Portents, Signs and These Things

This coming Sunday is the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we explored the significance of the Temple in the mind and perspective of the Jewish people. Today we begin exploring the passage itself: While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, “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? (Luke 21:5-6)

When and by what Sign? In v.7 an unnamed interlocutor(s) asked Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” Given the introduction in v.5 where the disciples are mentioned, one assumes the disciples are the audience. But one should note that nowhere else in Luke do the disciples call Jesus “teacher.”  This is the eleventh time Jesus is so addressed and in none of the previous ten are the disciples the one addressing Jesus. Luke reserves the address “Teacher” as coming from the Pharisees, lawyers, the crowd, the rich, Sadducees, and scribes.  Given the larger context of Luke, it is more likely that while the disciples are present, Jesus is responding to those present in the Temple complex.

Be assured, Jesus tells them, these things are not permanent. The phrase these things (tauta) becomes central to the discourse, since the disciples ask in v.7: “what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”

There are two questions:

  1. When? The answer seems to be some unknown time: “it will not immediately be the end” (v. 9). By Luke’s time (ca. mid-80s), the temple had been destroyed. Mt. Vesuvius had erupted, causing all kinds of “signs” in the sky. Luke’s audience, living soon after these events, may have thought that the end would happen immediately or at least soon. Luke says, “No.”
  2. What sign? (Note that “sign” is singular.) It is this question that Jesus seems more interested in answering.

Although “sign” is singular, the plural “these things” (tauta), occurs often in this discourse.

  • v. 6 seeing these things
  • v. 7 when will these things be
  • v. 7 what is the sign when these things are about to happen
  • v. 9 it is necessary for these things to happen first
  • v. 12 before all these things
  • v. 28 when these things are beginning to happen
  • v. 31 when you would see these things happen
  • v. 36 strength to flee all these things that are about to happen

“These things” seems to refer to much more than just the destruction of the temple, but all of the signs/events that will occur to signify that the Kingdom of God is near (v. 31).

Concerning the sign: the same word (symeion) is used by Luke of Jesus lying in the manger (2:12); crowds want a sign from heaven (11:16), but Jesus will give them no sign except the sign of Jonah (11:29-30) – although is vv. 21 and 25 Jesus enumerates others. Could it be that the sign is Jesus himself? His birth, death, and resurrection? Or, perhaps his expression of the graciousness of God towards the outsiders that led them to repent and not be destroyed contrary to the prophet Jonah’s wishes? Could Jesus’ presence on earth be the sign that all these things will happen?

If it had been assumed that the destruction of the temple (and the events related to Mt. Vesuvius) were signs of the end, it would have been easy for pretenders to convince people that “I am he” and “the time has come.”  Josephus reports that many signs preceded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but the people chose to believe the ones who reassured them “Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by charlatans and pretended messengers of the deity; while they neither heeded or believed in the manifest portents that foretold the coming destruction…” (The Jewish War, 6.288)

Verse 8 is the only occurrence of planao (or any of its related terms) in Luke. The original meaning of this word is “to cause to wander off the path.” Thus to “lead astray,” “to mislead,” “to deceive,” “to cause to wander from the truth.” The word is used in Matthew (8x) and Mark (4x). There and in the epistles the context concerns false teaching and being deceived regarding apocalyptic events (John 7:12; 1 Cor 6:9; Gal 6:7).

The deception in verse 8 has two parts: false messiahs and false calculations of time.

In order to be led off the path, one needs to have a path, a clear direction. What is it that keeps us from being deceived by logical, but misguided interpreters of current events? We need to be clear about the path we are on and where it is going. Or, to counter the specific deceptions in this verse: to really know the true messiah and what he says about the time. Within a different context, the same can be said about congregations (or individuals) who have a clear mission for their lives. They are better able to fend off temptations to vary from that path.

The word for “time” is kairos. It is used three times in this discourse in ch. 21: vv. 8 and 24 concerning “the times of the Gentiles” being fulfilled; and v. 36 with the final command: “Be vigilant at all times!” The two instances prior to our text are times of comings. In 19:44 Jesus has wept over Jerusalem and talked about its destruction, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” A similar image is presented in its next use. In the parable of the wicked tenants (20:9-19), in contrast to Jerusalem, the tenants know the proper time, but they respond improperly. There seems to be two issues related to kairos — (a) knowing when it occurs and (b) knowing what to do when it has come. In other words, it is not simply being at the right place at the right time – it is realizing you are at the right place and time and knowing what is the right thing to do.

It may be that the deception in our text is not (a) that the time has come near. Jesus uses the same word and form (perfect) in 10:9, 11; 21:20 to indicate that the Kingdom has come near and that the desolation of Jerusalem has come near. Both instances also seem to indicate that the Kingdom and the desolation have already arrived. So the deception may be more related to (b): Now that the time has come near (and arrived), what is the proper thing for us to do?

Paul addresses a wrong understanding of the time in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 (dealing with (a) above):

We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way. For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one doomed to perdition,

Yet, later he indicates that their misguided understanding about the time led them to be misguided about their actions (dealing with (b) above). Apparently there were some in the Thessalonian church who felt that the end had come and that they no longer had to work (for the common good?) It is in this letter where Paul gives this command: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10). Could this be the deception of the false messiahs about the time in Luke?

The time has come near (v.8). What is the right path to follow? One that is mentioned in this part of our text is “do not be terrified.” This word ptoeomai only occurs twice in the NT; both in Luke. It implies being frightened or terrified or startled by something. In its other use, the disciples are startled and terrified (emphobos) by the sudden appearance of the risen Jesus in their midst (24:37). Classically, the active form was used to refer to “frightening or scaring away.” It also took on a metaphorical sense of “to be in a flutter, be agitated; to be wild, distracted.” Such ideas could be part of the meaning in our text.

What should not be scaring us? The wars and insurrections? The deceivers? The arrival of the kingdom? Natural disasters? Persecutions? It would be natural to be terrified at the prospect of such things. At the end of our text, Jesus gives the promise, “but not a hair on your head will be destroyed” (21:18; found only in Luke).

Image credit: Image credit: Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1867. Public Domain

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