The closing words of chapter 20 contain a solemn warning to the disciples against the scribes with all their ostentation and pride. This is a shorter version of the terrible denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-39 where the Lord Jesus drew a full-length portrait of their hypocrisy in their presence. It was indeed a solemn climax to this public appearance of Christ in the Temple.
The Evangelist in the next chapter recalls the incident of the Lord watching the rich casting their offerings into the Temple treasury. This is also related by Mark in 12:41-44. There were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the court of the women at the Temple for the reception of free-will offerings, each bearing the name of the special fund to which its contents were devoted. Christ noted a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. He declared:
"I tell you the truth ... this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (verses 3 & 4).
It is not just the amount given that counts, but the sacrifice behind it. The Lord knew that this widow had given all that she had. It was all her livelihood. We do well to remember that He still watches the money gifts of His children.
Luke now gives the account of Christ's teaching concerning the destruction of the Temple and then the events leading to the end of the age and His Second Coming.
In some respects the same teaching is given in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, but Luke inserts a section dealing with the destruction not only of the Temple, but also the city of Jerusalem and this is found in verses 12-24 and does not occur in either Mark 13 or Matthew 24. This must be noted carefully to avoid wrong interpretation.
Again, some of the teaching must have been repeated by the Lord if we notice the time and place that He spoke the words that are recorded by the Evangelists. Luke's account was given as He taught the people in the Temple (Luke 20:1) and in the beginning of chapter 21 He is still there, for He looked up and saw the rich casting their gifts into the Treasury (which was in the Temple precincts) and then He uttered the prophecy which Luke records. But in Matthew 24 we read 'and Jesus went out and departed from the Temple ... and as He sat upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately ...' and then follows the prophecy in which Christ repeats what He has already given and is recorded by Luke.
It is quite amazing how some expositors do not allow for the fact of repetition in the teaching of Christ. Quite a number of His sayings are so important that repetition was absolutely necessary, especially as He was moving from place to place. This surely should not cause any difficulty.
Here in Luke, as in Matthew 24, the disciples were remarking how the Temple was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God (Luke 21:5). This Temple, restored and greatly beautified by Herod, was one of the wonders of the world for magnificence and had not been finished very long. Not only was it of great beauty, but some of the stones in the substructure were enormous. 'The columns of the cloister or portico were monoliths of marble over forty feet high' (Plummer). The whole building as it glistered in the sun was breath-taking. No wonder then the disciples commented on it. Every Jew looked on it as a priceless treasure.
This being so, we can imagine the shock that Christ's next words must have given. He 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." (verse 6 N.I.V.).
Anxiously they asked Him when this catastrophe would happen and what would be the sign that it was about to take place. The first thing the Lord does is to warn them of deception and this is stressed in Matthew's record too (24:4,5,11,24), and in Mark 13:5,6,22. This is a splendid time for spiritual charlatans energised by Satan to spread deception and there are always those who are ready to listen to them rather than to the truth of God's Word.
The first warning concerns false Messiahs. There would be numbers who would claim to be the true Messiah and this still happens today. Josephus speaks more than once of false prophets and mentions one by name Theudas (Antiq. 20:5,1; Jewish war 2,13.4). There would also be wars, famines and earthquakes (verse 11). During the 30 or 40 years preceding the fall of Jerusalem, Palestine was in a very unsettled condition. It was a period of risings, riots, and conflict with the Roman power. These things must come to pass, but they were not to be regarded as the 'end' itself; they were only the beginning of difficult times.
The disciples were warned concerning the treatment they would receive from those in authority. They would be imprisoned and flogged and they had not long to wait for this to happen (Acts 5:18,40; 6:12; 16:19-24). They would be brought before governors and kings. Paul had to stand before the governors, Felix and Festus, before king Agrippa and before the emperor Nero. And all this was to give a testimony, a witness for Christ (verses 12,13).
They were not to worry beforehand about what to say for the promise was made that they would be divinely given the words and wisdom that the adversaries could not contradict (verse 15). They would be betrayed by close relatives and some would be martyred. Universal hatred would be their lot, but they would be eternally safe in spite of it all.
The verses that follow (20-24) give the insertion that is found only in Luke concerning the destruction of Jerusalem. This was the next great historic event involving Israel in A.D. 70 which contained the fulfilment of the Lord's prediction concerning the destruction of the Temple. The signal of danger would be the gathering of armies around Jerusalem (verse 20). This was the sign, Christ predicted, that the city's desolation was near, and before the encirclement was complete, those in Judea should hasten to escape to the surrounding hills. Eusebius says that the believers of Jerusalem made their escape before the siege to Pella in Peraea (Hist. Excl. 3:5). This should not be confused with a similar experience at the end of the age, described by Matthew and Mark, just prior to the Lord's second advent. History will repeat itself.
Luke 21:24 foretells the terrible slaughter of Jews that took place at this time the Lord is describing. Josephus states that 1,100,000 perished in the siege, and that 97,000 were carried away in captivity. Allowing for exaggeration, it is manifest that there was wholesale destruction of the city and Temple, and a very large number were killed or carried away as slaves. Luke's prophecy has double imagery.
There is nothing in verse 23 that did not apply in A.D. 70 and it will apply again during the great tribulation of the end time (Matt. 24:15-31) during the reign of the Antichrist.
The conclusion of this section of the prophecy should be carefully noted:
"They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." (verse 24 N.I.V.).
At the time of the terrible judgment of Israel at A.D. 70 (verse 24) the Jew became a man without a country, to live under Gentile rule for centuries. This lasted till 1948 when Israel was re-established as a nation in their land. As regards the capital city of Jerusalem, this too would be under Gentile control (trampled on by the Gentiles) until the completion of a period named by the Lord as 'the times of the Gentiles'. It is this verse that gives us the clue to the meaning of this phrase, if we do not read into it ideas of our own which are not contained in verse 24. The times of the Gentiles correspond to the domination of Jerusalem by Gentile power. This really started with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon as the head of gold in Daniel 2 and it goes right on to the end of this age. The characteristic which does not change all through this time is the control of Israel's capital city by Gentile domination. Israel does not possess it at any time during this long period.
Even when Israel was given nationality in 1948, the nation did not control Jerusalem, so the times of the Gentiles were still existing then. Some claim that Israel now has complete control of the city, but we cannot dogmatize on this. If it is true, then the times of the Gentiles are completed. If not, then as far as one can see, this cannot be far off. In any case, we live in momentous times as regards God's kingdom purposes. The world's condition today with its declension and terrible problems that are humanly insoluble, point to the fact that we are near or in the end time that the Lord Jesus so graphically described in the Synoptic Gospels, though we make no attempt to fix dates for His Second Coming.
If God's people remain true to Him and keep on the alert, this is not necessary. What we have here in Luke is a history of Jerusalem from A.D. 70 until the time of the end which concludes with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus in power and great glory (verse 27 & Rev. 1:7), which will be seen by all at that time. This period is covered by 'the times of the Gentiles'.
Christ now describes the characteristics of the last years of this age which end with His glorious coming. In reality this is dealing with the last unfulfilled week of years of Daniel's seventy sevens (Dan. 9:24-27). This period corresponds to Matthew 24:15-31 and Mark 13:14-27. The three Synoptics give the Lord's words which predict great signs in the heavens. These words seem to stretch the faith of some expositors beyond their capability, so they fall back on spiritualizing and treat the words metaphorically.
But there is no good reason for not taking them literally. The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is the most stupendous event in history and we would expect it to be accompanied by stupendous happenings in the heavens. Scripture assures us that God will shake the earth and the heavens at the end time. Everything will bear witness that some gigantic happening is about to take place. Believers living at that time are encouraged to look up, for when these things begin to take place their redemption is near (verse 28). These words are peculiar to Luke.
Christ follows this great revelation by giving the illustration of the fig-tree. Luke adds 'and all the trees'. The fig tree represents Israel, but the Evangelist with his constant emphasis on the Gentile element is concerned at this point with the Gentile nations as well. After the winter, the sprouting of new leaves can only indicate one thing, that spring and summer are near.
So, the Lord said, 'when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near' (verse 31).
These words show clearly that the Messianic kingdom purposes of God do not become realized till the Second Advent of Christ, and so for this age, they must be in abeyance.
Now we have the great kingdom purposes which touch the highest heavens and concern the Body of Christ enthroned there with Christ (Eph. 2:4-7). With all the blessings lavished on the nation of Israel, this was never promised to them and we should not make the mistake of confusing and lessening God's wonderful kingdom purposes that will finally embrace the whole of a new universe (a new heaven and a new earth).
The Lord Jesus continues:
"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away." (verses 32,33 N.I.V.).
Verse 32 has caused endless trouble to expositors and readers of the Bible. To what generation do the words 'this generation' refer? Surely to the generation of verse 31 who sees 'these things happening', and these things can only mean the events of verses 25-27. The generation which is alive to see the beginning of these end-time events, will not pass away until everything the Lord has described, including His personal return, has taken place. This is the natural way of reading these words. There is no reason why the Lord should suddenly jump back from the end of the age, to the time He was speaking to the Apostles. This has been the cause of all the trouble. To assure us that there is no doubt about the fulfilment of these prophecies, the Lord adds:
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away." (verse 33 N.I.V.).
The rest of the chapter is a warning to all to keep a close watch on themselves and see that the distractions of life, frustrations and anxieties do not prevent this watchfulness. Christ's return will be sudden and unexpected like a trap springing and will come like this on all who live on the earth (verse 35).
The Lord means that this tremendous event will be experienced throughout the earth. Upon the unsaved and the unready it will come like a sudden blow. Only the saved who are watching and praying will be prepared for it.
After this discourse, each evening Christ spent the night at Bethany, but daily He continued teaching in the Temple (verses 37,38).