“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24 NASB)
And so, Jesus finally gets to the question of His disciples, about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here Jesus describes the scene. In Matthew and Mark we have the reference to Daniel’s “Abomination of Desolation” and the then the parenthetical “let the reader understand”. Luke leaves that out. His omission is one of the clues used to place his writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, but that’s not really conclusive. More telling might be his description of the encircled armies (see also 19:43,44) which is a detail missing from Matthew and Mark.
Then follows the instructions to flee. These instructions are consistent in the three Gospels, with only minor differences between. Except for how Luke ends this section. Matthew and Mark use the destruction to mark the beginning of a great tribulation, where Luke softens his description. Luke has the added detail of falling by the sword and dispersed into the nations missing from Matthew and Mark. And then Luke ends with a statement about Jerusalem being closed to Jews, which it was after it was destroyed. But Luke also has a comment about the time of the Gentiles, which sounds a lot like something he would have learned from Paul (see Romans 9-11).
Then from here, Jesus leaves the answer to the disciples question…or does He?
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN A CLOUD with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28 NASB)
This passage sounds a lot like the great “appearing” of Jesus to wrap up human history. There are several interesting details here: 1) the end will be signaled by astronomical events, 2) the “powers of heaven will be shaken” which can be a technical reference to the war in heaven, and 3) people will be in great fear of the near future. So, astronomers will get the first clues, the war in heaven will reach some sort of crescendo, and rampant panic will seize everyone on the earth. So, who’s ready for breakfast? In any case, this is a clear reference to Jesus’ appearance to wrap up the history of this world. When seen, we are to be encouraged because our struggle is coming to an end, our salvation approaches.
But it is interesting that this element is included in Jesus’ answer about the destruction of the temple. The disciples asked about that not about the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, like at other times (like after His resurrection). So why answer that question here when the temple is what is in their view? This is one of those times that I really wonder if there were some editorial choices made by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The problem in answering that question to make me feel better is that all three seem to have made the same choice. Three witness establish a fact, so…I’m guessing that, through the inspiration of the Spirit, this reference actually belongs where it is. So here’s why that bothers me:
Then He told them a parable: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (Luke 21:29-33 NASB)
And now we have a reference to the timing. The reference includes a few parts: 1) parable to instruct to look for the signs of these events as we look for signs of seasons, 2) assurance that a generation will not pass before these signs appear, and 3) assurance that Jesus’ words endure longer than the earth (another end-time reference). The reference to the signs as clues for what is to come ties in both the destruction of Jerusalem (look for encircled armies and/or the abomination of desolation) and Jesus’ final appearing. It’s possible that the other events, wars, natural disasters, and so on could also be signs of the fall of Jerusalem, but the coming of Jesus in the clouds is definitely heralded by signs as well.
If all these things, Jerusalem falling and Jesus returning, are preceded by signs; then when Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”, it’s very difficult for me to divorce this statement from His final appearing. There are lots of interpretive liberties taken to reconcile this statement with the absence of Jesus’ appearing. The plain sense of it though is that the generation to whom Jesus spoke passed and Jesus has not returned in the clouds.
Now, let’s consider John. John never touches problem of Jesus’ return except in his “Revelation” or “Apocalypse”. At least he never touches it directly in his Gospel or letters. The closest he gets in his Gospel is to a final scene where Peter looks back over his shoulder and asks Jesus about John. But John is using this to show that Jesus never actually promised that He would return in John’s lifetime, as if clearing up a rumor.
Now consider a few more points. Paul very clearly believed Jesus to be returning so soon, it was needless to marry, except for human sex (to avoid sexual sin). There was no sense in propagating, since it only bring children into a time of tribulation. He, and presumably the church at large, believed they would see the coming of Jesus with their own eyes. And they longed for the vindication and salvation it would bring. This left the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers in something of a conundrum.
My conundrum ends with John. If he didn’t see a problem then neither do I. He describes a wild summary of history with the end in full color. I’ll go with that. I don’t know what Jesus meant by what He said, and I’ll just have to be content with that. If “generation” meant something different than those people alive then, I’ll know soon enough. If Jesus simply referred to the destruction of Jerusalem, and not His return, then I’ll know that soon enough as well. Right now, I don’t know which, if either, or if there’s another explanation. I know it doesn’t sound right though. I may not like it, but it is what we have the way we have it.
That’s my view this morning. What’s your view look like through your knothole?