6.2. THE COMING OF THE END: DEVASTATION, REDEMPTION, READINESS (21:5–38)
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things 1 be, and what will be the sign that these things are 2 about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives. 3
20 “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22 for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you suddenly, 4 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38 And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
Throughout this larger section (20:1–21:37), Luke has presented a representative day (20:1: “one day”), with Jesus teaching the people of Israel and attracting opposition from their leaders in the temple precincts. Although Luke characterizes Jesus’ message as “good news” (20:1), we hear almost nothing of the content of that proclamation, but instead are given access to the hostile encounters for which his “good news” provides the immediate impetus. At stake is the question of legitimate authority: Does Jesus bear the divine imprimatur or does the Jerusalem leadership? In 20:1–21:4, Luke’s portrait has had two major foci: (1) to certify that Jesus’ authority comes from God and thus that he is able to interpret the will of God faithfully for the people and (2) to show in a public forum that the Jerusalem leaders do not enjoy divine sanction as evidenced in their participation in unwarranted behavior—namely, using their attachment to the temple to sustain and augment their positions of power and privilege. Jesus had entered Jerusalem seeking to reclaim the temple for its proper use. His efforts at reform and message of the salvation of God on behalf of “the poor” (cf. 4:18–19) have been rebuffed, however, with the result that he first censures those who refuse to hold themselves accountable to God (20:9–19) and use their positions and the temple system to tyrannize and oppress society’s most vulnerable (20:45–21:4), and he now pronounces the destruction of the temple—indeed, the cosmic calamity soon to come as the old world gives way to the new (21:5–38).
The immediate difficulty confronting the interpreter of Jesus’ lengthy discourse is its elusive focus. Does Jesus speak of the destruction of the temple or of the End? In fact, Jesus speaks of both, but not in a way that marks the fall of the temple as the onset of the consummation of God’s purpose in history. Jesus does interpret the fall of Jerusalem as an eschatological event, but not in immediate relation to the coming of the eschaton. 5 With such temporal markers as “near” (vv 8, 20, 28, 31), “first” (v 9), and “before” (v 12), Luke points to the temporal priority of the fall of Jerusalem and to the necessity of delay following the destruction of the city and prior to the coming of the End, yet maintains an emphasis on the imminence of the eschaton. 6
Having set the stage for Jesus’ discourse (vv 5–7), structurally, Luke portrays Jesus first summarizing his instruction (vv 8–11), 7 then proceeding to lay out the progress of events 8 in chronological order: persecution and witness (vv 12–19); the fall of Jerusalem, leading to the “times of the Gentiles” (vv 20–24); and heavenly signs and earthly distress, leading to the coming of the Son of Man (vv 25–28). This sequence of events in its entirety provides the context and impetus for readiness (vv 29–36). Finally, Luke provides a narrative conclusion to the whole of Jesus’ instruction in the temple (vv 37–38).
Thematically, Jesus’ discourse underscores the faithful hand of God in the series of events to unfold and the call for a concomitant human faithfulness. Divine faithfulness is bundled together with the trustworthiness of Jesus’ prophecy in the assertion of divine necessity (v 9), in the language of fulfillment (vv 22, 24), in the elaborate use of OT language and motifs to describe the coming events (see below), in the affirmation of the permanence of Jesus’ words (v 33), in the assurance that the suffering of the faithful does not lie outside the divine field of vision (v 18), in the promise of salvation (using a variety of metaphors—vv 19, 27, 28, 31, 36), and, indeed, in the reality that, prior to their coming to fruition, these events had been foretold by God’s anointed royal prophet, Jesus. 9 The motif of human faithfulness, on the other hand, surfaces in Jesus’ explicit directives to maintain alertness (vv 8, 34, 36), in Jesus’ promise of empowered witness in the face of persecution (vv 12–17), and in Jesus’ calls for endurance and prayer (vv 19, 36).
Within the narrative of Luke-Acts, Jesus’ eschatological discourse functions in part as a proleptic announcement of the experience of both Jesus himself and his followers in the days and years ahead. 10 For example,
• vv 12–19 promise being delivered over to prisons—fulfilled in the career of Jesus in chs. 22–23, and a frequent experience of the witnesses in Acts (e.g., Acts 4:3; 5:18–19; 8:3; 12:4; 16:23; cf. Luke 22:33); this includes their being led before “kings and governors” (cf. 23:1–17; Acts 9:15–16; 12:1; 23:24, 26; 25:13; 26:30); and
What is the significance of these points of contact between Jesus’ eschatological discourse and the subsequent Lukan narrative? (1) At a rudimentary level, these data indicate the narrative unity of Luke-Acts, indicating how both of the Lukan volumes serve the one divine purpose and relate its fulfillment through Jesus and his followers. (2) The immediate fulfillment of prophecies within the narrative underscores for characters within Luke-Acts and for readers outside of it that Jesus is a trustworthy prophet; hence, they (we) can trust that even those prophesied events that have not yet been realized will take place. (3) The travesties surrounding Jesus’ passion, as well as the persecutions experienced subsequently by Jesus’ followers, are not accidents of history, but were themselves known beforehand by God; far from denying the presence of the sovereign and gracious hand of God, then, these adversities are actually embraced within the divine plan to bring salvation to the world. (4) This, then, underscores the purpose of God at work in persecution, and urges Luke’s audience to follow the examples of Jesus and his followers in Luke-Acts as they use the arena of rejection and hate as the occasion for faithful witness. 11
5–7 Luke sets the stage for the discourse to follow. He provides no easy transition from the previous narrative unit (20:45–21:4) to this one, though the setting clearly remains the temple (cf. vv 27–28). Luke has staged this scene with greater attention to theme, so that the antagonism between Jesus and the Jewish leadership associated with the temple inevitably raises the question of the temple itself.
The Jerusalem temple admired by those with Jesus was the project of Herod the Great, who in 20/19 B.C.E. began a reconstruction of the temple that essentially doubled its size and otherwise reflected his own aggrandizing character. Pilgrims pouring into the city from the rustic environs of Palestine and the wider diaspora could not help but be impressed, even overwhelmed, by its sheer size and magnificence, by the brilliance of the gold plates that covered its façade, and by the white marble that adorned its upper reaches. 12 What is more, its splendor as an architectural feat would have been for the faithful more than matched by the awe it inspired as the abode of God and socio-religio-political center of the Jewish universe. Jesus’ emphatic prediction of total annihilation (leaving no “stone upon stone”), echoing his earlier words in 19:44 as well as prophetic oracles of judgment in the OT, 13 must have been stunning on both accounts.
Who was speaking about the temple? Who questioned Jesus about his prophecy? The clearest antecedent for the pronoun “they,” supplied by Luke, is in 20:45: the disciples, in the hearing of the people. This makes sense of important aspects of Jesus’ answer, wherein he refers to “you” in a way that seems to require a reference to his followers. However, this would dictate our identification of the disciples as those who address Jesus as “teacher” in v 7—an identification that is problematic since it would place disciples in the larger category of persons in the Third Gospel, those who refer to Jesus as “teacher,” who have not determined to follow Jesus, and who are undecided about his person and ministry. 14 This may represent Luke’s subtle attempt to show the degree to which the disciples have in fact faded into the crowds since the end of the journey to Jerusalem. 15 Or it may be that the question in v 7 was raised by persons from the people gathered to hear Jesus in the temple (see 20:1; 21:37–38), among whom are the disciples. In any case, the line between the disciples and the Jewish people more generally is all but undiscernible, and the setting of Jesus’ eschatological discourse is a public one.
The question raised comes in two parts, the second developing the sense of the first. Reference to “these things” refers transparently to the destruction of the temple, 16 but, in light of evidence for the correlation in the Second Temple period of the motifs of the destruction (and possible rebuilding) of the temple and of the coming of the eschaton, 17 reference to “these things” may accommodate eschatological connotations as well. In any case, in his response Jesus speaks of both the fall of the temple and the coming of the End, though without associating these two events so closely, and certainly without portraying them as occupying the same eschatological moment. In this co-text, “sign” has less the sense of “proof” (cf. 1:18; 11:29) than of “portent” or even “omen.” 18
8–11 At the outset of his eschatological discourse, Jesus provides a prospective summary of the remaining address (vv 12–36), indicating the relation of the destruction of Jerusalem to the End, and, most importantly, calling for discernment in the face of false, but seductive, interpretations of the events to come. 19 Reference to the fall of Jerusalem in these verses is indirect, localized in Jesus’ reference to “wars and insurrections” (v 9). “The End” (v 9) appears in apposition to “the time,” with both referring to the eschaton. 20
Jesus’ explicit denial that the end time would come immediately after the fall of Jerusalem (v 9b)—effectively driving a temporal and, thus, hermeneutical, wedge between these two events—is an important interpretive move on his part. This is because such calamities as those he summarizes are grounded in scriptural texts 21 and serve as the stuff of speculation about the woes heralding the coming of the Messiah and/or the eschatological epoch. 22 Hence, it might seem quite natural to expect news of the advent of the Messiah or the nearness of “the time” (v 8) in the context of the coming afflictions. Given the apocalyptic responses of some, not least at Qumran, it might even have seemed natural to see the dawning of the eschatological rule as a summons to engage in violence to help overthrow the false powers—in this case, Jerusalem or Rome—that is, to see the eschatological finale as an opportunity to engage in the “last battle.” This is exactly what happened in the 60s C.E., when messianic leaders recruited revolutionary forces against Rome. 23 Jesus explicitly warns his audience to resist such interpretations. They are not to follow after those making such claims, but neither are they to respond in terror. They are, instead, “to watch,” to exercise their faith in such a way that they have insight into what God is doing. 24
Jesus constructs his warning on two pillars. First, those who come genuinely “in [his] name” are those who comport themselves as he has—welcoming children and casting out demons, for example (9:48–49; cf. 10:17)—and who attract persecution (21:12, 17; cf. 6:22) as he will (chs. 22–23). Those who come in the name of Jesus, then, will not make extravagant claims about themselves (just as he has not); moreover, they will proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness (cf. 24:47), not the timing of the eschaton (just as he does not; cf. Acts 1:6–7). In this way, Jesus provides in advance criteria for discerning false prophets. 25 Second, terror is an inappropriate response because the phenomena Jesus describes, however chaotic or unruly they might seem, are actually embraced within the divine purpose. 26
12–19 Following the prospective summary in vv 8–11, Jesus begins to provide a sketchy timetable of events, with those outlined in this subunit having temporal priority. “Before all this occurs,” then, introduces those things that would take place before the calamities related to the destruction of the temple (vv 6, 9) and, thus, before the woes associated with the end time.
“Persecution” is the heading under which this material can be gathered—persecution resulting from the identification of Jesus’ followers first with his message and then, consequently, with his fate. Simeon and John had predicted that Jesus would be the cause of division within Israel (2:34–35; 3:17); now Jesus anticipates that his followers would be caught up in this division as people side with or against the purpose of God coming to expression among those who identify with “the name” (vv 12b, 17; cf. 6:22; 9:21–26). 27 The apposition of both “kings and governors” and “synagogues and prisons” portends the persecution of Jesus’ followers among Jews as well as among Gentiles. In the book of Acts, it is before Jerusalem officials, a Herodian king, and Roman governors, as well as local authorities, that the first witnesses, and especially Paul, are arraigned. 28 In the Roman world, persons might be imprisoned for a variety of ends, including the precautionary imprisonment of persons to ensure their appearance at a trial but also as a form of punishment. 29 Among local Jewish communities, synagogues exercised religious disciplinary acts in order to eliminate alien elements. 30
The coming resistance is, according to Jesus, not limited to that exacted by official bodies within Judaism and the realm of Rome, but would extend as well to one’s own kin. The inventory of those who would betray the faithful is reminiscent of the list in 14:12, including those with whom, under normal conventions, one would share relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity. The coming of the kingdom, however, renders normal conventions obsolete, with the result that the faithful have repeatedly been called upon to redraw kinship lines, to find their familial attachments with those “who hear the word of God and do it” (esp. 8:21; cf. 18:29). Of course, it is precisely this disregard for normal conventions, this embracing of the purpose of God as it unfolds in and overtakes the present world order, that leads to the despising of Jesus’ disciples among those who fail to recognize or serve God’s redemptive project. Marked as deviants by their behavior, they will find themselves detested, shunned, by those who uphold the accepted protocols of their social world.
In the midst of his talk of persecution, Jesus provides three countermeasures, all grounded in his assurance of ongoing divine presence. First, he interprets persecution as opportunity for witness (vv 13–15). The terseness of v 13 leaves room for ambiguity of meaning, with the two best options being: (1) When Jesus’ followers find themselves in situations like those portended, this is a testimony (= proof) to them that events are unfolding as he had predicted; and (2) When the disciples find themselves on trial, they should see this as an occasion to bear witness to the faith (so the NRSV). 31 Within this co-text, the latter option is preferable, both because vv 14–15 would then follow more easily from v 13 (see the “therefore” or “so” in v 14) and because Acts presents Jesus’ followers in the act of bearing witness while on trial. 32 The promise of “words and a wisdom” recalls the earlier pledge of inspired witness in 12:11–12, except that in the earlier text Jesus promises not wisdom but Spirit-empowerment; collated, these two texts anticipate the description of Stephen, who in Acts 6:10 speaks with wisdom and the Spirit. Jesus’ followers, then, are not to be like trained orators, who practice their speeches in advance 33 but will nevertheless speak with power (cf. Acts 4:13). Moreover, Jesus thus portends his continual presence with the disciples even as they face the tribunal, following his death; only with the onset of Acts do we understand fully that he will be present to the community of his followers by means of the Holy Spirit poured out among them. That this witness cannot be withstood or contradicted finds ready fulfillment in Acts 4:14; 6:10, as well. This, however, does not guarantee that the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses will win the day, only that the resistance they attract and even the executions they undergo are not to be perceived as testimony against the truth or vitality of their witness or the authenticity of their understanding of God’s purpose. This is a pivotal message for Jesus’ disciples, who thus far have been unable to correlate humiliation and suffering with the divine purpose (e.g., 9:44–50; 18:31–34).
Second, he insists that “not a hair of your head will perish” (v 18). As a proverb, this expression is used elsewhere to ensure complete physical safety (see Acts 27:34). 34 In close proximity to v 16b, which portends the execution of some, it can hardly have that meaning here. The parallel saying in 12:7 (“even the hairs of your head are all counted”), which also appears in a parallel co-text, compels a reading of this expression as a guarantee that nothing happens apart from divine purview. Its proximity to v 17 suggests, further, that Jesus promises that persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful. Nevertheless, it is often the case in Acts that Jesus’ followers are rescued from even life-threatening hostility (e.g., Acts 5:19–26; 12:6–11; 14:19–20), though manifestly this is not always the case—either with Jesus or with his followers (cf. chs. 22–23; Acts 7:54–8:1; 12:1–2).
Third, Jesus instructs his followers to endure (v 19). “Endurance” should not be mistaken for passive waiting or the placid exercise of patience; after all, Jesus has just noted that persecution provides the occasion for witness, and he earlier collocates “endurance” with the faithful bearing of fruit (8:15; cf. 18:1–8). As in the LXX, the endurance Jesus counsels is intertwined with a hope that has God as its object and as its expected outcome divine intervention. 35 In this case, one may hear another echo of Jesus’ earlier eschatological teaching, wherein his disciples are ensured that persecution can lead to the death of the body, but not the cessation of one’s life (12:4–5). Whether persecution leads to acquittal or to death, then, the lives of the faithful will be preserved. 36
20–24 In a sense, it is only here that Jesus begins to take up directly the question raised in v 7, concerning the sign that the destruction of the temple is imminent. The omen Jesus furnishes is hardly spectacular: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies …” describes only what one might expect in the context of a military operation whose objective was the defeat of a walled city like Jerusalem. Nevertheless, with v 20 a new stage in the progress of events has been reached. The first focused on persecution for those who identified with Jesus and his message (vv 12–19); following this is the fall of the Holy City. 37 This narrative sequence alone is enough to hint at a causal relationship between these two series of events, as if the text were implying that the city would be overrun on account of its resistance against Jesus and his followers and, thus, its rejection of God’s purpose. What is only suggested by the narrative sequence is ardently promoted in Jesus’ ensuing prognostications.
First, the scene Jesus paints is reminiscent of his earlier words in 19:43–44, where it was self-evident that divine judgment would come upon the city on account of its failure to recognize and accept the salvific visitation of God. Second, Jesus draws the details for his portrait predominantly from the LXX, with the result that he produces a virtual collage of scriptural texts that draws the anticipated destruction of Jerusalem and the temple into an interpretive relationship with the fall of the city at the time of the Exile. 38 Indeed, Luke writes that the razing of the city is “a fulfillment of all that is written” (v 22). Third, he actually describes the season of Jerusalem’s fall as “days of vengeance” (v 22), using a scriptural phrase denoting divine judgment. 39 Fourth, the scene Jesus imagines, with Jerusalem “trampled on by the Gentiles” (v 24), recalls the role of the nations as Yahweh’s instrument of judgment against Israel. 40 Clearly, the anticipated fall of Jerusalem is portrayed as divine judgment for its unfaithfulness before Yahweh (cf. 20:9–18).
Will its destruction mark the end of Jerusalem’s role within the divine purpose? On this, Luke is not altogether straightforward. On the one hand, within the OT, “the days of vengeance against unfaithful Israel anticipated the vindication of God in which Israel is restored.” 41 In this case, “the times of the Gentiles” would mark a temporary season in which the Gentiles would occupy center stage in God’s purpose, after which the spotlight would return to Jerusalem. On the other hand, with v 25 Jesus’ eschatological discourse turns not to consider the place of Israel in God’s plan but to the end time, marked by the coming of the Son of Man. Indeed, in this co-text Luke introduces no explicit motif of restoration. 42 In this case, “the times of the Gentiles” would mark a temporary season that would give way to the consummation of God’s purpose in the eschatological fulfillment. At the outset of Acts, the question of the place of Israel in God’s eschatological aim remains unanswered (Acts 1:6–8); there, as here, the focus is shifted from speculation about Israel to mission among the Gentiles. 43
“Times of the Gentiles,” then, has a dual reference in this co-text. It manifestly relates to the role of the Gentiles as God’s agents in the prophesied destruction and subsequent occupation of Jerusalem. More than this, however, it portends the proclamation of the good news among the Gentiles.
25–28 From the “sign” (implicit) of the pending destruction of the temple (v 20), Jesus’ eschatological discourse turns to the “signs” (explicit) of the coming of the End. As Luke presents it, then, this is the third stage in the timetable Jesus sketches: cosmic signs leading to the advent of the Son of Man and the coming of redemption. The images Jesus employs are reminiscent of those found in v 11, again marking vv 8–11 as a prospective summary of the discourse as a whole; by means of this intertextuality we are also reminded that the ordeals Jesus enumerates are marked with eschatological importance. This interpretation is highlighted by the use of scriptural texts as a reservoir from which to draw the meaning-laden details for this eschatological portrait. Thus, the OT is the source for this mural’s astral phenomena (“signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars … the powers of the heavens will be shaken”—vv 25–26), 44 distress and confusion among the nations (v 25), 45 the roaring of the sea (v 25), 46 and the fear of the people (v 26). 47 It is of no little consequence that, especially when read against the background of their OT precursors, these images portend the advent of the Day of the Lord and, so, portray the coming of the Son of Man as a theophany. Jesus’ eschatological discourse thus distinguishes the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the End, denoting them as two separate phases in the realization of the divine plan. How far they are to be separated temporally, however, is not specified; earlier, Jesus had simply said, “the end will not follow immediately” (v 9).
Throughout his Gospel, Luke repeatedly identifies Jesus as the Son of Man and, more recently, has laid the groundwork for his readers to anticipate the coming of Jesus as Son of Man. 48 Luke 21:27 portrays the most exalted picture yet, however. On the one hand, here we may hear echoes of Jesus’ parable about the heir to the throne who, having received regal power, returns to reward and punish the country’s citizens (19:11–27). On the other, drawing explicitly on the language of Dan 7:13—with its analogy between the coming of God “in the clouds” (e.g., Isa 19:1; Ps 18:2–3) and the coming of the Son of Man—this Lukan text depicts the return of Jesus as a theophany. 49 (See Acts 1:9–11, where it is said of Jesus, who had been taken out of sight in a cloud, that he “will come in the same way”—i.e., in a cloud.)
Although the nations will respond with perplexity, people will faint (or even die) 50 in fear, and the heavenly powers will be shaken at the onset of these portents, Jesus advises a different course of action for his followers. Their response should be one of confidence, standing with raised heads, assured that the Day of the Lord is for them a day of redemption. The parallel statements, “your redemption is drawing near” (v 28) and “the kingdom of God is near” (v 31), help to qualify the nature of the object of Jesus’ prophecy. In the birth narrative, “redemption” was used with reference to God’s intervention on behalf of Israel and Jerusalem (1:68; 2:38). Without detracting from the validity of the anticipation expressed there, it remains true (1) that Jerusalem had failed to welcome the salvific coming of Yahweh (9:41–44) and (2) that the Third Evangelist, like any narrator, is capable of establishing narrative expectations only then to provide for them new significance, new possibilities for fulfillment. In the current text, the “you” in “your redemption” clearly refers to those who are faithful, those who have embraced the project of God unveiled in Jesus’ ministry and oriented themselves around the divine purpose, and not to Jerusalem specifically. Although Jerusalem and its people—and, indeed, all of Israel—are not necessarily excluded from the coming redemption, the eschatological act of salvation of which Jesus speaks is good news for those who respond to Jesus as Lord with faithful endurance. 51
29–36 Jesus moves from prophetic discourse to pastoral exhortation concerning faithful life in light of the events he has anticipated. “These things taking place” in v 31 stands in parallel with “all these things that will take place” in v 36, signifying that constant readiness and prayer are applicable not only in the midst of persecution or at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, but in all seasons preceding the eschaton. 52 The brief parable of vv 29–30 is illustrative of parabolic teaching in the Third Gospel—drawing its significance less from point-for-point allegory, more from lessons from the experienced world. The fig tree is a particularly apt illustration for Jesus’ purpose, since the fig loses its leaves during the winter season; the change of seasons is definitively marked, then, by the appearance of new leaves on previously bare branches. Of course, Jesus is concerned with more than the proper discernment of the times; as in previous instruction, he is interested in perception that leads to appropriate action (e.g., 10:13–15; 11:29–32). Even if the End has been delayed, it has not been delayed indefinitely, and his disciples need to maintain constant readiness. The heavy emphasis Luke’s presentation has placed on faithful living in light of the sequence of events by which God’s purpose comes to fruition suggests that his audience has not been living in expectation of the parousia. Accordingly, Luke intimates that the arrival of the eschaton has not been delayed indefinitely, that the delay is itself incorporated into the eschatological timetable, and, therefore, that vigilant, expectant faith rules out a business-as-usual orientation toward life. 53
Throughout much of the Third Gospel, the motif of the kingdom of God has been developed in relation to the present ministry of Jesus. 54 Other texts, however, have pointed to an additional aspect of the kingdom, the consummation of God’s dominion at the End (e.g., 11:2; 14:15; 17:20; 19:11). The notion of the nearness of the kingdom (v 31) builds on those texts, with Jesus teaching that the totality of prophesied events—persecutions, the fall of Jerusalem, and cosmic signs—point toward the arrival of the kingdom not only in present history but also in its fullness at the end of history. Within the Lukan narrative, this message is undergirded by the pervasive emphasis on the conflict that arises as people side with or against the unfolding purpose of God.
Verses 32–33 contain assertions that may only after close examination seem to fit well within this co-text. In the Third Gospel, “this generation” (and related phrases) has regularly signified a category of people who are resistant to the purpose of God. 55 Verse 32, then, long a centerpiece in eschatological debate, 56 actually has less to say about the eschatological timetable and more to say about the motif of conflict related to the presence and expected culmination of the kingdom of God. “This generation” refers in Luke’s narrative not to a set number of decades or to people living at such-and-such a time, but to people who stubbornly turn their backs on the divine purpose. Jesus’ followers can expect hostility and calamity until the very End, Jesus teaches, for the old world, “this generation,” does not easily give way to the new. Again, then, Jesus underscores how humiliation and suffering need not be taken as incongruous with his teaching regarding the inbreaking reign of God, but may be taken as signs of the realization of God’s kingdom (see Acts 14:22). Nor should the tribulations Jesus has enumerated detract from confidence in his word; in language that recalls OT assurances of the certainty and permanence of Yahweh’s word, 57 Jesus affirms the certainty and permanence of his own prophetic instruction.
Because his followers are able to read the signs (vv 29–31), because they have been made aware of the inexorable presence of resistance to the way of God prior to the End (v 32), because they may hold with conviction to the immutability of Jesus’ word (v 33), they are to respond with faithful vigilance. As in previous uses of the admonition “be on guard,” 58 so in this one we must assume that Jesus summons his followers to watchfulness in the very areas where their inclinations place them most at risk. Implicated in practices reminiscent of those of the Pharisees and scribes, they had to be warned repeatedly about avoiding such influence and behavior. Now, Jesus perceives that the delay in the advent of the End may bring its own temptations to faithlessness and a business-as-usual orientation to life (cf., e.g., 8:13–14; 12:45–46; 17:24). In order to counter this, Jesus alerts his audience to the reality that the End will be sudden, 59 unexpected (v 35: “like a trap”), and ubiquitous (“upon all”). Eschatological testing is to be met, then, with constant alertness and prayer (cf. 22:40, 46); 60 such a response will allow people to stand (see v 28) as those found faithful (see 18:8) before the Son of Man who comes in power to bring judgment and redemption (see vv 27–28).
37–38 These verses form an inclusio with 20:1, marking the narrative closure not only of Jesus’ eschatological discourse but also of Luke’s narration of the teaching of Jesus in the temple. They underscore the temple context in which Jesus’ teaching has taken place, as well as the overwhelmingly positive response of “the people” (“all”!) to Jesus.
Verses 37–38 function as narrative closure but also as summary, suggesting that we are to understand that this exemplary “day” of teaching (20:1) was characteristic of Jesus’ ongoing teaching ministry in the temple (“every day,” 21:37). They also serve as a transition to the Lukan account of Jesus’ suffering and death (chs. 22–23)—first, by highlighting the support Jesus enjoys among the people, a form of support that continues to hold the hostile plans of his enemies at bay (see 19:47–48; 20:19; 22:2); and, second, by identifying Jesus’ custom of teaching by day in the temple, then departing each night to the Mount of Olives (→ 22:39). It is only with 22:1 that we discover that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem at the time of Unleavened Bread and Passover, but his daily movements are already indicative of this fact. This is because lodging in the city would become scarce at festival times, forcing pilgrims into outlying areas each evening.
1 NRSV: “this.”
2 NRSV: “this is.”
3 NRSV: “souls.”
4 NRSV: “unexpectedly.”
5 In their attempt to indicate that the fall of Jerusalem does not signal the End, Geiger (Die lukanischen Endzeitreden, 249) and Carroll (End of History, 111) go too far in divorcing the destruction of Jerusalem from eschatology. See the discussion in Maddox, Purpose, 120–21, 123 (who overstates the case in the other direction, however).
8 The progression of events is repeatedly underscored by the use of “these things are about to take place” or related phrases in vv 7 (2x), 9, 12, 28, 31, and 36. Giblin (Destruction of Jerusalem, 79) is representative in his attempt to lay out the structure of this discourse with reference to such phrases as “he said” (vv 8, 10, 29); cf., however, Fusco, “Luke’s Eschatological Discourse,” 74–84.
10 Cf. Korn, Geschichte Jesu, 201–3; Carroll, End of History, 117–19; Chance, Jerusalem, 120–21; Rapske, Roman Custody, 398–401. Rapske notes that vv 12–19 find their “pre-eminent fulfillment in the experience of Paul in Acts” (399). Of course, the narrative of Acts reaches its conclusion prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, which was to take place after the onset of persecution; moreover, with the close of Acts, the coming of the Son of Man remains an unfulfilled promise, the fulfillment of which is expected after the razing of Jerusalem and the completion of “the times of the Gentiles” (v 24).
12 For offerings that add to the temple’s splendor, see 2 Macc 3:2; 9:16.
16 Thus, the NRSV translates ταῦτα as “this”; cf. Geiger, Die lukanischen Endzeitreden, 168–69.
18 See TLNT, 3:249–52.
19 πλανάω is sometimes used in the LXX for seduction, e.g., to idolatry or disobedience—cf. Deut 4:19; 11:28; 30:17; Ezek 14:11; 44:10–15. For its use in relation to the end time, see also T. Lev. 10:2; 16:1.
24 βλέπω; cf. 8:18; Müller, “βλέπω,” 222.
25 On the larger problematic of distinguishing true and false prophets, see, e.g., Deut 18:21–22; Jer 28:9; Matt 7:15–23; 1 Cor 12:1–3; 2 Thess 2:3–4; 1 John 2:18–20, 22; 4:1–3; 2 John 7; Didache 11. See Aune, Prophecy, 87–88, 222–29.
26 See the use of δεῖ in v 9.
31 The difficulty derives especially from the use of μαρτύριον, for which the meaning is usually “evidence” or “proof,” rather than “act of bearing testimony” (as in μαρτυρία). See, however, the use of μαρτύριον in Acts 4:33. Other options have been championed, too; see the discussion in C. F. Evans, 742.
33 προμελετάω—cf. BAGD 708.
35 ὑπομονή; cf. TLNT, 3:418–19.
36 Given the proximity of Jesus’ dialogue with the Sadducees in 20:27–40, it is not difficult to find here an implicit reference to the resurrection.
37 The wider focus on Jerusalem, rather than simply on the temple, underscores the role given the city and its leadership by the active presence of the temple in its midst. Above all else, Jerusalem drew its significance from its role as cultic center.
42 Tiede (Prophecy and History) speaks of “an elusive hint of an end to Jerusalem’s subjection when ‘the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’ (21:24)” (89; cf. 92–95).
43 In the Acts passage, Jesus’ reply does not negate the hope of Israel (Mußner, “Idee der Apokatastasis”; Legrand, “Gabriel and Politics”; Fusco, “Point of View”), even if that hope is clarified in relation to a Spirit-empowered mission outside the ethnic and geographical borders of Israel.
47 Cf., e.g., Isa 13:6–11.
49 See Beasley-Murray, Kingdom of God, 331: “And, of course, the basic text for the parousia, Dan 7:13, is itself part of a theophanic vision, of which the feature of the coming in the clouds is a clear reminder.…”
56 See the surveys in Mattill, Last Things, 97–104; Maddox, Purpose, 111–15. The list of proposals they dismiss (i.e., those that identify “this generation” with, e.g., “the Jewish people,” “the human race,” “the generation of Luke and his audience,” et al.) does not include what may be within the Lukan co-text the most obvious sense, however.
59 αἱφνίδιος, used in the NT only here and in 1 Thess 5:3.
60 As elsewhere in Luke-Acts, prayer here would seem to involve both discernment of the divine aim (which, in Luke, is regularly mediated through prayer) and orientation of oneself around that purpose.