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The structures of earthly empires often are very impressive. They give the sense that they and what they represent will last forever. Visiting the great ruins of civilizations from Babylon to the Aztecs, one imagines the people must have assumed that their glory would endure forever. Humanity tends to suffer from delusions of immortality.
The rebuilt temple of Herod created such an impression. When the disciples praised its grandeur to Jesus (v. 5), the temple was in the midst of an eighty-three-year building program. Started about 20 B.C., it continued until A.D. 63-64, just a few years before Jerusalem's fall in A.D. 70. Assuming an A.D. 33 date for the crucifixion, the program was over fifty years old at the time the disciples marveled at it. The temple clearly made a deep impression on all who visited it. Josephus gives detailed descriptions of its beauty (Jewish Wars 1.21.1 401; 5.5.1-6 184-227; Antiquities 15.11.1-7 380-425). The Roman historian Tacitus also describes the temple as containing great riches (History 5.8.1). Some of its stones were 12 to 60 feet in length, 7.5 feet in height and 9 feet in width (Josephus Jewish Wars 5.5.1-2 189-90 gives these measurements in cubits; a cubit is eighteen inches). The temple loomed over the city like a "snow clad mountain" (Josephus Jewish Wars 5.5.6 223). Not only was the building impressive, but it was decorated with gifts from other countries and had elegantly adorned doors and gates of fine craftsmanship (Josephus Jewish Wars 5.5.3-5 206-18).
No wonder the disciples felt national pride as they surveyed the awesome temple, exclaiming at its beautiful stones and . . . gifts dedicated to God. Surely something so magnificent and God-honoring, something that had taken so long to build, would last a very long time. God's presence finally had a secure home.
Jesus' response must have come like a knife in the heart: "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down." It is hard for us to appreciate the effect on Jewish ears of what Jesus predicts here. When Jesus speaks of "days coming" or a time coming, he is predicting in prophetic terms the arrival of judgment, just like the one Israel had experienced (Jer 7:1-14; 22:5; 27:6; 52:12-13; on the phrase see Lk 5:35; 17:22; 19:43; 23:29). The magnificent temple, the center of the nation's worship and the sacred locale of God's presence, will be destroyed and turned into a heap of rubble. Centuries of worship and years of reconstruction will be brought to an end. The only way this can occur is if Jerusalem is overrun.
Be assured, Jesus tells the disciples, these things are not permanent. The phrase these things (tauta) becomes central to the discourse, since the disciples ask in verse 7 when these things will be: "What will be the sign that they are about to take place?" When will the temple's destruction come, along with the city's devastation?
The broad scope of the question is significant, since a judgment of Jerusalem that wipes out the temple suggests a time of great catastrophe and a turning point in the nation's history (Danker 1988:330). Such an event can only signal that God's plan for the nation is moving along. Though Luke's form of this question is more focused on the temple than the questions in Matthew 24:3 and Mark 13:4, its implications clearly cover the same span.
Two features of this discourse should not be overlooked. First, in verses 8-12 Jesus works from the end backwards and then in verse 25 leaps forward again in time, beyond Jerusalem's destruction to the end. Such a rewinding backwards in time is clear in light of the statement in verse 9 that the end will not come right away and the note in verse 12 that before all this—that is, the events of verses 8-11—other things will occur. With verse 12 and following, Jesus moves forward again, toward the description of Jerusalem's fall and the persecution that will accompany it. The issues of the end and the return of the Son of Man are deferred mostly until verse 25, with the reference to the times of the Gentiles in verse 24 serving as a transition into Jesus' statements about the end times. After Jerusalem falls, the period of Gentile rule will continue until the Son of Man returns.
Second, the events of the end and those of Jerusalem's fall are presented side by side in the entire discourse, as is typical in prophetic presentation, even though we can now look back and know that the events are separated by a large period of time. Such prophetic foreshortening is designed to indicate that one event mirrors and is linked to the other. When the initial event occurs, Jesus' followers can be assured that the rest is coming. But—and this is the key point—for the initial listeners it would be next to impossible to distinguish the times of these mirrored events. More important than these events' time relationship to each other is their linkage in meaning. Both the end and Jerusalem's fall are part of the divine movement toward fulfillment of promise. Anyone originally hearing Jesus' discourse might have assumed the end would come with Jerusalem's fall, but the real indication of the end is not Jerusalem's fall but the return of the Son of Man.
So Jesus warns first about events that are not yet the end. Messianic pretenders will abound, so the disciples must not be deceived. "Do not follow them." Josephus describes such claims in Jewish Wars 6.5.2-3 285-88, 300-309. In addition, social chaos, civil turmoil, wars and other tumultuous events will precede the end. The disciples should not be surprised when the world is in chaos. There is no need for alarm. These things must take place (the must here is the dei of divine decree). Paul expresses a parallel concept when he speaks of creation groaning until redemption is complete (Rom 8:18-25). Sin will be with us until Christ returns. Pain and persecution in the world should never surprise us.
Despite the chaos, God's plan is moving on. The end will not come right away. Jesus prepares the disciples for the era to come by reassuring them that worldwide chaos does not mean the cosmos is spinning out of divine control. Such chaos should not cause shock or emotional distress.
Still more chaos will come before the end. Nation will rise against nation, and earthquakes, famines and pestilences will come. All the typology of Jesus' descriptions has roots in judgment scenes of the Old Testament (2 Chron 15:6; Is 14:30; 19:2; 29:6; 51:19; Ezek 36:29-30; 38:19; Amos 8:11; Zech 14:5). Fearful events and great signs from heaven are signs of God's activity. (Mark 13:8 mentions the beginning of birth pangs here, but Luke lacks such explicit apocalyptic language.) In sum, chaos of all sorts will precede the end.
But before all these things will come persecution. Disciples will need to stand prepared for its coming. They will be delivered to "synagogues and prisons . . . brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name." The mention of synagogues shows that the period of the early church is in view. In fact, the initial fulfillment of this prediction comes in Acts, starting after the proclamation of Jesus in chapter 3 leads to arrest and persecution in Acts 4. Virtually every chapter after that describes the persecution of the earliest church.
Luke uses a key term to characterize disciples: witnesses for Jesus (v. 13; compare Acts 1:6-8). Between now and the end, they are called to witness to him. Part of that witness is how they face persecution. From Stephen's martyrdom to the suffering of many in the formerly communist Eastern Europe, testimony to Jesus in the face of persecution has had a compelling impact throughout history.
Again Jesus tells his people not to worry. They need not be overly concerned with how they might defend themselves. They don't need a defense attorney, for Jesus himself will be their defense: "I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict" (compare Acts 4:8-12; 7:54; 26:24-32). Though Jesus does not explain here how this works, Luke 12:11-12 and John 14—16 make clear that the gift alluded to here is the Holy Spirit.
The persecution will be painful, because it will involve parents, brothers, relatives and friends. This is why discipleship requires putting God ahead of family (14:26). Some of God's people will even meet death. Put bluntly, "all men will hate you because of me." Part of the chaos before the capital's fall and before the end is the persecution of those allied to Jesus.
But the disciples will receive comfort. "Not a hair of your head will perish." In light of verse 16, this cannot mean that none of them will die. Rather, it must mean that even if they die, they will live (12:4-7). There is no way real harm will come, since Luke uses the emphatic Greek negative here (ou me). In short, by standing firm with Jesus, one gains life—or to use Luke's language, you will gain life. Thus Luke again emphasizes perseverance. Those who cling to the Word with patience bear fruit (8:15). Luke has made it clear that standing firm requires resolve and counting the cost (14:25-33), properly assessing the cares of life (8:14; 14:15-24) and not overvaluing material possessions or the pleasures of life (8:14; 12:19).
In verse 20 Jesus describes Jerusalem's destruction in detail. The sign of its destruction will come when armies surround it. Jesus had already predicted this in 19:41-44. Because of his focus on the near event of Jerusalem's fall, Luke's version of this discourse does not include certain details from the other Synoptics. He does not include Jesus' words about this being a time of unprecedented tribulation. He does not mention the Lord's decision to cut short these days so humanity will survive. He lacks any comment about events not coming in winter. Most important, he does not discuss "the abomination that causes desolation"; he mentions only its desolation. The focus throughout is the city's destruction, a destruction that encompasses, but is not limited to, the temple. This will be a time of tension, but it is not yet the end. A phrase unique to Luke shows the distinction. Jerusalem will be trampled on until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. The judgment on Jerusalem remains until that time is completed.
When the time of destruction comes, it will be time to flee and hide. Those who are in Judea should head for the mountains, where they can hide in safety, while those in the city should get out. Those in the country should avoid the city. The destruction will be total; the nation will suffer. These events will fulfill all that has been written. The allusion is to prophetic warnings of the price of the nation's covenant unfaithfulness (Deut 28:32; Jer 7:14-26, 30-34; 16:1-9; 17:27; 19:10-15; Mic 3:12; Zeph 1:4-13). The reference to God's pattern of judgment suggests a typological connection here: this judgment is like others before it and like ones that will follow it.
The destruction will be a dreadful time for the most vulnerable people, especially pregnant mothers. Distress and wrath will overwhelm the people and the land (19:44; 23:29). Death and imprisonment will be the fate of many citizens. Jerusalem will be trampled . . . until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. Be assured, Jesus warns, the nation will be judged and the temple abandoned. Israel's fall is not the end of God's plan, however, for one more decisive stage remains.