Luke 21:5-38 “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ He replied . . .”
Some of you know a song written fifty years ago by two song-writers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, for an Alfred Hitchcock film, and sung by Doris Day, ‘Que sera sera.’
When I was just a little girl,
I asked my mother, ‘What will I be?
‘Will I be pretty? ‘Will I be rich?’
Here’s what she said to me:
‘Que sera, sera,
‘Whatever will be, will be;
‘The future’s not ours to see.
‘Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.
When I grew up and fell in love,
I asked my sweetheart, ‘What lies ahead?
‘Will we have rainbows day after day?’
Here’s what my sweetheart said:
‘Que sera, sera,
‘Whatever will be, will be;
‘The future’s not ours to see.
‘Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.’
Now I have children of my own,
They ask their mother, ‘What will I be?
‘Will I be handsome? Will I be rich?’
I tell them tenderly:
‘Que sera, sera,
‘Whatever will be, will be;
‘The future’s not ours to see.
‘Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.’
That popular song is just another indication that everybody is curious about their futures. Many newspapers carry horoscopes predicting what is going to happen that day, or during the week ahead, and millions can’t resist reading them. But none of us can know the details concerning our futures. We can have hunches and fears, but we cannot know. These are secret things that belong to God. The future is known to God, and we are mighty glad of that. Of course the general sweep of our lives is known to all mankind, the different stages most of us will pass through with various responsibilities, joys and trials that finally terminate in our deaths in old age. That pattern is basically what happens to all of us. That is the will of God for us to live three-score years and ten in which to serve and love God and one another. All men also know this, that if they abuse their bodies then they’ll know suffering and shorter lives. For Christians there’s also our responsibilities in spreading the gospel, and an awareness of the opposition we must meet from the world and the devil when there’s a Christ-like testimony and righteous living. We all have to live our lives within those parameters. That will be the futures of all of us. Let us see how the Lord Jesus spoke – in the widest terms – of the future of the world. So first of all notice the context in the opening words of our text;
A COMMENT WAS MADE ABOUT A FINE ACHIEVEMENT.
There are fantastic achievements of men and women who have been created in the image of God. For example, I was reading a review this week of the new Apple laptop and was gently coveting what I noted of its design, weight, power, speed and clarity. It is another extraordinary example of modern technology. As in Jesus’ day so also in ours there are grand buildings, old and new. The highest skyscraper in Europe was completed last month in London, just down the road from another iconic building, St Paul’s Cathedral.
In Jerusalem in Jesus’ days was the Temple. It was not the first Temple to be built on this spot. That was Solomon’s temple erected over 900 years earlier, and then there was the temple built about a hundred years after the destruction of Solomon’s temple at the time when many Jews returned from exile. That temple was the one redeveloped and expanded by Herod fifty years earlier. No expense was spared in the work, and it was still being developed as Jesus spoke these words. It was not to be completed for another thirty years. Much of it was covered in gold plates, and when the sun shone on the gold it was impossible to look at the building; the sun’s reflection dazzled and blinded you. Other walls were built of the finest blocks of pure white marble, some as long as the width of this chapel and as high as this pulpit, weighing 100 tons. Those marble walls also glittered in the sunlight; Josephus said that from a distance the Temple looked like a mountain of snow. Wealthy patrons continued to add additional touches, such as the magnificent doors on which was a vast gold sculpture of a vine, the clusters of grapes being various precious stones. Jesus’ disciples were particularly impressed by these additional features. They “were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God” (v.5).
Most people of Jesus’ day lived in houses of mud, or brick, or stone, and a high spot of their regular visits to the feasts in Jerusalem would be to satisfy their excitement about the progress of the completion of this magnificent Temple. It would be something like us visiting New York and having to see the Statue of Liberty, or visiting the White House in Washington, or the Taj Mahal in India. The destruction of such buildings would be an unthinkable and barbaric action. In our minds they are intended to last for ever. This was particularly so with the Jews with their love and reverence for this beautiful building. It occupied the central place in national life, and religion, and imagination. It signified a thousand years of God dealing with them; it was the home of Jehovah in the midst of his people. This building was associated with most of the principal names in Old Testament history, men like David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah. Their lives were intertwined in the Temple. Every devout Jew working in Rome or Greece or Egypt in his daily prayers would turn and face the location of Jerusalem and its Temple.
JESUS’ BLEAK RESPONSE TO THE ADMIRING COMMENT.
So Jesus was offered this glowing tribute to the Temple, but he didn’t say, “Isn’t it a marvelous building!” He ignored the appreciation completely and he said out of the blue, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down” (v.6). Isn’t he straight? Can’t Jesus be blunt? There is no mistaking what he’s saying. This is not symbolic language, a metaphor speaking of the end of Jewry. It is to be understood totally literally, referring to the physical destruction of this gorgeous building, stone by stone. Of course there is hyperbole in the reference to “not one stone will be left standing on another” because all of you have seen pictures of the so-called ‘wailing wall’ in Jerusalem which is the last remnant of this temple, with the cladding of marble and the gold removed from the outside. I suppose there would also be underground foundation stones on top of one another still there, but the Temple itself, the Lord was predicting, was going to be comprehensively razed to the ground.
The Temple was rotten to the core. That is why Jesus had driven out the money-changers. Led by Caiaphas and Annas the chief priests of Jewry were, even while Jesus spoke these words, bribing witnesses to lie about hearing our Saviour blaspheme so that they could sentence him to crucifixion. Christ was their own long-promised Messiah and here is the chief priest killing him. Then the usefulness of the Temple had come to an end. The reality had arrived which the sign – that was the Temple – was merely prefiguring. The sign was God living amidst his people, and the Christ, the Son of the living God, had himself come and tabernacled in their midst. God was dwelling among them in reality. The true temple of God was there in the man from Nazareth. What the Temple had been saying in a glittering inorganic symbol was now seen and heard in a living man. The age of signs was over and gone. The Bread of Heaven was on earth – so no need of the Temple’s table of showbread. The Light of the World had come – so no need now for the Temple’s candelabra. The Lamb of God had stood in Jerusalem saying, “I and my Father are one.” He was to become the great sacrifice for atonement; no need henceforth for one more lamb to have its throat cut. There was no redemption any longer in the symbolic sacrifice of pigeons and heifers and goats. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son does actually cleanse us from our sins. The covenant of signs and symbols had come to an end; the new covenant was now established in the incarnate Jehovah Jesus’ blood. The Temple had no purpose any longer. It had been taken over by crooks and blasphemers and liars. Tear it down! It was now a barrier to casting yourself on Jesus only. It stood for the perversion of Israel. God was going to vindicate and justify his Son, and that involved the destruction of the Temple, the centre of organized hatred of Jehovah Jesus. God would do this. He would use the Romans for his rod to destroy the Temple. They had tried to destroy the Son of God, but God destroyed the Temple, and it has never been rebuilt in 2000 years, nor ever may be built again. Christ has died, and is risen.
What Jesus predicted actually took place. The building of this Temple was completed in the year 63, and then in the following years there was a growing Jewish revolt against Rome, and so the Roman legions were sent in. They surrounded the city and began to slowly to choke it, squeezing out its life. By the year 70, the attackers had breached Jerusalem’s outer walls and they began a systematic advance through the city, ransacking it, street by street in hand-to-hand combat. The assault culminated in the burning and destruction of the Temple. In victory, the Romans slaughtered their thousands. Of those spared from death the men were enslaved and some were sent to end their days toiling in the mines of Egypt while others were dispersed to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. The Temple’s sacred relics were taken to Rome where they were put on display celebrating the might of the Empire.
Josephus, the Roman historian described the destruction; “While the Temple caught fire, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance. Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise – nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
“There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the Jews encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below. Many people were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, and yet when they saw the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail.
“But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings. The Temple mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.” This is the judgment that came upon this once holy city.
We meet in a place where we worship God, and it is right and welcoming when any distractions are removed. I don’t dress up as a priest because I am a preacher and pastor. We don’t have an altar because there is no need. Jesus our great high priest offered his blood and died saying, “It is finished.” We don’t try to repeat imperfectly what he did perfectly. We have other essentials. The building should be warm and dry in the winter, and the acoustics good enough for the congregation to hear what the preacher is saying. It should be a building reflecting the purposes for which it is used, to pray, to celebrate holy communion, to baptize and to hear the word of God. Whatever is done for Christ and his people in his name ought to be well done. For over 140 years people have gathered and worshipped in this room. What should characterize the place in which the Gospel of grace is heard, and men have solemn and eternal dealings with God for forgiveness for their sins and entry into heaven? We say that that meeting-place ought to lack nothing that does not encourage that, and that makes it substantial and acceptable. Yes, but the mere building, the material part of a Christian Church, is the least important part of it. A building of the finest architecture with the best materials is worthless in God’s sight, unless there is truth in the pulpit and grace in the congregation. The dens and caves in which the early Christians used to meet, were far more beautiful in the eyes of Christ than the noblest cathedrals that have ever been designed and built by man. The temple in which the Lord Jesus delights most is a broken and contrite heart, one that is renewed each Sunday by the Holy Ghost.
THE BELIEVING REACTION OF THE DISCIPLES.
See how they were coming to believe all that Christ was teaching them, though it often took their breath away. For them he was beginning to say nothing wrong. The one question they had for him was not “Why must it be destroyed?” but rather, “When?” “‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’” (v.7). When you hear words of warning in the Bible about the future are you like these men, and do you humbly ask God to tell you more, simply to tell you when? Like the prophet Isaiah, given a commission to preach in the face of obdurate hostility and resistance the prophet simply asks, “How long have I to do this?” The disciples wanted a warning of the time, some sign that the destruction of the Temple was about to take place so that they could take precautions. They might have thought that Jesus was referring to the end of the world. Did they have enough time to buy a vineyard, pursue a career, marry and raise children? This judgment would be falling from heaven on the temple. When? Could Jesus tell them?
OUR LORD’S PREDICTION OF THE FUTURE.
Now our Lord’s reply, from verse 8 to verse 36, is answering the question of these disciples. In other words Jesus is describing to them the next forty years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and especially its Temple. This period is going to be a typical microcosm of the next 1900 years of the rest of the history of the church and the lives of the people of God. The pressures these first Christians had to live under and the provision God made for them was going to be identical to the forces of opposition all Christians would face, and they would also receive God’s provision as the first Christians did. The only difference between them and us is the reference to the local colour of the city of Jerusalem and its siege and destruction and opposition in synagogues. Apart from that what Jesus’ generation went through we’ll go through too.
What we find in our Lord’s reply is some of the special kind of language that you meet in parts of the book of Daniel and much of the book of Revelation. We also see it in his similar discourses in Mark chapter 13 and Matthew chapter 24. These are passages that describe the future and the comings of the Son of Man (it is known as ‘apocalyptic’ language, but that buzz word is unimportant). What I mean is this, that Jesus’ references to signs in the heavens, the sun, moon and stars, in verse 11 and then more so in verses 25 and following can easily refer to the great nations and kingdoms of the earth passing through shattering revolutions. We say in our own picture language, that a certain nation is ‘going through convulsions.’ We are seeing this year in North Africa and the Middle East, the civil wars in those countries and the overthrow of their rulers. Those who have lived through the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, or have seen the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Russian power in eastern Europe, will know how quickly, and how unexpectedly, great changes can sweep through large political systems, with huge and unpredictable consequences. You can compare changes in those high-flying countries to stars falling from the heavens.
If you lived during those forty years in the Roman Empire of which Jesus was speaking, from the year 30 to 70, when the gospel was spreading through the world like wild fire then people were saying of Christians that they were turning the world upside down. “What is happening in the world?” people were asking one another. So many of their friends and neighbours and families were becoming Christians and totally changing. There were congregations established everywhere. But there were also extraordinary changes going on in political rule. Nero persecuted Christians, blaming them for a great fire that destroyed a third of Rome, and then God acted to defend his people and the name of his Son. Nero committed suicide in the year 68, and four emperors followed in quick succession, each one at the head of an army. The much-vaunted ‘Roman peace’, that Augustus and his successors claimed to have brought to the world, was shattered from the inside. A convulsive shudder went through the whole known world. This is how Jesus describes all this in verses 25-26; “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” That is apocalyptic language for revolutionary changes.
Then we read “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v.26). This is Jesus speaking to his Jewish disciples and how would they have understood this? They would say, “So this time would be the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel 7?” This was one of the most popular prophecies of the day, a passage speaking about the time when God’s true people would be vindicated after their suffering at the hands of the ‘beasts. The ‘beasts’ would be the pagan nations who’d persecuted them. Daniel’s prophecy, you remember, imagines the scene of a great law court, in which God, the judge, announces his verdict and finds in favour of “the Son of Man” and his people, and against the oppressive ‘beast’. The judgment that falls on the pagan nations is the same judgment that vindicates “the Son of Man”, who is then brought on a cloud to share the throne of God himself. I am saying that the destruction of Jerusalem is God saying to defiant crucifying Jerusalem, “You despised and rejected and put to death my Son, the Messiah. Then this is the judgment that comes on you, but he I have exalted to heaven and given all authority there and on earth.”
So Jerusalem which had opposed Christ and his message and his disciples, is finally overthrown. This will be the ultimate vindication of Jesus and his people, the sign that he has indeed been enthroned at his Father’s side in heaven. Here, then, is Jesus’ answer to the question, “When will the destruction of the Temple happen?” These are the signs that the disciples are to look for in their immediate future. “Remember how they’ve hated me and they will kill me, and they will hate and persecute and kill you,” Jesus warns them, (vv.12, 16&17). God’s kingdom had come very near to them, and God’s old city and Temple and its priests have rejected the King. “We will not have him rule over us. We will kill him.” So the Temple is to be destroyed and God’s salvation sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen, and Israel will be jealous. All these cataclysmic events will take place in this generation, because Jesus is the last prophet; once the vineyard-owner has sent his Son to receive what was due to him from the tenants but they killed him then the owner had no other messenger left. Then comes the judgment. Finally our Lord’s exhortation:
5. OUR LORD EXHORTS HIS DISCIPLES AS TO HOW THEY SHOULD LIVE.
i] Don’t be led astray. “Watch out that you are not deceived” (v.8). Everyone in the last centuries who has claimed to know that Christ is coming soon through some vision or a message from heaven or because of the rise of Fascism or Marxism or wars or famines or plagues or because of something that has happened in Israel have all been wrong. Every single one of them; everyone has been a rash false prediction. Don’t be deceived.
ii] Do not follow them. “For many will come in my name claiming ‘I am he’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them” (v.8). Every claimant to be the new Messiah has been a deluded man or woman though thousands have been led astray. They have all been cult leaders. Watch out that you are not drawn in. It is not enough that their faces shine, and they have an extraordinary charisma that grips even many people whom you admire. Watch out that you yourself don’t start thinking that you are the Messiah. Enormously godly men like Horatio Spafford, the man who wrote the hymn, “It is well, it is well with my soul” have made tragic mistakes. He ended his days leading his family and followers to live in Jerusalem believing that he was the second Messiah. Let me firmly tell you today that not a single one of you is ever going to be the second Messiah. Not one . . . If you start thinking like that then it is because the devil has persuaded you to believe a lie.
iii] Don’t be frightened. “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened” (v.9). Jesus goes on describing the world situation that we know so well, earthquakes, famines, plagues and persecutions. Do not be frightened! Because Jesus has warned us that it must be so. Say to one another that the Lord told us these things will characterize the whole period from the ascension of Christ until his coming again, and particularly these 40 years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. “Even if some of you are put to death I don’t want you to be frightened,” says Jesus. Why? It is unlikely to happen to you. “Not a hair of your head will perish” (v.18). He will be there protecting you. That does not mean you just lie back and do nothing. “Be sure you don’t get trapped in Jerusalem when the Roman armies come; ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city’ (vv.20&21). What compassion God shows to expectant wives and to mothers of little babies; “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (v.23). Our God, who made the universe, is a personal loving God who cares for the stresses of pregnant wives!
iv] Don’t stop standing firm. “By standing firm you will gain life” (v.19). That is a great statement of Jesus for you to lay to heart and charge yourselves to do always. You will never gain life in all its fulness unless you stand firm for the kingdom of God. You protest, “But I’m a little boy,” or “I’m a woman who is not very well, and how can I face kings and governors or the elders of the synagogue with all those teachers of the law. I am illiterate. How can I stand firm? Jesus replies, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (v.15). You read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and see there how teenagers and young women were able to speak wisely and humbly about the Lord’s Supper and the true nature of the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus exhorts them again not to be cowards. “Do not be ashamed of the gospel!” “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v.28).
v] Don’t get weighed down with sin. “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” (v.34). Jesus is talking about getting addicted – that is, being weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness. You know what has happened in the first decade of the 21st century, multitudes of men and women learned to control their brain chemistry to produce intense bursts of short-term pleasure, and so they have developed long-term dependence and addictions, because once the burst of short-term pleasure had ended then they are back to being weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life. They needed their next fix and they knew where to get it. Addiction to sugar, addiction to pornography, addiction to alcohol, addiction to drugs – what a weight to carry, maybe all four! And so when the great issues of life were presented to them – their own certain death, eternity, the living God, being judged by him – then they automatically dismissed those things as unimportant compared to sugar, alcohol, pornography, and drugs. So more and more the whole generation has got weighed down; “Be careful,” says Jesus, and then positively, “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen” (v.36). I am considering the effects of going on as I am living now, my addictions and my craving for short-term pleasures and my defiant refusal to think of eternity and the judgment seat of God. I am a lost man! How hard it is be a lost man, to gain the whole world and to have lost your soul. We cry out to you what Paul cried out to the Philippian jailer in his despair. “Do yourself no harm! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!” Jesus urges us, “Be on the watch! Pray!”
Do you see that the Lord Jesus was no fatalist; he didn’t teach his disciples to be fatalists did he? He never suggested that they were not to take precautions for what lay ahead, what they could not avoid, that they must evaluate their lives, and be on guard, and watch. He was not a Buddhist telling them simply to accept whatever was going to happen to them, Que sera, sera. Never! What fatalistic despair. Don’t be led astray. Don’t follow after self-appointed Messiahs. Don’t be frightened. Don’t stop standing firm. Don’t get weighed down with sin. These are to be the characteristics of all the true disciples of the Lord Jesus during the years that lead up to his coming as our Saviour. Then we will be unashamed as we have to stand before him and give an account of our lives.
17th June 2012 GEOFF THOMAS