When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains … (Luke 21:20-21, NIV).
Is there anything you would defend to the death?
Hopefully we would all be willing to risk our lives in order to save the lives of other people. But would you lay down your life in order to save a political or religious institution?
For many Jews in Jesus’ time, the answer would have been yes. The Temple was God’s residence on earth. It’s right (they might have said) to take up the sword in order to defend God’s holy temple. And that’s exactly what happened a few decades after Jesus spoke the words above.
The Jews rebelled against the Romans in AD 66. In response, in AD 70, the Romans surrounded Jerusalem. The siege lasted around five months, then the city was captured, the Temple destroyed, and thousands upon thousands of Jewish people died through violence and famine.
But, according to tradition, the Christians fled Jerusalem before this happened, in obedience to the words of Jesus.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he found the Temple to be like a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The Temple authorities were greedy and corrupt, and they didn’t recognise Jesus for who he is. The Temple was ready for God’s judgment.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’
‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ (Luke 21:5-7)
Jesus then described things that were to happen after his death and resurrection, leading up to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
The destruction of the Temple was a catastrophic event. For the Jews, it would have seemed like the end of the world. But Jesus went on to say that it isn’t the end. The final judgment is yet to come, and the destruction of the Temple is like a preview.
So, what should Jesus’ followers do?
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city (Luke 21:20-21).
Why doesn’t he tell them to stay and fight? Their nation, Judah, Israel, is under attack. Israel is God’s chosen people! The Romans are idol-worshipping pagans! Jerusalem is their sacred city, with God’s holy temple in it! Shouldn’t they fight for their country? Shouldn’t they fight for their freedom?
No. They should flee. Because God’s judgment is coming on the political and religious institution that was centred on the Temple in Jerusalem.
The coming of Jesus brings about a change in the location of God’s kingdom, and the weapons of God’s kingdom.
The location of God’s kingdom is now centred on Jesus himself. Jesus’ body is the new Temple: his literal body, and then the body of Christ which is the church, the people of God. That’s where the Temple is, and that’s where the Kingdom is.
So there is no longer any earthly institution, location, or building, of which we can say, ‘that’s the Kingdom of God’. The Kingdom of Judah is not the Kingdom of God. The Roman Empire, even when it became Christian, is not the Kingdom of God. The British Empire is not the Kingdom of God. The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God.
All of these are merely human institutions. None will last for ever. All are subject to the judgment of God. None is worth defending to the death simply for its own sake.
That’s why I really struggle with the first verse of ‘I vow to thee, my country’:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
I love my country, I really do. But what if my country comes under the judgment of God?
Jesus’ disciples were Jews. Their country was under attack. Many Jews, in defence of their country, asked no question, and made ‘undaunted the final sacrifice’.
But Jesus told his followers what to do: ‘flee to the mountains’.
Does this make me a pacifist? No. I do think there is such a thing as a just war. If millions of Jews are being exterminated, then it’s right to intervene. But a just war is about saving human life, not about defending a political institution.
If my country is pursuing justice and peace and trying to save human life, then yes, I hope I will have the courage to give to my country ‘the love that never falters, the love that pays the price’. But if my country turns away from justice, and invites the judgment of God, then ‘flee to the mountains’.
The location of the Kingdom of God has changed. If you want to find the Kingdom of God, you will find it in Jesus, not in any earthly institution.
And the weapons of the Kingdom of God have changed.
In the Old Testament, God sometimes expected his people to take up the sword in defence of the Kingdom of God. But those are not the weapons we use, now that the Kingdom is found in Jesus.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, not with an army, but knowing that he would be killed. He was killed not fighting nobly for his country, but he was betrayed by his own people, and died in utter humiliation.
When Jesus was arrested, his disciples tried to defend him. One of them drew a sword ‘struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear’ (Luke 22:50). But Jesus said, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?’ (Luke 22:52). Then his disciples fled, and Jesus went alone to his death on the cross.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. The weapons of the Kingdom now are weapons of love and self-denial, not the weapons of warfare and violence. It’s through those weapons that the Kingdom of God has been growing through the centuries: a kingdom that is not limited to one nation on earth, but a kingdom that is present in every nation, tribe and tongue.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
May we all have the courage to devote our lives to the advance of this kingdom.