How important is a building to God? How important is a building to his kingdom? What is more important?
I want us to learn that God is not overly impressed with church real estate.
Read Luke 21:1-19. We will discuss church success, what impresses God, church buildings, tribulation, fear, prophecy and endurance.
Successful churches (vs. 1-4)
The Arch of Titus in Rome features the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus predicted it. Spoils stolen from the Temple are pictured on the south panel of the arch like the menorah, golden trumpets and table of shew-bread. The Temple was built around 19 BC. It’s outer walls were not completed until a few years before their destruction by Rome. Herod constructed temples to pagan gods as well as Jerusalem. The widow’s mite also paid paid the upkeep of this temple. The temple was so magnificent that it could easily surpass many of today’s most magnificent churches. Though magnificent God had it destroyed because it was not a successful building. It had become an idol. Successful churches are those not those with the most magnificent buildings but those that preach Christ and change lives.
Most successful life (vs. 1-4)
There is an old saying about success that he who dies with the most toys wins. It is a rather revealing commentary on shallow materialistic goals. Some wealthy people seem to try and gain accolades by public displays of philanthropy. Is such a life the most successful? It is certainly a better example than the alternative. A life of stinginess and accumulation can be partaken of by every social class and it is a mean and empty life. On the scale of success through generosity, there is one example that stands out above the rest, and it is not the person who gives the most in monetary value. There is a person, who is often completely unknown, who is the greatest. It is not the amount given away that gauges financial success, but the percentage. That's what the story of the widow's mite is all about.
What impresses most at church (vs. 1-4)
When Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem he was not impressed by most of the religious leaders. His disciples were impressed with the architecture. His comments indicate a very different perspective than what is normal in our society. What impresses us most at church? Is it puffed up people with big titles and fancy clothes? Is it extravagant and ornate church architecture? Some people are offended by churches because of such things. God is also offended when we are more impressed with status and materialism than with him. Jesus had the most praise for a widow who gave very generously at the temple. Could it just be that one of the most important reasons to attend a church is the opportunity to learn from the examples of the many faithful people with whom we fellowship?
Closing church buildings (vs. 1-4)
Everybody hates to close a church building down. It’s seems like giving up ground in the church’s spiritual battle. It is also one of the most difficult jobs in church life. My Greek professor at graduate school loved it. He saw it as a necessary part of keeping church life healthy. We become so attached to real estate that we begin to believe that the church is buildings instead of people. So it was with ancient Israel. Jesus predicted that the temple at Jerusalem, which had lasted over 500 years, would be destroyed. God is sometimes in the business of closing down buildings. Jesus’ prediction came right after he had praised a widow for her very generous contribution to the temple fund, the proverbial widow’s mite. Church buildings are not the "forever" part of church life.
The battle over church size (vs. 5)
Many Christians are intimidated by mega-churches and their larger than life leaders. It is as if we believe that quantity is far more important than quality. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the majesty of a large church service is awe-inspiring. Yet the intimacy and healing embrace of a small church is unsurpassed. However, size does not guarantee spiritual depth. Sometimes the preaching in a large church is hollow and trite, while the preaching in a small country church can be rich and deep. The opposite can also be true. Jesus did not promise large churches would be the norm or even a sign of success. Some few times local churches were large anciently. More often, they were small and scattered during very difficult times. Size is not mentioned as a sign of success; standing firm is.
A church choice (vs. 5)
What if Jesus were to present us with two church choices? On the one hand, we could meet in a large and beautiful building with community respect and international acclaim. It would contain gold and magnificently dressed priests. On the other hand, there would be no gold and church leaders may be dressed very ordinarily. We could be scattered without a building, endure suffering and be despised. Most of us would readily prefer the former. What if the choice came with a caveat, that if we chose the latter and stood firm, we could have eternal life? That is similar to what Jesus predicted. Buildings can be idols. We are overly impressed with the things of this world. Jesus is more impressed with the grandeur of a heart which stands firm for him no matter what.
Destruction for progress (vs. 6)
When rebuilding old shrinking churches there are two inevitable things we must face: change and conflict. Any rebuilding necessarily destroys something old. Sometimes drastic action is required and anger arises. In church life we tend to focus overly much on things that we have built and not enough on people. We look too much to our traditions and not enough to God’s instructions. We worship our complications and not the simplicity of Christ. The same was true in ancient Israel. In order to rebuild the faith, sometimes existing structures must go. When Jesus prophesied that the temple would be destroyed, he was predicting an important change, a revolution in faith. If we are not willing to move forward in faith, then perhaps God will step in and destroy what we have built for our own good.
Admitting our ignorance (vs. 6)
Christians are divided by ideas yet united in Jesus. Some are proud of a tradition of ignorance and lack of education. They claim that the apostles were uneducated men, yet they were educated for 3 years by the Master. Others praise their own education in the traditions of their denomination and look down their noses at the teachings of others. Yet, even good ideas can become like idols. Idols need to be destroyed. The same was true of the temple in Jerusalem. It had once served a good purpose, but it had become a national idol. The more we study Jesus, the more we realize how ignorant we are of God’s perspective. Instead of being vain about our education or lack of it, let’s all realize our mutual ignorance and sit at the feet of the Master.
St Peter's Basilica cost what (vs. 6)
A story is making the circuit of a tour group being shown through St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. One tourist asked how much it cost and the astute priest tour guide responded that it cost most of northern Europe. He was referring to the Protestant churches which left the western Christian Church in large part because of the financial scandal associated with funding that building. In another sense then, instead of being a monument to the Apostle Peter, it is also a monument to sin and arrogant pride in the Church. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem carries with it similar lessons. If we are not willing to change, then the traditions and structures we have built can become monuments to our own sin and conceited arrogance which God must eventually destroy.
Building a permanent structure (vs. 6)
The Jerusalem temple was so incredible a building that when the sun reflected off its gold covered sides, people had to look away, it was so bright. Jesus predicted its destruction but also spoke of a truly permanent temple and an important cornerstone. We are that house of God (Ephesians 2:18-20). We so easily forget that people are more important than buildings. The beautiful physical stones of that worldly building were destroyed. We are the living stones (1 Peter 2:4-6) that are being placed into a spiritual temple. People still weep for the destroyed temple in Jerusalem today. They are deeply disappointed that it is a ruin. Our hope is not in physical buildings but a permanent structure being built by Jesus Christ. If we build with him we will not be disappointed.
A mile wide & an inch deep (vs. 6)
A church planter friend once said that he knew how to build a church a mile wide and an inch deep, but that only a true pastor could build depth. A principle behind Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple was the greater importance of inner spiritual depth over visible signs like buildings. How then do we build a foundation of spiritual depth if the comfort of a building does not help? A good building has a foundation that stands firm. We are to stand firm. A list of things outside of a church building that helps us stand firm follows: Don’t following false preachers who make wild claims about salvation and the end of the world. Do not be frightened. In the midst of calamity and hatred, rely upon the strengthening that God gives.
The time is near (vs. 8)
People have predicted that the time is near every century for the past 2,000 years. Yet a major thing about that kind of prediction is frequently neglected: the warning that Jesus made not to follow people who make such predictions. That’s right! If you don’t believe me, just take a look at Jesus’ own words in Luke 21:1-19. He said that many would come predicting that the time is near. Then he said something very shocking, Don’t follow them. Wow! Have you ever noticed that? False prophets are a dime a dozen. Yet, not only are the day and hour unknown, but also the nearness of Christ’s return. When we believe that we are certain of the nearness of Christ’s return, we become lazy. Yet, real Christianity involves keeping on keeping on even in the midst of uncertainty.
Warning bells (vs. 8)
How can we tell if a preacher is on the right path, way off the track or somewhere in between? None of us can claim that we are all right on every issue, but we often deceive ourselves into thinking that we are more right than wrong. Jesus taught some major warning signs that would distinguish false teachers from the rest of us who, although still very faulty are perhaps at least headed in the right direction. Jesus describes those giving off such alarm bells as many not few. Not too many claim to be Jesus, but many do make Messiah-like claims such as the sole place to find salvation or exclusive knowledge about salvation. People who make prophetic claims about the immediacy of Jesus’ return are certainly sounding a warning bell — not to follow them!
Christians living in great tribulation (vs. 12)
Warnings in prophecies like Luke 21:5-19 are strange to us in countries with great religious freedom — Christians tried, believers betrayed by relatives and friends, some put to death, everyone hating us because of Christ. Christians live such tribulation in about 50 countries today. North Korea is the worst. An estimated 400,000 Christians face labor camps and death if caught. Saudi Arabia is second worst. It has no religious freedom. 1¼ million Christians are threatened with imprisonment, deportation, torture and death. Afghanistan is next worst. Thousands of Christians there face kidnapping and killing. With over 300,000 Christians Iraq is next, where they are threatened with home burning, abduction and murder. Last in the worst 5 is Somalia, where a few hundred Christians live. They face abduction and murder with no religious freedom. Let us pray for them.
Fearless in fearful times (vs. 11-14)
Our society is afraid of many things and fear is big business. Fear sells merchandise from pharmaceutical drugs to newspapers, from insurance to airport security systems. It buys votes for political candidates. It is profitable for politicians and businesses to lead us into fear. This encourages a relationship of dependency for profit. At the same time there are many real reasons to fear. Despite the profit motive which encourages fear, things to be feared are not all imaginary or exaggerated. Jesus informed believers several times about the reality of fearful times, but encouraged them not to be afraid. Can we be fearless in fearful times? Every aspect of our lives, even the hairs on our heads, are under God’s control. It takes faith to stand firm until the end and in so doing win eternal life.
Doomsday prepping or living by faith (vs. 14)
Some people read apocalyptic literature and try to hide in man-made caves, while others read it and resolve to live a fuller Christian life by faith. There certainly is a time to flee from impending persecution. So, why is it better to live life under normal circumstances by faith than be a worried prepper? Nobody knows the day or hour of calamitous times. Every generation since Christ thought that theirs was the last generation and none of them was right. What a lot of time was wasted. Many false prophets have taken advantage of people by making such false predictions. Jesus encouraged us not to worry about being overly prepared but to put our faith in him. Worry and doubt distract us from the most important job at hand which it to spread the gospel message.
Dying testimony (vs. 16)
We have borrowed a word from Greek to mean someone who dies for their faith. The word in English is martyr. It comes from a similar Greek word used in Luke 21:5-19 which is often translated as testimony. For many Christians their witness or testimony has been in their willingness to die for their faith, to be martyrs. And what a testimony! Throughout Christian history many have been betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and some have been put to death. Currently 50 countries are on the world watch list at Open Doors of those who persecute Christians the worst and the Voice of the Martyrs tells many of their stories. May we pray for them and follow their example by standing firm no matter what may come, so that we too "will win life."
Difficult Christianity (vs. 17)
The fiction of the prosperity gospel attracts many suckers, but it is not real Christianity. It is the snake oil salesman’s version of the real thing. It is a counterfeit which enriches the false preachers who gladly ask for your so called “seed money.” One place to see the reality of a Christian life is where Jesus predicted many hardships which would follow true believers. Does that mean that God never provides material blessings to the obedient? Of course he does. The problem with prosperity preaching is that many teach that if you suffer, you must have been disobedient. That is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and the early church experienced. Suffering comes to Christians precisely because they are obedient. Jesus encouraged us to stand firm and inherit something greater than materialism, eternal life.
Model T Endurance (vs. 19)
I once knew of two elderly brothers who owned a farm and still used the first and only car they ever bought, a Model T Ford. Once a month they drove it to town for supplies. When most of us change cars occasionally, they endured through all the repairs, changes of parts and even occasional change of engines to keep their one and only car for life. In a throwaway world, most of us do not have such endurance. Yet, there are some things that we keep for life. It may be family bonds, keepsakes, a bank account or a phone number. Our bodies change dramatically over a lifetime but our fingerprints change very little. Endurance is a habit that we make consciously and against all odds. It is a good habit that leads to eternal life.
4 popular views of prophecy (vs. 20, 27)
Apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Revelation are accepted in all Christian Bibles. There are studied with 4 predominant views of prophecy: fulfillment mostly in very early history, mostly throughout history, mostly in the future and symbolic fulfillment any time any place. These four camps are often called preterism (ancient fulfillment), historicism, futurism and idealism (symbolic or spiritual fulfillment). Because apocalyptic literature is largely symbolic in genre, it seems logical to see its prophecies as also symbolic. A symbolic view also has a place for all three other views. So when we read of prophecies in other literature such as that in Luke 21:5-19 we can see elements which were fulfilled at least in type shortly afterwards (Jerusalem surrounded and trampled) and some which will be more logically completely fulfilled only at Christ’s return (the Son of Man coming).
Like all temporary things, buildings never have been important to God. What is more important is living changed and people that will live forever with him.