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Luke 21:5-19 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 19-21. IN THE TEMPLE
Since his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (19:28-40), Jesus’ activities have centered on the temple, where he:
• Cleansed the temple (19:45-46).
• Taught and answered hostile questioners (19:47-48; 20:1-8, 20-40).
• Gave the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, pointing to his death at the hands of the keepers of the temple—and concluding with the verse about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone (20:9-19).
• Denounced the scribes (20:45-47).
• Commended the generosity of the poor widow (21:1-4).
The discourse, beginning at 21:5, continues through the chapter. Our Gospel lesson takes in the first half of the discourse.
Luke wrote this Gospel a decade or more after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. To gain an appreciation of the impact that those events must have had on the early church, we have only to remember September 11. What if all of New York City had been destroyed instead of just two buildings! Even a decade afterwards (Luke writes this Gospel a decade after the fall of Jerusalem), that would be fresh in our minds as a turning point in our history.
This story has parallels in Mark 13:5-37 and Matthew 24:1-36. Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written, and Matthew and Luke use it as one of their sources.
LUKE 21:5-6. EVERY STONE WILL BE THROWN DOWN
5As some were talking about the temple and how it was decorated with beautiful stones and gifts, he said, 6“As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.”
“As some were talking about the temple and how it was decorated with beautiful stones and gifts” (v. 5). This is the third temple. Solomon built the first temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. When the Jews returned from their captivity in Babylonia, they built the second temple—a remarkable work of faith but inferior to the original temple. Herod tore down that temple in 20 B.C. to make room for his temple—the one that the disciples admire here.
Herod’s temple, already under construction for forty-six years (John 2:20), will not be completed until 63 A.D, but is nonetheless magnificent. It is sited on a prominence in Jerusalem, which itself is sited on a mountain. Josephus tells us that the facade is a hundred cubits (150 feet —45 meters) wide and high—as high as a fifteen-story building. He tells of huge white stones as large as 25 x 8 x 12 cubits (37 x 12 x 18 feet or 11.5 x 3.5 x 5.5 meters). Furthermore, he says that, “being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.” Its furnishings are as lavish as the building itself.
“As for these things which you see” (v. 6a). The disciples see the external adornment, but fail to see the spiritual bankruptcy behind the facade—the hypocrisy (11:37-54)—the oppression (18:7; 20:47)—the rejection of the Messiah and the Gospel (13:33-34; 20:13-18; Acts 13:46-48; 18:5-6; 28:25-28)—and the impending death of God’s Son at the hands of the religious authorities (9:22; 18:31-33; 19:47; 20:14-19; 22:1-2, 52; 23:1-25) (Stein, 521; Bock 334).
“the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down” (v. 6b). Six centuries earlier, God called Jeremiah to warn the people of Jerusalem to change their ways so that God would continue to dwell with them. Jeremiah was to proclaim, “Don’t trust in lying words, saying, The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, are these” (Jeremiah 7:4). God asked, “Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jeremiah 7:11)—a verse to which Jesus alluded in his own cleansing of the temple (Luke 19:46). The people failed to heed Jeremiah’s warning, and the city and temple were destroyed and the people taken into captivity.
In 19:41-44, Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem. Now he predicts the destruction of the temple. Once, again the problem is the faithlessness of the people. Jesus’ prophecy will be fulfilled a few decades later, in 70 A.D. in when the Jews will rebel against the Romans and will be punished by a siege. The city, initially a refuge for its citizens, will become a trap as the siege tightens. The inhabitants will be reduced to cannibalism. Most of them will die; the rest will be taken into captivity; and the temple will be utterly destroyed (Barclay, 269).
But another temple will rise in its place—”built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22) (Scherer, 361).
As we examine these verses, we must find the Golden Mean between those, on the one hand, who would say that Jesus intended these words for New York City and the World Trade Center buildings, and those, on the other hand, who would say that there is nothing of importance here for today. What lessons might we draw from these verses? Consider the following, and then compile your own list:
• God reserves especially harsh judgment for those who hide behind a facade of empty religious practice.
• Even the finest religious buildings have no value unless people faithfully do God’s will. Our cities are cluttered with once magnificent but now nearly empty church buildings whose congregations failed in their Great Commission—failed to reach out with the Gospel—failed to love their neighbors and to serve their community.
• Even our most magnificent works—even those that seem most enduring—are but for a moment.
LUKE 21:7-8. WHEN?—WHAT SIGN?
7They asked him, “Teacher, so when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are about to happen?” 8He said, “Watch out that you don’t get led astray, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is at hand.’ Therefore don’t follow them.“
“Teacher, so when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are about to happen?”(v. 7). Faced with any disaster, we ask: When? What should we watch for? How will we know? How can we prepare? What can we do? How can we escape?
In verses 9-11, Jesus gives the disciples three signs for which the disciples can watch:
• False prophets
• Political chaos and
• Natural disasters
The question is whether the events of verses 8 ff. point to the destruction of Jerusalem or the Second Coming. Scholars tend to agree that it is the destruction of Jerusalem (Evans, 307; Henrich, 450; Stein, 514).
“Watch out that you don’t get led astray, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is at hand.’ Therefore don’t follow them” (v. 8). The destruction of Jerusalem will be brought about by people following false prophets. Zealots will lead an insurrection against the Romans—a fatal move. Rome will destroy them.
Luke, in the book of Acts, records three instances of false prophets: Theudas led four hundred followers to a disastrous insurrection (Acts 5:36). Judas the Galilean did likewise (Acts 5:37). An unnamed Egyptian led four thousand followers to insurrection (Acts 21:38).
Our nation has no dearth of false prophets, both religious and political. Some claim to know when the world will end. Others predict disaster. Some are demagogues, preying on our fears. Others promote a Prosperity Gospel—”believe and grow rich.” Some promote secular materialism—a gospel of stocks, bonds, real estate, and quick-rich schemes—as if money were the answer. Still others promote hedonism, such as “The Playboy Philosophy,” as if pleasure were the answer. Others promote fitness, as if health were the answer. All ultimately fail us, some disastrously.
LUKE 21:9-11. TERRORS AND GREAT SIGNS FROM HEAVEN
9“When you hear of wars and disturbances, don’t be terrified, for these things must happen first, but the end won’t come immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11There will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues in various places. There will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”
Verse 28 promises a great banquet in Christ’s kingdom, but first there will be terrible times—war, political chaos, and natural disasters. Knowing that redemption is coming we need not be terrified. Jesus does not, however, promise life without pain. Rather than promising escape from hardship, he offers spiritual resources to cope with it.
“When you hear of wars and disturbances, don’t be terrified, for these things must happen first, but the end won’t come immediately” (v. 9). Events might seem catastrophic, but we need not fear that God has quit the field. His divine plan will ultimately prevail.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues in various places. There will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (vv. 10-11). Jesus’ imagery here is rooted in Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 29:6; 51:19; Ezekiel 36:29-30; 38:19; Amos 8:11; Zechariah 14:5)
LUKE 21:12-15. THEY WILL PERSECUTE YOU
12“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you up (Greek: paradidontes— from paradidomi) to synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13It will turn out as a testimony (Greek: marturion) for you. 14Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to withstand or to contradict.”
“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you” (v. 12a). “Before all these things” means “before the destruction of the temple” rather than “before the Second Coming.” In the book of Acts, Luke will report the fulfillment of these prophecies:
• The arrest of disciples (Acts 4:3; 5:17-18; 12:1-5; 21:27-36).
• Persecution of Christians, with Saul as one of the chief persecutors (Acts 7:52; 8:3; 9:5; 12:1-2; 22:4, 7-8; 26:9-11, 14-15)
• Problems with synagogues (Acts 6:9; 9:2; 13:44-51; 17:1-5; 18:4-7; 19:8-9; 22:19; 26:11)
• Problems with kings and governors (Acts 12:1; 23:24, 26, 33; 24:1, 10; 25:13-14, 23-24, 26; 26:2)
The phrase translated “arrest you” in the NRSV is literally “lay their hands on you.” Luke will use this same phrase to describe the desire to lay their hands on Jesus (20:19) and to lay their hands on Christians (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:1; 21:27).
“delivering you up (paradidontes—from paradidomi) to synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake” (v. 12b). “Delivering you up” (paradidomi—sometimes translated “handed over” or “betrayed”) will be used of the betrayal of Jesus (9:44; 18:32; 24:7) and the betrayal of Jesus’ followers (21:12, 16; Acts 21:11; 28:17).
“It will turn out as a testimony (marturion) for you” (v. 13). Arrest and persecution will provide the disciples with opportunity to testify (marturion—transliterated “martyr” in English because of the martyrdom of early Christians).
“Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate beforehand how to answer” (v. 14). Jesus counsels the disciples not to worry about what they will say when the time comes. Any human preparation that they might make will prove far inferior to the divine inspiration that Christ will provide them as it is needed. Their best preparation will not be in compiling a defense but in aligning themselves with the will of God.
“for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to withstand or to contradict” (v. 15). Christians need not worry about what they will say, because Jesus will give them unassailable words of wisdom. Again, this is fulfilled in Acts:
• Peter and John will be arrested and will use the occasion to witness to the council (Acts 4:1-22). The council will be amazed at their testimony and will order them not to speak of Jesus further, but fear of the people will thwart them from imposing more severe measures.
• Peter and the apostles will be arrested, but an angel will release them so that they can continue teaching in the temple. When re-arrested, they will say, “We must obey God rather than men,” and proceed to preach to the council. The council will want to kill them, but Gamaliel will persuade them to let them go, saying, “…if this counsel…is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it” (Acts 5:17-42).
• Stephen will preach a long and powerful sermon to the council, leading to his martyrdom (Acts 7).
• Paul and Silas will be arrested and flogged, but they will sing hymns in prison. An earthquake will free them, but they will remain in prison, converting the jailer and his household. When the authorities try to release them, Paul and Silas will assert their Roman citizenship and protest their wrongful arrest, forcing the authorities to apologize (Acts 16:16-40).
• Paul will use various arrests to testify to his faith (Acts 22:1-21; 23:1-6; 24:10-21; 26:2-29).
“for I will give you a mouth and wisdom” (v. 15a). Christians have witnessed powerfully to their faith in the midst of persecution on countless occasions. Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come immediately to mind, but much Christian witness today takes place unheralded today, especially in Third World countries. Even if not persecuted, we bear witness to Christ anytime we bear adversity with grace.
In Western nations, few of us have suffered for our faith, but we should not imagine that it could not happen. Fundamentalist Muslims are determined to impose their faith worldwide, and have proven willing to use violence to do so.
LUKE 21:16-19. BY YOUR ENDURANCE, YOU WILL WIN YOUR LIVES
16“You will be handed over even by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will cause some of you to be put to death. 17You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake. 18And not a hair of your head will perish. 19‘By your endurance you will win your lives.'”
“You will be handed over even by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends” (v. 16a). Earlier, Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God, and do it” (8:21). He warned, “If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple”(14:26). He calls us to put discipleship not just above bad things, but also above good things such as family.
There appears to be a contradiction in these verses. Jesus says, “They will cause some of you to be put to death” (v. 16b), but then promises, “And not a hair of your head will perish” (v. 18). In the book of Acts, Luke will record the deaths of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), James (Acts 12:2), and possibly others (Acts 22:4), so it is clear that disciples will suffer and die for the Gospel. In v. 18, Jesus may be assuring them that the church will not be diminished by persecution—or that those who kill the body “no more that they can do” (12:4).
“By your endurance you will win your lives” (v. 19). If faced with persecution and/or death, how can we endure? It will help if we have counted the cost of discipleship rather than assuming that discipleship will be comfortable (14:26-33). It will also help to remember this promise—that by our endurance we will gain our souls.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
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Henrich, Sarah, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (GrandRapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Holladay, William L., Proclamation 6: Pentecost 3, Series C
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Lueking, F. Dean, “Gaining one’s soul,” Christian Century, Nov. 4, 1998
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Sloyan, Gerard S. and Kee, Howard Clark, Proclamation: Pentecost 3, Series C (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; and McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C: After Pentecost (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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