Luke 21: The Widow’s Offering, Jesus Foretells Destruction of the Temple, Jesus Foretells Wars and Persecution, Jesus Foretells Destruction of Jerusalem, The Coming of the Son of Man, The Lesson of the Fig Tree, Watch Yourselves
Thematically, this chapter includes a lot of predictions from Jesus about the future; some about the immediate future (from the perspective of his listeners), and some that apply to the rest of history until His return.
The Widow’s Offering
This is the exception to what I just said above: these first few verses don’t have anything to do with predictions about the future.
As Jesus is teaching in the temple, he notices a widow putting “two small copper coins” (verse 2) into the offering box. According to the ESV footnote for the phrase “small copper coins,” it was actually:
Greek two lepta; a lepton was a Jewish bronze or copper coin worth about 1/128 of a denarius (which was a day’s wage for a laborer)
So she put in amounted to 1/64 of the typical wages for a labourer in a day. A very small amount, in other words. And he calls her out for praise for it:
And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (verses 3–4)
Jesus Foretells Destruction of the Temple
Now the section starts into a number of prophecies Jesus gives about the future. First, he hears some people talking about how nice the temple is, and he tells them that the temple will actually be destroyed—to the point that not even one stone will be left on top of another, it will be completely torn down.
They ask him when this is going to happen, and, in a sense, he doesn’t actually answer them (see below in the Thoughts section:
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. 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.” (verses 8–9)
This did actually happen, incidentally; about 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion the temple was completely destroyed.
Jesus Foretells Wars and Persecution
Jesus then continues on this point, with a number of prophecies about what is to come, and… it doesn’t sound like good news:
- There will be wars, and earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. And there will also be “terrors and great signs from heaven.”
- Even before that happens, however, Jesus’ followers will be persecuted. They’ll be tried in the synagogues, sent to prison, and tried by the government for Jesus’ sake.
- But when this happens, it will be their opportunity to bear witness, and when that happens, Jesus advises them not to prepare ahead of time what they’re going to say because He will give them wisdom and words to say at that time.
- It’s not just the obvious enemies who will deliver Jesus’ followers up for persecution; parents, siblings relatives, friends… lots of people will be handing Christians over to the authorities for persecution.
- In fact, Christians will be “hated by all” for Jesus’ name’s sake.
- But it’s not all bad news: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (verses 18–19)
Jesus Foretells Destruction of Jerusalem
Jesus has just mentioned that wars and pestilences and other things are to come, and that people shouldn’t assume that means that “the end” has come—however, Jerusalem will be destroyed before “the end,” so people should be ready for that. In fact, he tells his listeners that when Jerusalem is surrounded by enemies, people should know that the city’s end is near. At that point, anyone in the city should flee (and those who are already out of the city shouldn’t try to enter), because, “these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (verse 22). Jesus warns that this is going to be a bad time for the city:
“Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (verses 23–24, Jesus speaking)
The Coming of the Son of Man, and The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Jesus then goes back to talking about “the end” (that is, the very end):
“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, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (verses 25–28, Jesus speaking)
He then uses the fig tree (and trees in general) as a lesson, as to how they’re to interpret the times:
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (verses 29–33)
Jesus then comes back to the topic he raised in the previous chapter, of being ready: he warns his listeners not let their hearts be weighed down with “dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (verse 34), because “that day” will come suddenly, as if God were springing a trap. Instead, they should “stay awake,” and pray for the strength to “escape all these things” (verse 36).
As mentioned, I’m doing an entire chapter at once, because all of these little passages fit together into one large message that he’s delivering to his listeners.
The Widow’s Offering
The key to the widow’s offering is not how much she gave, but how proportional her gift was to her ability to give. Jesus calls her out for praise because she gave “all she had to live on.” The ESV Study Bible describes this concisely: “The point of this story is that God measures gifts not by their size but on the basis of how much of a sacrifice it was to give them and how sincere and selfless the heart was that gave the gift.”
“But wait,” some people might say. “She gave all she had to live on—isn’t that a bad thing? Is God really asking people to give all they have to Him? Isn’t this taking advantage of the poor?” And if someone is asking that, they’re missing the point of this object lesson. When this woman put in “all she had to live on,” she was doing two things:
- Demonstrating that God is more important to her than her own physical needs. Forget about what the religious leaders may or may not have told her, God was more important to her than her own physical needs. Most of us should look at this example and be ashamed; we’re doing well if God’s needs even come close in importance to our own needs (or wants), but she puts God above her own need.
- Demonstrating faith in God. We look at her putting in all she has and view it as foolish; how will she eat? She undoubtedly assumes that her God will provide for her needs. It’s the same kind of faith that Jesus described in Luke 12:13–34; the same kind of faith Abraham demonstrated in Genesis 22 when God told him to sacrifice Isaac.
Frankly, if someone is worried about this woman being taken advantage of, there’s a good chance that their worry isn’t coming from pure motives. They’re not really worried about this poor widow not having enough to eat; they’re actually worried that God might require them to give to the point of sacrifice, too! Part of the reason for our discomfort with this idea of “giving until it hurts” is that we’re nowhere close to giving to the point that we actually feel it. We give up to the point where we almost feel it and then stop, and we don’t like teachings from Jesus that call us to account for our selfishness. If everyone was giving all they had, we’d all end up in the same place, and this widow’s actions wouldn’t have seemed noteworthy!
And yes, selfishness. Because if we don’t “feel” it when we give, our “sacrifice” isn’t really a “sacrifice” at all.
Anyone who wants to see this in action in a modern context should start attending a “poor church”—a local church where the average member isn’t very wealthy. Statistically speaking, the less means available to a congregation the more likely they are to be generous with their giving, and the more wealthy the congregants the more likely for them to be miserly. If a Christian in North America ever loses their job, or encounters some other kind of financial difficulty, they’d be much better off attending a “poor church,” where people will immediately start supplying for their needs; if they’re attending a “rich church” and come across some financial difficulty, at best they’ll get nothing, and at worst they’ll get a lecture about pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
As usual, I speak in sweeping generalities.
Jesus Foretells Destruction of the Temple
When people ask Jesus when the temple is going to be destroyed he doesn’t seem to answer them, but that’s kind of the point: when he says, “do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once,” what we should be hearing is, “despite what anyone says, and despite what’s happening around you, trust in God, in Whose hands all of this rests, and Who is in control of the timing.”
More importantly, we should remember why the temple was destroyed: because it’s not necessary anymore. We—all of God’s children, who make up the Church—we are the temple of God. The physical temple, where God’s Presence used to dwell, is no longer necessary. He resides in us. And, it should be noted, that’s better. There are some in the West—especially some right-wing Christians in the United States—who seem to be nostalgic for the Old Testament ways of doing things, and who are nostalgic for the days of the physical temple of God that resided in Jerusalem, but we should never lose site of the fact that the temple is no longer necessary, anymore than the sacrifices are.
And yes, some of the right-wing fervour around the temple is wrapped up in some weird end times beliefs, but I think a lot of folks also kind of miss the “simplicity” of having a physical temple, but if we really think about it, having the Holy Spirit dwelling within me is way better than having a temple physically located in Jerusalem.
Jesus Foretells Wars and Persecution
This section feels very negative and depressing. Jesus outlines a number of things that are going to happen to his followers—that is, to the people who would later be called Christians—and the warnings are dire. He tells his disciples that they are going to be persecuted—by literally everyone—and the message is that, even when that happens, it’s not a sign of the end. That means that the persecution isn’t going to end quickly!
I write this from the West, in the 21st Century, and it’s easy to go weeks or months or even years without thinking about persecution, because the closest I come to being “persecuted” is a temptation not to speak up sometimes, when Christianity is too “embarrassing” for me. It’s a far cry from what Jesus is describing in this passage!
Up above I put “terrors and great signs from heaven” in quotes, because I’m not sure what exactly he means by that phrase—but I’m not overly worried about it either, because I think this entire quotation is something we should take more generally than specifically: bad things are going to happen. The point of this section, within this chapter, is that we shouldn’t panic, regardless of how bad things seem in the world. Even if we see something happening that we would classify as “terrors and great signs from heaven,” it’s not a cause for panic for the Christian.
He also tells them that his followers are going to be persecuted before any of this happens—even before the destruction of the temple. And (not surprisingly) he was right: immediately following his death and resurrection, as the Christian Church just started out, they were persecuted by the religious leaders of the day. Not too long after (historically speaking), they were persecuted by the Roman government itself, during a period of time in which Judaism was an accepted religion by the Roman government but Christianity was not. (Basically, Christianity was originally considered to simply be an offshoot of Judaism, so the Roman government didn’t care about it. As soon as the Romans started distinguishing Christianity as something separate from Judaism, it was official: Judaism is an officially recognized religion, but Christianity is not.)
But if we take an even wider view of history, it wasn’t long after that before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, which caused it to spread into Europe and then across the world. You can see how Jesus’ followers would have been concerned about the persecution they endured in the early history of the Church, but they would have been heartened to know how far Christianity was going to spread a few hundred years later. That being said, they couldn’t possibly have known what the future was to hold, but they could remember Jesus’ words in this passage and taken heart that even though they were enduring persecution, God was in control, and He had the entirety of history in His hand.
But Jesus ends this short section with a strange comment:
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (verses 18–19)
Doesn’t that contradict everything Jesus said in the previous verses? He just finished talking about people being persecuted, and thrown in jail. And, although he didn’t mention it, not long after these words (historically speaking) the Romans started throwing Christians to the lions as entertainment! That’s not even to mention the number of Christian martyrs there have been over the centuries since Jesus said this. So I don’t think we can take this too literally; Jesus isn’t promising his followers freedom from physical harm if they just stay true to Him. I think the only way we can read this is in light of eternity: No matter what is done to Jesus’ followers in this lifetime, they will be with God for eternity, in new bodies, that will be untouched by the persecutions that were endured in this life.
Jesus Foretells Destruction of Jerusalem
Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of Jerusalem strongly reminds me of Jeremiah’s warning to the Israelites about the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. The Israelites did not want to hear Jeremiah’s message—they simply disbelieved him, and even detained him for what they considered to be “blasphemous” prophecies—but he was right, and the Babylonians took Jerusalem in 587 BC. My guess is that Jesus’ listeners had a very similar response—and probably considered this prophecy to be “blasphemous” too—but Jerusalem fell again about 30 years after he spoke.
So why did the Israelites think Jeremiah was blaspheming? Why would Jesus’ listeners have thought he was blaspheming (if they did)? Actually, for very good reason (sort of): the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. He would never let His royal city fall (they thought), because He would be with His people. It’s almost but not quite faith in their God! What they conveniently forgot, however, was how much time He’d spent over the centuries telling them that they weren’t living up to His standards; they’d forgotten how He’d warned them, on multiple occasions, that He would withdraw His hand and let them fall if they didn’t obey.
So the question is whether we do the same thing. I hasten to point out that we have a different covenant with Him than the Old Testament Israelites did: He told them that if they obeyed He would be their God and they would be His people, but if they disobeyed He would withdraw His hand from them. His deal with us is very different: He will be our God, and we will be His children, and… it’s all up to Him, not us! Even if I mess up very badly—and I do—I will still be His child, because it’s not up to me, it’s up to Him. No sin of mine is stronger than His sacrifice for me. So I can’t make the same mistake that Jeremiah’s listeners made, because my covenant with God is different from theirs.
But do I—do Christians in general—sometimes listen to some of God’s promises and ignore parts of the Scriptures we don’t like? Yes, I think we do…
The Coming of the Son of Man
I think I said this before, on similar passages in Matthew and/or Mark, but the main thing I take away from Jesus talking about the end—passages when he says that no one will know the day or hour, and people will say He’s here when He’s really not, coupled with this passage about the actual return—is that His return will be obvious. It won’t be a matter of opinion; nobody will be “interpreting the signs” to say that He’s here or not here. It will be clear and undeniable.
And when that happens, I should “straighten up and raise [my] head, because [my] redemption is drawing near.” Jesus isn’t telling his listeners this message because they’re curious about the end times and he wants to satisfy that curiosity; he’s giving them this message to reassure them that God will be with them, no matter what happens. Even at the very end, when He comes in judgement of the world, for me (and other Christians), it’s actually my redemption that’s drawing near.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
… but if what I just said above is true, about “interpreting” the signs about Jesus’ return, what is meant from his lesson of the fig tree, where he is explicitly taking about interpreting the times? Do I need to take back what I said before? I don’t think so. It seems clear enough from this and other passages that Jesus’ return will be obvious, and no interpretation is necessary. Like the fall of Jerusalem, when it happened it was obvious to everyone what was happening.
I think what I read from this—and again, I’m not a scholar on such topics, just a layperson—is that the Kingdom of God is already near. When Jesus talks about “this generation” not passing away until “all has taken place,” there’s a sense in which that exact generation Jesus was talking to did see the fall of Jerusalem, but wider than that, a number of people define all Christians, from the time of Jesus until “the end,” as being “this generation.”
Which goes well with the next section…
And finally, Jesus tells his listeners to “stay awake,” since the end will come suddenly “like a trap,” which is similar to the way he was speaking in the previous chapter. He talks about having “strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (verse 36), which I don’t read as a promise to Christians that we won’t see any of the troubles described (though I could be wrong); I think it’s more a matter of having faith and trusting God: I’m a believer, and know that I’ll be with Him for eternity. If that means that I’m going to avoid suffering at “the end” then great; if it means that I’ll suffer (but less than others), then great; if it means that everything will be the same for me as for unbelievers, then great. Regardless of what happens, I’m in His hands, He is in control, and it will be a temporary thing until I spend eternity with Him—without sin, and able to worship Him properly.