Behind the Veil: more context

25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand……”34 “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise 35 like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. 36 Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Context in Scripture. This reading is taken from Luke’s gospel just following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus’ confrontation with the authorities in the Temple (which began back at 19:47, the cleansing of the Temple) now shifts to the future tense. This extended section (19:47–21:38) concerns

  • the coming persecutions and the destruction of the Temple (21:5–19),
  • the destruction of Jerusalem (21:20–24), and
  • the coming of the Son of Man (21:25–36) – our Sunday gospel.

Luke’s third prediction of Jerusalem’s fall is by far the most detailed discourse (the others come in 13:34-35; 19:41-44). What immediately strikes current readers is that this all seems very apocalyptic, every end-of-the-world such as the popular Left Behind fiction. Yet, Luke’s text contains only a few of the standard elements of apocalyptic literature, e.g., some cosmic imagery; but omits many others, e.g., hero from the past who seals up the vision until a future date, heavenly interpreter of the visions. In addition, it is not a final word of Jesus, but introduces his suffering and death. On the other hand, it contains several characteristics of apocalyptic thought: a deterministic and pessimistic view of history, anticipation of the end of the world in some great and imminent crisis, visions of cosmic upheaval.

Brian Stoffregen provides a brief, simplistic, yet enlightening description of the purposes of prophetic, wisdom, and apocalyptic literatures. While they all have a future component, they are primarily concerned about the present.

prophetic literature
Present time is one of suffering
Why? The people have sinned.
Future may be a time of blessing if the people repent.
Purpose: call the people to repent and change their ways in the present time

wisdom literature
Present time may be one of blessing or suffering
Why? Cause and effect system: Blessed if do right — suffer if do wrong
Future depends on continued righteousness or unrighteousness
Purpose: encourage the people to continue or start living righteously in the present

apocalyptic literature
Present time is one of suffering
Why? The world is under evil powers who afflict the faithful
Future: a reversal of fortunes: the faithful righteous who suffer now, will be rewarded; and the godless unrighteous who bring suffering to others, will suffer (usually in a different or recreated world)
Purpose: encourage the people to continue their faithfulness and patience during the present suffering

With that in mind, one might be less certain of the literary type of Luke’s passage. For in any case, in looking at our text, we need to keep in mind at least three time references. (1) The time of Jesus when he spoke these words, which was prior to the destruction of the temple. (2) The time of Luke when he wrote these words (and his hearers heard them), which was after the destruction of the temple. (3) The present time of our hearers, who live centuries after the events recorded in the discourse.

That reference of time will move the emphasis and accent with which the hearer listens. In large part, as Stoffregen point out, the discourse makes several points:

  • First, Luke clearly shows how the destruction of A.D. 70 is distinct from but related to the end. The two events should not be confused, but Jerusalem’s destruction, when it comes, will guarantee as well as display the end, since one event mirrors the other. Both are a part of God’s plan as events move toward the end.
  • Second, Jesus’ prophetic character is highlighted by this section. God is speaking through Jesus about unfolding events in the plan.
  • Third, the Jewish nation’s fate was clearly tied to its reaction to Jesus. The reader is not to question that the events Jesus describes will result from the nation’s failure to respond to him (19:41-44). In fact, if one were to ask why Jerusalem was being judged, Luke has given many reasons. It is filled with hypocrisy (11:37-54), has oppressed the poor (18:7; 20:47), has rejected Messiah (13:33-34; 20:13-18), has missed the day of visitation (19:44), has rejected the gospel (Acts 13:46-48; 18:5-6; 28:25-28) and has slain God’s Son (Luke 9:22; 18:31-33; 19:47; 20:14-19; 22:1-2, 52; 23:1-25).
  • Fourth, the passage offers reassurance to disciples that God will enable them to face persecution and deliver them from it, whether by giving them words to say in their own defense or by saving them after martyrdom.
  • Fifth, the call is to remain steadfast because God is in control.

So, the discourse offers information and exhortations. It provides a general outline but not a detailed, dated calendar of future events. Such a general portrait without detailed dates is a common form for biblical prophetic and apocalyptic material. Even though the portrait Jesus gives is general, he is saying, in effect, here in the present: “Rest assured, God’s plan is being fulfilled.”

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