that I might stand before Jesus unashamed when he returns.” I know I could pray like that much more regularly. Starting every day like that will surely have a profound affect on how we actually approach life day to day.

Don’t be discouraged

So don’t be deceived by false claims about the end, and don’t be distracted from actively waiting for Jesus… and there’s one more thing we need to hear from this passage: don’t be discouraged from following Jesus or witnessing faithfully to him even though things might get pretty rough.

We skipped over a section in the passage earlier, where Jesus warns his disciples about the persecution they will face leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.

 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” (vv12-19)

The book of Acts shows how literally Jesus’ prediction played out in the lives of this first generation of disciples. As an extension of the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus himself, they heavily persecuted his followers, determined to stamp out what they saw as a dangerous sect. They were dragged before the officials, beaten, ordered to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, harassed and even killed. Jesus sums up the difficulty they will face in verse 17: Everyone will hate you because of me. Perhaps a little overstated, but not far off.

And whilst Jesus is particularly describing the persecution this generation will face in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem, what he says stands as a warning that every generation of his followers will essentially face a society that is opposed to Jesus and his gospel as they wait for his return. And in the context of this opposition – whether it’s the terrifying realities of being put to death that the Apostles face, and many Christians face in some parts of the world today, or the social pressures and alienation we might face in Australia – in the context of this opposition, Jesus urges us to stand firm, to endure, not to give in or give up. Because by standing firm, we will win life. As Jesus says elsewhere, we don’t save our lives by grasping hold of them even if it means compromising our faith. No, we save our lives by being willing to lose them out of faithfulness to Jesus. Don’t be discouraged, says Jesus. Stand firm and you will win life. 

See it as an opportunity to witness

And he says two things to reassure his followers as they embrace this challenge. First, we are to see persecution, not as a random hardship, but as an opportunity to witness. Being questioned or singled out for your faith is not the time to back down and divert attention somewhere else. It’s an opportunity to bear testimony to Jesus – to explain the reason for the hope you have, the reason you live the way you do. And Jesus gives this amazing promise that we don’t need to worry beforehand what we will say, because he will give the words and wisdom that we need. 

Now, it’s possible that this was a particular promise to those he was speaking to, for the sake of establishing the church. But it fits with what Jesus says elsewhere about his Spirit being with us, giving us courage and wisdom. And whilst I don’t think this means that any and every Christian will just ‘magically’ be able to win public debates with atheist astrophysicists, the clear message is “don’t worry about being clever, just focus on being faithful.” 

I’ve had so many conversations with Christians who say they don’t share the gospel because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. I don’t think that fits well with what Jesus says here. Sure, work hard to understand the gospel and the Scriptures better and better, but take the opportunities God gives you – focus on being faithful, don’t worry about being clever.

Know that not a hair of your head will perish

And the other thing Jesus says to encourage us to stand firm and witness faithfully to him as we face opposition is that not a hair of your head will perish. You might be put to death by your own family. Everyone will hate you. But not a hair of your head will perish. Obviously he’s not saying life will be easy and safe. He’s not saying God will prevent Christians from getting hurt or uncomfortable. He’s reminding us that we stand firm, knowing that God will raise us to life in the end. He’s reminding us that nothing in this world can hurt us where it really matters. Your heavenly Father knows how many hairs you have on your head, and in the end, not one of them will perish. 

It’s this conviction that enabled Jesus’ disciples to face death rather than give up on him. It’s this conviction that has enabled countless Christians over the centuries to make sacrifices to remain faithful to Jesus and his word as they waited for him to return. It’s the conviction we need to hold on to as we wait for Jesus, not being deceived, not being distracted, not being discouraged… but standing firm. Praying, watching and lifting our heads, looking forward to our redemption.