And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Luke 21:5-7 NASB)
And so begins one of my least favorite passages of Scripture. It’s not that I don’t study “end-times”. I don’t, but that’s not why I don’t like this passage, and Mark 15 and Matthew 24. The reason I don’t like this passage is because this passage is confusing and actually, possibly, wrong.
The dating of the writing of Luke and Matthew is not an exact science. But the major debate has to do with the timing in relation to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many believe they were written before, some believe one was written before and one after (debate over which), and others believe they were both written after. A lot of this debate can be found to focus on this passage.
We’ll get to the reason in a few entries, but right now it is the setup, the setting of the scene, that occupies our attention. Luke, along with Matthew and Mark, have the temple in Jerusalem as the prompt for the discussion. As the disciples leave the temple with Jesus, they comment on the beauty of the buildings, decorations, and the stones. The stones are huge. And Jesus says, not one will be left on the other. Which is true, since the Romans will be disassembling the temple and throwing it into the Kidron Valley around AD 70.
After Jesus and His disciples reach the Mount of Olives, they ask Him about the timing. They want to know when these things will take place. This answer is what troubles me, but really the issue at hand does have to do with the destruction of the temple. What I’m hoping, but cannot confirm, is that Mark wrote before the destruction and editorially arranged his Gospel around the hope that the end of Jerusalem was the end. And then that Matthew and Luke, writing whenever, followed suit but without the need for all to end with Jerusalem. It’s just impossible to know.
In Hard Sayings of the Bible, verse 32 is addressed claiming the “plain sense” approach. I had to laugh at it. It basically said the context requires a statement of timing to be limited to the destruction of the temple. On the other hand, the “literary context” has a lot of stuff between the destruction of the temple and the statement of timing (all these things will happen in this generation). So, “fail” on his part for claiming the “plain sense” and divorcing his conclusion from the literary context.
Matthew Henry has the reference to a “future” coming to be “virtual” as opposed to “actual”, but I’m not sure how he can logically sustain that view. At least he understands the statement/prediction referring to the entire literary context. Craig Evans in the Understanding the Bible Commentary says that the statement refers to the “parable of the fig tree” and so the signs leading up to the coming of Jesus by a future generation. So this would be a compressed context, but at least literary. Still the reference to “all these things” makes such a narrow interpretation difficult.
This is why timing is so important. If Matthew and Luke have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem, then they would be looking back and know already that Jesus did not return when Jerusalem was destroyed. If one or both were written before the fall of Jerusalem, then they would still not know, and could be thinking it would all happen together. I think it’s interesting that John simply avoids the whole thing all together in his Gospel. In fact John takes pains to point out that Jesus did not say that John would live until He returned. And John is certainly to have written after Jerusalem was destroyed.
So, I will be examining the hope Jesus gives us in this passage, and then toward the end, the timing of the generational prediction. My problem is that I’m not in the habit of looking back and interpreting by what happened after the things were written. Others do and that’s fine. I try not to. I try to see it for what it was when written, when heard by the first audience, and bring that forward. I don’t know if I can get away with that here.
So what do I do when I don’t know how to “rescue” the honor of my Master? This challenges inspiration, it challenges prophesy, it challenges interpretive methods, and even the validity of the Scripture texts we have today. A lot rides on this passage because we are a critical people. Sometimes the challenge is to also be honest. Can I be both, and wherein lies my faith? I’d much rather study the crucifixion and resurrection, skipping this altogether.