Luke 21:5-38, sermon 1 of 3

Sun, 04/11/2007 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

Note: handout for this sermon is at the bottom of the webpage as an attachment


The Future Return of Jesus

I don’t know about you but I am really looking forward to the day when Jesus comes back. He has promised that one day he will return to this world in person and every human being will hear his voice. When that happens everyone who has died, whatever point in history they lived, whichever part of the world they occupied, will hear his voice and come out of their graves.

For those of us who know Jesus that will be a wonderful day indeed. At the moment our bodies are weak, perishable and mortal. We suffer, we fall to bits and eventually we die. But on that day God will give us brand new bodies, just as he gave the Lord Jesus a brand new body when he raised him from the dead on Easter day. And our new bodies will not be weak but full of power; our new bodies will not be perishable but glorious; our new bodies will not be mortal, but will be forever.

And once we’ve been clothed in new bodies, we will inherit the new world. The world we live in is full of pain and frustration. But God will make it new, and the new heavens and the new earth will have none of the frustrations of this present world. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. The Lord himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, as we enter the renewed world that God will remake.

But the best bit about it will not be the absence of suffering and pain, death and tears, but the presence of God himself. Currently we live by faith, not by sight. We can’t see God, but we know him and trust him by taking him at his word. That means we know God truly, but it’s like looking in a misty mirror. But then, when we enter God’s new world, God himself will be there and we will see him for ourselves. That will be the age of daylight; there will be no more night-time; but not because the sun will never set but because God himself will be with us forever.

And because that future is not just for those who are still alive when Jesus returns, but is for all those people who have ever known him, it will be the most wonderful reunion. We will be reunited with all those whom we miss, because they have died knowing Christ.

Yes, for all those of us who know the Lord Jesus Christ, the day when he returns will be the most wonderful day ever. I am really looking forward to it, and I hope you know Jesus and are looking forward to it as well.

Luke 21 not about the future return of Jesus

And as we look together at Luke 21 over the new few weeks, I’d like you to remember that I said all that. It will indeed be wonderful when Jesus returns…

...But I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about in this chapter. Jesus’ return will be a great day for those who know him, but I do not believe Luke 21 is the place where we discover that.

Let me tell you the story of my relationship with this chapter. For years I have read this chapter and thought that bits of it are about what we call the second coming. I had a couple of difficulties. I was unsure as to which bits of it were about the second coming. I was a bit embarrassed by verse 32: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. But in spite of those difficulties, I was totally sure, as I say for years, that quite a bit of the chapter was about the second coming.

And then, over the past couple of months, as I’ve studied this chapter and read the different things that other people have made of it, I’ve been forced to change my mind. Now that I’ve had the chance to get into the details, I no longer think that any bits of this chapter are about the future return of Jesus, the second coming.

Now, it may be that I am the only person here who has read these verses for years and thought to himself: “Bits of this chapter are about the second coming.” It may be that if I stood here this morning and preached about the second coming from this chapter, you’d all be thinking, “Why’s he talking about the second coming? It’s obvious that this chapter is not about that!” But I suspect I’m not the only person; and I suspect that to a great many people here, this chapter looks exactly like it is about the second coming.

New Ground

All of which means there are a couple of things we need to think about before we get into the chapter together.

First, what I’m saying this morning is new to me. If you asked me for my gut instinct on this chapter three months ago, I would not have said what I’m saying now. Indeed, in July last year I preached a sermon on Luke 17 that I would not now repeat. That means there is an element of the tentative about what I’m saying. I’m being cautious, and I need to avoid being too assertive; I’m cutting new ground for myself.

Having said that, I’ve worked as hard as I can, within the time constraints I’ve got, to be as sure as I possibly can be that what I’m saying is what the passage says. New ground means I’m being a bit tentative, but it also means being doubly hard working!

And you need to know that I haven’t changed my mind on this chapter lightly. I haven’t worked in isolation. What I’m going to be saying over the next few weeks is not a novel interpretation that I have invented but is one that has a long-standing pedigree. I’ve discussed the passage with Peter. And whilst there are plenty of people in print who would not agree with what I’m going to be saying, I’m reassured by careful and respectable people who do agree ( such as Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and former Dean of Lichfield).

So new ground for me, which means I need to work hard, talk to others and be appropriately tentative.

But I’m also aware that what I’m saying will be new to lots of you as well. Which means that we mustn’t rush things. I want to give us all time to think about what we’re saying. We need to spend enough time actually looking at the text together. I don’t want to bully, or rant, and just command that everybody else sees things my way! I want us to study the passage carefully together and take time to look at the details and see what is going on for ourselves.

And as well as time in the text, I want to give us time to chew on it. Time to reflect on things. Time to get used to where we’re going. So here’s the plan: Most of our time this morning will be spent working through the passage, seeing what’s going on, and establishing what our approach to the chapter needs to be. We’ll then have a fortnight’s gap before we revisit the chapter and think through some of its implications. And then another fortnight’s gap and we’ll come to it again. All of which should give us lots of time to think and reflect; and if you want to use the time to ask me questions I’ll try and use it to make sure that those questions get answered as we proceed.

The Structure of Luke 21

That’s quite enough by way of preamble. Let’s have a look at this chapter and see what’s going on, trying not to bring too many preconceived ideas about what could be going on as we do so.

There’s always the danger, as we come to a passage of Scripture, that we get bogged down in the details.

Imagine you were thinking of taking a holiday somewhere, so you buy the Ordnance Map to get a feel for the area. Is this the kind of place we want to go? Eventually, you’d get to things like: There’s a church here, a public house there, busy main road passing nearby and so on. But before you look at individual field boundaries, you’d want to get a feel for the area as a whole: Are we talking about mountainous moorland, an inner city suburb, or an expansive flat desert?

It’s the same here. Before we start asking how severe the earthquakes might be, what it looks like when the sun stops shining, and so on, we need to ask what the whole passage is about. How is it structured?

The short answer is that it is a conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples. A conversation in which the last thing that is said is a fairly long speech by Jesus.

So, in verse 5, these disciples remark on the stunning beauty of the temple in Jerusalem. And it was remarkable. The combination of giant blocks of white marble and ornate gold plating was legendary. Jesus replies in verse 6 by telling them that this temple will be destroyed down to the very last stone. And, indeed, today all that remains is the Western Wall of what used to be the platform on which it was built.

This knocks them for 6 and gets their attention. The temple was not just architecturally beautiful; it was at the heart of Israel’s spiritual life. You can’t just announce that it’s going to be destroyed and leave it at that, so they press Jesus for details. Two details to be exact. When will this happen? And: How would one know that it’s just about to happen? Verse 7: “Teacher, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

And Jesus begins his answer in verse 8 and nobody interrupts him until he gets to verse 36. Only at that point does he stop long enough to draw breath, allowing Luke to conclude by describing Jesus’ daily routine during that last week of his life.

OK, so those are the broad contours of the map. A discussion with the disciples, most of which is Jesus’ answer to the two questions: When will the temple be destroyed and how will we know it’s imminent.

Let’s look at that area of the map which is Jesus’ answer, verses 8-36. And as we come to this section, it’s important that we remember the two questions Jesus is replying to. When you hear someone say “I will” it matters that we know what question they were asked. “I will” means something very different depending on whether they are responding to “Will you marry me?” “Will you take… to be your lawful wedded husband?” “Are you sure you want to open this bank account?” “You couldn’t possibly pop out and get some milk for me could you?” You can’t understand “I will” unless you know a bit more of the conversation.

So, “Teacher, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”. Which brings us to verses 8 to 36. And again, there is a structure here to help us feel our way around.

Verses 8-11: False Christs. Wars. Earthquakes. Famines. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away. Not yet.

Verses 12-19: But before all this, before the temple is destroyed, you’ll get this kind of thing happening: Persecution by your fellow Jews, persecution by Gentiles, betrayal by close friends and family. Some of you will die in that period, but God will look after you. But still we’re in the “before all this”. Not yet.

Verse 20: When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. We’re still not actually there yet, but we are now getting close. Armies around the city is your clue that we’re almost there.

Verses 21-23: When you’re at this point, if you’re anywhere near Jerusalem, flee. In Jerusalem: Get out! Outside in the country: Don’t go back in, whatever you do! Anywhere else in the province of Judea – find yourself a good hiding place. Because what is about to happen on the whole land will be absolutely awful. “Believe you me, says Jesus, you don’t want to get caught up in it!”

And then it will happen. 24: Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles. 25. The sky and the sea will be in uproar. 26. It will be terrifying. 27: At that time, (so we’re still at the same point in history), at that time they will see the Son of Man coming. 28: But you don’t need to be terrified, because this is setting you free.

29-31: You’ll be able to see it coming, just a surely as you can see summer coming.

So when will these things happen? Verse 32: Within a generation. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

34-36: So let me re-iterate what this means for you, disciples who are asking me about this… It means that you really don’t want to get caught up in it. So don’t dose off and forget what I’ve told you!

Let’s draw it all together. In verses 8 to 36 Jesus is answering two questions. When will all this happen. What will be the signs that it’s about to kick off?

How does he answer?

Let’s take the “when” question first. When will it happen? The answer is: Within a generation. Before this generation passes away. Within 40 years. Before you, disciples, asking me these questions have all died out. That’s when.

How about the “what will be the signs” question? How will we know it’s around the corner?

His answer is a long one, because he clears the debris first. Wars, earthquakes and famines – but not yet. Persecution – but not yet. Armies outside Jerusalem – there’s your sign: Get out when you see that happen! It’s like the fig tree before summer – you can see it coming.

Which means that the whole of verses 8 to 36 is answering those two questions. The whole passage is a piece of instruction about when the temple will be torn down brick by brick, and about how you could know that it is around the corner. That is what this passage is about.

Some of the details of Luke 21

OK, so that’s the broad lie of the land. Now it’s time to look at some of the details.

We haven’t got time this morning to look at every detail in the passage, but there are a few details that, if I were in your shoes, I would want us to look at now. If I were you I’d be saying “Yes, but what about this verse?” Or, “What about that verse?” So let’s look at those verses in the passage that appear to point in the opposite direction and see what’s going on. Let’s look at the verses that might suggest that this is talking about the second coming, and see what we find.

I can think of 4 big reasons why I would be reluctant to believe myself at this point. They are: One: Verses 25 and 26 which talk of the sun, moon and stars doing weird things. Two: Verse 27 which talks of the Son of Man coming in power and glory. Three: Verse 35, which talks of these things coming on the whole earth. And Four: The whole passage, which starts to look rather irrelevant.

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

25-26: Sun, Moon and Stars

First, then, what about verses 25 and 26. The sun, moon and stars doing weird things. The sea in turmoil. People being so surprised to see these phenomena that they are in utter fear. Those details sound more like the end of the world than the end of one city on the East Mediterranean.

We won’t understand this correctly unless we hear it against its Old Testament background. Jesus hasn’t picked this language out of thin air; this language is often found in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. At this point in the conversation, Jesus steps into the shoes of an Old Testament prophet; he becomes a prophet for a few minutes.

So, when the Old Testament prophets spoke like this, what were they describing. I’ve put half a dozen examples on the sheet, but let’s look at the one we had read out, Isaiah chapter 13. Listen to verses 8 to 11, and see if they remind you of any bits of the New Testament:

Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labour. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame. See, the day of the LORD is coming€”a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger€”to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. 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. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

In Luke 21, Jesus is saying that this is about to happen. So what is Isaiah talking about? Verse 1 at the start of the chapter, and verse 19 at the end of the chapter make clear that Isaiah is announcing God’s judgement on the Babylonian nation. He’s not talking about the end of the world, but the end of Babylon.

If you live in Babylon, the lights are about to go out. In the Old Testament, leaders of nations are often pictured as stars, or as the sun, or the moon. Just as in Genesis 1, the sun governs the day and the moon governs the night, so if you live in Babylon, the king of Babylon governs you. And so, if you live in Babylon, the sun , moon and stars are about to stop shining, because God will snuff them out. The world, as they know it, is coming to an end.

Actually, we’re quite used to this kind of language. We have several common figures of speech just like this. We know what people mean when they say: “I’m going to punch his lights out”. Or “When I lost my job, the world just fell apart around me.” Or “9/11 was the blackest day in history”. We use end of the world language to speak of “the end of the world as we know it”.

And so Jesus takes this language on his lips. When Jerusalem is destroyed, there will be a change of government. Who’s in charge is about to change. The world will never be the same place again.

27: The Coming of the Son of Man

So how about verse 27 then. “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

The background to this is Daniel chapter 7. There is a lot of detail in Daniel 7 that we won’t go into today – we’d have to save that for a sermon on Daniel 7. But we can get the basic picture.

Daniel has a vision during the closing years of the Babylonian Empire, and God explains that vision to him. He sees 4 beasts come out of the sea, which represent 4 world empires that will arise one after the other. Elsewhere in Daniel those empires are identified as Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece. One particular king in the days of the Greek empire will be particular hostile to the Jewish people.

Those empires are beastly. They are represented by animals. The 4th is just a plain monster. But after them will come a 5th empire. This one won’t be ruled by a beast but by a man. One “like a Son of Man” will approach God next.

God’s plan was always for humanity to take care of the animal kingdom, not the other way around. Now we get that. The arrival of the Son of Man brings dignity back to the world. The monkeys are no longer running the zoo. Think of Animal Farm: Now the Son of Man is in charge we’re back to “2 legs good, 4 legs bad”. He won’t just be the next oppressive tyrant in line, he will rule as God wants.

And Daniel chapter 7, verse 14 tells us that this new ruler will rule over all the nations, for all of time. So this isn’t empire number 5, after which there will be 6, 7, 8 and so on. When this human ruler approaches God in the clouds and is given authority, he will rule forever.

Daniel 7 predicts that after the collapse of the Greek empire, God will give authority over the nations of this world to another, to a Son of Man, who will approach him in the clouds.

So when we get into Luke’s gospel, Jesus says that this is going to happen. The Greek Empire is over, and the Son of Man is about to be approach God in heaven and be given all authority over all the nations for all time. This isn’t Jesus coming from heaven to earth to judge the world. This is Jesus going from earth to heaven to be given his throne.

And Jesus says that people will see this happen at that time. They won’t see Jesus come to earth, but they will see the effects of Jesus going into heaven and becoming ruler over this world. And the clearest sight of all that this has taken place will be when the church becomes a truly international body of people, and when Jesus judges Jerusalem for her failure to recognise him. When that takes place you are seeing the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, just like Daniel prophesied.

35: The Whole Earth

That leaves us with two troubling details. In verse 35, Jesus says that this will come on the whole earth. That is the same word that our Bibles translate “land” in verse 23 – “distress in the land and wrath against this people”.

In Old Testament times, God promised that his people the Jews, would become a numerous people and that they would live in the land he gave them. Verse 23 says that God’s judgement will fall as he removes those privileges. God will judge both land and people. And so verse 35 is not saying that this judgement is for all who live on the globe we know as planet earth. Rather it is saying that all those who live in the land of Israel will experience the repercussions of this. It won’t just be the capital city that gets hit; wherever you are in the land you will experience this.

The Whole Passage: Irrelevant

Which just leaves us with the charge that this chapter cannot be about the end of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, because it would be irrelevant to us.

The main answer to that is to come back over the next few weeks. This chapter is everything but irrelevant! There’s so much relevance for us today it will fill two whole sermons; there will be plenty of very down-to-earth application!

The other answer would be to reach for other examples of very specific promises in the Bible. You remember the story of the woman, just a few days before Jesus died, who poured very expensive perfume over his head? Lots of people saw that and said it was a waste. Jesus saw it as a beautiful thing done for him. And he promised that wherever the gospel was proclaimed in the whole world, what she did would be told in memory of her.

That’s a lovely promise – if you are that woman! But we are not her. So it’s not a promise about us. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Well Luke chapter 21 is not a promise about us. God has already kept every promise in Luke chapter 21. He’s done it all. We are no longer waiting for these things. But as the next few weeks will show, this chapter is not irrelevant!


The Second Coming Again

That’s been a long look at Luke 21. It’s not been the shortest sermon this morning, so thank you for your patience. As I said at the start, aware that this approach to the chapter is new to me, and new to lots of you, I didn’t want to rush this morning. It matters that we patiently look at the text to see what is going on.

Just in case any of you are now worried, let me remind you of how we began. When Jesus does return to judge the living and the dead, it will be truly glorious for those who know him. I still believe that, and I still long for that day. I just think we have to turn elsewhere in Scripture to learn about that, as this chapter is on a different topic.

So if this chapter does not present to us Jesus coming again to be our judge, how does it set Jesus before our eyes? This chapter gives us a Jesus who is Lord of history. This chapter gives us a Jesus who can effortlessly get the mighty Roman army to do his bidding. This chapter gives us a Jesus who has approached God as the Son of Man, with power and in great glory, and has been given all authority over all nations for all time. This chapter gives us a Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth, now.

What a glorious presentation of Jesus Christ we have in here! And this Jesus is a Jesus worth trusting, and holding to, and worshipping for the rest of our days!

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