|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
In the Revised Common Lectionary, the season of Advent (Latin for coming to) begins with a look to the future coming (parousia in Greek) of the Son of Man. (NOTE: the phrase "second coming" doesn't occur in scriptures!) The subsequent Sundays in Advent focus on the past coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem.
I've just finished reading Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N. T. Wright. He suggests that the "reappearing" of Jesus might be a better phrase -- and one that was used by some early Christians. "He is, at the moment, present with us, but hidden behind that invisible veil which keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments, such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scriptures, and our work with the poor, when the veil seems particularly thin. But one day the veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one: Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God's new world will at last be in place, full of new prospects and possibilities." (p. 219)
Luke 21:5-36 is Luke's version of the apocalyptic discourse (par. Mk 13:1-37; Mt 24:1-25:46). However, in Luke, the discourse is addressed to an unnamed "they" in the temple, rather than to just the disciples on the Mount of Olives. One of Luke's themes is the universal-ness of Christ's actions. The whole world is affected by his comings.
In all three of the synoptic accounts, Jesus' discourse is in answer to the questions: "When will this be?" and "What will be the sign?" (v. 7).
Generally, Luke follows Mark, but there are some exceptions.
"There shall be signs...." Only Luke uses the word "signs" in this section. The same word was used earlier in the question "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" (v. 7 singular -- taken from Mark) and "...there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven" (v. 11 only in Luke).
This may also cause the readers/hearers to recall that Jesus' opponents "to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven" (11:16). A little later Jesus responds to this request: "When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, 'This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation'" (11:29-30).
On one hand, Jesus will give the people no sign -- except that he, himself, is a sign. "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger" (2:12). On the other hand, the signs have been predicted by the prophets for centuries -- and they are all around us.
Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) notes:
The transition to this third part of the discourse is unobtrusive, marked mainly by the repetition of the term "sign" from 21:7 in 21:25. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the things now being described no longer concern the history of the believers or the fate of the city, but the worldwide experience of humans at the judgment: Luke speaks of the "distress and confusion among the nations" (v. 25), the things that are coming on "the inhabited world" (oikoumene, v. 26), on everyone inhabiting the earth" (v. 35). And if these indications were not clear enough, his description of "signs" are no longer those of wars and revolutions (v. 10) or even of earthquakes, famines, plagues and portents in the sky (v. 11) or armies around the city (v. 20), but entirely of cosmic events in sun, moon and stars (v. 25), the tumult of the ocean (v. 25), shaking of the heavenly powers themselves (v. 26). [p. 330]
These signs "in the sun and moon and stars" allude back to the prophets.
See, the day of the LORD comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation,
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens,
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
All the shining lights of the heavens
I will darken above you,
and put darkness on your land,
says the Lord GOD.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
These heavenly signs do not just point forward to the coming, but also backwards as fulfillment of the prophets' word. Promise and fulfillment is one of the major themes throughout Luke. Just as Luke began with shepherds seeing the sign of a baby in a manger in fulfillment of the angels' message, so this future coming is certain to occur in fulfillment of the prophets' messages.
The signs on the earth (25b-26a) are unique to Luke. There are a few words in these verses that are found only here in the New Testament:
It's possible that Luke was pulling in images from other sources, e.g., Ps 46:2-3; 65:7; Wis 5:22. Perhaps Luke is reporting some of the distress that happened during the Jewish-Roman war.
I think that these signs, e.g., eclipses, shooting stars, el niņo, earthquakes, etc. that were beyond the ancient people's understanding, have always been with us. We need to consider ourselves as living in the "end times" now; although it would appear that life on the planet will get worse before the end comes.
What strikes me in this section is the contrasting picture of "the people" and "you". The signs will happen. The responses to what happens are quite different. "The people faint (or die) from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world." However, you are to "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (v. 28 -- only in Luke).
With this distinction, I wonder who the "they" are in v. 27 who will see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory"? Grammatically, "they" would refer back to the "people" who are fainting with fear. Daniel 7:13, from where the phrase is quoted, says "I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven."
For "you" the terrible signs symbolize the redemption that has come near. What does it symbolize for the "people"?
Three times in this discourse the verb for "to come near" (eggizo) is used. They are only found in Luke.
There will be those who say "The time is near" (v. 8), and we are not to go after those people. They are leading people astray. (What does this say about those who predict a specific date for the end nowadays?)
In v. 20 we are told that "when you see Jerusalem is surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near". The people of Luke's day had seen Jerusalem surrounded by armies. That was not to be understood as the end; but a sign that it is near.
Finally, in v. 28, we are told that our redemption is drawing near.
"Redemption" -- this word (apolytrosis) occurs only here in all of the gospels. Although it occurs 7 times in Paul's letters and twice in Hebrews. A form of this word (lytroomai) occurs in Luke 24:21a: "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." Another related word (lytrosis) is found occurs twice in Luke: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them" (1:68). "At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38).
This word group carries the idea of releasing or freeing someone by the payment of a fee or ransom. This raises a number of questions. To what or whom are we in bondage? What is the payment that will be made that frees us? To whom is it paid? to Satan? to God? (Can God be bought off?) What will it mean to be set free? I think that in the context of this apocalyptic discourse, the coming of the Son of Man will free us from the terrible distress that has come upon the world.
Although it might be reading more into this text than what is there, the Day of Judgment for the world is also a day of release from judgment for the believers. I've suggested that the Day of Judgment is a little like the old Fram oil filter commercials -- "You can pay me now or pay me later." We can face divine judgment now: Confessing to God our sins, repenting of those sins, and having those sins wiped away by divine forgiveness. If all our wrongs have been removed by daily repentance and forgiveness; there will be nothing left to judge on the Judgment Day. We will be "pure and blameless" on the day of Christ (Phil 1:10). The other option is to avoid daily judgments which cause us to face up to our sins and sinfulness, and take our chances on facing God later -- when all people will be judged. That later judgment doesn't seem to be as pleasant as pre-judgment day confrontations with God, where, through Jesus, we have been promised that all our sins will be forgiven; where we will be justified -- a word that can be translated: "Declared not guilty."
Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter's Bible) presents this dichotomy:
While others faint with fear and foreboding at the coming of the Son of Man, the disciples are instructed to "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."... For the disciples, his coming means an end to the persecutions and terrors that have been described earlier. Whereas the Son of Man will come to judge the wicked, his coming means deliverance for the faithful. [p. 408]
The October 2003 issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology is on evil. As I was reading accounts of evil in the world that leads to suffering, conflict, violence, and death -- and we could easily point out such events as the holocaust; the AIDS epidemic in Africa, nine-eleven, or the untimely death of a congregational member by accident or cancer; I thought that the Eschaton promises an end to all evil. What would living in such a world be like? How do we capture glimpses of that world today? Related to last Sunday's festival, what does Kingdom life look like? How do we relate to one another -- not just fellow congregation members, but children of God around the world -- under the Lordship of Christ?
It is highly unlikely that any individual or congregation will change the world, but we can make a difference in the lives of one or two or, perhaps, a dozen people. We can relieve some suffering for individuals. We can offer glimpses of the coming Kingdom to others.
Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter's Bible) writes:
The fig tree is often used as a metaphor for the peace and prosperity of Israel in the OT (Deut 8:7-8; Hos 9:10; Mic 4:4). It has been suggested, therefore, that the reference to the fig tree "and all the trees" in this context, immediately after the discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem and the fate of the nations (esp. 21:24-26), is not a stray detail that diffuses the parable but a reference signaling that the fig tree and all the tress should be understood in reference to Israel and all the nations. [p. 408]
A repeated theme in this parable is "see and know". You see leaves sprouting so you know that summer is near (eggus -- related to the verb "to come near").
When you see these signs, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
The "kingdom of God" can be defined in this context as the time and place when God rules the universe as King. There will be no other powers to compete with God -- perhaps, also including the powers of nature that can cause the signs in the heavens and on the earth. The coming of this kingdom, then means release for us from all those other competing forces.
Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) writes concerning "kingdom of God":
The obvious tension in Luke's gospel concerning this term is again suggested; the kingdom is present in the words and works of Jesus (10:9, 11), but it has not yet realized itself fully (see 22:16-18). It is important to note that Luke has fundamentally altered Mark 13;29 (Matt 24:33), who referred the simile directly to the coming of the Son of Man: "He is at the gates." [p. 328]
I think that all people see the signs, but they come to different understandings about them -- what they know about the future of the world. Many react with great fear. We should react with faith. The kingdom is near. Our redemption is near. The Son of Man is coming.
What is meant by "this generation" that will not pass away? It is most likely that by the time of Luke, most of the Jesus' original audience, including the twelve, who had heard these words had passed away.
Let me suggest this possible interpretation. "This generation" as part of the world will pass away. "This generation" as part of the Word will not pass away. You and I as people of this earth will face fear, judgment, and death. You and I as people of the Word also have the promise of joy, salvation, and eternal life. There is this distinction among the people.
These verses might also be used to talk about what is most important. Earlier Jesus had said that the temple would be destroyed, now it is heaven and earth that will pass away. The things of this world are secondary to the Word of God. What is worth trusting through the most difficult times of our lives? Buildings are destroyed. Families may betray each other. Other people may hate us. Even heaven will come to an end.
I have described my seminary experience as a time when all the false pillars upon which I had based my faith were destroyed, so that I was forced to rely solely on the Word and promises and grace of God. The "pillar-ectomies" were not always pleasant; but they were necessary for the growth and maturing and health of the true faith. Congregations may need to be reminded that the building(s) that they hold so dear, are only temporary. There are more important topics for councils/sessions to concentrate on than the building.
All three of the synoptics end the apocalyptic discourse differently. These verses are unique to Luke.
Earlier we had seen some who were "weighed down:" "Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him" (9:32). At the transfiguration, the contrast is made between being "weighed down" (with sleep) and being able to see Jesus in his glory.
In our text, it is concern about one's own life and one's own pleasures that can weigh one down.
We all have "worries of this life," but we aren't to let them "weigh us down."
"Worries" or "cares" (merimna) along with riches and pleasures of life can choke what the Word has planted so that the fruit will not mature (8:14).
The verbal form merimnao is used of Martha, who is worried and distracted by many things, but Mary chooses the better part (10:41-42).
Jesus advises his followers, "When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say" (12:11-12).
Jesus says a lot about not worrying in 12:22-31. However, telling one's self or others, "Don't worry," just puts worry in our brains. (It's like telling someone, "Don't think of a blue elephant." What are you now thinking about?) The way to not worry, is to do something else. I've suggested giving thanks -- filling one's mind and heart with thanksgiving is a way to drive out worry.
Having our minds dulled by alcohol (or drugs) or by excessive worry can keep us from seeing the signs and knowing what they mean.
"A trap" only works when the victims don't suspect that they are walking into a trap. If you are setting a trap for someone, you want to keep it hidden from the victim. It's those people who ignore or deny the fact that the end is coming, that Jesus will return, who will be surprised and caught like in a trap. We know that the end is coming. We know that Jesus is coming. It should not be like a trap to us. It should not surprise us or catch us off guard.
The opposite of being weighed down is to be awake or watchful, which includes praying at all times. How many people are too weighed down with the cares of this world to pray? Not enough time? Too self-sufficient?
I think that praying people are the people of the Word who will not pass away. They are people who listen to God and talk to God. It is a relationship that is eternal.
Two concerns of the prayer are mentioned: strength to escape all that is going to happen and (strength) to stand before the Son of Man.
What does standing before the Son of Man mean? For some it will be a time of judgment; for others, it will be a time of redemption, a time to see our Redeemer face to face. For some it will be a time of fear; for others it will be a time of joy.
Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) offers these concluding words:
...eschatological thinking is vital to faithful conduct and to hope which resists cynicism. There will be an end to life as it now is, an end that comes as both judgment and redemption. Whether we go or he comes, personal theological preferences do not alter eschatology, and contemplation of that fact should have some sanctifying influence. Such thinking should keep our souls athletically trim, free of the weight of the excessive and useless. Such thinking should aid us in keeping gains and losses in proper perspective. Such thinking should chase away the demons of dulling dissipation and cheer us with the news not only that today is a gift of God but also that tomorrow we stand in the presence of the Son of man. [p. 248]
Apocalyptic literature is written primarily to give hope and assurance to people in the midst of suffering. So should our preaching on this text.
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