Time and The Divine Plan

This coming Sunday is the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we explored the passage in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and the listeners ask “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” (Luke 21:7)

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.

History is under the auspices of the Divine Plan.

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

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