Time and The Divine Plan – A Theology of History. “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” The broad scope of the question in v.7 is significant, since a judgment of Jerusalem that wipes out the temple suggests a time of great catastrophe and a turning point in the nation’s history and identity. Such an event can only signal that God’s plan for the nation is underway. Though Luke’s form of this question is more focused on the temple than the questions in Matthew 24:3 and Mark 13:4, its implications clearly cover the same span.
Two features of this discourse should not be overlooked. First, in verses 8-12 Jesus works from the end backwards and then in verse 25 leaps forward again in time, beyond Jerusalem’s destruction to the end. Such a rewinding backwards in time is clear in light of the statement in verse 9 that the end will not come right away and the note in verse 12 that before all this–that is, the events of verses 8-11–other things will occur. With verse 12 and following, Jesus moves forward again, toward the description of Jerusalem’s fall and the persecution that will accompany it. The issues of the end and the return of the Son of Man are deferred mostly until verse 25, with the reference to the times of the Gentiles in verse 24 serving as a transition into Jesus’ statements about the end times. After Jerusalem falls, the period of Gentile rule will continue until the Son of Man returns.
Second, the events of the end and those of Jerusalem’s fall are presented side by side in the entire discourse, as is typical in prophetic presentation, even though we can now look back and know that the events are separated by a large period of time. Such prophetic foreshortening is designed to indicate that one event mirrors and is linked to the other. When the initial event occurs, Jesus’ followers can be assured that the rest is coming. But–and this is the key point–for the initial listeners it would be next to impossible to distinguish the times of these mirrored events. More important than these events’ time relationship to each other is their linkage in meaning. Both the end and Jerusalem’s fall are part of the divine movement toward fulfillment of promise. Anyone originally hearing Jesus’ discourse might have assumed the end would come with Jerusalem’s fall, but the real indication of the end is not Jerusalem’s fall but the return of the Son of Man.
So Jesus warns first about events that are not yet the end. Messianic pretenders will abound, so the disciples must not be deceived. “Do not follow them.” (v.8) Josephus describes such claims in Jewish Wars 6.5.2-3 285-88, 300-309. In addition, social chaos, civil turmoil, wars and other tumultuous events will precede the end. The disciples should not be surprised when the world is in chaos. There is no need for alarm. These things must take place. Paul expresses a parallel concept when he speaks of creation groaning until redemption is complete (Rom 8:18-25). Sin will be with us until Christ returns. Pain and persecution in the world should never surprise us.
Despite the chaos, God’s plan is moving on. The end will not come right away. Jesus prepares the disciples for the era to come by reassuring them that worldwide chaos does not mean the cosmos is spinning out of divine control. Such chaos should not cause shock or emotional distress.
Still more chaos will come before the end. Nation will rise against nation, and earthquakes, famines and pestilences will come. All the typology of Jesus’ descriptions has roots in judgment scenes of the Old Testament (2 Chron 15:6; Is 14:30; 19:2; 29:6; 51:19; Ezek 36:29-30; 38:19; Amos 8:11; Zech 14:5). Fearful events and great signs from heaven are signs of God’s activity. (Mark 13:8 mentions the beginning of birth pangs here, but Luke lacks such explicit apocalyptic language.) In sum, chaos of all sorts will precede the end.
Discipleship and Persecution. But before all these things will come persecution. Disciples will need to stand prepared for its coming. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.” (v.12) The bevy of verbs [seize (lit. lay hands on), persecute, hand you over, led before kings, etc.] are ones that are used again, not only of Jesus during his Passion, but also of the early disciples early in Acts and of St. Paul in the latter parts of Acts. Especially in Acts, these are all settings in which the disciples give witness and testimony. Luke strengthens the connection between Jesus and the following persecutions of the disciples.
The mention of synagogues shows that the period of the early church is in view. In fact, the initial fulfillment of this prediction comes in Acts, starting after the proclamation of Jesus in chapter 3 leads to arrest and persecution in Acts 4. Virtually every chapter after that describes the persecution of the earliest church.
Luke uses a key term to characterize disciples: witnesses for Jesus (It will lead to your giving testimony, v. 13; compare Acts 1:6-8). Between now and the end, they are called to witness to him. Part of that witness is how they face persecution. From Stephen’s martyrdom to the suffering of many in the formerly communist Eastern Europe and in Muslim countries, testimony to Jesus in the face of persecution has had a compelling impact throughout history.
Again Jesus tells his people not to worry. They need not be overly concerned with how they might defend themselves. They don’t need a defense attorney, for Jesus himself will be their defense: Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute (v.15; compare Acts 4:8-12; 7:54; 26:24-32). Though Jesus does not explain here how this works, Luke 12:11-12 and John 14-16 make clear that the gift alluded to here is the Holy Spirit.
The persecution will be painful, because it will involve parents, brothers, relatives and friends. This is why discipleship requires putting God ahead of family (14:26). Some of God’s people will even meet death. Put bluntly, “You will be hated by all because of my name.” (v.17) Part of the chaos before the capital’s fall and before the end is the persecution of those allied to Jesus.
But the disciples will receive comfort. “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” (v.18) In light of verse 16, this cannot mean that none of them will die. Rather, it must mean that even if they die, they will live (12:4-7). There is no way real harm will come, since Luke uses the emphatic Greek negative here (ou me). In short, by standing firm with Jesus, one gains life – or to use Luke’s language, “you will secure your life.” (v.19) Thus Luke again emphasizes perseverance. Those who cling to the Word with patience bear fruit (8:15). Luke has made it clear that standing firm requires resolve and counting the cost (14:25-33), properly assessing the cares of life (8:14; 14:15-24) and not overvaluing material possessions or the pleasures of life (8:14; 12:19).
The Fall of Jerusalem. In verse 20 Jesus describes Jerusalem’s destruction in detail. The sign of its destruction will come when armies surround it. Jesus had already predicted this in 19:41-44. Because of his focus on the near event of Jerusalem’s fall, Luke’s version of this discourse does not include certain details from the other Synoptic gospels. He does not include Jesus’ words about this being a time of unprecedented tribulation. He does not mention the Lord’s decision to cut short these days so humanity will survive. He lacks any comment about events not coming in winter. Most important, he does not discuss “the abomination that causes desolation”; he mentions only its desolation. The focus throughout is the city’s destruction, a destruction that encompasses, but is not limited to, the temple. This will be a time of tension, but it is not yet the end. A phrase unique to Luke shows the distinction. Jerusalem will be trampled on until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. The judgment on Jerusalem remains until that time is completed.
When the time of destruction comes, it will be time to flee and hide. Those who are in Judea should head for the mountains, where they can hide in safety, while those in the city should get out. Those in the country should avoid the city. The destruction will be total; the nation will suffer. These events will fulfill all that has been written. The allusion is to prophetic warnings of the price of the nation’s covenant unfaithfulness (Deut 28:32; Jer 7:14-26, 30-34; 16:1-9; 17:27; 19:10-15; Mic 3:12; Zeph 1:4-13). The reference to God’s pattern of judgment suggests a typological connection here: this judgment is like others before it and like ones that will follow it.
The destruction will be a dreadful time for the most vulnerable people, especially pregnant mothers. Distress and wrath will overwhelm the people and the land (19:44; 23:29). Death and imprisonment will be the fate of many citizens. “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (v.24) Be assured, Jesus warns, the nation will be judged and the temple abandoned. Israel’s fall is not the end of God’s plan, however, for one more decisive stage remains. The coming of the Son of Man (Luke 21:25-38)
Luke 21:12 Before all this happens: to Luke and his community, some of the signs of the end just described (Luke 21:10–11) still lie in the future. Now in dealing with the persecution of the disciples (Luke 21:12–19) and the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20–24) Luke is pointing to eschatological signs that have already been fulfilled.
Luke 21:16 handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends: The reference to close relatives becoming persecutors echo several OT passages and early Jewish and rabbinic traditions that speak of the breakdown of family solidarity in the last days, particularly Mic. 7:2, 6; Zech. 13:3 (cf. Jub. 23:19; 1 En. 100:1–2; 4 Ezra 5:9; 6:24; 2 Bar. 70:3; m. Soṭah 9:5; b. Sanh. 97a).
Luke 21:18 but not a hair on your head will be destroyed: echoes 1 Sam. 14:45; 2 Sam. 14:11; 1 Kings 1:52 and occurred in Jesus’ exhortation to fearless confession in Luke 12:7. Read in the light of 21:16, which announces the execution of some of Jesus’ followers, this proverbial expression does not promise complete physical safety, but rather asserts that nothing will happen to the disciples apart from God’s sovereign will. And, read in the context of 21:17, the proverbial expression implies a promise that “persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful” (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 738).
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 387-90
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 717-23
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 319-26
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.