Countdown to the Kingdom of God
A Christian View of the End of the Age (Luke 21:20-33)
Theologians are fond of using a complicated word — eschatology — to describe the doctrine of “last things.” In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in biblical “last things.” It had often been thought that eschatology was the least important of Christian doctrines, but the “last is destined to be the first,” and students of many denominational persuasions are now recognizing that “last things” in Scripture are the foundation of everything else.
In the Bible the things of the future are all-important, but the moment of death is never the center of hope for the future. Instead, the Kingdom of God which will be realized when Jesus returns is the main focus of expectation. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report Jesus’ extended discourse about the end of the age delivered on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) as he sat with his disciples looking west across the valley at the beautiful Temple buildings.
We will examine in some detail a part of Luke’s account of this memorable last sermon. Our text has often seemed obscure and “Jewish” to Christians brought up in the West. Most of us have been unconsciously influenced by Greek ways of thinking, and the thought of a climactic, catastrophic end to society as we now know it has seemed alien and unwanted. But Luke, like the Hebrew prophets before him, had no difficulty with talk about final judgment and the end of the world. On the contrary, he has set his whole two-volume treatise on Christianity (Luke/Acts) within the framework of the Kingdom of God, which is itself an “end of the world” concept. Luke sees the entire ministry of Jesus as a demonstration of God’s Kingdom invading Satan’s evil dominion, and he expects a final dramatic appearance of the Kingdom at the end of the age (not quite “the end of the world” as some of our versions have taught us to think), when the Son of Man comes back in glory. In the future Christians are to be assured that the Kingdom of God is about to come (Luke 21:31, GNB).
Luke works with a specific program in mind. Jesus is the promised Messiah who after his resurrection and ascension must remain in heaven at God’s right hand until “the time comes for the restoration of all things spoken of by the prophets” (Acts 3:21). And what the prophets of the Old Testament expected was a final establishment of God’s kingdom worldwide, brought about by the Messiah, the promised One, who would appear in power and glory. This Kingdom of God is the primary concern of all preaching of the Gospel, though we sometimes think of it wrongly as a kind of curious appendage tacked onto the rest of Christianity. Jesus described his whole purpose and mission as the preaching of the Kingdom (Luke 4:43) and Paul ended a long ministry by tirelessly proclaiming the Kingdom to the Jews and Gentiles (Acts 28:23, 31).
Let us begin with a look at the climax of the drama leading to the return of Jesus at the end of the age. In Luke 21:28, 31 we read, “When you see all these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near...When you see these things happening recognize that the Kingdom of God is near” (NASV).
Unfortunately there has been much disagreement about “these things,” and the sequence of events which Jesus predicted would occur before his return. The principal difficulty has been the reference to the surrounding of Jerusalem by armies in verse 20 of our text. The problem is this: what event did Jesus describe when he foresaw a siege of Jerusalem? Was it the attack on Jerusalem mounted by the Roman armies in AD 70? If so, why does the coming of the Son of Man seem to happen in immediate connection with the crisis in Jerusalem?
Various attempts have been made to explain the puzzle. Some skeptics, who do not seem to be worried that Jesus made a serious mistake, say that he expected to return shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Being limited in his understanding, as they think, Jesus was wrong to expect his return shortly after AD 70. Other commentators feel that Jesus described both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age without telling us that centuries might elapse between the two events. A more recent “solution” — if that is the right word — is to maintain that Jesus threatened the end of the age in AD 70, but only if there was no response to the Apostolic message. Since many did accept the Christian message, the world was allowed to continue. This seems to be very far-fetched.
We will delay trying to resolve our problem at this stage and look briefly at the parallel accounts of Jesus’ prophecy given by Matthew 24 and Mark 13. In any study of Jesus’ teaching it is wise to compare the parallel passages because they almost always throw light on each other. The marginal references supplied in many Bibles are most useful for finding the corresponding material in the other gospels.
If we start with Matthew 24, we should turn first to the 15th verse of that chapter which corresponds to the first verse of our text — Luke 21:20. We notice at once that Matthew describes the appearance of the “Abomination of Desolation” in the holy place as the trigger for an awful period of trouble described as “great tribulation” in verse 21. “Immediately after” the time of trouble, verse 29 says, “the sun will be darkened” and Christ will return in splendor (v. 30). Certainly if we read this account as little children, without any preconceived ideas about what it ought to mean, we find that Jesus described a complex of events — Abomination of Desolation, Tribulation, Heavenly Signs, and Second Coming, all destined to happen in quick succession, just before the Son of Man appears. What gave us this impression were the words “immediately after” in verse 29, linking the time of distress with the cosmic disturbances and the arrival of the Son of Man.
Let us go now to Mark’s version to see whether he confirms our impression. Instead of the words “immediately after,” he writes “in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light...and then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory” (Mark 13:24-26). Mark presents us with exactly the same connected sequence.
Back to our text in Luke 21. I think we will have to agree that the outline of the story given by Luke is very much like Matthew’s and Mark’s. The movement of thought is essentially the same. Luke also describes a single complex of events, comprising an unparalleled time of distress, cosmic signs and then the dramatic arrival of the Son of Man. Luke gives us a picture of the scene external to the city while Matthew and Mark point to an abomination in the Temple. Note that Luke’s description of the time of trouble has a finality about it: these are “days of vengeance in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled” (Luke 21:22). Jerusalem’s suffering will be caused by Gentile nations who will trample the capital under foot — but for a limited time only, “until,” as verse 24 says, “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Following the time of tribulation the signs announcing the Second Coming will appear in heaven. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, allows for no chasm of intervening time between the attack on Jerusalem and the end of the age.
The close chronological connection between the fall of Jerusalem and the return of Jesus has caused commentators great difficulty, as has also Jesus’ solemn statement in verse 32 of our text that “this generation will not pass until these things take place.” Did Jesus then expect to return within a generation? And how shall we resolve the problem posed by his association of an event in AD 70 with the end?
It will be wise to accept the prophecy at face value and understand that Jesus expected a final siege of Jerusalem just before his return. That is certainly what he describes. Were these events to take shape in our own time (and no one of course should try to set dates) there would be no reason, given the present Middle East situation, why there should not be a climax to the struggle for power in Israel involving other nations and perhaps the major powers. We cannot compel Jesus to have described the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70! Moreover, scholars have shown that what actually happened in AD 70 in Jerusalem — the attack on the city and the flight of the church to Pella — does not correspond closely to what Jesus describes. This gives us further reason to think that Jesus had in mind a crisis in Israel just prior to his return, not in AD 70.
Confirmation that we are right to read our text according to its natural sequence comes from the book of Daniel. It is not always realized, due to a general neglect of the Old Testament, that Jesus, in describing events leading up to his return, did not, so to speak, “pull his prophecy out of the air.” There was already a well-defined basis for knowing the future, and it was found in the Old Testament prophets, especially in the visions given to Daniel in the 6th century BC. Much harm has been done to the Bible by people who pride themselves on having a “modern scientific worldview” which does not find acceptable the notion of predictive prophecy. There is no reason at all, however, to think that Jesus shared this “modern” outlook. He obviously treats Daniel, as did many of his contemporaries, as a book of predictions concerned with the events of the end-time.
We do not have time, obviously, to examine the book of Daniel in detail, but we can simply point out that Daniel 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 provide us with a description of a terrible anti-Christian tyrant on the rampage, trying to destroy Temple worship and persecuting the saints for a period described cryptically as “a time, times, and half a time,” or some 3 1/2 years. Remarkably, this period appears several times again in the book of Revelation showing that Jesus and John shared a common idea of future events following the information given to Daniel. We can add that Paul, too, in II Thessalonians 2 described a final time of trouble under the shadow of a Satanic human figure. And Paul’s description goes back to Daniel 11.
In our passage in Luke, we learned that Jerusalem is to be trampled down until the times of the Gentiles are complete, that is, until Jerusalem is rescued by the Son of Man arriving as Luke (21:31) and Daniel (2:44) say, to set up the Kingdom. Very probably, in speaking of the times of the Gentiles, Jesus was relying on a verse in Daniel 7:25 which predicts that the Gentile tyrant will oppress the holy people for “a time, times and half a time.” Luke speaks of “wrath to this people” (21:23). Again, Luke describes the prelude to the arrival of Jesus as “days of vengeance in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” Daniel 8:19 had spoken of the “final period of indignation” connected with “the time of the end.” Luke’s and Jesus’ reliance on Daniel is unmistakable.
There are still other echoes of Old Testament prophecy in Luke 21:20-33. A passage in Isaiah 5:30, describing an attack by Assyria, seems to have supplied material for Luke’s phrase “perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25). Isaiah had predicted that the invading nation (Assyria) “shall growl over Israel in that day like the roaring of the sea. If one looks to the land, behold there is darkness and distress; even the light is darkened by the clouds.” The expression “in that day” is used with great frequency in the Old Testament to describe the Day of the Lord.
You will be wondering what Jesus meant by his remarkable promise that “this generation will not pass until all things come to pass.” Would not his audience have understood him to mean that those listening would survive to see the difficult times and the great Day itself? A Western 20th-century audience might well so understand the word “generation.” But linguists have shown that New Testament writers using Greek words found in the Old Testament Greek Bible — the Septuagint — might well mean by “generation” something like “evil age.” So Jesus may very well be saying: “This evil age, in which society is opposed to God, will not come to an end until all the distressing events leading to the end are finished.” The word “generation” does not therefore necessarily mean a limited period of 40 or 70 years. Reading it without reference to its Hebrew background has led some to fix on certain dates in this century for the Second Coming — with disastrous results.
A second question may come to mind. Why did Jesus speak earlier of the destruction of the Jerusalem of his day? Can he really have meant the destruction of a city existing much later? It is characteristic of the Hebrew mind that it can think of various temples on a single site as one Temple — a kind of “corporate” temple. We find this principle illustrated in Haggai 2 where “this temple” meant not only a past but also a present and future house of God on the same site. It is possible for Jesus to combine the destruction of the city and temple of the far future with a reference to the city existing in his time.
A third issue that has claimed much too much attention in some “fundamentalist” circles is the question about the presence of Christians in the “time of distress.” Much juggling of texts and many exegetical feats have persuaded some that Jesus would return before the tribulation period to remove Christians to heaven. Luke’s simple sequence of events can help us resolve the question. It is when Christians witness the chaotic events associated with the time of trouble and the following cosmic disturbances that they are to “lift up [their] heads because [their] redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Luke certainly knew nothing of a so-called “pre-tribulation rapture.” His close colleague, Paul, wrote urgently to the Thessalonians to explain that “the coming of the Lord and our gathering together to him” could not happen until after the arrival of the Antichrist whom Jesus would destroy at his coming (II Thess. 2:1-3, 8). This passage, which supplements Luke 21, should be studied carefully. Paul has actually anticipated the 19th- and 20th-century idea that Christ will return in two stages —and refuted it!
What are the practical implications of all this for Christians today? First we should realize that Jesus and the early Christians set us an example by their eager longing for the Second Coming. Rather than thinking of death as an escape from the body to heaven, they looked forward to the resurrection and the time when the earth would be liberated from all its oppression and insecurity. This could only happen when the Kingdom of God was perfectly realized on earth. And it depended on the return of Jesus. Hence their strong emphasis on that great future climax in history.
There are psychological benefits in possessing a confident view of the future. The mass of data provided by the Bible in regard to the future of the world is there for good reason. Christians are not supposed to be in the dark about God’s purpose in history. If they often express uncertainty about where the world is going, it is because of neglect of the essential information given by Scripture. The root of the problem is the Greek orientation to “last things” which began to control the thinking of the Church soon after the death of the Apostles. “My impression,” says a scholar writing about the “last things,” “is that the consensus of opinion in the Church is still more dominated by an extra-Christian idea of the immortality of the soul, than by any conception formed after listening faithfully to the New Testament witness” (Neill Hamilton, “The Last Things in the Last Decade,” Interpretation, April, 1960). How true that is!
The Church must learn to listen to everything that Jesus has to say, including his instructions in Luke 21. If we have lost some essential part of the Christian vision, our text will prompt us to regain it. This does not mean that we should set dates or try to identify the European Union or the world banking system with the Antichrist. Some contemporary systems of theology, well known in America, forget that the Bible does not predict events in Europe, though it does deal with the future of Israel and surrounding nations just before the return of Christ. For some time students of prophecy have been locked into a rather curious idea that Daniel spoke of a revived Roman Empire in our time. The subject of his vision was in fact the great empires occupying the territory of ancient Babylon. It is from that geographical arena in Asia that he expected a final tyrant to emerge as the climax of human evil. His career would be ended by the advent of the Kingdom of God in power (Dan. 11:45, Luke 21:31). Luke’s Christianity was informed by a rich heritage in Old Testament prophecy, much of which has simply been disregarded by churches. The challenge to rediscover the Christian message about the future faces all of us.
The coming of peace on earth, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, is the subject of the famous prayer which Jesus taught us: Thy Kingdom come! It is the prospect of taking part in that Kingdom which should spur every believer on to holy living and separation from the counter-kingdom of Satan. This is the practical purpose of sermons on the Olivet discourse — to hold out to us and to the world the hope of a glorious future for our earth, and to forewarn us and our children of what surely must come to pass. In preparing for the great Day, whether we meet it by surviving till Jesus comes or through death and resurrection, let us “be diligent to be found by him in peace, spotless and blameless” (II Pet. 3:14), “fixing our hope completely on the grace to be brought to us at the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:13).
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