It’s hard to overstate just how important the temple in Jerusalem was to Jewish people. It was the place where God would dwell among his people in a special way, and where atonement for sin was made. The building itself was one of the wonders of the ancient world. This was the temple built by Herod the Great. It would take 10,000 workmen and 80 years to complete. Its lower façade was covered in gold and the upper parts were covered with white marble. The stones used in its construction were unusually large. It was quite simply breath-taking. I don’t think there’s a Scottish equivalent – a building with such religious and national significance. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the disciples (verse 5) comment on its grandeur. However, Jesus takes the wind right out of their sails with a truly shocking prophecy; ‘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.’ (Luke 21:6)
This comment must have shaken the disciples to the core. They believe the words of Jesus, and ask the natural question; ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ (Luke 21:7) Jesus does not answer their question straight away, but first wants to warn the disciples about the things which must take place during the 37 years before the temple will be destroyed in 70 AD. In verses 20-24, Jesus then homes in on the destruction of the temple, answering the disciples’ question. Actually, Jesus had already predicted the destruction of the temple. As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’ (Luke 19:41-44) Here, Jesus expands upon this earlier prophecy.
1. Why does God allow the temple to be destroyed?
How could God allow the very centre of Jewish worship to be turned into rubble, especially after the colossal amount of work and money which had gone into it? There are 2 main reasons. One is that the Jewish leaders and the vast majority of the Jewish people had rejected Jesus as their Messiah and rightful king. Even though he taught with authority, and performed miracle after miracle, even raising the dead, still they refused to believe in him. The destruction of the temple and the city is a judgment from God for their spiritual blindness and persistence in rejecting the Son of God. There is nothing more serious than rejecting Jesus as our king. Our attitude to Jesus is the hinge upon which the whole of our lives turns. Another reason for the destruction of the temple was to mark the enormous change of which had taken place since the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus himself was the new temple. Because he would be the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sinners, the temple was no longer needed for animal sacrifice. Jesus himself becomes our great High Priest, and so the whole sacrificial system would become obsolete.
Surely, there is a warning here for each one of us. If the Lord judged his ancient people the Jews for rejecting Jesus as their rightful king, then he will also judge us most severely if we reject Jesus as our king. This is what Psalm 2 speaks about: ‘Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 2:12) Jesus wept as he thought about his own people rejecting him. He understood that there is no greater folly than to do so. In that sense, the judgement of Jerusalem in 70AD points forward to the greater Day of Judgment, when all who have rejected Jesus in their lives will have to face the righteous anger of God on their own. But this is unnecessary; as Psalm 2 says: ‘… blessed are those who take refuge in him.’
This is what we must do with Jesus! Receive him as our Saviour and King, and in doing so no judgment will fall upon us, because Jesus has already died in our place. More positively, if you feel the weight of your guilt before God today, but want to be cleaned of all your guilt and shame, you can find peace with God by receiving the forgiveness which Jesus offers. Just as the ark was the only place of refuge for Noah before the floods of judgment came upon the earth, so having a relationship with Jesus and taking refuge in him is the only way we can escape the floods of judgment we deserve.
2. The Words of Jesus are totally reliable
The last thing in the mind of the Jews was that the temple would be turned to rubble. That was unthinkable. And yet, that is exactly what Jesus predicts. And that’s exactly what happened.
In 70 AD, the emperor Titus arrived in Jerusalem a few days before the Passover. Jerusalem was besieged for five months, with Roman soldiers encircling the city, building a wall around it, causing many inside to starve to death. The utter devastation on the Jewish people was enormous. Some historians reckon as many as 1 million Jews were slaughtered and 100,000 taken away as captives. The temple was burned and totally demolished. I will not go into detail just now, mainly because it is so horrific.
Just how trustworthy are the promises and prophecies of Jesus? Listen to what he says himself in verses 32-33: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ What an astonishing statement. Creation itself is more likely to fail than the words of Jesus. So, when Jesus speaks of the judgment in 70 AD, it came to pass.
When Jesus speaks of the Day of Judgement, as he does in Luke 17, we can be equally sure that this day will most certainly come. We read in John’s Gospel; ‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (John 1:10-12) We can be sure that those who turn from their sin and receive Jesus as Saviour and King are the children of God. The words of Jesus are our strongest foundation. They ‘never pass away.’
3. Jesus maps out what will happen to Christians before AD 70 (verses 8-19)
Jesus gives his people a clear warning about the tough times which lie ahead for them. There will be false prophets who will claim to be the Messiah. There will be times of war, earthquakes, famines and plagues. These are massively unsettling events, and it would be easy for Christians to give up or follow false teachers, if these things were unexpected. So, Jesus says ‘expect them’. Expect to be persecuted by Jewish leaders (verse 12) and by Gentile rulers too (verse 13). This the ‘heads up’ from Jesus which his people will need if they are to be able to navigate the extremely arduous times ahead. Jesus doesn’t want them to get sucked into listening to the wrong voice and following false prophets.
In the coming persecution, they will be imprisoned, betrayed by friends and family and even killed on account of their love for Jesus. Does this happen? We just read through the book of Acts and we know it all happened as Jesus said it would. Almost all of the apostles are martyred for their faith. Persecutions break out against Christians again and again. Just as they hated Jesus, so they will hate his followers.
However, within these honest but bleak prophecies there are huge encouragements. God will sustain his people. In verse 15, Jesus promises his followers supernatural wisdom in their time of crisis. They do not need to have sleepless nights about how they will handle being tried before adversaries; God himself will give them the words to say. What a blessing.
And there is more. Verses 16-19 seem contradictory at first: ‘… 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.’
How can some Christians be put to death and yet not lose a hair on their heads? This seems to be a marvellous promise of the bodily resurrection of all Christians. Yes, most of the apostles would be martyred, but only how and when the sovereign God permitted this to happen, and in eternity, they will have new and perfect bodies.
Dale Ralph Davis: “There is just a certain indestructibility Jesus gives his people. In face of whatever they encounter they will be preserved.”
4. Jesus’ compassion for his followers
In verses 20-24, Jesus instructs his people what they should do just before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; they must flee into the hills. When the Roman armies surround the city, this is the sign that destruction is imminent. Often those attacked will retreat into the safety of the city, behind its walls. But Jesus gives the opposite advice, knowing the city will fall and that its victims will be treated without mercy. It is amazing to note that there are historical references to Jews fleeing the city of Jerusalem before its destruction, many to the town of Pella, east of the Jordan.
5. The Son of Man coming in a cloud (verses 25-28)
When I first read verses 25-28, I thought that Jesus had moved on from speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and was looking much further into the future, to a greater judgment and the end of the world itself. Actually, this is the view of most of the commentators on this passage. That’s because we naturally connect Jesus coming on the clouds with the Second Coming.
However, there is another view which I believe is well worth exploring. This view states that these verses are speaking about the coming of Jesus, but not his coming on the Last Day, but his coming in judgment on the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In other words, the whole of this section is about the destruction of Jerusalem. If this is the case, of course we still acknowledge the plethora of other New Testament passages about Jesus’ Second Coming. There are many passages we can turn to in order to find out about the 2nd Coming! The question is, is this one of them?
It could be that Jesus is describing the destruction of Jerusalem using highly apocalyptic language, signalling that the destruction of the temple is a huge turning point in history. It has cosmic significance, with the work of God no longer focused on the temple or on the Jews, but the gospel spilling out to all the nations of the earth. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in verse 27, alluding to the passage in the book of Daniel. ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.’ (Daniel 7:13-14)
We read in the book of Isaiah that God is coming in judgment against Egypt. ‘See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt.’ (Isaiah 19:1) And so, in several places in the Bible, it speaks of the Lord coming in various judgments, riding on the clouds, and these events are not about the Day of Judgment, but other times of judgment which precede that day.
But I would like us to end this morning with the solemn words from verse 36: ‘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.’
These words, in the first instance, are for the disciples Jesus is speaking to. However, they also apply to us. The question comes to us again from Luke’s gospel: Are you ready to stand before Jesus when we meet him on the Day of Judgment?
We’re very good at blocking out this question. We’re good at avoiding it. Even in this passage, Jesus says, ‘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.’ (Luke 21:34) So, the warning is this: don’t be so caught up with the everyday things of life, like our work, paying the bills, the kids, the meals, and so on. These are all things we need to do, but don’t get so caught up in them that we miss what is of the greatest importance – being ready to meet with Jesus.