This prophetic discourse of Jesus is difficult to interpret; first of all, because it is phrased in figurative terms, the exact meaning of which is not always apparent. Again it appears that we have only a partial report of the prophecies then spoken by our Lord; it is necessary to compare the records of Matthew and Mark with the statements here given by Luke, and then to remember that we have probably only a fraction of the whole discourse. In the third place, it is evident that our Lord was describing not one event, but two. He was prophesying the literal overthrow of the holy city by the armies of Rome, but he was using the colors of this tragic scene to paint the picture of his own return in glory. So interwoven are these two series of predictions that it is not always evident whether the reference is to the nearer or to the more remote of these events. While we may note with some definiteness the general outline of the prophecy and while there need be little doubt as to its two outstanding features, namely, the destruction of the city and the return of our Lord, the study of this chapter should be undertaken with humility, and our conclusions should be stated with caution and with reserve. The result need not be bewilderment or despair; it should be encouragement and more confident expectation of the coming of Christ and the ultimate triumph of his cause.
1. The Present Age. Ch.21:5-19
5 And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and offerings, he said, 6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.7 And they asked him, saying, Teacher, when therefore shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are about to come to pass? 8 And he said, Take heed that ye be not led astray: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am he; and, The time is at hand: go ye not after them.9 And when ye shall hear of wars and tumults, be not terrified: for these things must needs come to pass first; but the end is not immediately.
10 Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 and there shall be great earthquakes, and in divers places famines and pestilences; and there shall be terrors and great signs from heaven.12 But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you, and shall persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name's sake.13 It shall turn out unto you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay.16 But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death.17 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake.18 And not a hair of your head shall perish.19 In your patience ye shall win your souls.
The occasion of this prophetic message was the question asked by the disciples, as they gazed on the splendor of the Temple, concerning the destruction of which Jesus had spoken as he declared that the days would come "in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And they asked him, saying, Teacher, when therefore shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are about to come to pass?" In the words of Matthew, they also asked, "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?"
First of all, then, Jesus sketched for his disciples the character of this present age down to its very end, and described the experiences of his followers urging them to be faithful to him amidst all the commotions and trials of the coming years until he should return. According to his description the age will be characterized by the appearance of many deceivers who will claim the allegiance of his followers and assume to take the place of Christ. Furthermore, there will be wars and tumults but by these believers are not to be terrified. It is always a temptation of shallow minds to interpret every unusual event as a sign of the approaching end of the world. Our Lord assured his disciples that all through the passing years such events would happen without warranting the conclusion that the great event is near; as he declared, "The end is not immediately;" there would be a long period of delay; there would be a political commotion, "Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom." There would also be earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and "great signs from heaven," but these again must be regarded as characteristics of the present age and not as signs of its approaching end.
Furthermore, the followers of Christ must suffer bitter persecution and be brought before kings and governors for his name's sake. They must continue steadfast in their testimony. They need not be troubled as to the exact form of their witness but must trust the unseen Master to give them all needed wisdom as they speak boldly in his name.
Most distressing of all, they must suffer from the treachery of "parents and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends" and some of them must taste the bitter cup of martyrdom; they will be hated of all men, yet their souls will not perish. By their steadfast endurance they will win eternal salvation. It is true, the picture is one of great hardship and distress but its message has encouraged sufferers who in all ages have been faithful in their testimony and have found the comfort and inspiration which is possible for all as they look for the coming and Kingdom of Christ.
2. The Destruction of Jerusalem. Ch.21:20-24
20 But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand.21 Then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains; and let them that are in the midst of her depart out; and let not them that are in the country enter therein.22 For these are days of vengeance, that all things are written may be fulfilled.23 Woe unto them that are with child and them that give suck in those days! for there shall be great distress upon the land, and wrath unto this people.24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
As our Lord scanned the future he now fixed his eyes first of all upon that dreadful event which in some of its features foreshadowed the end of that age which he had been describing. On more than one occasion he had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. He now declared that the definite sign of the descending doom would be the siege of the city: "When ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand." He warned those within the city to flee to the mountains and declared that those who were in the country should not turn to the city for safety, because the days of vengeance will have come and the prophecies of punishment upon the guilty nation will be about to be fulfilled. It would be a time of unparalleled distress and horror; as Jesus declared, "They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led captive into all the nations." How literally his words were fulfilled is a familiar fact of history. It would be difficult to recall another scene of equally hideous carnage. It is estimated that a million Jews fell victims to the slaughter and outrage of the soldiers under Titus, and that unnumbered thousands were led as captives to Egypt and other lands.
Last of all Jesus predicted that Jerusalem would be "trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled." The first phrase denotes something more than mere domination and Gentile control; it indicates something of indignity and disgrace and humiliation and this state of the holy city is to continue until "the times of the Gentiles" are fulfilled, which probably means during all the ages of Gentile control, and further, during all the seasons of grace in which the gospel is being preached to the Gentile world, indeed, until the return of our Lord. "Gentiles" are plainly contrasted with Jews, and not with Christians. The mere fact that the sacred city has passed into control of Christian powers is no proof that the age is near its end; for this end there will be definite signs as Jesus himself proceeded to declare. However, as one turns from this lurid picture of the destruction of the historic city, and remembers how exactly these prophecies came to pass, it should be with a new confidence in the further predictions made by Christ and with a new belief that the more significant events of which he next proceeded to speak will be fulfilled likewise with exactness and in all their promised glory.
3. The Coming of Christ. Ch.21:25-28
25 And there shall be signs in the sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows; 26 men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.28 But when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh.
Immediately before the return of our Lord, as the age draws to its close, there are to be certain signs so definite, so startling, and so terrifying, that they will leave no doubt that the predicted event is immediately to follow. They are described, however, in terms which may be largely figurative: "signs in the sun and moon and stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the billows; men fainting for fear ... for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken;" then will occur the event toward which all the ages are moving, for which the weary world has waited and by which the work of the Church will be crowned and her hopes fulfilled, namely, the personal, glorious appearing of the crucified, risen, ascended Lord. It may be a time of distress for the impenitent but for believers it will be a time of hope and expectation. When the signs of which Jesus spoke "begin to come to pass," then, according to the words of Jesus, his followers may hopefully lift up their heads to greet their Deliverer, for their redemption will be at hand. The coming of Christ will be an event unexpected by the world, but Christians will be so definitely warned that they can be looking for the promised deliverance and for the predicted glory.
4. The Encouragement to Hope and Vigilance. Ch.21:29-36
29 And he spake to them a parable: Behold the fig tree, and all the trees: 30 when they now shoot forth, ye see it and know of your own selves that the summer is now nigh.31 Even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh.32 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all things be accomplished.33 Heaven and earth, shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
34 But take heed to yourselves, lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come on you suddenly as a snare: 35 for so shall it come upon all them that dwell on the face of all the earth.36 But watch ye at every season, making supplication, that ye may prevail to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
In speaking of his return in glory, Jesus mentioned certain definite signs by which his followers will know that his coming is near. To explain more clearly the purpose of these "signs," Jesus spoke a brief parable in which he compared their appearance to the foliage put forth in the springtime which becomes a certain harbinger of the summer. Many have supposed that Jesus indicated Israel by his reference to "the fig tree" and have concluded that a revival of Judaism and a return of the Jews to Palestine will be a certain indication that the present age is drawing to its close. Whatever may be predicted elsewhere concerning the Jews, there is no such reference here, for Jesus not only said, "Behold the fig tree," but also, "all the trees." His meaning is perfectly plain. He did not refer to nations under the figure of trees, but he declared that as the foliage is a sure precursor of summer, so the signs of which he spoke are a certain indication of his imminent return. "Even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh," the Kingdom which is to be established in glory at the appearing of our Lord.
Jesus further awakened the expectation of his hearers by the statement, "This generation shall not pass away, till all things be accomplished." It is improbable, as again many have supposed, that Jesus referred to the Hebrew race by the term "this generation." The words are almost certainly to be interpreted in their usual significance and "all things" to be "accomplished" refers to the destruction of Jerusalem regarded as the type and symbol of the return of Christ. These two events are thus closely related in this prophetic discourse and the literal fulfillment of the first gives to believers a more confident assurance of the certain occurrence of the latter: "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away." The hope that our Lord will come is not based on human conjectures, but on his own unfailing predictions. All that is material and temporal may cease to exist, but his promises are eternal.
In view of such glorious prophecies the heart of the Christian is ever to be set upon the gracious realities relating to the coming of the Master. The followers of Christ must be on their guard lest they be overcome by the influences which Jesus described as characterizing the days immediately preceding his return. There will be temptation to self-indulgence and indifference and absorption in worldly cares. Believers are warned to be on their watch lest the coming of Christ overtake them unexpectedly, as indeed it will come upon others. They are urged to watch and to pray that they may be able to escape from those judgments which will break upon a guilty world, and may be counted worthy to take their places in the glorious Kingdom of their Lord.
5. The Historic Statement. Ch.21:37, 38
37 And every day he was teaching in the temple; and every night he went out, and lodged in the mount that was called Olivet.38 And all the people came early in the morning to him in the temple, to hear him.
Luke closes his account of the discourse delivered by Jesus in reference to his return by a statement which summarizes the general conditions which marked the final events of Jesus' earthly ministry. He states that Jesus passed his days teaching in the Temple and spent the nights under the open skies on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, and that the people were so eager to hear him that they resorted to the Temple early each morning. This statement is rather in the nature of a review. It marks a transition in the narrative. In reality, Jesus seems to have returned to the city only once more, when he was arrested and led forth to die. Luke prepares us for these last events. The story has reached its climax.