Faithful Endurance to the End
Passage: Luke 21:5–21:38
Faithful Endurance to the End
Please turn in your Bibles with me to Luke 21, where we will begin in v5 and finish the chapter. This section of verses is sometimes called the Olivet Discourse. It’s one sustained section of teaching from Jesus, and that’s why we’ll take all the verses together.
Read Luke 21, vv5-38.
As you heard in our reading, our passage deals with eschatology. By eschatology, I mean the doctrine of last things, or to use the more popular phrase, the end times. And just to state my view up front, there are few areas of doctrine that evangelicals are more confused about than eschatology. By and large, most Christians tend to think of eschatology as either speculative or predictive. That is, many think that the point of eschatology is to help us spot trends and match up news headlines with scriptural passages. And while there is certainly something to be said for discerning the times, that is not the primary purpose of biblical eschatology. The doctrine of last things is not primarily speculative and predictive. Rather, according to the NT, eschatology is primarily ethical and moral. When Jesus or Paul or Peter discuss the last days, their aim to help Christians live a certain way in the present.
Now, to clarify so that no one misunderstands me – I am not saying that Christians should ignore the signs of the times. Jesus himself in this text clearly prepares his disciples to understand what will happen to them. He plainly gives them some markers they ought to look for. So, the emphasis on discerning the times is not foreign to the NT. But even in this passage, friends, that emphasis is not primary. In fact, I want you to see this from the start. Obviously, there is a ton of information in this text, and much of it is fascinating to think about. But notice where Jesus ends. What’s his last word on the subject? V34 – watch yourselves, and v36 – stay awake. That’s ethical language, brothers and sisters. That’s the goal of Jesus’ discourse. His primary concern is with how his disciples live in the present, preparing for the end. Indeed, that is one of the best ways to summarize this passage. According to Jesus, what we believe about the end shapes how we live in the present. Or, to say it another way – a shorter way – our eschatology informs our ethics.
That summary gives us our direction this morning. There are all sorts of rabbit trails we could go down in Luke 21. Some of them are more important than others, and some I have been down, only to find that I’m still not sure what I think. But thankfully, the clear teaching of this chapter doesn’t require that we map all the rabbit trails. The clear teaching calls us to live faithfully in light of the end.
So, that’s where we’re going to focus. In this text, I want us to consider four exhortations from Jesus, each one equipping us to live faithfully in the light of the end. The first two exhortations are negative – what we ought not do – and the last two are positive – what we must do in order to be faithful. So, while we won’t answer all the questions this morning, I do trust that we will be equipped to have our eschatology shape our ethics.
Don't Be Alarmed by Life in a Fallen World
The first exhortation is a negative one, from vv7-11 – Don’t Be Alarmed by Life in a Fallen World. The setting is the same as it has been since the end of chapter 19. Jesus is teaching in the temple, and his disciples, v5, are impressed with the temple complex. Jesus, however, is not. Instead of marveling at the temple, Jesus tells his disciples that a disastrous end is coming. V6 – “He said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” Essentially, Jesus says, “Looks can be deceiving. The temple is impressive as a building, but it’s barren as a place of worship. And therefore, God will destroy this place in judgment.”
Now, historically, Jesus refers here to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, when the Roman general Titus utterly demolished the temple and razed Jerusalem to the ground. But at this point, that event is still in the future, so the disciples ask the natural question, v7. When will this happen, and what will be the sign? The disciples want to know more. They want to know all about the collapse of the temple. But Jesus goes in a different direction. Before he provides insight about the temple’s destruction, Jesus gives more general teaching about what life will be like in the meantime. This is key, brothers and sisters. Jesus leaves the temple behind for a moment, and in vv8-11, he describes life in more general terms. And Jesus is clear – life in this world will be marked by upheaval.
To begin with, Jesus says there will be deception. Look at v8 – “And he said, ‘See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am he,” and “The time is at hand!” Do not go after them.’” Until the end comes, Jesus warns his disciples of deception. There will be many false Christs, but don’t follow them. You must stand watch against deceivers.
But there will also be destruction. V9 – “And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” Until the end comes, Jesus warns of tumult and strife. That is to be expected, so don’t be afraid. Wars and strife are not signs in and of themselves.
And there will be disaster, Jesus says. V11 – “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” Until the end comes, the creation will suffer disaster. This is part of sin’s curse on the earth. Famines, plagues, pestilence – it will all come, and it will continue, according to Jesus.
Now, remember, the disciples asked for signs of the temple’s destruction, and Jesus replies with the things that are not signs. Deception, destruction, and disaster – those things, however unsettling, are not apocalyptic signs. Again, v9 is key – these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.
So, what is Jesus’ point here? Why focus on things that are not signs? Well, Jesus’ point is to teach his disciples to not be alarmed by life in this fallen world. V9 puts it quite nicely. Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.” When you see all this chaotic stuff, don’t be alarmed. Don’t be scared. These things are difficult, but they are not the end. This is life in a fallen world. Because of Satan, there is and there will be deception until the end. Because of sin, there is and there will be destruction and disaster. Those things are not signs that the world is spiraling out of control. Rather, this is life under the sun, so don’t be afraid. God is still on his throne.
And that’s not my spin on these verses, friends. This is central to Jesus’ teaching. Notice again that key verse, v9. Do you see where Jesus says these things must take place? Must is a verb of necessity – it is a verb of sovereignty, you might say. And who is sovereign? God is, of course. So, make the connection with Jesus’ teaching. Deception, destruction, disaster – even these things are under the sovereign plan of God. These things must happen because God is working out his purpose.
And that means one of the basic takeaways of this passage is the call to Christian confidence. Jesus does not deny that life before the end will be difficult. He affirms that perspective! And yet, we are not shaken by these things. We are not alarmed by life in a fallen world. Why? Because we’re strong and self-assured? Hardly. We’re not shaken because we know the behind-the-scenes truth. We know that behind all the tumult there is a sovereign God, and his purposes cannot fail.
Friends, this is foundational for Christian witness in the world. We, of all people, ought to be steady and confident as we face what lies ahead. We, of all people, ought to be ready with a word of hope and truth. We do not have to be afraid because even deception, destruction, and disaster will not overthrow the God of the Universe. Instead, we can confidence, knowing God is working out his purposes.
Don't Be Anxious About Suffering For Christ
This brings us to our second exhortation, also a negative one. From vv12-19 – Don’t Be Anxious about Suffering for Christ. The difficulty of the previous verses continues and even increases. Jesus describes the persecution that his disciples will face. As before, this persecution is not necessarily a sign of the end. Jesus’ point is that persecution is to be expected. It will come.
Now, in the context, these verses describe the events of the book of Acts. When you read v12, it’s like a preview of the apostles’ ministry after Pentecost. Peter, James, John, and Paul all endured the kind of persecution Jesus anticipates. And yet, this experience is not confined to the early church. We know from church history that persecution has continued even after the apostles. We know this from our own day, as well. I’m sure many of you have seen the reports of Christians being horrendously persecuted in Afghanistan as of late. So, while Jesus’ words clearly point us to the book of Acts, they also point us to the church’s history down through the ages. That’s the point, friends. Jesus is telling us that persecution will come. To know Christ by faith is to fellowship with him in his suffering.
But as before, there is a divine perspective on persecution that teaches us how to respond. Notice v13 – “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” Friends, the idea here is that God takes what the world intends as harmful, and he turns it around to serve his purpose. Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50? They had sold him into slavery, but there Joseph stood, in a position of authority that ended up saving his family from famine. Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers? He said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That’s the same theology here in v13. Persecution is evil, but God uses it to bear witness to Christ.
Still, honesty compels us to admit that this is a frightening future. Sure, we see God’s purpose in persecution, but prison is still prison, right? Facing a trial for your faith is daunting. Has God left us to face that future on our own? Is Christ expecting his disciples to just buck up and deal with what’s coming? No, absolutely not. Jesus goes on to give his disciples two promises that enable them to face the future without fear or anxiety.
The first is the promise of provision. Look again at v14. Jesus says, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer.” Jesus is not against Christian thinking. V14 does not mean we should neglect the life of the mind. Rather, Jesus’ point is that disciples do not have to anxiously spend time rehearsing their testimony for the courtroom, just in case we end up there in the future. There’s no need for such a fretful life, Jesus says.
Why not? Well, notice v15 and the promise – “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” When the hour of testing comes, Christ promises to provide all that disciples need to answer. He will not leave us or forsake us, remember? And that includes in the hour of testing. The Lord Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, equips his disciples to give an answer, to provide testimony to the gospel.
The second promise is just as vital. Jesus gives disciples the promise of protection. In v16, Jesus states that the persecution will get worse. Your own family and friends will turn you in, Jesus says, and some of you will die. Martyrdom will be the end for some of the disciples. In fact, the situation will be so intense, v17, that Jesus says you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. That’s quite the picture, isn’t? Family betrayal, universal hatred, even death for some. How in the world will the church endure?
V18 – “But not a hair of your head will perish.” Wait a second. Jesus just said some disciples will lose their lives, but now he says not a hair of your head will perish. How does that work? Well, Jesus is drawing a distinction between this life and the next, between your physical well-being and your eternal well-being. Yes, the persecution may cost you your life, but in the end, there is nothing this world can do to harm your eternal soul. For those who belong to Christ, not even a single hair of your head will fail to enter the kingdom of God. That’s the depth of Christ’s protection, brothers and sisters. Even when the cost is physical suffering and death, Jesus will ensure that every one of his sheep enter the heavenly kingdom. He will protect their souls unto eternity.
And these promises come together in v19. Here, Jesus calls his disciples to perseverance – “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” The one who perseveres to the end will be saved, Jesus says. Life in v19 is eternal life, and endurance is perseverance in the faith, trusting Christ to keep you to the end. Friends, this is how God brings our final salvation to pass – through endurance in the faith. As we hear Christs’ promises, his words strengthen us to continue trusting the Lord, and as we continue trusting the Lord through his Word, what is God doing? He is keeping us safe for the end.
Brothers and Sisters, if there is one takeaway that I could stress to you this morning, it’s this – never underestimate the grace of continued trust in Christ. Each day that you wake up and trust in the Lord – that moment is evidence of grace active in your life. That moment is God’s way of keeping you to the end. Christ will provide for you, he will protect you, so keep trusting him – and at the end of that road of perseverance, when all the persecution ends, you will find glory awaits.
Be Confident in Christ's Glorious Return
The third exhortation takes us from the negative to the positive. From vv20-28 – Be Confident in Christ’s Glorious Return. In v20, Jesus finally returns to the question from v7 about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. When you see the city surrounded by armies, Jesus says, then you will know that the time has come for judgment. There will no time to delay, v21 – you should flee – for this will be the expression of God’s vengeance, v22. That phrase in v22 days of vengeance is key, friends. The destruction of Jerusalem is the expression of God’s judgment against unbelieving Israel, and as horrible as it will be, this destruction will fulfill all that is written in God’s Word.
Once this judgment comes, Jesus says that the nation will endure a prolonged period of barrenness and desolation. That’s how I take v24, where Jesus speaks of Jerusalem being trampled underfoot until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. This is a very difficult verse to interpret, so we ought to hold our conclusions somewhat loosely. The view I hold relies heavily on the OT background, where Gentile domination was seen as a prolonged expression of God’s judgment. So, for example, think about the exile of Israel in the OT. The judgment was not only being expelled from the land. It was also seeing Gentiles – non-Israelites – occupy the land.
And that’s how I take the phrase in v24. Jesus is not necessarily trying to divide redemptive history into particular ages. He is, rather, indicating that God’s judgment will be extensive and prolonged. In rejecting the Messiah, Israel brings upon itself the outpouring of God’s judgment, and as a result, the gospel of the kingdom will spread among the Gentiles, until people from every tribe, tongue, and nation are brought into the kingdom of God.
Now, historically, these verses – vv20-24 – are fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. God is faithful to his Word, even his word of judgment, so when Jerusalem falls, Jesus’ prediction comes to pass. Does that mean, then, that this prediction has no connection to us? Are these verses simply interesting bits of history, but nothing more? No, not in the least. The destruction of Jerusalem anticipates the great and final judgment of God on the last day. What happens in A.D. 70 is a small shadow of something much more devastating – the outpouring of God’s fury at the end of history.
This is always how God’s judgment works in Scripture, friends. There is a sense in which every historical expression of God’s judgment foreshadows the judgment that is to come. From the flood of Noah’s day to the Babylonian exile to the destruction of Jerusalem – each of those horrific events is preaching the same message: The time is short, a greater judgment is coming, and therefore, today is the day to repent and turn to the Lord.
At the same time, Jesus has a different emphasis for his disciples in this section of the passage. God’s judgment is coming, but for the disciples, that final judgment is not something to fear. Why not? Because for the disciples, the end will bring the return of Christ. Look at v25, where Jesus shifts from Jerusalem to his return. V25 – “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Friends, that is apocalyptic language echoing OT, particularly the prophet Joel. Jesus’ point is that the destruction of the temple is not the end. The end will come with his return. History is determined not by events but by a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the most central fact of Jesus’ return is expressed in v27. Look there with me – “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Brothers and Sisters, this is the most central fact of biblical eschatology. Christ is coming again, and his return will be visible and glorious. Christians may not agree on the millennial kingdom or the nature of a great tribulation or the timing of a so-called rapture. But every believer agrees to and anticipates this truth – Christ is coming again, visibly and in glory. That’s the foundation of our eschatology.
And this foundation makes all the difference for how we live today. Notice the application that Jesus makes, v28 – “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This is what Jesus has been driving at the entire time. The disciples wanted signs about the end, thinking it would come soon with the fall of the temple. But Jesus wants them to see farther the temple. He wants them looking for more than signs. Jesus wants them waiting faithfully for his return. The great hope of the church is not figuring out the timeline; it’s the return of Christ himself.
In fact, the language in v28 is all about hope. Do you see that phrase straighten up and raise your heads? It has the sense of standing tall, with your chin up and your back straight. It’s a posture of hope, in other words. Christians should not cower through life, gripped by fear or despair that things are spiraling out of control. No, Jesus says, that’s not the life of faith. The believer has his head up, his back straight, his heart hopeful – all because he knows, with certainty, that Christ is coming again.
And when Christ comes, friends, our redemption is complete. That’s the final note in v28. When the trumpet blasts and the sky splits, our redemption is at hand. In other words, our final deliverance from this fallen world will arrive with the return of Christ.
And so, we ought to pray, brothers and sisters, for greater confidence in the return of Christ. Hope is a distinctly Christian virtue, something that ought to mark our lives regardless of the days in which we live. But hope is not something we can just conjure up by willpower. Hope is a response to truth that cannot be shaken. And as believers, we have the most unshakable truth of all – Christ will return. And so, we pray for our hearts to be anchored in that truth, and for hope to flower in response.
Stand Firm in Christ's Trustworthy Word
That brings us to the final exhortation, from vv29-36: Stand Firm in Christ’s Trustworthy Word. Jesus tells a parable in vv29-31 that has a straightforward point. Just as a tree’s fruit indicates the coming season, so also these things will indicate that the kingdom is near. Jesus is referring here to the events in vv25-26. When you see those things, Jesus says, it’s like the summer fruit. You know the end is at hand.
Then Jesus makes one of the more difficult statements to interpret in all of Luke’s Gospel. V32, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” The question, as you can tell, is the identity of this generation. Jesus says they will not die before all has taken place. Again, the all refers to the events of vv25-26 – the events that indicate Christ’s return. So, who is this generation? It cannot be Jesus’ disciples, since they did pass away before the return of Christ. Who is it, then? Here is my view. I take this generation to refer to those who see the signs described in vv25-26. That is, this generation are those who are alive at the beginning of the end. Jesus’ point is that those who live to see the beginning of the end will also see the end itself. To say it a simpler way, those who see v25 will also see v27.
Now, that difficulty aside, Jesus’ larger point becomes clear in v33, and it has to do with the trustworthiness of his word. Listen again, v33 – “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Friends, I take this as the conclusion of Jesus’ answer to the question in v7. Remember, the disciples asked about signs, but ultimately, we don’t need more signs. We need confidence in Christ’s word. That is the foundation for faithfulness – knowing that Christ’s word will not fail. That’s how disciples gain their life through endurance – by entrusting everything they have to the Word of Christ. Creation will crumble, but Christ’s Word will stand firm to the end.
And so, Jesus ends with two applications, two commands to stand firm. V34, Jesus says watch yourselves, and v36, Jesus says stay awake. The sense is essentially the same between the two. Remain vigilant, stand watch, be alert. Disciples must not get weighed down with the cares of life. They must not get distracted with worldly things, or else the final day will come suddenly and catch them off guard.
Instead, disciples need consistent, everyday faithfulness. Where does that come from? It comes from Christ’s Word that cannot pass away. Each day, we anchor our hearts in God’s truth, and each time, the Spirit works endurance in our lives. This is how God keeps us in the faith, brothers and sisters – through the solid, unchanging foundation of his Word. If you are not regularly taking in God’s Word, both personally and in the life of the church, you are depriving yourself of one of the main ways that God prepares you stand firm to the end. Build your life on the Scriptures, brothers and sister, for there is no other anchor.
And as we build on the Scriptures, we pray. Notice that connection in v36 – “Stay awake at all times,” Jesus commands. How do we do stay awake? “By praying that you may have strength.” The Word and prayer. It’s not flashy, but God’s grace is found in those things, friends. The Word and prayer. Are you regularly praying for God to give you strength to stand firm to the end? Are you faithfully praying that God would keep you in the truth? And as you pray, are you taking in God’s Word, trusting that his Truth is unchanging and will keep you safe for that final day? This is the goal of biblical eschatology – that we would stand firm in Christ’s trustworthy Word.
Friends, there is so much more we could say about the Olivet Discourse. But I trust we’ve seen the main takeaways. Don’t be alarmed by life in this fallen world. Don’t be anxious about suffering for Christ. Be confident in Christ’s glorious return. And stand firm in Christ’s trustworthy Word. Our eschatology must inform our ethics, so that we live in light of the end. I pray that God, by his Spirit, will do that in each of our lives, for his glory and our good. Amen, let’s pray.