Luke 21:11: Jesus says, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
I have had several recent conversations with people saying “We are in the end times with all that is going on in the world…” I would be cautious with that claim. Jesus clearly addresses end time talk in Mark 13:32 saying, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
The important take-away of this verse is that Jesus specifically says the timing is not for us to know. That should serve as a warning. Anyone who claims to know the date or time of Jesus’ return is a false teacher. They are claiming to convince others they know what is to come when Jesus says it cannot be known.
So, what is Jesus telling us in this scripture? We need to go back and look to what happened before Jesus made these apocalyptic forecasts. Jesus was watching a poor widow give a donation to the synagogue. She gave all she had to live on. Jesus is using this as a teaching moment for his disciples. Notice how the disciples are enamoured with the beauty of the temple, a human creation. Jesus is intentionally moving them to a bigger truth.
This is where, we as listeners must decide if what Jesus is saying, a forecast for the future, or a metaphorical truth about current life. When Jesus is listing wars, famines, plagues… it is not something unique to his time, every generation has its share of these crises. Jesus makes the point in this scripture that when bad things happen – and they will – we should not be scared or follow anyone proclaiming these are signs of God’s judgment and the end times. Instead, we should trust that God remains present in our lives. Jesus is teaching his disciples that we need to focus on the people in need around us, not our beautiful buildings and institutions.
I like how Professor Gilberto Ruiz summarizes the passage: “A close reading of Luke 21:5-19 shows that using this passage as a springboard for proclaiming God’s judgment on society would miss the point. Rather, the passage warns us about becoming too fixated on temporary human institutions, perhaps with the implication that we should attend to the poor in our communities instead (21:5-6; see also 21:1-4), and it exhorts us to be firm in our trust in God when calamity and persecution strike (21:7-19). Despite its language and imagery of destruction, Luke 21:5-19 is ultimately a passage grounded in hope – in the truth that God remains present in the world and in one’s life even when things have gotten so bad that it feels like the world is closing in on us.”
Ernie Naylor serves as pastor at Atwood Presbyterian Church.