How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple! The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)! Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down. “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). Jesus’ words struck a nerve. When will these things happen?
Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once. The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands. This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8). This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.
But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment. Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed. But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27). They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered. It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared. So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)? (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29). There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run. God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.
The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness. A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded. But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance. The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat. It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.
Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history. It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end. But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs. The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared. There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead. The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.
Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy. For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful. They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36). But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19). Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.
As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32). The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this. But they also, I think, clarify what He means. Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.” Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it. In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32). Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness. But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.