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!