(A) Introduction.

I usually provide an opportunity in the introduction to read the passage under consideration. However, because I will quote at length what Jesus said about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world in the course of this exposition I do not think on this occasion it is necessary.

The subjects under consideration are not ones I approach with much enthusiasm for several reasons. These include:

(1) The signs preceding the fall of Jerusalem and the second coming of Jesus only seem strictly relevant to two generations - the generations alive to witness them! For the greater part of mankind their only significance is as an indicator that the last times are not yet imminent.

(2) Commentators interpret this passage in different ways. Some like Tom Wright argue that almost all of it applies to the fall of Jerusalem. More conservative evangelical scholars consider that Jesus deals rather with two great discontinuities: the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world.

I think it is best to trust the Scriptures. Matthew makes it clear that the disciples asked Jesus when the Temple would be destroyed and also: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age." Mt24v3. Jesus answered both questions although in Matthew's and Mark's gospels it is not altogether obvious when he finished with one and started on the other. It is clearer in Luke.

(3) Some Christians are obsessed with the signs heralding the end of the world. For nearly 2000 years a certain kind of believer has been forecasting that the end is nigh. I suppose I have reacted against this by largely ignoring the subject!

(B) Impermanence and permanence.

(1) Impermanence.

The passage deals with 3 things that seemed sure to last but have, or will, prove impermanent. The Jews expected the Temple to last to the end of time. It was built to last of huge slabs of marble. Columns 40 feet high were made from one single block of stone. The Temple was the headquarters of the Jewish religion, God's house - a place of prayer and sacrifice for his elect people. Yet Jesus said: "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." Lk21v6.

Today most people in Western Europe believe the earth will last for millions of years and the universe for billions. To all intents and purposes they are indestructible and there is nothing for anyone to worry about. But Jesus said: "Heaven and earth will pass away." Lk21v35. Peter wrote: But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 2Pet3v10.

Some of the things we reckon to be 'as safe as houses,' turn out to be, well, 'as safe as houses.' Houses catch fire, the Titanic sank, banks crash, empires end, political systems fail and the grammar schools were abolished. (The latter caught me out!!) The words of the hymn are true: Change and decay in all around I see.

(2) Permanence.

There are very few things that will last beyond time. Paul wrote of love: Love never fails. ICor13v8. Jesus said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." v33. His words prevail whatever happens. This means that all who believe in him will: "Be able to stand before the Son of Man." v36. Believers will stand and not be destroyed because Christ's promises endure - promises like: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." Jn3v36.

The collective permanence of Christians is well expressed by John Newton's fine hymn:

          Glorious things of thee are spoken,
          Zion, city of our God!
          He, whose word cannot be broken,
          Formed thee for His own abode.
          On the Rock of Ages founded,
          What can shake thy sure repose?
          With salvation's walls surrounded,
          Thou mayest smile at all thy foes.

(C) Normality and abnormality.

(1) Normality. See verses 8 to 19.

The conditions described in verses 8 to 19 are what have been experienced throughout history. They are what were experienced by the Jews from Christ's death to the fall of Jerusalem and by everyone from the destruction of Jerusalem to the present day. Jesus gives advice on how to cope with these troubles:

    (a) Religious charlatans. "For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and 'The time is near.'" v8.

    For the last 2000 years up to the fall of Jerusalem and unto this day there have been innumerable cult leaders and messianic figures. Many have made false predictions about the end of the world. The advice Jesus gave is simple: "Do not follow them." v8. Far too many have ignored Jesus' advice and paid a terrible price for doing so. See article on Jim Jones in Wikipedia.

    There will be no possible doubt about Christ's return to earth. Jesus said: "At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." Lk21v27. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 1Thes4v16.

    (b) International disasters. "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven." v10and11.

    Every person who lives witnesses these in some measure. In the last few years there has been; war in Afghanistan, an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, floods and famine in Pakistan, and an ongoing AIDS epidemic in Africa.

    What does Jesus say our reaction should be? "When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away."

    Do not be frightened! But we do get frightened - too quickly - and we in Britain live in one of the safest countries on earth. Christians get panicky about a flu epidemic, shortage of energy, terrorism, nuclear disaster and global warming. You name it, the media talk it up and people get scared.

    One of the reason Christians should never despair is because there is going to be a world and a people of God for Jesus to return too!

    (c) Persecution by the authorities. "But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors and all on account of my name." v12.

    It is possible the word, 'before,' is used here to mean, 'taking precedence over.'

    Christians were persecuted by Jew and Gentile alike before the destruction of Jerusalem. This is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's epistles. Paul was chased out of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea in quick succession. Since then there never has been a period when Christians were not persecuted for the faith somewhere in the world. In the August 2010 issue of EN there are items about pastors being beaten by Hindu extremists in India, oppression of Christians in North Korea, Muslim landlords evicting Christian residents in Pakistan, the destruction of churches in Chengnan, China and so on.

    What does Jesus say about persecution? He said: "This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict." v15.

    Jesus instructs us to have a positive attitude! Persecution will provide an opportunity for Christians to witness to their opponents and in such circumstances the Holy Spirit will give words and wisdom to speak in defence of the gospel. This was true when Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin. When the members of the Jewish Council saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. Acts4v13. After the two disciples were told to stop speaking in the name of Jesus they replied: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." Acts4v19to20..

    The great apostle Paul albeit taken prisoner was able to testify before Felix, Festus and King Agrippa. Later he was able to witness to the whole palace guard that he was in chains for Christ.

    Anne Askew was able to witness boldly for her Lord in the most terrible of circumstances. On July 16th 1545 she was burned at the stake after torture on the rack at the tender age of 25. When invited to recant she replied, "I am not come hither to deny my Lord and Master."

    (d) Rejection by family and friends. "You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me." v16

    This is not a pleasant prospect - to be despised, ridiculed, held in contempt and hated by family and friends - because of an allegiance to Jesus. During the Nazi occupation of Holland Christians who sheltered Jews were betrayed by their neighbours. While Stalin ruled the Soviet Union Christians and others were denounced by family members and taken away to the Gulag.

    What does Jesus say? He encouraged his disciples with these words: "But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life." v18.

    Jesus asserted that even if a Christian is killed because of their faith, he or she will not perish. Anyone faithfully professing Christ and standing firm whatever the consequences will gain eternal life. Numerous martyrs through the centuries have been sustained by the promise: "You will gain life."

(2) Abnormality. See v20 and v25 and 26.

Jesus taught that abnormal or distinctive signs would occur for short periods to signify major discontinuities. He described two such periods:

    (a) Before the destruction of the Temple. In this case the sign was: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know its destruction is near." v21.

    Jesus advised people to respond to the sign in the following words: "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city." v21. This is the plainest possible indication that when the Roman legions surrounded Jerusalem a successful defence was impossible.

    (b) Before the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world.

    • Although no one knows the precise time of Christ's second coming - for he will come as a thief in the night - there will be a warning as the day fast approaches.

      The phrase: "Until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" leads into the signs indicating that the end draws near. The events heralding the second coming of Jesus are worrying to a degree quite unlike any that have preceded them. This is why I cannot accept that Jesus is using the language of the Psalms: Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall. Ps46v6. Nations have always been in uproar and many kingdoms have fallen without causing the reaction described by Jesus: "Nations will be in anguish and perplexity .... . Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world." v26.

      The only events likely to cause world-wide terror are of the sort described by Jesus. That is why I take his words literally - because this makes most sense of the reaction predicted. So before the end: "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken." Mt24v29.

      If a huge asteroid crashed into the moon it might change its orbit around the earth and have an effect upon the tides which would explain the roaring and tossing of the sea. v25 It might also produce a huge plume of dust that could influence the appearance of the moon and sun.

      Nothing would frighten mankind more than major changes to the solar system. It would be a real cause for panic.

    • It is likely that the time from the onset of the signs to the second coming of Jesus will be short. Jesus said: When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Lk21v28. Jesus told the parable of the fig tree to emphasise this point: "When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near." v30and31.

      When Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." I believe he is referring to the generation that witnesses the signs in the sun, moon and stars. v25.

    • What should be our response if we are alive when the signs of Christ's second coming begin? Jesus said we mustn't be so preoccupied with life - its pleasures, cares and interests that we are not ready for his return. "Be careful or your heart will be weighed down with disruption, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap." v34. We need to watch and pray when the signs appear and that could be at any time. Christians should be on high alert for Jesus second coming. "Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen." v36.

(D) Destruction and deliverance.

As it applies to:

(1) The Temple in Jerusalem. See v21to24.

Jesus told the disciples who so admired the splendour of the temple: "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; everyone of them will be thrown down." v6.

This is what happened! The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and set fire to the Temple. The Jewish historian Josephus estimated that 1.1 million people died and 97 thousand were taken captive. The Jewish nation was obliterated and for 2000 years the Jews survived, dispersed among the nations of the world. This was God's judgment on the city that rejected his Son. It was also the inevitable consequence of the Jew's fanatical nationalism, their pride and obduracy.

Those that heeded the advice of Jesus escaped. Many of the local Christians fled to Pella one of the cities of Decapolis situated in trans-Jordan.

(2) The end of the world. See v27, 28, 34 to 36.

The end is coming and for many Jesus' words will come true: "And that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap." v34.

Heaven and earth will pass away and so, too, will all those who reject Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Peter wrote: By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. 2Pet3v7.

But just as some escaped the judgment of Jerusalem so many will escape Christ's judgment at the second coming. Christians welcome the return of Jesus. "At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing nigh." v27and28

The writer to the Hebrews expressed it in these words: He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Heb9v28.

Peter puts it like this: But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 2Pet3v13.

Or in the words of Paul: And so we will be with the Lord forever. 1Thes4v16to17.

See exposition on 1Cor15v12to34 and 1Cor15v35to58 and Heaven and hell.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net