Skeptics claim that some of Jesus’ predictions in the Olivet Discourse failed to come true. Continuing his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul shows that these words of Christ actually prove the absolute reliability of Scripture.
This morning we will continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 21:25–38. I am going to ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
“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.”
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.
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.
You have just heard the words of Jesus, words that He Himself said will never ever pass away. Everything in this world will pass away, but not His Word. Receive it with its certainty and purity. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we ask Your help because of the great difficulty of the passage we are looking at this very morning. Please give to us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to illumine this text for us. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.
The Most Astonishing Prophecy in History
We are looking at the scope of chapter 21, which involves what I consider the most astonishing prophecy and prediction ever uttered by a human being in all of history. When I look at the prediction recorded in this text, I consider it astonishing for two reasons.
The first reason is that this prophecy would have astounded the original hearers because no one on the face of the earth—apart from Jesus—would expect the destruction of Jerusalem and the Herodian temple, or that the Jews, God’s chosen people, would be dispersed into all the world. No one would think that such things were possible. So, those who heard this prediction first would have been turned upside down by its astounding content.
The second astonishing thing about this prophecy is how it was fulfilled with such a high degree of accuracy and precision. Jerusalem was destroyed. That sacred temple was turned to ruins. The people of God were dispersed into all the nations of the world.
In light of the tremendous precision and fulfillment of these predictions, you would think this would be all it would take to convince any rational person that Jesus spoke the truth in every prophetic utterance He made, including those statements about Himself being our Redeemer and the Son of God, so that there would be no intellectual excuse for rejecting the truth claims of Jesus and the Word of God.
Yet, as I mentioned, the supreme irony is that this very text is principally used as fodder by the most egregious skeptics in the land. Bertrand Russell quoted this passage in his writing of Why I Am Not a Christian, in which he said that in this passage Jesus predicted not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which was a given, not only the destruction of the temple, which certainly had taken place, and not only the dispersion of the Jews, which was also manifest, but also His own return. Jesus said that He would return within that generation.
Bertrand Russell looked at Jesus’ prediction and said that it proves Jesus was wrong. Russell said that though Jesus did some good guessing and made some extraordinary predictions, nevertheless, in the final analysis His prophecy failed, the Bible failed, and therefore it cannot be trusted. I mentioned to you before that nearly every single day I was in seminary I had this prophecy given as proof that the Bible was not the inerrant and infallible Word of God because Jesus was wrong.
Terrifying Imagery of Calamity
We read in verse 25, “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.” The picture is that people will be fainting with fear and foreboding for what was coming on the world.
Imagine the language used in the text. Astronomical signs and perturbations will be terrifying, the fear of people will be gripping, and there will be an intense feeling of foreboding that massive destruction will be coming soon on the world. That is the milieu Jesus described for this atmosphere. Then it says: “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.”
When you look at predictive prophecies in the Old Testament, you frequently see the language of prophetic utterances cloaked in vivid and intense imagery and symbols. Almost always, the imagery and symbolic content predicting catastrophic events at the hands of God includes astronomical shakeups, such as the moon turning to dripping blood and so on. The prediction of astronomical perturbations that accompany biblical prophecy is a normal characteristic of the literary genre. In this text, Jesus used that same traditional type of approach when He described the coming calamity.
When Will This Take Place?
When we look at Jesus’ prediction as it was given originally, the principal question raised by those who heard the prediction—the Apostles and disciples themselves—was not, “How is this going to take place?” or, “Where is it going to take place?” because Jesus already told them where and hinted at why. The major, operative question was, “When will all these things come to pass?”
For us to understand this text, we must understand the force of that question: “Jesus, You’re telling us that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left upon another on the temple, that our nation is going into captivity for an indefinite period of time until the fullness of the Gentiles be fulfilled. When will this all take place?”
The word “when” introduces a question of time. It is a timeframe reference. The problem with the text that becomes excruciatingly difficult and grounds so much skepticism is when Jesus says one sentence. If this one sentence were not in the text or in Matthew’s description of the Olivet Discourse, there would be no problem with skepticism. We would just look back and say, “Isn’t it incredible that all the things that Jesus predicted came to pass precisely as He said they would?” The problematic statement comes in verse 32: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” The translations of the other Synoptic Gospels say “all these things”—panta touta—“shall have taken place.” That is the problem.
Jesus’ Emphatic Timeframe
Jesus did not say: “I don’t have a crystal ball. I know that someday God is going to visit judgment on the world. There will be a time of visitation. There will be a day of darkness with no light in it, but I have no clue as to when that will take place. But let Me give you, for your benefit, an educated guess.” No, there is no hesitation driven by ambiguity or uncertainty.
Listen again to how Jesus made this pronouncement about the timeframe: “Truly,” amen, verily, “I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” That is the sentence. If it were not there, we would not be having this discussion, because there would be no problem. But notice how emphatic Jesus is about the timeframe: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.”
There are two other occasions where Jesus gave timeframe references for future prophecies. One is Matthew 16:28: “Truly,” again, emphatic, “I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
I have a concern that many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians (which is a redundancy because if you are not evangelical you are not a Christian, and if you are a Christian, you are evangelical) do not seem to feel the weight of this problem. They dismiss it out of hand. No wonder the academic skeptics look at us and say, how naive we seem to be, obscurantist in the extreme, when we just flush this off as if it were nothing. But here, Jesus said, “Some of you standing here right now will not taste of death.” What does that mean? “You are not going to die until you see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Some Will Die, Some Will Live
Let me give you a description of the gymnastics scholars use in terms of special pleading to try to absolve Jesus for these short-term references. They say: “Jesus isn’t referring to His coming; Jesus is referring to the manifestation of His power and the coming of His kingdom in the transfiguration, or the resurrection, or the day of Pentecost, because on Pentecost they saw the kingdom of God coming in power.”
Think about that explanation for a minute. This is a question of merely days or weeks before Pentecost. In answer to their question, “When will these things be?” Jesus said: “I can tell you this: some of you are going to live to see it. Some of you will not taste death; that is, in the next few weeks, we may lose Judas, but the rest of you will still be alive to see it.” Does that make any sense to you?
If you are familiar with logic, truth tables, and the laws of necessary inference, you know the distinctions between universal negative propositions and universal positive propositions, and particular affirmations and particular negations. It is okay if you have not heard of truth tables, but the point is that there are certain inferences you can draw based on the principles of logic.
If Jesus said, “Not one of you is going to die until these things take place,” that would be a universal negative proposition. If He said, “Some of you will not taste death until you see the coming of Christ in His kingdom in power,” the inference that can be drawn is this: some of you will taste death. Some will die. Some will not die.
If He was talking about a time in the next few weeks, how likely is it that Jesus would say, “Some of you are actually going to be able to live to see it”? But if we are thinking about an event forty years after this time, t it makes sense to say: “In the next forty years there will be a significant rate of dying among you, but some will survive. Some will live long enough that they won’t taste death until all these things come to pass.”
Jesus said in Matthew 10, “You will not go over all the cities of Israel until you see the kingdom of God coming in power.” Does that sound like a prophecy for two thousand years in the future? I can guarantee you that the missionary enterprise of the Christian faith reached the borders of Israel early in the first century. It did not take the church two thousand years to preach the gospel to every city in Israel. The timeframe reference of which Jesus spoke in Matthew was clearly within the lifetime of one group of people.
The Meaning of “Generation”
Let us return now to the salient passage: “This generation will not pass away until all these things come to pass.” What did Jesus mean when He said, “this generation”? Here is the complexity: the word translated “generation” in New Testament Greek can mean more than one thing.
One way the word “generation” is used is to describe a type of person, and Jesus frequently described this type of person as part of “a wicked and perverse generation”; that is, a particular type of person described and characterized by a peculiar element of perversity and evil. Therefore, many commentators come to this text and say that this type of wicked person will continue until the time of Jesus’ return. Namely, there will be unbelieving, perverse, and evil people up to the very moment that Jesus returns at the end of human time. However, that is hardly an answer to the question, “When?” If it is true that wicked and perverse people have been around since the fall of Adam and Eve and will continue to be here until the triumphant return of Christ and the consummation of His kingdom, that is hardly much of an indicator of what this timeframe will be.
On the other hand, one may argue that the meaning of the term “generation” refers to that particular and singularly wicked generation during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, because of all the generations that ever lived upon the earth, there was none more wicked than the contemporaries of Jesus. He came in the full light of His power in terms of His miracles and teaching, and He said Himself that He came to His own but His own received Him not. So, if there were ever a wicked and perverse generation of Jewish people, even though it included such saints as Joseph, Mary, Zacharias, Simeon and so on, nevertheless, most of that group of people Jesus referred to as the wicked and perverse generation. He denoted this group of unbelievers during His lifetime.
If we use the term “generation” to refer to a type of people, we still get a timeframe reference when Jesus said this peculiar generation of wicked people will not end until all these things are fulfilled. So, if we use the term “generation” to refer to a time group, it applies just as powerfully in this definition as it does in the other.
The difficulty is that the primary meaning of “generation” in the New Testament is not a type of person. It can mean that, but the primary meaning is a particular age group, and the term “generation” usually defines a period of approximately forty years. That is how most critical scholars interpret this text, though some try to wriggle away from it by using the term “generation” to apply to a type of person. The normal meaning of the term is an age group. So, in translating the text, it means this: “You asked Me when, and I’ll tell you when: sometime in the next forty years. This generation is not going to pass away until all these things are fulfilled.”
Was Jesus Accurate?
Here is the question: Was Jesus accurate in the timeframe He gave? In Matthew’s gospel, we are told in the Olivet Discourse that after Jesus had said this generation shall not pass away, He said: “Nobody knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come. Therefore, be vigilant, watch out, read the signs of the times, when you see wars and rumors of wars, and so on. But I can’t tell you the day and the hour because nobody knows the day or the hour; not the angels, and not even the Son knows the day or the hour.”
This is another way people try to vindicate Jesus. They say, “Jesus didn’t really predict a timeframe because He said He didn’t know the day and the hour.” But He did say: “I can’t tell you which day. I can’t tell you what time, whether it is going to be in the morning, afternoon, or evening. I don’t know what month it’s going to be. I can’t even tell you the exact year it’s going to be, but I can tell you this: it’s going to be within the next generation.” Those details about the day and hour do not relieve any of the difficulty of this text being a prediction of a timeframe within one generation.
It boils down to this: either Jesus made a prediction that did not come to pass and therefore was false, or—and so few people are ever even willing to ask the question—maybe it did come to pass. Maybe He was not wrong about the timeframe. Maybe we have made too many assumptions that He was referring to His ultimate, final, consummate appearance at the end of the age when He will bring His kingdom to pass.
Jesus Came in Judgment
I do not think Jesus was talking about His final return. He was talking about the days of vengeance. He was talking about His coming in judgment on the nation of Israel. That was the warning He gave and that was the prediction that was fulfilled with a vengeance, in AD 70.
In AD 70, Jesus came in judgment. He destroyed the city. He destroyed the temple. He dispersed His people, and He came to judge them. In the meantime began the age of the Gentiles, where the church was established not as simply a Jewish community, but expanded to the whole world. After the age of the Gentiles, the church would be finally and fully fulfilled with Jesus' return at the end of time. But in the meantime, the in-between time, He did come, and there were astronomical perturbations.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, records an eyewitness account in his Jewish Wars with those who were there when 1.1 million Jews suffered a holocaust in AD 70 under Titus. Josephus records that people looked into the sky and saw, visibly, chariots in the air. They heard with their ears, physically, voices out of the heavens saying, “We are departing thence.” Just as in antiquity when the glory of God visibly left Jerusalem over the east wall, they saw ichabod, they saw the glory depart, and judgment fell in calamitous terms.
In this text, we know Jesus said: “Jerusalem will fall. The temple will be destroyed. The Jews will be dispersed. Calamity upon calamity will occur. People’s hearts will fail within themselves. They will be confounded. They will be terrified. They will be perplexed. Heaven and earth may pass away, but My words will not pass away.”
Jesus said it, He meant it, and it happened just as He said it would. Rather than joining the swarms of skeptics that gather around this text, let us throw our corporate hats into the air, rejoicing in the full certainty of the words of Jesus that can never fail.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.