The Future, According to Jesus

by Ed Gallagher

Enrique Simonet, Flevit super illam, 1892, Wikimedia Commons

About a thousand years before Jesus was born, King Solomon built a grand temple in Jerusalem, on the very site where Abraham had once nearly sacrificed his own son (2 Chron 3:1; cf. Gen 22:2). But, of course, that temple was demolished just a few hundred years later, so thoroughly destroyed by the Babylonians that nothing of it remained for Jesus to admire. Why had God allowed his own house to be destroyed by these foreign enemies, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies? According to the Israelite prophets, it was because of Israel’s sin. Ezekiel the prophet was exiled to Babylon in 597 BC, with the temple still standing. He records his experience of being transported to Jerusalem—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows—and seeing people in the temple worshiping foreign Gods (Ezek 8–11). This vision ends with God’s abandonment of his temple, leaving it to its fate, while “the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city and stopped on the mountain east of the city” (11:23). Instead of inhabiting the temple, God’s glory would rest on a nearby mountain and watch the Babylonians destroy his house. 

That was the first temple. There would be a second. When the Persians (led by Cyrus) defeated the Babylonians, they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1–4). Zerubbabel and others did return to Jerusalem, and they did build a new temple, which was dedicated in 516 BC (Ezra 6:15). This second temple stood longer than the first one. Just before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great directed a building project that expanded the Jerusalem Temple and rendered it much more glamorous. It was this temple that prompted the disciples of Jesus to exclaim during the last week of their Master’s life, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). 

If you go to Jerusalem today, you will probably want to visit the site of this temple, but you won’t be able to visit the temple itself. Only a single wall remains from the second temple, the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall). What happened? A group of Jews revolted against Rome in AD 66, attempting to establish Jerusalem as an independent state. The revolt did not succeed. It took a few years for Rome to put it down—and the suicide of Emperor Nero in AD 68 and the subsequent political intrigues regarding his successor (the Year of the Four Emperors) contributed to the delay, especially since that successor turned out to be Vespasian, who had been besieging Jerusalem when he learned of Nero’s death. But eventually, in AD 70, Vespasian’s son Titus, who had taken over the military campaign in Judah (and would also succeed his father as emperor in 79), crushed the revolt and destroyed the city and the temple. The Arch of Titus commemorating this victory still stands in Rome just outside the Colosseum. We have so much information about this revolt and its results because the Jewish historian Josephus, a general in the war, narrated the story in his The Jewish War

Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy, Wikimedia Commons

In the days of Jesus, the second temple still stood, recently beautified by Herod. The early Christians regularly met in the temple and worshiped there (Acts 2:46; 3:1). But Jesus had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the temple, as did some other Jews, such as the Qumran group (i.e., the group that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls). Jesus accused his contemporaries of corrupting the function of the temple, turning it into a den of robbers (Luke 19:45, quoting Jer 7:11). In the Gospel of John, he mysteriously indicated that he himself embodied the temple of God (John 2:18–21). And he also predicted that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed. And all of this had implications for the nature of the movement that he was inaugurating. When asked by the Samaritan Woman about the proper place of worship, Jesus responded. 

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

John 4:21–23

The Olivet Discourse 

The longest sustained block of teaching from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark comes near the end of the Gospel, in the narrative about Jesus’ final week. Jesus emerges from the temple and stands on the Mount of Olives, and tells the disciples about coming events, particularly the temple’s destruction. This “Olivet Discourse” appears in Mark 13, and also in expanded form in Matthew 24. Luke also records this same material, but here it is split in two different speeches, in 17:20–37 and 21:5–36. Luke actually does not bring up the location of Jesus when he makes these speeches, so it’s not technically correct to talk about an Olivet Discourse in Luke, but almost all of the material in these two sections of Luke find parallels in the Olivet Discourses (explicitly so called) in Matthew and Mark. 

Here are the parallels for Luke 17.

LukeMark Matthew
Kingdom is among you17:20–21
You will long for the Son of Man17:22
People will say, “look here”17:2313:2124:23
Son of Man = lightening17:2424:27
3rd Passion Prediction17:25
End is like Noah17:26–2724:37–39
End is like Lot17:28–30
Don’t go get your stuff17:3113:15–1624:17–18
Remember Lot’s wife17:32
Saver of life will lose it17:33 (cf. 9:24)10:39
2 in bed, 1 taken17:34
2 grinding, 1 taken17:3524:41
where the vultures gather17:3724:28

Why does Jesus say these things on the Mount of Olives? Well, it’s across from the Temple Mount. The Mount of Olives is two miles east of Jerusalem, with the Kidron Valley running between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount. This modern photo might give an impression of how Jesus and his disciples stood on the Mount of Olives and looked across the valley at the temple (though the golden Dome of the Rock has to stand in now for the temple). But also the Mount of Olives might have had theological significance. Zechariah prophesied a time when the nations would battle against Jerusalem (just as Jesus describes in the Olivet Discourse), and at that time the Lord’s feet “shall stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zech 14:4).1 In a sense, Jesus is now fulfilling Zechariah’s depiction. 

The Kingdom Is Among You 

The first of Luke’s passages containing material parallel to the Olivet Discourse begins this way: 

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Luke 17:20–21

This passage appears only in Luke. What does it mean? The KJV has that last phrase as “the kingdom of God is within you,” which sounds like Jesus is saying that the kingdom exists in people’s hearts. One problem with that reading is that Jesus is talking to Pharisees, and it seems unlikely that he would say to them, “the kingdom exists in your hearts”—because … probably it doesn’t. The other problem with this way of thinking about Luke 17:21 (i.e., the kingdom is in your heart) is that Jesus never says anything like it elsewhere. Nowhere else does Jesus represent God’s kingdom as something inside people. Rather, the kingdom is something that people themselves need to enter (e.g., Luke 18:24–25; John 3:5). So, probably “within you” is not the right translation for Luke 17:21; probably Jesus means, “the kingdom of God is among you.”2 But what does that mean? 

Fairly frequently Jesus represented the kingdom of God as something that was happening through his own ministry, inbreaking into ancient Jewish Palestine through his deeds of power, through his healings, through his teachings. 

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Luke 7:22–23

Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Luke 10:23–24

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

Luke 11:20

Each of these passages (and others) suggests that God’s long-awaited reign was finally appearing through the ministry of Jesus. To those Pharisees, Jesus could truly say, “the kingdom of God is among you.” 


What that does not mean is that all trouble is gone. Just because “the kingdom of God is among you” does not mean that everything is going to be easy from now on. In fact, just the opposite. The rest of Luke’s chapter describes the coming tribulation. “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (17:22). Things are going to get bad. The days of Noah were so bad (17:26–27), God destroyed the earth. The days of Lot were so bad (17:28–30), God rained down fire from heaven. The days Jesus is describing are going to be like those days. But what days is Jesus describing? 

When he uses language like “as the lightening flashes … so will the Son of Man be in his day” (17:24), we tend to think he’s talking about the Second Coming. But some of this passage is hard to interpret as pointing toward the end of time. For instance: 

On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. 32Remember Lot’s wife. 33Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. 34I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.

Luke 17:31–35

This hardly makes any sense as a description of the end of the world. How would “one be left” in that case? Some people think Jesus is talking about the Rapture: at the secret coming of Jesus, he’ll take the elect home and leave everybody else to suffer through the seven years of tribulation. If you’ve read the Left Behind books or seen the movies, you know what this idea is about, but it is doubtful Jesus is talking about that. After all, he’s talking about destruction, and not a secret destruction. How else should we interpret the analogies to Noah and Lot? There was nothing secret about the flood, or about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Wright (p. 366), this passage refers to troublesome times on this earth, when armies are invading and people are panicky. In such a situation, “being taken”—which we usually interpret positively (= being taken by Jesus)—is not a good thing. “It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can.” In this context, you’d prefer to be the one left rather than being the one taken. 

The last comment in this section is Jesus’ response to the question, “Where, Lord?” 

Where the corpse is, there the eagles/vultures will gather.

Luke 17:37

The eagle was a symbol for Rome. Presumably, that’s what Jesus means: the eagles (i.e., Romans) are going to gather at the carcass of Jerusalem (Wright, p. 360).

All of this looks to me like a description of the coming war with Rome, ending in the destruction of the temple. The main issue with that reading is that Jesus says he is describing a “day” when the Son of Man is going to be “revealed” (17:30). I think we can get a better handle on what Jesus means by those words if we take a look at his similar words in Luke 21. 

Luke 21

(For a chart with a verse-by-verse comparison of Luke 21 with Mark 13 and Matthew 24, see the Bonus Material here.) 

After commenting on the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1–4; cf. Mark 12:41–44), Jesus exits the temple (Mark 13:1) with his disciples. When some people (Luke 21:5; a disciple, according to Mark 13:1; Matt 24:1) mentioned the temple’s beauty, Jesus responded: 

As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. 

Luke 21:6; cf. Matt 24:2; Mark 13:2

The disciples are curious: tell us more about that, Jesus. Here’s their question in all three Synoptic Gospels. 

Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?

Luke 21:7

Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Matthew 24:3

Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?

Mark 13:4

In my experience, it is Matthew 24 that has been most discussed in church circles, and I have heard people try to separate the questions from the disciples, as if they were asking two different things, leading to two different responses from Jesus.3 First (according to this idea), the disciples ask about when the destruction of the temple will take place, and secondly they ask about when Jesus himself will return. This division of the question into two is supposed to help explain why Jesus’ response seems to go in two different directions, apparently describing the destruction of the temple in some verses and apparently describing his own return at the end of time in other verses. But this idea of the two questions doesn’t really work too well, for two reasons. First, even in Matthew 24 (upon which the idea is based), Jesus doesn’t address one question and then go to the other, but he seems to mix up his responses. Second, the disciples’ question in the other Gospels, Mark and Luke, does not divide so easily as in Matthew. The question in Luke doesn’t say anything about the “coming” of Jesus but is focused solely on the temple’s destruction. The same is true in Mark. Whatever the response of Jesus means, in Luke he is apparently giving more information about the destruction of the temple, since that’s the question that is reported. 

What will take place? When will the temple be destroyed? Here is what Jesus says.4 

  • First, false messiahs will arise “in my name” (21:8). 
  • Then there will be war and rumors of wars (21:9–11). Think about the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 66–70, which ended with the destruction of the temple. 
  • At this time, the apostles and other disciples will be persecuted (21:12–19). Jesus says, “not a hair of your head will perish” (21:18), a statement not paralleled in Mark (cf. Mark 13:13) or Matthew (cf. Matt 24:13). We can’t really believe that the disciples were not harmed at all in a literal, physical sense. We have record of the deaths of disciples, even in volume two of Luke’s history work when he narrates the murder of Stephen (Acts 7). So I think we’re supposed to understand this promise from Jesus in some sort of more spiritual sense—that despite the physical trials that the disciples endure, God still has their hairs numbered (Luke 12:7) and he guarantees their future, eternal security. 
  • Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies (21:20–24).5 Jesus encourages his disciples to flee the destruction, to get out of the city. Of course, this time will be especially hard for pregnant women and families with young children. While it is normally considered a blessing to have children or to be expecting them, the usual rules don’t apply during a time of desolation. Jesus says two especially interesting things in this paragraph, things not paralleled in the other Gospels. First, these predictions of destruction are “a fulfillment of all that is written” (21:22). And second, Jesus refers to the “times of the Gentiles.” I imagine what he means by “Gentiles” here is foreigners that don’t belong to God’s people. In other words, I don’t think he’s using the term “Gentiles” in reference to non-Jews who come to accept Jesus as the Messiah (i.e., Gentile Christians). I think what he’s getting at is that there is an appointed time for God’s land to be dominated by people who do not belong to God (called here Gentiles), but their time will come to an end. As Caird (pp. 231–32) notes, Jesus’ words echo the book of Daniel, which prophesies the hegemony of Gentile kingdoms for a limited time (see chs. 2 and 7 of Daniel). 
  • Then Jesus says this: 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Luke 21:25–28

Is he still talking about the destruction of Jerusalem? It doesn’t sound like it, does it? These are images we usually associate with the end of time. I mean, he says that we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” What else could that refer to other than the Second Coming of Jesus which will usher in the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment? 

Let me try to make a case that Jesus is still, even here, talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. I’m not fully convinced that he is, but if I had to pick an interpretation, I would probably pick this one, that Jesus is not talking about his Second Coming but is talking about something that happened a long time ago, a few decades after his own death and resurrection. For one thing, Jesus goes on to say, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (21:32; cf. Matt 24:34; Mark 13:30). And the destruction of Jerusalem is what he has been talking about up to this point. I suspect that he’s still talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and he is describing it in cosmic language, or we might say figurative language. There are examples from the Old Testament. 

Isaiah 13 is given the heading “an oracle concerning Babylon,” and it is most certainly an oracle of doom against Babylon, prophesying Babylon’s destruction—not (let the reader understand) prophesying the earth’s destruction. But the oracle reads in part: 

9See, the day of the LORD comes,

cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,

to make the earth a desolation,

and to destroy its sinners from it.

10For the stars of the heavens and their constellations

will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising,

and the moon will not shed its light.

Isaiah 13:9–10

What do the stars and sun and moon have to do with Babylon? Well, not much, but these strange heavenly signs are an ill-omen for Babylon. Darkness is coming for Babylon—no, not literal darkness, but metaphorical darkness. 

Or, how about this one, from later in Isaiah’s book, where the subject is Edom. 

4All the host of heaven shall rot away,

and the skies roll up like a scroll.

All their host shall wither

like a leaf withering on a vine,

or fruit withering on a fig tree.

5When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,

lo, it will descend upon Edom,

upon the people I have doomed to judgment.

6The LORD has a sword; it is sated with blood,

it is gorged with fat,

with the blood of lambs and goats,

with the fat of the kidneys of rams.

For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah,

a great slaughter in the land of Edom.

Isaiah 34:4–6

Here again we have this cosmic imagery, the skies being rolled up like a scroll, the heavenly host rotting away. Of course, none of that really, literally happened when Edom was destroyed, but for Edom it might as well have. Edom’s world was coming to an end. So also, Isaiah says “the Lord has a sword” (v. 6), but of course he doesn’t have a literal, physical sword. We get a graphic description of the Lord’s sword, but it’s all metaphorical. 

There are other examples. A good one is Ezekiel 32, a prophecy against Egypt, in which the destruction of Egypt is described using the same cosmic imagery we’ve already encountered (32:7). 

All that to say that there is precedent for talking about the destruction of a nation in terms of strange signs in the heavens, and the sun, moon, and stars going dark. So it’s not too difficult to relate Jesus’ words in Luke 21:25 to the destruction of Jerusalem.6 

What about “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” (21:27)? Could that possibly refer to the destruction of Jerusalem? Certainly his disciples listening to him would not have thought that this language—which sounds so much like the Second Coming to us—indicated the way Jesus would come back to earth at the end of time. After all, they didn’t even realize that they were about to be separated from Jesus, that he was about to die with a resurrection to follow—no matter how many times Jesus had tried to tell them. So, the disciples would probably have understood Jesus to be talking in some way still about the destruction of the temple rather than his own return (which they were not yet ready to understand). Regardless of how the disciples understood them, what did Jesus mean by these words? Again, I think if you look at some Old Testament imagery, you’d come to the conclusion that Jesus might not be talking about his own Second Coming but something else. That is, the language of “coming” doesn’t necessarily mean what we think of as coming. Just think for a moment about what the patriarch Joseph makes his brothers swear on his deathbed. 

And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.

Genesis 50:25

“God will surely visit you.” What does Joseph mean, or in what sense does God “visit” Israel. Exodus 13:19 actually quotes these words of Joseph as coming to fulfillment when the Israelites took up Joseph’s bones at the time of the exodus. Ah, there it is—the exodus. The rescue of God’s people from Egypt is the moment of God’s “visiting” Israel. But it’s not a “visit” (or a “coming”) in the normal sense of the term; God visited Israel in the sense that he destroyed her enemies and rescued her from foreign oppression. 

More to the point of what Jesus is getting at is Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13) and “to him was given dominion and glory and kingship” (7:14). When the Son of Man comes on the clouds, that is the time that his kingship is confirmed. Not only that, but also this Son of Man is not coming to earth to reign as king but coming to heaven, coming to the Ancient of Days (see Dan 7:9–14). What people will see at the destruction of Jerusalem is the vindication of the Son of Man; this destruction will symbolize the ascent (not descent!) of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days to be confirmed as king (see Eph 1:20–23; 1 Pet 3:22).7 

If that’s what “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” might mean, then I think it could also explain what Jesus meant that the Son of Man would be revealed on a particular day (17:30). Though the end of time might be something like what Jesus describes here, he is actually thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem, and his disciples would have understood him to be talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. 

What Does It Matter? 

Why do we care about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple? This discussion will be painfully brief. First, there are warnings Jesus gave to his disciples that apply to disciples of Jesus throughout the ages. He warned his disciples to be watchful and to live in a state of preparation. This warning remains urgent for us. 

Second, the Bible talks a whole lot about the temple. And just as Jesus was ambivalent about the temple, so was God. God did not allow David to build a temple, partly because he never asked for such a thing (2 Sam 7). He does not inhabit a temple made by hands (Isa 66:1–2, quoted by Stephen in Acts 7:49–50). Too often, the temple became a symbol of God’s protection, a false symbol, because God had little interest in protecting a sinful people. The people in Jeremiah’s day knew that God would not allow the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem because of “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer 7:4). But Jeremiah warned them that the “robbers den” (7:11) that the temple had become had no claim on God’s affections or protection. We saw at the beginning of the lesson how Ezekiel depicted the “glory of the Lord” as departing the temple to reside on a mountain and watch the Babylonains destroy the city (Ezek 8–11). 

Is the temple valuable as a symbol of God’s presence among his people? Sure. Yes. 

Is the temple dangerous as a symbol of God’s presence among his people? Yes. 

And for readers of the New Testament, looking at any building as the symbol of God’s presence is just the wrong idea. 

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:19–22

The church is the temple. The people of God are his dwelling place. His Spirit resides in human beings. Christians are the symbol of the presence of God.

Bonus Material

Synopsis of the Olivet Discourse

Discussion Questions 

What do you think Jesus means that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21)? 

In Luke 13:28–29, Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God as something that people will experience in the future. Is the kingdom of God future or already present? 

In Luke 17:22–37, Jesus talks about “the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (verse 30). What day is he talking about? 

In Luke 21:5–38, Jesus talks about future signs. What will these signs indicate? How does this discourse relate to what Jesus was talking about in Luke 17:20–21? 

At Luke 21:27, Jesus says that the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory? Is he talking about his Second Coming or about something else? 


(1) For more, see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 344–45. 

(2) See Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 210–11, who stresses that the phrase in Greek is difficult to interpret. 

(3) But on how to understand the word “coming” in Matt 24:3 (παρουσία, parousia), see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 345–46.

(4) For an interpretation of this whole passage, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 339–67. For an alternative interpretation that sees more of the passage as pointing directly to the Second Coming, see Allen Black, Mark, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995) on Mark 13. 

(5) For an in-depth treatment of these verses with extensive interaction with the Old Testament background to Jesus’ words, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 348–60. 

(6) For a good, brief discussion of the pros and cons of this type of reading, see Brant J. Pitre, “Apocalypticism and Apocalyptic Teaching,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2d ed., ed. Joel B. Green (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 23–33, at 30. For a more detailed presentation of the type of argument I’m advancing here, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 354–58. 

(7) For a strong insistence on this sort of reading of the passage from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory, 360–65. 

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