Behind the Veil: signs

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.”

Only Luke uses the word “signs” in this section. The same word was used earlier in the question “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” (Luke 21:7) and “…There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky”(v.11). Perhaps one remembers that Jesus’ opponents “to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven” (11:16). A little later Jesus responds to this request: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” (11:29-30)

But then, Jesus has always been a sign: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (2:12).

But then signs have been predicted by the prophets for centuries and thus are not simply marked to one moment of history. Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina, 330) notes:

“The transition to this third part of the discourse is unobtrusive, marked mainly by the repetition of the term “sign” from 21:7 in 21:25. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the things now being described no longer concern the history of the believers or the fate of the city, but the worldwide experience of humans at the judgment: Luke speaks of the “distress and confusion among the nations” (v. 25), the things that are coming on “the inhabited world” (oikoumene, v. 26), on everyone inhabiting the earth” (v. 35). And if these indications were not clear enough, his description of “signs” are no longer those of wars and revolutions (v. 10) or even of earthquakes, famines, plagues and portents in the sky (v. 11) or armies around the city (v. 20), but entirely of cosmic events in sun, moon and stars (v. 25), the tumult of the ocean (v. 25), shaking of the heavenly powers themselves (v. 26).

All of this only echoes the prophet Isaiah (13:9-10), Ezekiel (32:7-8), and Joel (2:30-31). Thus, these heavenly signs do not just point forward to the coming, but also backwards as fulfillment of the prophets’ word. Promise and fulfillment is one of the major themes throughout Luke. Just as Luke began with shepherds seeing the sign of a baby in a manger in fulfillment of the angels’ message, so this future coming is certain to occur in fulfillment of the prophets’ messages.

At that fulfillment Luke writes that people will be (a) in dismay, perplexed or (b) die of fright (could also be translated “faint”). These words are unique to Luke. But what is more significant is that there are two groups of listeners: “the people/they” in vv.26,27 and “you” in v.28.  The responses to what happens is quite different. The people faint (or die) from fear and foreboding, but you (the disciples implied) are to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” (v. 28) For “you” the terrible signs symbolize the redemption that has come near. What does it symbolize for the “people”?

“Redemption” — this word (apolytrosis) occurs only here in all of the gospels. Although it occurs 7 times in Paul’s letters and twice in Hebrews. A form of this word (lytroomai) occurs in Luke 24:21a: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Another related word (lytrosis) is found occurs twice in Luke: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (1:68). “At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).

This word group carries the idea of releasing or freeing someone by the payment of a fee or ransom. This raises a number of questions. To what or whom are we in bondage? What is the payment that will be made that frees us? To whom is it paid? to Satan? to God? (Can God be bought off?) What will it mean to be set free? I think that in the context of this apocalyptic discourse, the coming of the Son of Man will free us from the terrible distress that has come upon the world.

As Brian Stoffergen writes: “Although it might be reading more into this text than what is there, the Day of Judgment for the world is also a day of release from judgment for the believers. I’ve suggested that the Day of Judgment is a little like the old Fram oil filter commercials – ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.’ We can face divine judgment now: Confessing to God our sins, repenting of those sins, and having those sins wiped away by divine forgiveness. If all our wrongs have been removed by daily repentance and forgiveness; there will be nothing left to judge on the Judgment Day. We will be ‘pure and blameless’ on the day of Christ (Phil 1:10). The other option is to avoid daily judgments which cause us to face up to our sins and sinfulness and take our chances on facing God later — when all people will be judged. That later judgment doesn’t seem to be as pleasant as pre-judgment day confrontations with God, where, through Jesus, we have been promised that all our sins will be forgiven; where we will be justified — a word that can be translated: ‘Declared not guilty.’”

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