What signs will there be?

This coming Sunday marks our journey in Ordinary Time, the 33rd Sunday in Year C. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here.

5 While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, 6 “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” 7 Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” 8 He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! 9 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. 12 “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. 13 It will lead to your giving testimony. 14 Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, 15 for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. 16 You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name, 18 but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. 19 By your perseverance you will secure your lives. (Luke 21:5-19)

Jesus’ confrontation with the Jerusalem authorities in the Temple (which began in 19:47) now shifts to the future tense. The extended dialogue concerns the:

  • coming persecutions and destruction of the Temple (21:5-19),
  • destruction of the Jerusalem (21:20-24), and
  • coming of the Son of Man (21:25-36)

Luke’s third prediction of Jerusalem’s fall is by far the most detailed speech (the others come in 13:34-35; 19:41-44). The speech’s character emerges when one examines the parallels in Matthew 24:1-35 and Mark 13:1-37. A comparison of these parallels shows how Luke has drawn out some additional teaching and made some distinct points. Some of these points emerge from the additional material Luke includes (vv. 18, 21-22, 24, 28 are certainly additional material; vv. 19-20, 23b-26, 34-36 are probably additional). Other emphases surface because of the way Luke has presented the traditional material. Where Matthew speaks specifically of the “the desolating abomination” (Mt 24:15, referring to Daniel 12:11), for example, Luke simply refers to the “desolation” (Lk 21:20).

The significance of these differences becomes clear as one carefully compares the accounts. Luke emphasizes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 in a way the other Gospels do not. Mark and Matthew anticipate the fall of Jerusalem in the way they introduce the discourse, but Luke focuses on the short-term event in a way Matthew and Mark do not. His temporal indicators (vv. 9, 12) draw the reader back toward the present before really focusing on the end in verses 25-28. A transition begins to appear in verses 20-24, but until verse 19 the focus is still on events before the judgment of the capital in A.D. 70, which is not yet the end.

This is important element, else one simply assumes this text is part of a Lucan apocalyptic writing – with a late 20th century understanding of apocalyptic (shaped by popular fiction such as Left Behind). On one hand, 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

At one level, whether this text is prophetic or apocalyptic (or both) is perhaps only a scholarly concern. In any case, By your perseverance you will secure your lives (21:19). Perhaps none of these categories is adequate, because one must always remember that Luke is a rhetorical historian. He uses those skills to make it easier to understand how divine history was read by the Jews, as well as by the prophets.

The belief was that God’s judgment followed certain patterns. How he judged in one era resembled how he would judge in another. Because God’s character was unchanging and because he controlled history, such patterns could be noted. Thus deliverance in any era was compared to the exodus. One event mirrored another. Exilic judgments, whether Assyrian or Babylonian, were described in similar terms. This “mirror” or “pattern” interpretation of history has been called a theological-historical reading of the text, with the “type” reflecting a basic pattern in God’s activity. This way of reading history sees events as linked and mirroring one another. Sometimes the events are described in such a way that we modern readers would not readily notice that distinct events are being discussed. Sometimes a text offers clarifying reflection after more events detailing God’s program have been revealed.

Jesus’ discourse in Ch. 21 links together two such events, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the events of the end signaling his return to earth. Because the events are patterned after one another and mirror one another, some of Jesus’ language applies to both. Mark and Matthew highlight the mirror’s long-term image, while Luke emphasizes the short-term event. Either focus is a correct portrayal of Jesus’ teaching. Failure to appreciate the typological background to this speech, however, has led to an overemphasis of one image against the other within the Synoptic gospels. Some readers insist that the portrait of one writer must exactly match that of another. Instead, complementary emphases are possible. Appreciation of typology allows each author to speak for himself and allows the accounts of all the Synoptic writers to be viewed not in contradictory or one-sided terms but as complementary.

The historian Josephus recorded his account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans:

The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. . . . With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below; and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing. . . . Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings. (Jewish War 6.271-275)

Major historical crises triggered apocalyptic thinking. The destruction of Jerusalem is the historical event that prompted the discourse of Jesus in the text. In other words, in an discourse of this type, history is being set in the larger context of God’s purpose, the whole being an extraordinary writing with historical descriptions laced with symbols, signs, and mysterious figures of speech.

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, “Rest assured, God’s plan is being fulfilled.”


Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com

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