Luke 21 – The Coming Destruction

Luke 21 – The Coming Destruction

The past several weeks, we’ve been studying Luke’s account of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem to finish his earthly mission. Luke focuses his narrative of this week on Jesus’s confrontation of the injustice, corruption, and error in the temple service and the elite religious leaders. 

Today, we’re going to tackle one of the trickiest passages in this part of Luke, one of the trickiest passages in the whole book in fact. 

Next Spring, we’re starting a series through Revelation. Today’s passage could be considered something like a reader’s digest of the core message of Revelation. 

Matthew and Mark both also have a record of this dialogue, but with quite a few different details. When studying this passage, known as “The Olivet Discourse” (named after the place they were when he said these things), it is important to take all three accounts into consideration. They complement each other. Each gospel writer emphasizes slightly different aspects of Jesus’s teaching. Because we’re studying Luke’s gospel, today I am primarily going to be focused on Luke’s emphasis. Lord willing, we’ll be diving into more depth on the full picture from the combination of all three gospels during our spring series, because they will help inform our understanding of Revelation.

To get started with today, I want to review a few pieces that Brad and Dave covered in the last two weeks, because they run up to our chapter today.

So, in the style of any good serialized television miniseries: 

Previously on “Luke”….

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Luke 19:41–46 (ESV)

As Brad mentioned two weeks ago, Jesus sees forward to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, God’s final, cataclysmic judgement on the nation of ethnic Israel, which the Old Testament prophets warned about. What the scriptures call, “The end of the age”, the end of the old covenant. 

Jesus’s three year, earthly mission is coming to a conclusion in this final week of his ministry, before his crucifixion. He is making quite the scene, clearing the temple of its corruption, and reclaiming rightful Lordship of his house. “MY house!”  

Devouring widows houses

Turning forward a chapter later, we see Jesus again decrying the religious elite, whose corruption and error has caused them to oppress the poor. 

And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Luke 20:45–47 (ESV)

And this statement of “devouring widows’ houses” leads us into today’s passage, through an unhelpful chapter break. Jesus points out an example of the corrupted religious system, devouring a poor widow’s house.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” 

Luke 21:1–4 (ESV)

Jesus simultaneously commends the widow’s faithful obedience to the things she’s been taught, and condemns the system that is robbing this poor widow of all she had to live on.  This leads to Jesus’s next statement. “Destruction is coming to this whole system.” 

The Temporary Temple

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 

Luke 21:5-6 (ESV)

Jesus overhears someone marveling at the grandeur of the temple. This temple system which has become so corrupt that he calls it a den of thieves. So corrupt that it is destroying the lives of the poor, even poor widows, who are supposed to be helped and supported by the system. 

Destruction is coming to this seemingly mighty fortress. This supposed place of religious power, this symbol of God’s presence and protection, because of their corruption, error, and neglect of God’s ways, is going to be torn down. In 37 years, it will be leveled by the Roman Empire. This will end the terrible perversion of God’s laws, and it will also make the observance of the Old Covenant impossible. 

Jesus is ushering in a new age. A new covenant. What the scriptures refer to as “the age to come.” 

This repeated pronouncement would have been shocking to the hearers, so they ask a question,  which kicks off the meat of our passage today.

The Question

And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 

Luke 21:7 (ESV)

Jesus’s answer to this question is a little complex. (It’s even more complex in Matthew, that frames the discussion in terms of two questions: “When will these things be, and when are you coming back?”)  But I believe if we go carefully through the passage, Luke is actually pretty clear. I recognize there are a few different ways of walking this out, and I’ll get to those in a bit, but I’d like to do my best to explain what I see here. And first I’d like to pray that the Lord gives us grace to understand.

To start his answer, Jesus gives us four categories of things that are going to happen to people, but do not signal the end.

Non-signs of the end times

False Messiahs and false teachers.

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. 

Luke 21:8 (ESV)

First, Jesus warns that we are not deceived and led astray by two kinds of people. Those who claim to be the Messiah, and those who claim that they know the timing of the end. This is super relevant for us today, and maybe especially over the past 50 years of popular books and radio and TV preachers talking about the end times. Jesus warns us very clearly here to not follow the teachings those who claim to know that the time is near.  

Wars, nations rising and falling

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.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 

Luke 21:9-10 (ESV)

Another thing that is not a sign that the end is near? Nations rising and falling. Think of all the countries that have risen to power and have fallen into obscurity over the last two thousand years. None of those political upheavals ever have been, or ever will be, part of the sign of the end. Underline verse 9 “these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once” – we’ll come back to that.

Natural Disasters, Celestial Signs

There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 

Luke 21:11 (ESV)

Natural disasters can be quite terrifying. Famine, pandemics. These things all make us afraid, anxious, suspicious… they cause us to go into high alert. Jesus says, these things will happen, but are not the sign of the end.

“Great signs and terrors from heaven” – blood moons, star signs, constellations, alignment of planets, none of these are signs of the timing of the end.

Increasing Persecution

As scary and unnerving and confusing as those three things are, he saves the scariest for last. Another thing that is not a sign of the end: increasing persecution.

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. 

Luke 21:12 (ESV)

There may come a time when we are arrested for our faith. When our organizations are “de-platformed”, blocked from the public internet, when our public worship services are outlawed. In fact, all around the world, this is currently happening to believers. This has been happening throughout the centuries in many parts of the world. This is not a sign of the end. 

Rather, it is part of the mission, part of the life of a follower of Jesus. And it comes with a promise.

Promises to those who persevere

This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. 

Luke 21:13-19 (ESV)

Persecution is your opportunity to witness. (An opportunity for martyrdom!). We are promised wisdom and words in that moment. We don’t have to be anxious or worry about or plan for what to say! How will that work? We just need to boldly and plainly say what we believe! 

You may be worrying right now “I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand up and do that!” I know I do. Here we see God promising us grace to do it.

There is a strange combination in this promise, one that almost seems contradictory: “Some of you will be put to death”, “but not a hair of your head will perish” – Christian, death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. 

When you die having carried out the earthly mission given to you by God, you go directly to be with Jesus, and experience joy that you’ve never known, peace that you’ve been seeking, healing you’ve been praying for, for ever and ever.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.

Luke 12:4 (ESV)

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…

1 Peter 3:14–15 (ESV)

And they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

Revelation 12:11 (ESV)

These four things, which will happen, do not signal the end. Isn’t it interesting that these are usually the four things that cause us to be most anxious and most curious if the end is coming? Jesus is teaching his people, his disciples then, the churches to which Luke was writing, and to us today, to not fear those frightening things, but to stand up in confidence and faith.

And then, Jesus begins to tell them about what they should be on the look out for. The basic message here: You’ll know it when you see it. There will be no doubt.

The sign: The Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 

Luke 21:20-22 (ESV)

This is a pretty clear statement to his disciples: “when you see an army coming, get out while you still can…” the destruction of Jerusalem, which will end the nation, that the prophets warned about is coming. 

And then, he begins to sound like an Old Testament prophet, and because he starts speaking in prophecy, it can get a little murky here. But if we remember the fact that he’s warning about a coming military siege, it stays clear:

Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

Luke 21:23-26 (ESV)

Josephus’s account of the siege and destruction: 

In the middle of 66 AD, Roman Emperor Titus began a war against the Jews, which lasted (interestingly) 3 and a half years, until the the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the city, including the temple in 70 AD.   

The ancient Jewish Historian Josephus, who lived between 37 and 100 AD, records a first-hand account in his history “Jewish Wars” that 1.1 million were killed and 97,000 capture. His description matches not only Jesus’s words here, but also much of the Old Testament prophetic warnings about the judgement of God, in quite some detail.

Further, he also records unusual constellations and comets in the sky. A star that looked like a sword pointing down at Jerusalem, and a comet that continued a whole year, unusual for a comet.

The gentiles (non-Jews, in this case the Romans) trampled Jerusalem. And gentiles have been trampling Jerusalem for 1,952 years since then, right through to today, and who knows how much longer into the future. 


Let’s keep reading, verse 27

And then…

This is where it gets complicated, and opinions on the passage start to divide. Here’s my take.

So far, as Brad mentioned two weeks ago, Jesus has been referring to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. This event is what the scriptures are referring to when they speak of “the end of the age” or “the end times”. And because there is some debate around the issue, the end times at the destruction of the temple, and will end when Jesus returns. What Jesus begins to do in verse 27 is to give the next significant event in the order of end-times events: his return. He’s now looking forward in time to after the “time of the gentiles has ended”…  

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

Luke 21:27-28 (ESV)

Do thoughts of the events of the end-times cause you to “straighten up and raise your head”?  The image of an excited puppy whose person has been away at work all day, and is finally heard pulling into the driveway… Tail starts pounding…  That is to be our reaction to the beginning of end times events! Not fear! Excitement! Finally, our savior!

Jesus has been warning his people about the terrible times that are coming in just a few short years, horrific destruction that ushers in a new age… and he looks forward to the only true thing that will save them from the suffering, pestilence, plague, destruction, anxiety, and persecution: his final return. 

Peter echoes this in his instructions to the churches under persecution: he writes this at about the same time Luke writes this gospel account, and the message is the same:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:13 (ESV)

Back to their question

And then Jesus backs up the timeline. Back to their question. “What are the signs that these things are about to take place?” Back to signs that the destruction of the temple is near…

And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

Luke 21:29-33 (ESV)

And it’s verse 32 that gives everyone headaches. 

Three views on timing

There are three broad categories of thought on the timing of the events Jesus describes. We are going to get into these in more detail in the spring series, but I wanted to highlight them here.

The “past view” – holds that everything Jesus speaks of in this passage comes to pass in 70 AD. They look at the obvious working out in history of most of this as described by Josephus. “This generation” in verse 32 is therefore, the current generation of Jesus’s day. This is actually the most straightforward reading of the text, with the only wrinkle being that little detail about seeing the son of man coming on the clouds… The past view explains this by noting that “the son of man” has been used to refer to the people of God, and therefore Jesus, in a symbolic way, is referring to the coming of the church. This is very much a minority view these days.

The “future view” – holds that everything Jesus speaks of in this passage has yet to happen, and even today all these events are still in the future.  Jesus is using the imagery of the destruction of the temple to symbolize great destruction that is going to come on the whole earth on judgement day. “This generation” therefore refers to all the people alive at the time of judgement day. Some of you likely hold this view as it has been very popular in the past century, especially the last 50 years. Most popular-level books about the end times assume this view.

The “past-and-future view” – the view that I hold, and have been explaining this passage in light of look at the events of history, the nature of the genre of prophecy, and see that some of the events described by Jesus took place in 70 AD, note that Jesus obviously has not returned on the clouds, and do not understand him to be speaking metaphorically. It takes note of verse 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.” And recognizes that Jesus hints at some separation between the events he describes. 

All three of these views are held by different good, smart, godly people. Among our pastors, the second and third views are held. Most of us hold to the third view. 

But importantly, whichever view is held, Jesus’ primary point in this entire discourse is so clear, that all three views agree on what Jesus says we ought to do in light of the teaching about the end. 

End Times Application:

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” 

And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.

Luke 21:34-38 (ESV)
  • Keep close watch on yourself: your life, your pursuits, your focus. Keep your focus on Jesus.
  • Do not let your heart be weighed down with distraction, worry, anxiety, and the self-medication that comes in many forms to try and numb ourselves from worry and trouble.
  • Trouble will come to everyone in this life. Jesus says “take heart, I have overcome the world.” 
  • Stay alert, keep the faith, pray for strength from God to resist the temptation to join the world in their neglect of worship of God as the most valuable treasure. 
  • Remember that every single one of us will one day stand before Christ, and this is good news for his people: focus all your hope on that day, remember that he is coming “straighten up, raise your heads, for your redemption is near.” 

Peter summarized it well

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:13 (ESV)