“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”
Then He spoke to them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”
William Miller was a famous preacher in his day. Most of you have probably never heard of him. But you’re definitely familiar with his legacy. You see, Miller started the modern fascination with the End Times, and he even went so far as to set the date for the end of the world… twice. Back in the middle of the 19th century, he said this, “My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” March 21st came and went without incident, and so Miller tweaked his dating just a bit, claiming that the correct date for the Second Coming was actually April 18, 1844. When nothing happened in April, Miller confessed his error, but he nevertheless continued his ministry. Some of his followers continued to set dates, none of which turned out to be true. Several new religious movements were formed out of the aftermath of all of this, including the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
You might think that the fact that these prophecies didn’t come true would have put an end to the Last-Days fascinations. Not at all. While the energy has ebbed and flowed over the years, the end of the world is still a very hot topic, and groups claiming to be Christian churches are still setting dates. Over the last 100 years, many such dates were set. For instance, Charles Taze Russell believed that the Jesus would establish his kingdom on earth physically in 1914, and he interpreted the beginning of World War I as the fulfillment of that prophecy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied that 1941 would be the year that Christ would begin his earthly kingdom, and then they tried again with 1975. Chuck Smith, the founder of Calvary Chapel, once claimed that 1981 would be the year when Jesus returned. Pat Robertson predicted that it would be 1982. Hal Lindsey, author of the bestselling The Late Great Planet Earth, claimed that the world would end on or before 1988. Most recently, Harold Camping made a series of predictions, claiming that 1994, 1995, and then finally 2011 would all be the final year(s).
We can sometimes laugh at these misguided predictions, but in reality they are quite sad. Many lives have been ruined, the Christian faith has been discredited in the eyes of many because of them, and their net effect has been to discourage believers from taking a confident and active role in society. In order to properly respond to this kind of wrong thinking, we need to know what the Bible itself says about the Last Days. What we find might be a little surprising. As it turns out, the majority of the predictions that we assume are about “the end of the world” were actually about the 1st century. In Luke 21, our text this morning, Jesus connects the fulfillment of end-times prophecies with the destruction of the temple, the conquest of Jerusalem, and His own ascension into heaven. Most astoundingly, he says, “this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place” (Luke 21:32). As we will see, the generation He was talking about was the generation He was talking to.
Olivet Discourse and the Temple
Luke 21 parallels Matthew 24 and Mark 13. These passages are sometimes called the Olivet Discourse, because Jesus is prophesying between the Mt. of Olives and the temple, and they are the main source for “End Times” prophecies in the gospels. We won’t be able to cover the whole discourse in full detail this morning, but I would like to point out a few key features that can help us understand what it means. To state it briefly, Jesus is talking about things which would shortly come to pass. Let’s take a look.
The first thing to notice is the setting. This discourse begins in the temple and then moves back and forth between the temple and the Mt. of Olives. Luke 20:1 tells us that Jesus was teaching in the temple, and then in 21:37-38 it says: “In the daytime He was teaching in the temple, but at night He went out and stayed on the mountain called Olivet. Then early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him.”
In fact, the reason that Jesus began speaking in this way in the first place was because of what the people were saying about the temple:
Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, “These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.” So they asked Him, saying, “Teacher, but when will these things be? And what sign will there be when these things are about to take place?” (Luke 21:5-7)
Everything that follows comes from these questions. This means the temple is a primary point of these prophecies, and when Jesus says, “the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6), he is talking about the stones.
Jerusalem and the Nations
A second important point is that these prophecies are specific to the time in history in which they were made, especially the time in redemptive history. Jesus is talking to Israel, and He is talking about things that will happen to Israel and especially the city of Jerusalem. Listen again to Luke 21:20-22, 24:
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. …And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
These verses are clearly about the literal city of Jerusalem. They speak about a military siege where the city is surrounded by Gentile armies. Jesus warns the people to leave the region and “flee to the mountains,” and he says that the inhabitants of Judea will be taken into captivity across the world.
These events did actually happen in the 1st century, around the year AD 70 which was roughly 40 years after Jesus made the prophecies. Jerusalem was sacked by Titus, the future emperor, and the temple was destroyed and the whole temple system came to an end. The Jewish historian Josephus recorded this event in great detail, and he said that 1.1 million people were killed and 97,000 more were taken into captivity and dispersed about the Mediterranean world. Speaking of the destruction, Josephus wrote, “there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it Jerusalem had ever been inhabited.”
We should also add this event happened in connection with the Jewish reject of Jesus as the messiah. Jesus and the Apostles preached “to the Jew first and then the Gentile,” but the Jewish people largely rejected the message. In Matthew 21:43, Jesus said to the chief priests and Pharisees, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” At the end of the Book of Acts Paul says to the Jews in Rome, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” (Acts 28:28). The external physical judgment of Israel occurred in conjunction with its spiritual judgment, and these prophecies which are often interpreted to mean the “end of the world” are actually about that transition of God’s covenant from political Israel to the believers of all ethnicity.
The Ascension of Christ
A third important point that we need to make has to do with Luke 21:26-28:
The powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.
These are the passages which most sound like a reference to Jesus’ Second Coming, especially the line about “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” But there are a few things we need to know to help us understand what’s going on.
To begin with, the Greek verb translated as “coming” in English is a variation of the word erchomai, which is actually a general word which can mean either “coming” or “going.” It simply indicates movement towards a location. Think of how different we would interpret the line if we translated it as “they will see the Son of Man going in a cloud…” The direction of the motion would seem completely opposite.
And so how can we decide the correct meaning of the term? Grammar can only take us so far, and in this case the term is capable of being rendered in various ways. That means we need to look for the context. The context of Luke 21 seems to be 1st century judgment, as we have said, but, of course, that is the claim we are trying to prove. So we need something more. Is there anything else? In this case there is. Luke 21:27 is actually an allusion to an Old Testament prophecy. Jesus is pointing back to Daniel 7, and this is how we can best understand what He is saying in the gospels.
Daniel’s prophecy goes like this:
I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. (Dan. 7:13-14)
Did you hear the key line? “Behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days…” The movement is towards the throne-room of heaven, and the Son of Man passes through the clouds up to the place where God is.
What does this tell us then about Jesus’ prophecy? It tells us that the “powers of heaven” are “shaken” when Jesus goes up to heaven and takes His seat at the right hand of God the Father. The “coming in the clouds” is not a coming down to earth but rather Jesus’ returning to heaven after completing His earthly ministry. It’s the fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, “The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool.” So that is when “these things [will] begin to happen.” They happened at the ascension of Christ.
So we have seen three important points about Jesus’ prophecy in Luke 21. It predicts the destruction of the temple. It predicts the siege upon the city of Jerusalem and the captivity and Diaspora of the Jewish people. It also predicts the ascension of Christ and says that that is the time when the powers in heaven will be shaken and the time of redemption will draw near. These are all first-century events, and they happened within one generation of Christ’s words, thus fulfilling what Jesus says in vs. 32, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place.”
Now, if these prophecies are largely fulfilled already, what significance do they have for us today? And why are talking about this now, on the first Sunday of Advent? The answers to these questions are connected. These prophecies are relevant for us today because they explain the work that Christ accomplished for us during His first Advent. For our salvation, He shook up the world order. He transformed Israel from a single national entity into a transnational and spiritual body, into all those who have faith in Christ Jesus. This is hugely important for the Apostle Paul. He writes, “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). And again, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).
So the coming of Christ meant the end of the old order of Israel as the people had known it. There would no longer be a central temple. Instead, the temple would just be God’s people as they gathered together as one body. There would no longer be any more animal sacrifices because Christ has been sacrificed for us. And there would no longer be a temple priesthood which had exclusive access to the Holy of Holies. Instead, all of God’s people have become priests through faith and may all draw near to God directly in Christ. The transition from the Old Covenant to the New was the end of one world and the beginning of a new one, a world in which heaven and earth are united in Christ and we enjoy its blessings through faith.
Another thing that is important about this is that it tells us that we have been living in the End Times for nearly 2,000 years. In 1 Cor. 10:11, Paul says that the audience he is writing to is those “on whom the end of the ages has come.” The “end of the ages” began back then, and we are always living in it. We should indeed be “watchful” and anticipate the final judgment, but we should do so as a constant posture all throughout our life, at all times and in all places, knowing that this is the posture God wants for His Church. He wants us to conduct our lives as though we would be judged at any moment, all the while continuing to live our lives, going to work, establishing families, and subduing the earth and take dominion over it. He wants us to be an eschatological people, living our future lives now by faith. A lot of folks need to hear less about the Second Coming and a whole lot more about the First to properly understand what Jesus has done and is doing.
We should not be paralyzed by the expectation that the world is going to end soon. Instead, we should be empowered by the knowledge that God has judged this world in Christ and given Him all authority in heaven and on earth, and that Christ has, in turn, given that authority to His people through His Spirit and commissioned us to go out and baptize all the nations, making them His disciples. When you encounter false prophets, predicting the end of the world around the corner, you should take them to these passages in the gospel and show them that they need to change their focus from the second coming to the first. Only then can they see the importance of the work Christ has done for us, and only then can we rightly understand the work He has given us to do as His church today.
And this is particularly relevant for Advent. Advent is about the end of the world, but it’s an end of the world which began in the first century ministry of Christ and which continues through our time and the ministry of Christ’s Church until the final end of all things when Christ comes again. We conduct this ministry in faith, with anticipation, but also with confidence, knowing that we have a job to do and a commission to fulfill.
Each Sunday in Advent, we will be looking at how eschatological prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Christ. We’ll see how He restored the kingdom of David and brought redemption to Israel. We will see how He began renovating and recreating the heavens and the earth. And in all of this, we will see our own salvation in Him. Advent if for the future, but Advent is also for today.
Let us pray.