When the Bible starts talking about Jesus’ return, it’s easy to get lost in enigmatic details, and it’s easy to forget what is really important. As we consider Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse (Luke 21:5-38), one way to avoid getting all confused is to focus our attention on the commands that Jesus gives in that passage.
The whole issue comes up in a roundabout way. Jesus had just finished condemning the hypocrisy of scribes, who are all about outward displays of piety, when some pointed to the outward adornment of the temple. But this outward adornment was emblematic of all that Jesus has been pointing to in the religious leaders. They are whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones. And so he declares that the days are coming when every beautiful stone will be thrown down from the temple.
The disciples plainly could not conceive of a continuing world order without the temple of the living God. For them, as is evident from Matthew’s version (Matt 24:3), the disciples imagined that the destruction of the temple that Jesus predicted would obviously coincide with the return of Christ and the end of the age. But it is just the interplay between near-fulfillment and far-fulfillment, prophetic foreshortening and typological fulfillment, that makes this passage so challenging to read and understand.
But if we look at the passage through the eyes of Jesus’ commands within it, we see three topics begin to form. The first of these imperatives is found in verse 8: “See to it … that you are not led astray.” In this section, Jesus gives us enough information not to be. We are not to follow anyone who claims to be Jesus returned, and we are to ignore them when they claim the end has come upon us. And the reason for that is simple: Jesus’ return is going to be unmistakeable. There’s no danger of missing it.
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Rev 1:7 ESV)
Similarly, there will be no question about the calamities of the end. We have seen great earthquakes in Chile, Haiti, China, Japan, etc., but however great they were, they bore no comparison with the calamities of the end. At that time, there will be no doubt that the end is upon us:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:12–17 ESV)
Wars, revolutions, famines, plagues … they are signs, but they are only indicators of certainty, not timing. They are, as Matthew calls them, “the beginning of birth pains.” (Matt. 24:8) They certainly point to the end, but they give no indication whatsoever of how long a labor the world will have.
There is a brief series of imperatives in vv. 20-21, a section dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem. But with v. 25 the perspective is broadened to point beyond the events of A.D. 70. Yet the command is the same (mutatis mutandis): Know for certain that the end has come. Again,
Beyond these, though the next imperative we find, the ESV translates as “settle it.” Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer. (Luke 21:14 ESV) That command brings to the fore a second major theme of the passage, viz., persecution. We are not to worry about the timing of the end. Before that comes (Luke 21:12), we will have a great deal of persecution to endure. That persecution will come at the hands of those closest to us, and it will sometimes end in martyrdom. . (Luke 21:16) But even death will bring us no real, lasting and meaningful harm (Luke 21:18), provided we make it to the end. That’s the third of our imperatives, and one that the ESV actually treats as an indicative:
By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:19 ESV)
Literally, “By your endurance, gain your lives!
And that’s the point of the section, really. That’s what makes sense of the command not to come up with premeditated answers. Christ will be our mouth. Christ will give us wisdom. What we need to do to endure is to set Christ apart as holy in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15) and trust. Persecution is a guarantee for those of us who do. (1 Tim. 3:12; John 15:20; 1 Th 3:2–4; Acts 14:22) But so is the promise that Christ will see us through.
Another set of imperatives bring these two emphases of Jesus’ teaching together: the unmistakeable end and the persecution that precedes it. We are told to consider (v. 29) the lesson of the fig tree. These signs that Jesus has been pointing to, much like the leaves appearing in Spring, point us to the certainty of Christ’s return in judgment. We are told to know (v. 31) from them that the kingdom is near. We are told to straighten our bodies, bend from persecution, and lift our eyes heavenward to our deliverer (v. 28).
A final pair of commands tells us how to prepare ourselves now for the coming events. Prophecy is never given in scripture to satisfy our curiosity. It is always given with a view to altering our lifestyle and hope now. And so Jesus closes this eschatological discourse with two more imperatives: “Watch yourselves”, and “Stay awake”. And Jesus points to two things that will inebriate our minds to a numbness that is not prepared. The first is obvious, strong drink. Drunkenness and dissipation sedate our souls. But so do “cares of this life”.
All of this recalls Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 17, where he urged us to remember Lot’s wife (see that discussion here). If we spend our lives striving to acquire and protect our possessions or serving our fleshly lusts, we develop this-age minded habits that will leave us unprepared for Christ’s return. Lest that day come on us like a trap, we must begin now establishing a pattern of kingdom-mindedness. We must alter our priorities now, set apart Christ as holy to our hearts now, set our minds on the things above … now. (Col 3:1–4) And that sort of spiritual alertness is maintained through prayer. (Luke 21:36) Christ will see you through the tough times ahead. But you must always remember your utter dependence on him. So pray that you might endure. And pray that you might stand. That is the practical message of the Olivet Discourse.