Passion Week XVI

“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?


Passion Week XV

And He said, “See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.”  (Luke 21:8-9 NASB)

In order to study this passage, I broke it up into nine sections.  Eight of these sections are some sort of preview of the future.  Of these “previews” only one of them is clearly answering their question about when the temple would be destroyed.  Rather than do eight posts (I don’t have time for that), I’m going to cluster them to a degree.

This first section almost reads like a prequel.  Essentially there will be lots of people popping up claiming to be Jesus returned.  It sort of reminds me of the ’70s, with one “messiah” or another springing from the fertile ground of the “Jesus Movement”.  That wasn’t the first rash of them, but that’s one I lived through.

But Jesus rounds off His statements with, “…but the end does not follow immediately.”  It’s sort of anticlimactic, or perhaps building tension.  Either way, the disciples asked about the temple, and Jesus replies about the “end of time”.  Or does He?  I suppose it doesn’t really have to be about the “end of the world” as much as about the “end of the temple”.  He just says “the end”.  It’s the heel of bread, but which loaf?

Then He continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. (Luke 21:10-11 NASB)

Matthew 24 and Mark 13 also have a statement like this, but Luke’s is slightly different.  It’s similar enough to know it’s the same reference, but different enough to stand out as Luke’s.  That tells me that the Gospel writers had some latitude in what they wrote of these things.  This is where my interpretation of this passage settles for security.  It’s not a lot of security, but it’s some.

One of Luke’s unique choices is in the word, “terrors” that will appear in the heavens.  The word is only used here in all of the Christian Scriptures, and once in Isaiah in the Septuagint.  So it’s rare, and Luke is not quoting or referring to Isaiah, it’s a very different use there (Isa. 19:17).  The word Luke uses is “phobatron” which sound like the name of a “Transformer”.  It refers to something (event or object) which terrifies.

These events of wars, earthquakes, plagues and so on happen in the First Century.  So they could very well be the precursor to the destruction of Jerusalem.  But the terrors and signs from heaven aren’t necessarily things we have records of from this era.  So it’s possible Jesus is still answering their question directly.  But that changes.

“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.  It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.  So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.  But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name.  Yet not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your lives.  (Luke 21:12-19 NASB)

There’s a lot in this next section which can either be the persecution which began with Stephen’s death, or it could be later on after the destruction of Jerusalem.  If this is supposed to be sequential (and that’s not necessarily required here), then this could refer to persecution throughout the Roman Empire of Christians by both Jews and Gentiles.  But we really don’t have such a reference to an empire-wide persecution later on in Acts.

The reference to “synagogues” along with courts, before kings and governors, and so on does make a valid argument for being prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.  After that synagogues are not going to hold much local sway or influence in Gentile communities.  That persecution leads to an opportunity for testimony is not new either, as Luke refers to this before in chapter 12 (Luke 12:11,12).

But there is a rather strange set of comments Jesus makes which Luke either left this way or constructed (which is weirder).  Jesus says they will put some of you to death, but then says that not a hair of your head will perish.  It seems a strange literary construction.  In Matthew and Mark this combination doesn’t occur, which is why I wonder if it’s a construction of Luke.  How can it be both, and what did First-Century believers understand when they heard/read this?

But the final statement here is very interesting. It’s part of where I get my “Theory of the Last Man Standing”, which is my answer to the theological question of “can salvation be lost?”.  My typical reply is that if you want to know if someone is truly saved, look for them in heaven, until then it’s not my problem.  The interesting thing about Luke’s version of this is his grammatical construction.  It’s not Matthew’s (10:22) or Mark’s (13:13), which are more familiar.  Luke quotes Jesus telling them how to save their “souls”.  Luke literally has, “In your endurance obtain your souls.”  It means essentially the same thing as Matthew and Mark, but the wording is more empowering for the person.  It is more up to us than as Matthew and Mark have it “the one enduring to the end will be saved” which is more passive.

Tomorrow I will get through the next three sections wherein lies my problem with this passage.  No promises on some sort of solution, so I approach it with some concern and trepidation.

Please share your views on these passages.  I welcome your view through the knothole!

Which Is It?

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21 NASB)

And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered.” (Luke 17:37 NASB)

As I read through Luke’s “Little Apocalypse”, in addition to the problems found in the other two (Matthew 24 and Mark 13), Luke has this strange contradiction.  Right up front, this isn’t as much of a problem as it seems.  I bring it up because it’s easy, and therefore common.  But it’s not really that much of a problem.

The Kingdom of God doesn’t come with signs that announce the timing, but certain elements will give hints as to the location of their occurrence.  The Pharisees ask when, and the disciples ask where.  It’s really that simple.  So the short answer to my title is, “both”.  That being said, there are some peculiar elements to this section.

Luke’s apocalypse is the shortest, contains the fewest Scripture references, and descriptions.  He has pared down the description of Jesus preserved in the decades after His ascension to this.  Mark and Matthew both have more closely aligned accounts, but even theirs differ significantly at parts.

So here’s my theory, I think the statements of Jesus collected under the topic of “End Times” Luke culled through for “Kingdom of God” statements instead.  It’s a theory, but not really something clearly defined.  On the other hand, Luke clearly retains assertions of Jesus about His “return” and “appearing” (the day the Son of Man is revealed).  I was thinking this might be Jesus alluding to His resurrection, but that’s not really supported well here.  There’s no reason to flee from fields and housetops when He rises from the dead.

The theory that this more about the Kingdom than the End comes partly from my belief that the famine in Judea for which Paul sought to collect money from other churches came about after the destruction of the Temple.  The aftermath of the Jewish uprising couldn’t have been pleasant for anyone in Judea, and followers of Jesus even more so.  Clearly that wasn’t the end described in the other two Gospels even though the description seemed to fit.  This is partly why I think Paul’s view of the end is like it is, and Luke would be influenced by that view more than by the other apostles.

So, Luke describes a even more distant future.  He refrains from references to this generation not passing away, and instead focuses on readiness and quick response.  The other two apocalypses pose their own set of problems, but I think Luke has selected the statements of Jesus he believed, under inspiration of the Spirit, to be more faithful to what Jesus was revealing.  I suspect Matthew and Mark simply preserved them as they found or remembered them.  And I suspect they hoped the strife in Judea would be the signal of Jesus’ return.

That’s my truly uneducated guess there.  I haven’t tested it or anything.  I do know that these issues (the “Little Apocalypses”) are hotly contested and little understood.  So my ignorance is common even among those who do have tested theories.  The Kingdom of God is here, gatherings testify to its presence.  But there is a coming day of the Son of Man, when Jesus will be revealed and the Kingdom will be all that’s left.  Will you be taken or forsaken?

What’s your view through the knothole?