7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. 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 tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”
10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives. – Luke 21:7-19 ESV
This was not what the disciples wanted to hear. After delivering the shocking news that the beautiful temple would one day be destroyed, Jesus led His disciples out of the city of Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives. This location just across the Kidron Valley from the eastern walls of the city, provided an elevated vantage point from which to view the capital and its glorious temple. From this secluded spot, Jesus continued to teach His disciples and prepare them for the fateful days that lie ahead. His address to these men has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse.
As expected, the disciples were struggling with Jesus’ stunning pronouncement that the sacred house of God was going to be destroyed. This concept would have been unfathomable to the disciples, and would have caused them to consider the last time the temple of God had been destroyed. It had taken place more than six centuries earlier, when the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. In the process, they destroyed the majestic temple that Solomon had constructed. And for 70 years, the city and its once-magnificent temple sat abandoned until God orchestrated the return of a remnant of the people from their exile in Babylon. Under the leadership of Nehemiah, this ragtag group of former slaves had been able to rebuild and restore the temple and the city. But it would be more than five centuries later before Herod the Great orchestrated a massive remodeling project that would greatly enhance and expand the temple.
As the disciples looked back across the Kidron Valley, they could see the facade of this beautiful structure gleaming in the afternoon sun. This sight, coupled with Jesus’ words, led four of the disciples to approach Him for more information (Mark 13:3). James, John, Peter, and Andrew wanted to know more, so these two sets of brothers asked Jesus for an explanation.
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?” – Luke 21:7 NLT
Their questions reveal that they were focused on the destruction of the temple. They wanted to know when this horrific act of judgment would take place and if there would be any warning signs. Basically, they were wanting to know if it was going to happen soon and if they would have ample warning so they could be out of the city when it took place. But their full attention appears to have been on the city and the temple. Despite all of Jesus’ earlier warnings about His pending death in Jerusalem, these men were more concerned about the possible destruction of the temple than anything else.
In his gospel account, John records another Passover, three years earlier, when Jesus had cleared the temple of the moneychangers and vendors. The Jewish religious leaders had demanded that Jesus show them a sign that would prove His authority to do such a thing. And Jesus had responded:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” – John 2:19 ESV
But these learned men failed to catch the symbolic nature of His answer. Instead, they took Him literally, viewing His answer as utterly ridiculous and impossible.
“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” – John 2:20 ESV
John goes on to explain, Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21 ESV). But the disciples would not connect the dots until after Jesus had died and been raised back to life. So, as they sat on the Mount of Olives watching the rays of the setting sun reflect off the gold inlay of the temple, they were fixated on its destruction, but not on the fast-approaching death of their Lord and Master.
But Jesus, sensing their confusion and concern, provided them with a foretaste of things to come.
“Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and saying, ‘The time has come!’ But don’t believe them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place first, but the end won’t follow immediately.” – Luke 21:8-9 NLT
Jesus accelerated the narrative to a day in the far-distant future, when the end of the age was to take place. He compressed and combined a great many events into a single answer, providing His disciples with an overview of things to come. He knew they were fixated on the day in which they lived. They were wanting to know when the temple would be destroyed and what the conditions would be like when it happened. But Jesus was speaking of future events that would take place long after the disciples were dead and gone.
Roughly four decades later, the Romans would destroy the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple. Some of the disciples would live long enough to witness that fateful day. And yet, Jesus was speaking of events that still remain unfulfilled, even in our day. He described those who would show up in that future day, claiming to be Him and declaring themselves to be the messiah or savior offering deliverance. He warned of a future marked by wars, civil unrest, and natural disasters. But these “signs” would be nothing but the “birth pains” (Mark 15:8) that precede the fast-approaching climax of the redemptive history. They will merely preface the end of the age.
Jesus was providing James, John, Peter, and Andrew with a comprehensive overview of the eschaton or end times. But He didn’t do so in easy-to-understand terms that fall into a simple chronological sequence. The disciples had no idea what was about to happen. In just a matter of days, their world would be rocked by the death of Jesus. But then, three days later, He would rise again. Then, He would return to His Father in heaven and send the Spirit to indwell and empower the disciples for the work He had commissioned them to do. As a result, they would plan a major role in the dissemination of the gospel and the subsequent growth of the church.
But centuries would pass and, even as the church continued to grow, the spiritual state of the world would continue to decay. And it will continue do so until Jesus returns to the earth. The downward spiral of humanity’s spiritual condition will accelerate and intensify, reaching its lowest point until the rapture of the church takes place. This mass exodus of all believers from the face of the earth will usher in a time of tribulation, “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matthew 24:21 ESV).
Jesus was giving these four men a crash course in eschatology or the study of end times. While their minds were fixated on the temple and its possible destruction, Jesus was trying to get them to see the bigger picture. There was far more going on than they realized. The temple was not as important and integral as they believed it to be. Jesus’ emphasis on nations and kingdoms subtly reveals that the people of Israel will no longer be the focal point of God’s redemptive story. It is not that He will abandon them, but that He will use their rejection of His Son and their subsequent role in His death, as an impetus to include people of every tribe, nation, and tongue into His family.
And the apostle Paul reminds us that God has great plans in store for His chosen people. Their initial rejection of the Messiah did not permanently invalidate His covenant commitments to them. He will remain faithful and fulfill every promise He has made to them.
Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT
But Jesus wanted these four men to understand that while much of what He just described was to take place in the distant future, they were to be on their guard. The days ahead were going to be filled with uncertainty and the very real threat of persecution.
“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” – Luke 13:13 ESV
With His death, resurrection, and ascension, their lives would get much more complicated. In the process of taking the gospel to the nations, they would face trials and difficulties of all kinds. But they would have the indwelling Spirit of God to guide, protect, and empower them. They needed to stop worrying about the temple of God and begin thinking about the will of God. What was He doing in their midst? What did He have planned for them to do in the days ahead? And Jesus told them that. while things would get far worse before they got better, they could rest assured that their lives were held securely in God’s hands.
“But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.” – Luke 21:18-19 NLT
According to Jesus, the future would be filled with all kinds of uncomfortable and settling signs.
Sign 1: False Messiahs
Sign 2: Wars, threats of wars, and insurrections
Sign 3: Global conflict
Sign 4: Natural disasters
Sign 5: Personal Persecution
Sign 6: Denial of Christ and Spiritual Apathy
Sign 7: The Perseverance of the Saints and the Spread of the Gospel
But in spite of the fact that many would end up deserting and denying Jesus, there would be those who endured and persevered to the end. They would remain faithful, resulting in the spread of the good news about the Kingdom throughout the world. This includes the period of time from Jesus’ ascension all the way to the end. And it will be at that time that Jesus returns.
This incredible passage provides us with a glimpse into the future of not only Israel but the world. Jesus was preparing His disciples to think globally and eternally. He was attempting to move their point of reference from the here-and-now to the yet-to-be. These men had been obsessed with their own immediate context. They had hoped that Jesus was going to establish His Messianic Kingdom in their lifetimes. They had a difficult time accepting His repeated predictions of His death in Jerusalem. And the very thought of the temple being destroyed was unfathomable to them. That was inconceivable and unacceptable. But Jesus had a long-term perspective that was focused on God’s eternal plan of redemption. He was not done yet. He had to die. He had to rise again. He had to return to His Father’s side. And then, one day, when the time is right, He will return to earth and complete His Father’s will.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.