Jesus’s words as recorded in Luke 21:5-28 contain some pretty heavy stuff.
Jesus is dealing with three different events in these verses: he speaks of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, the last days, and then finally the end when he returns.
We could easily get confused if we misunderstand what he’s saying and interpret these events as all occurring at the same time. He’s dealing with three events, but weaves his statements together to give a picture of what will happen from the time he’s speaking until the end of time.
First, the temple will be destroyed and Jerusalem will be overrun by the Gentiles. At the same time, believers will be persecuted and many false christs will arise to try to lead believers astray. Then, after the time of the Church has been fulfilled, Christ will return in a cloud with power and glory to bring redemption with him.
So, let’s look at each of these events in turn.
Verses 5 through 6 and 20 through 24 deal with the destruction of the temple. Luke records:
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, [Jesus] 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.’
‘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. 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.’ (Luke 21:5-6, 20-24)
Jesus is pretty clear in these verses: the temple will be destroyed, Jerusalem will be overrun, and the Jews will fall to the sword and captivity. Bear with me as we go back to explore some history of this time period, because Jesus is speaking around 33 AD and telling what will happen nearly four decades later.
The period from 68 to 69 AD is called the “Year of the Four Emperors,” because there were a series of four Roman emperors who ruled in quick succession.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about these events, saying:
The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace. Four emperors slain by the sword. Three civil wars: often entwined with these, an even larger number of foreign wars (Tacitus Book 1:2).
What started all this was the death of the Roman Emperor Nero in 68 AD; this was the same Nero who had impaled Christians on stakes, coated them with tar, and lit them to use them as torches along the roads in Rome. After his death, the various Roman legions coalesced around their generals, putting forth each of them as the new emperor.
First, from the west in the Spanish region, Galba came to claim the imperial throne; he ruled for 7 months. Then, Otho came from Lusitania to take the throne from his friend Galba; he ruled for 3 months. At the same time, though, Vitellius was already leading his legions from Germany to take the throne; he ruled for 8 months.
While all this was going on, there was an odd little rebellion going on in a frontier Roman province. The Jews of Judaea had revolted from Roman rule in 66 AD, and at that time Nero had sent the general Vespasian to Judaea to put down the revolt. Vespasian was in the midst of the siege of Jerusalem when Nero died, and he was soon urged by his own troops to go to Rome himself to take the throne and become emperor. This he was successful in doing in 69AD, ruling for ten years.
When Vespasian left for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the siege of Jerusalem in his absence. In 70 AD, the Roman armies finally breached the Jewish defenses and conquered the city. They burned the temple on July 29, 70 AD, destroying it, taking everything that was in it back to Rome; the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts this event to this day. Titus later succeeded his father as emperor.
So, the “Year of the Four Emperors” saw Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and then finally Vespasian ruling the Roman Empire. It is interesting to me how the history of Judaea and the temple is intertwined with Roman imperial history. The Roman historian Suetonius, referring to Vespasian, wrote: “An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as the event later proved, referred to a Roman emperor, but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their Governor, routed the Governor of Syria when he came to restore order, and captured an Eagle” (Suetonius Book X:4) This is the rebellion that Vespasian was sent to crush; thus when he came back to Rome to take the imperial throne for himself, he came from Judaea, from the East, fulfilling the ancient superstition in the eyes of the Romans.
In truth, the ruler of the world did come out of Judaea, but it wasn’t Vespasian. For God came down to his people as the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, in Judaea in order to redeem his people. He is the true ruler who came out of Judaea, out of the East.
So, the Romans destroyed the temple, as Jesus said would happen. And what does it mean that the Temple was destroyed? Maybe we should first consider what the purpose of the Temple was. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert following their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God instructed them through Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant and a large tent, the tabernacle, in which to place it. God promised that His presence would dwell above the mercy seat of the Ark and that the blood of a sacrifice that was spilt on the mercy seat would atone for the sins of the people. The Ark was to be placed in the veiled inner sanctuary of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) where only the High Priest could go. Thus, the High Priest would enter into the presence of God to atone for the sins of the people through the blood of a sacrifice.
Later, after King Solomon finished construction of the Temple in 960 BC, this same basic structure was maintained. The Temple replaced the Tabernacle as the place where God placed His name and promised where He may be found (cf. 1 Kings 8:27-30).
This first Temple built by Solomon was destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC and led the Jews into captivity in Babylon. But, did that mean that God was no longer with His people? No, for He was with them in their captivity. The prophet Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord depart from the Temple and come to dwell with His people in captivity, because the Lord God is ruler over all the earth and is always with His people.
Later, towards the end of the sixth century BC, when the Persians conquered the Babylonians and King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple, the glory of the Lord returned to the newly built Temple. The Lord again placed His name in the Temple in Jerusalem to dwell in the midst of his people. This Temple would stand until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.
Now that the Romans have destroyed the Temple, does that mean that God is no longer with His people? Again, the answer is no, for He has placed His name on the Church, those whom Christ has redeemed with his body and blood on the cross, and promised to dwell in our midst. When Christ was crucified in 33 AD, the curtain in the Temple that veiled the Holy of Holies was torn in half (cf. Luke 23:34). There was, and is now, no longer the need for God’s presence to be closed off from us or the need for an earthly high priest to enter into His presence in order to atone for our sins. For, Christ is the true High Priest who has made the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins and intercedes before the Father on our behalf. He has removed the veil that once separated us from God.
As the book of Hebrews states:
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:24-28).
Through Christ’s sacrifice as both High Priest and as the true, pure, and holy sacrificial Lamb, he has truly atoned for our sins and cleansed us in God’s sight. Thus, there is no longer a veil between us and God, as was the curtain before the Holy of Holies, but rather we are all made priests who may enter into the presence of God through Christ, our great High Priest.
As St. Peter says of the Church, the new Israel, who has been redeemed from sin, death, and the devil by Christ’s blood:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Thus, you as the Church are a nation for God’s own possession. He has placed His name upon you in Baptism and has promised that in the midst of the Church He may be found. Just as the people in the Old Testament were to look to the tabernacle as the place where God may be sought and his blessings obtained, so too in the Church as the new tabernacle of God’s presence. And He has promised to be found in Word and Sacrament. In the waters of Baptism, He places His name upon you and calls you to be His own. Through the preaching of His Word He bestows upon you His grace and mercy and calls you to faith. Through the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper He gives you Christ’s very own body and blood that was given up and poured out for you on the cross.
We see then why the Lord’s Supper is so central to the life of the Church. It is where God has promised to be in the incarnate body and blood of Christ, the Son of God, our Savior. You are the Church. Christ’s body and blood is meant for you, because He has called you to faith and gathered you here as His people, united in faith. In the Old Testament, the priests ate the sacrifices, and now in the New Testament, you too – as priests – eat the sacrifice. And so you are united with Christ and each other in the Lord’s Supper – one body of Christ redeemed by his body and blood.
And this unity in Christ will give us the strength to get us through these Last Days in which we now dwell. For Christ has come to usher in the last days. Previously, the Old Testament prophets pointed to Christ’s coming to deal with sin. Now that He has come and redeemed us from sin, the New Testament apostles point to his coming again to raise up all flesh for the resurrection and judgement. But, before that day comes, we must first live through these Last Days until Christ’s return on the Last Day, the end of this present age.
Going back again to the text from Luke, in verses 8 through 19 Jesus speaks of these Last Days when he says:
… 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. 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. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.
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. 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 21:1-19)
We live in these Last Days, in an age where the Church often appears weak and persecuted. We see mankind reject God’s Word and we see sin and death in the world. We are often tempted to hold onto the promises of men that seem so soothing to our ears. We look for heaven on earth and work for it through ideologies formulated on the basis of the wisdom of this world; ideologies and political parties that promise much but deliver little. But, Christ tells us that in all these false promises of mankind for everlasting peace and salvation on earth, the end is not yet, for Christ is not in these promises. Christ is instead in His Word which points us to hope and long for His return.
Thus, when the Church proclaims God’s Word of Law and Gospel it will encounter opposition in the world. Christians will be brought before “kings and governors” for Christ’s name’s sake. Of all the Apostles, only the Apostle John escaped martyrdom; and that was because of God’s will to keep him alive to steer the New Testament Church in those early years. The ancient Romans persecuted Christians severely. As I mentioned before, the emperor Nero had Christians impaled and lit as torches. Roman provincial governors such as Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia at the south end of the Black Sea at the beginning of the second century, had Christians executed for not worshipping the emperor as a god. And many other of God’s nation, the Church, have been persecuted and killed by the nations throughout history for Christ’s name’s sake.
And yet, Christ says that not a hair of our heads will perish and by our endurance we will gain our lives. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Christ had said:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:4-7).
Although we as the Church may be oppressed and killed, those who oppress and kill us have no more power over us than to take our earthly lives. For we have God’s promise that the hairs of our heads are all numbered and shall not perish; for He will not abandon us to the grave, but will raise us up again on the last day when Christ returns, bringing with him judgement to those who have opposed His Church as well as salvation to you His saints.
Again, going back to the text from Luke, we see Jesus dealing with his return on the Last Day in verses 25 through 28. He says of that day:
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. 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 21:25-28)
On that day, the return of Christ, all people will see Christ returning in the same way he ascended into heaven: in a cloud with power and great glory. It will not be a secret. And Christ will not be coming as a suffering servant to die on the cross, as he did previously. Rather, he will be coming as the conquering king who has defeated sin and the devil on our behalf. And he will be coming to defeat our last enemy – death. And those who had persecuted the Church and opposed Christ and his people will receive their recompense, while you will receive your redemption.
Thus, if we look at this entire text from Luke’s Gospel again, we see that Christ is promising that God will dwell in the midst of His Church, His people, and that although we may suffer and die at the hands of unbelievers He will always be with us, for we are his people. And He also calls us to keep our eyes and our hopes focussed on Christ’s return.
For our fate as His people is not to die and be forgotten, or to die and be cast into the fire as is worn out wood, or even to die and become spiritual beings like angels. Rather, our sure hope is to be raised up again into new life, both body and soul, to dwell in the Lord’s presence forever on this restored earth.
No longer will we have a trickle of the water of life in Baptism, but we will drink freely of the river of life – no longer will we behold Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, but we will behold him face to face – no longer will we hear God’s Word preached through weak men, but we will hear God’s Word from his very own mouth. This is God’s promise to us, and this is the horizon to which we should be constantly looking – a horizon with the cross in the foreground and Christ’s return in glory and power in the background – ever approaching us – and with it salvation and eternal life with him and with each other on this earth that is also being redeemed by him. Amen.