The people of Israel long awaited the day when God would visit them. But when God incarnate walked among them at last, they failed to recognize Him. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, expressing the weight of Jesus’ lamentation over the city of Jerusalem.
This morning we will continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading from Luke 19:41–48. I ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.
We are blessed to receive this Word superintended and inspired by God the Holy Spirit. This is the unvarnished Word of God and I pray that you will receive it as such, and that the Lord will give you ears to hear His Word. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, again we beseech You to have mercy upon us. Draw near unto us that we may give heed to the truth of Your Word that You, who inspired this original text, might work through it to open our hearts to its truth. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In the last sermon, we looked at the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This text picks up in the following verse after Jesus had responded to the rebuke of the Pharisees, when He said that if His disciples would be silenced, the very stones would cry out.
Our Lord, as we read, drew near and saw the city. He was approaching the circuitous route from Bethany across the Valley of Kidron and coming in at an angle to Jerusalem with its walls 150 feet high. The city had been the central sanctuary for centuries since David moved his headquarters to Jerusalem, the city of peace.
When Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the cheers of all the people were ringing in His ears. Everybody was screaming: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But Jesus was weeping.
Jesus looked at Jerusalem, and as He cried, He said: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another,” and then He gave the reason: “You did not know the time of your visitation.”
We need to listen carefully to this wrenching lamentation Jesus gave over the city. Earlier when He approached Jerusalem, as Luke recorded, He cried and said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). We read in John’s gospel that when Christ came into this world of darkness, He came to His own, but His own received Him not (John 1:11).
On this occasion, when Jesus entered the city with tears rolling down His cheeks, He said, “This is supposed to be the holy city, the city set on a hill, the city of peace, Jerusalem.” Jesus had spoken of the peace that would be His final legacy, when in a few days He would gather with His disciples in the upper room and say: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:27). But Jerusalem had become a secular city, and they missed the Prince of Peace, who was riding on a donkey, coming to His own people.
A Warning of Destruction
The people had no idea what the peace Jesus brought would be about. Jesus warned them, as He had before and would again, of the impending judgment and destruction of Jerusalem.
If there was anything unthinkable in the mind of the Jew, it was that this holy city, one of the wonders of the ancient world, built with the magnificent architecture of the Herodian rocks established there, impregnable, impossible to destroy, would be left in ruins.
Centuries earlier, the Weeping Prophet, Jeremiah, approached and listened to the rituals of the people as they were reciting in their liturgy: “This is the temple of the Lord. The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Jeremiah said: “You say these things: ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ But you trust in lying words. Words that cannot profit you” (Jer. 7:4).
Previously, the central sanctuary, before it had been established in Jerusalem, was in Shiloh. In the days of Jeremiah, Shiloh was in ruins, and its buildings were covered by vines and weeds. Jeremiah said: “You think this is the temple of the Lord? Go to Shiloh and look at it, because this is what Jerusalem will become.”
Jesus said: “Your enemies will come near. They will surround you. They will build barricades; they will use inventions and implements of war you had never dreamed possible.” Within one generation the armies of Rome invaded the nation, and their chief general, amid a crisis in the city of Rome, was summoned back to become emperor. He left instructions for his son, Titus, to continue the invasion of Israel.
Under his leadership, Titus brought troops to surround Jerusalem. His father, the emperor, instructed him: “Every man, woman, and child in that city shall be destroyed.” We think of World War II and the atrocities committed by Hitler in the Holocaust. The first holocaust was here in AD 70, when Josephus tells us that 1,100,000 Jews—men, women, and children—were annihilated in Jerusalem. Not one stone was left upon another as the city was burned to the ground.
While the Romans surrounded the city, they built barricades and ramparts in order to approach the city after a lengthy siege. They encamped around the city on the Mount of Olives, and these olive trees that had filled the hills for two or three hundred years were laid waste by the invaders.
The Roman soldiers, in order to keep themselves warm during the siege, cut every single olive tree down and denuded the Mount of Olives before their attack. The Romans built machines that hurled huge stones across and into the walls and set the city ablaze. They came in and killed them all. That is what Jesus said would happen.
Jesus Loved the City
Jesus loved the city of Jerusalem. He visited it when He was twelve years old in anticipation of going through His bar mitzvah the next year. We are told in Luke 2 that He was so captivated by Jerusalem that He spent his time in the temple discussing theology with the rabbis and the jurists of the hour.
Jesus was so preoccupied that, when His parents were ready to go back to Nazareth, Mary thought Jesus was with Joseph, and Joseph thought that Jesus was with Mary, and they departed and left their son behind. After they were traveling together, Mary said, “Where’s Jesus?” Joseph said, “I don’t know, I thought He was with you.” Mary said, “Well I thought He was with you?” They had to turn around and come back. When they found Him, He was in the temple, in His element: preaching, teaching, and discussing theology with the experts as a twelve-year-old child.
This child prodigy was astonishing them with His wisdom. Mary’s heart was broken, and she was torn between joy and anger to see her son still alive. She said: “What were you thinking? Where have you been?” The child rebuked His mother: “Didn’t you know that I had to be about My Father’s business?”
Never in history did a boy know more theology than did this young man who astounded the scholars on that day. Every year after that, when the annual celebration of the Passover would take place, Jesus and His family would go up to Jerusalem and participate. He loved the city. They would go through the rituals on the Day of Atonement, when all the pilgrims would come to the central sanctuary to give their offerings to God.
This time when Jesus came to Jerusalem as He was about to die, He came not with joy. Rather, His heart was heavy. The Scriptures tell us later that Jesus was entering into His sorrow. He was approaching His passio magna, His great passion, where He would be instructed by the Father to drink the cup of His wrath. He knew what waited for Him there, but still He loved the city.
The Day of Visitation
Jesus said, “You didn’t understand peace.” Then He fully explained the ultimate reason for the destruction of Jerusalem. Listen to what He said: “They will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
They might have been thinking: “What? All of this will happen to our people and Jerusalem because we did not know the time of our visitation? What are You talking about? What time of visitation do You have in mind?”
To understand what Jesus was saying, we must go back a few pages in Luke’s gospel to one of the infancy hymns, the song of Zechariah, the Benedictus. In the last part of the Benedictus, we read the prediction the angel gave to the impending birth of John the Baptist, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. He said:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to His people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise (the anatolē) shall visit us from on high. (Luke 1:76–78)
The dawn would announce the coming visitation. Throughout the Old Testament, there was a time of understanding and hope for the coming of the presence of God among His people. Sometimes it was called the day of visitation; sometimes, even more simply, it was called the day of the Lord.
When it was called the day of visitation, there was a play on the word that we find in the New Testament Greek, the noun episkopos. You may not know any Greek, but you might be familiar with that term because it is transliterated into the English language by the term episcopal. What is an Episcopal church? An Episcopal church is a church ruled over by episkopoi, those who are charged with visiting, tending, looking at, looking after, and caring for the flock.
The word episkopos can be broken down into a prefix and the root. The root skopos is likely familiar to you. It has to do with an instrument that you use to look at things. You look at a microscope for little things, or you look through a telescope at things in the distance, and the same root, scope, is there. You put a scope on a rifle, for example. When you take the prefix epi, all that does is intensify the root. It means, “super scope,” “super looking,” or from the Latin, a “supervisor.”
In the ancient world, the episkopos in the military was the commanding general who, often unannounced and unexpected, would come to inspect the troops to see if they were prepared and ready militarily. The troops would be assembled for inspection. If they were not ready for battle, it was a time of judgment because the general would come down with the hard fist of discipline upon those who were not ready. On the other hand, if the general saw that the troops were well prepared, well equipped, and ready for any conflict, they would receive his praise and honor.
Translated over into religious categories, the episkopos was the One who would visit His people; the ultimate general, God Himself, who would now visit His people through the One whom He would name the bishop of our souls, Jesus. The people looked for that moment when God would come as Immanuel and be present among His people. They looked for the day of the Lord.
Thinking about the day of the Lord was a time of joyous anticipation until the secularization of Israel, when the nation fell away from the covenant they had made with their God. The prophets rebuked Israel. Amos, for example, said: “You look forward to the day of the Lord, the day of His visitation, but I say to you the day of the Lord is a day of darkness. There is no light in it. It is doomsday, judgment day.”
Then came the incarnation, where the Word was made flesh and God dwelt among His people. Jesus was looking at those people with tears in His eyes and He said, “Your city will be left desolate, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Crossing the Threshold from the Secular to the Sacred
Next, Luke moves on to what happened when Jesus entered the city and went inside the temple. When He went in the temple, He started to drive people out of the courts in fury and anger. This was not the first time He had done it. He had done it at the beginning of His public ministry when He found the money changers assembled at the temple, exploiting the people and turning God’s house into a house of iniquity. Now, He came in and saw the pilgrims being defrauded by collusion between the priests, Pharisees, and merchants.
Hundreds of thousands of people came to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. It would be difficult and laborious for them to bring the animals for sacrifice, whether they were turtledoves, sheep, or goats. Since they came without their animals and livestock, the merchants prepared a store in the temple where they could exchange their money and buy livestock to sacrifice. It was like the floor of the Chicago commodities exchange: “Buy! Buy! Sell! Sell!” There was a cacophony of sounds happening. People were bidding for the goods being sold in the temple.
Jesus looked at that, and His mood changed from sorrow into fury. He said, “What have you done?” He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer.’ But you have made it a den of robbers.”
On the front of the our church’s bulletins every Sunday, it says the name of this place, Saint Andrew’s Chapel, and describes us as a Reformed congregation. Then, at the bottom of the page, we read these words: “We cross the threshold of the secular to the sacred, from the common to the uncommon, from the profane to the holy.”
When you walk through the door of the church, you are crossing a threshold. You are entering a building that is a sacred place. It is holy ground. It is different from other buildings. I know there is a modern movement to do everything possible to disguise the sanctity of the church building and to turn it into a commonplace meeting house. The goal is to make sure that nothing hints of the holy in order to make sure pagans are as comfortable as they can feel when they enter the church and cross that transition.
Beloved, you can worship God anywhere, we know that. You can pray to God anywhere. You can pray in your bedroom, you can pray in your car, you can pray as you walk down the street, or while you are jogging. Yet, when God commanded His people to build a house for Him, He said, “I want it to be a holy place, a house of prayer where you can come privately and corporately and lift up the sacrifices of your praises in prayer to God.”
God’s house is a sacred place. It is uncommon. It is not profane. The word profane literally, etymologically, meant: “Out of the temple; outside of the holy place.” It is the world in all its profanity. Jesus was saying: “You’ve taken the holy and made it profane. You’ve made it a den of robbers. You’ve secularized My house.”
Luke continues: “And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do.” Why? Because away from the noise and the screaming cacophony of the bidding of the merchants, Jesus called the people aside and began to teach them truth. They hung on every word.
Beloved, when you come to church to hear the Word of God, as boring as I or any other preacher might be, if you are hearing the Word of God, are you hanging on it? On every single word? When Jesus was in the wilderness, He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
In this very hour you are hearing the Word of God. Does it go in one ear and out the other? Do you yawn and look at your watch? We need to hang on the words of Jesus. This is the place to do it—a house of prayer, holy ground, a place to hear His holy Word. Do not miss His day of visitation.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.