Exegetical Notes on Luke 21.5-19
by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, Yuma, AZ
2 Thessalonians 3-6-13
THE LARGER CONTEXT -- AN APOCALYPSE?
Luke 21:5-36 is Luke's version of what is frequently called "the apocalyptic discourse" (parallels: Mark 13:1-37; Matt 24:1-25:46). In Luke, the discourse is addressed to an unnamed "they" and declared in the temple, rather than to just the disciples on the Mount of Olives as in the parallels.
There is a disagreement among commentators about whether or not Jesus' speech is an apocalypse. On one hand, it contains only a few of the standard elements of apocalyptic literature, e.g., some cosmic imagery; but omits many others, e.g., hero from the past who seals up the vision until a future date, heavenly interpreter of the visions. In addition, it is not a final word of Jesus, but introduces his suffering and death. (However, the liturgical context of these verses comes at the end of the church year.)
On the other hand, it contains several characteristics of apocalyptic thought: a deterministic and pessimistic view of history, anticipation of the end of the world in some great and imminent crisis, visions of cosmic upheaval.
I present the following brief and very simplistic purposes of prophetic, wisdom, and apocalyptic literatures. While they all have a future component, they are primarily concerned about the present. I’ve used the analogy: When mom says, "Just wait until your father gets home!" Is her primary message really about the future event of father coming home or are her words meant to cause a change of behavior in the present?
|prophetic literature||wisdom literature||apocalyptic literature|
|Present time is one of suffering||Present time may be one of blessing or suffering||Present time is one of suffering|
|Why? The people have sinned.||Why? Cause and effect system: Blessed if do right -- suffer if do wrong||Why? The world is under evil powers who afflict the faithful|
|Future may be a time of blessing if the people repent.||Future depends on continued righteousness or unrighteousness||Future: a reversal of fortunes: the faithful righteous who suffer now, will be rewarded; and the godless unrighteous who bring suffering to others, will suffer (usually in a different or recreated world)|
|Purpose: call the people to repent and change their ways in the present time||Purpose: encourage the people to continue or start living righteously in the present||Purpose: encourage the people to continue their faithfulness and patience during the present suffering|
In looking at our text, we need to keep in mind at least three time references. (1) The time of Jesus when he spoke these words, which was prior to the destruction of the temple. (2) The time of Luke when he wrote these words (and his hearers heard them), which was after the destruction of the temple. (3) The present time of our hearers, who live centuries after the events recorded in the discourse.
Tiede (Luke) quotes from Josephus's accounts of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans:
The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. . . . With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below; and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing. . . . Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings. (War 6.271-275) [p. 359]
Craddock (Luke) introduces his comments on 21:5-38 in part with:
Major historical crises triggered apocalyptic thinking. For example, the destruction of Jerusalem is the historical event that prompted the apocalyptic speech of Jesus in the text before us as well as the apocalypses we know as Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch. In other words, in an apocalypse of this type, what is going on is mixed with what is really going on, history is being set in the larger context of God's purpose, the whole being an extraordinary writing with historical descriptions laced with symbols, signs, and mysterious figures of speech. As strange as this literature may seem to us, it is a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God. Amid painful and prolonged suffering, when there can be seen on the horizon of predictable history no relief from disaster, faith turns its face toward heaven not only for a revelation of God's will but also for a vision of the end of the present misery and the beginning of the age to come. [p. 243, emphasis in original]
How does one preach apocalyptic literature to people who are not suffering? Do we have to convince them that they are suffering for this literature to make sense? This type of literature was written during periods of great persecution and suffering; to encourage the believers to remain faithful through the ordeal. Can it speak to our comfortable people today? Are we still that comfortable after September 11 and our continuing war against terror? Could such evil be a sign of the end times? What might these words say to the many congregations who are struggling to stay alive?
THE TEMPLE'S DESTRUCTION (vv. 5-6)
For Luke's readers, the beauty of the temple was only a memory. It was probably planned by Luke that discussion of the temple's opulent splendor comes immediately after Jesus praises the extreme poverty of the widow who gives her all into the temple treasury (21:1-4). The temple had been destroyed. Its wealth was no more. I imagine that for them and for most of us, believing in God comes easy when surrounded by a beautiful temple (or sunset). How do we continue believing in God when the beauty of God's own house is destroyed (physical destruction through natural causes or neglect; or spiritual/emotional destruction through misconduct)? Or when the powerful forces of nature (or evil terrorists) kill thousands of people and destroy millions of dollars of property? How do we keep on believing in the all-powerful, loving, gracious God in the midst of such evil and suffering in our world and sometimes in congregations? We can, and do, because the all-powerful, loving, gracious God is seen suffering greatly and dying slowly on a cross.
For the readers of Luke, the days that Jesus said were coming, had arrived. The temple had been destroyed. The stones had all fallen down -- actually, they had been burned up. For them the issue wasn't, "When is this going to happen," but, "Now that it has happened, what do we do? What does it mean?"
SIGNS BEFORE THE END (vv. 7-11)
Luke has an unnamed "they" ask him, "Teacher, therefore when will these things be and what is the sign when these things are about to be?"
There are two questions:
1. When? The answer seems to be some unknown time: "the end will not follow immediately" (v. 9d). By Luke's time, the temple had been destroyed. Mt. Vesuvius had erupted, causing all kinds of "signs" in the sky. Luke's audience, living soon after these events, may have thought that the end would happen immediately or at least soon. Luke says, No.
2. What sign? (Note that "sign" is singular.) It is this question that Jesus seems more interested in answering.
Although "sign" is singular, the plural "these things" (ταῦτα - tauta), occurs often in this discourse.
v. 6 seeing these things
v. 7 when will these things be (translated "this" in NRSV)
v. 7 what is the sign when these things are about to happen (γίνομαι - ginomai)
v. 9 it is necessary for these things to happen (γίνομαι - ginomai) first
v. 12 before all these things
v. 28 when these things are beginning to happen (γίνομαι - ginomai)
v. 31 when you would see these things happen (γίνομαι - ginomai)
v. 36 strength to flee all these things that are about to happen (γίνομαι - ginomai)
"These things" seems to refer to much more than just the destruction of the temple, but all of the signs/events that will occur to signify that the Kingdom of God is near (v. 31).
Concerning the sign:
The same word (σημεῖον - sēmeion) is used of Jesus lying in the manger (2:12); crowds want a sign from heaven (11:16), but Jesus will give them no sign except the sign of Jonah (11:29-30). Could it be that the sign is Jesus himself? His birth, death, and resurrection? Or, perhaps his expression of the graciousness of God towards the outsiders that led them to repent and not be destroyed contrary to Jonah's wishes? Could Jesus' presence on earth be the sign that all these things will happen?
If it had been assumed that the destruction of the temple (and the events related to Mt. Vesuvius) were signs of the end, it would have been easy for pretenders to convince people that "I am he" and "the time has come".
V. 8 is the only occurrence of πλανάω (planaō) or any of its related terms in Luke. The original meaning of this word is "to cause to wander off the path." Thus to "lead astray," "to mislead," "to deceive," "to cause to wander from the truth."
The deception in this verse has two parts: false messiahs and false calculations of time.
It seems to me that in order to be led off the path, one needs to have a path to be on -- a clear direction. What is it that keeps us from being deceived by logical, but misguided interpreters of current events? We need to be clear about the path we are on and where it is going. Or, to counter the specific deceptions in this verse: to really know the true messiah and what he says about the time. Within a different context, the same can be said about congregations (or individuals) who have a clear mission for their lives. They are better able to fend off temptations to vary from that path.
The word for "time" is καιρός (kairos). It is used three times in this discourse in ch. 21: vv. 8 & 24 concerning "the times of the Gentiles" being fulfilled; and v. 36 with the final command: "Be alert at all times!"
The two instances prior to our text are times of comings. In 19:44 Jesus has wept over Jerusalem and talked about its destruction, "because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." I think that the time of their visitation was now -- during the lifetime of Jesus.
A similar image is presented in its next use. In the parable of the wicked tenants (20:9-19), the NRSV translates v. 10a "when the season came." More literally, "at the (proper) time." In contrast to Jerusalem, the tenants know the proper time, but they respond improperly.
There seems to be two issues related to καιρός (kairos) -- (a) knowing when it occurs and (b) knowing what to do when it has come.
It may be that the deception in our text is not (a) that the time has come near. Jesus uses the same word and form (perfect) in 10:9, 11; 21:20 to indicate that the Kingdom has come near and that the desolation of Jerusalem has come near. Both instances also seem to indicate that the Kingdom and the desolation have already arrived. So the deception may be more related to (b): Now that the time has come near (and arrived), what is the proper thing for us to do?
Paul addresses a wrong understanding of the time in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 (dealing with (a) above):
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
Yet, later he indicates that their misguided understanding about the time led them to be misguided about their actions (dealing with (b) above). Apparently there were some in the Thessalonian church who felt that the end had come and that they no longer had to work (for the common good?) It is in this letter where Paul gives this command: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat" (3:10b). Could this be the deception of the false messiahs about the time in Luke?
It has been a deception in our present times when messiah-like figures convince their followers to sell all their possessions and go to some special place, or to drink the poison.
Could it be a deception in our congregations that we don't have to work for the common good of the congregation or of the kingdom? At first, I thought that this apathetic attitude was not related to the end-times stuff, but about prioritizing one's time in the present. As I thought more about it, if we really believe that there will be some sort of destruction for those who don't believe in/through Christ at the End, how can we not be doing everything possible to encourage people to believe? Our apathy about mission and spreading the gospel is related to our understanding of the end times and God's judgment on the world. How similar to Jonah are we? Do we (secretly) wish that God would destroy all the unbelievers and unchurched people around us? We usually act like we don't care if they will be destroyed at the end of time.
I think that the time of our text has always been present. When haven't we heard of wars and insurrections somewhere on our planet? When haven't nations and kingdoms fought against nations and kingdoms? When haven't there been great earthquakes and famines and plagues on earth and unexplainable events in heaven?
I mentioned this once to a lady who responded, "Yes, but, there are more earthquakes now than ever before." I don't know if that is true or not. However, Jesus' simply says: "and great earthquakes," not that there will be more of them. There have always been earthquakes. Many have been very destructive.
I don't think that there has been a time in history when there haven't been international conflicts and such natural events on earth and in the sky.
The time has come near. What is the right path to follow?
One that is mentioned in this part of our text is "not to be afraid." This word πτοέομαι (ptoeomai) only occurs twice in the NT -- both in Luke. It implies being frightened or terrified or startled by something. In its other use, the disciples are startled and terrified (ἔμφοβος - emphobos) by the sudden appearance of the risen Jesus in their midst (24:37). Classically, the active form was used to refer to "frightening or scaring away." It also took on a metaphorical sense of "to be in a flutter, be agitated; to be wild, distracted." Such ideas could be part of the meaning in our text.
What should not be scaring us? The wars and insurrections? The deceivers? The arrival of the kingdom? Natural disasters? Persecutions? It would be natural to be terrified at the prospect of such things. I used to serve near an Air Force base, now I'm serving near a Marine Air Station. Husbands and wives and fathers and mothers are being sent to war zones. Families are scared -- and we think that such fear is only natural.
At the end of our text, Jesus gives the promise, "Not a hair from your head perish" (21:18 -- found only in Luke).
I think that anyone who uses apocalyptic images to frighten people is misusing the genre. Within the horrors of the apocalypse, there is the comforting assurance that God is in control and that God is looking after and protecting the faithful people. Because of this, we are to act a bit unnatural in the face of catastrophes -- namely, not being terrified by them. Our future -- even our hairs' future -- is in God's hand
PERSECUTIONS FORETOLD (vv. 12-17)
From a recent Hagar the Horrible comic:
Hagar is inciting on his troops. "This is the moment we've been waiting for men! The moment we do battle with the enemy! Is everyone here?
They shout: "YES!"
Hagar continues: "Okay men -- repeat after me. 'I am a Viking Warrior!'"
"I AM A VIKING WARRIOR!" they shout.
"And I will fight to the death for what I believe!"
(silence in the next frame)
(silence again in a second frame)
In the third frame Hagar asks: "Okay, why aren't you repeating after me?!"
One meek Viking speaks for them all: "Hagar, the men would like to change that to 'and I will fight hard until it's time for dinner.'"
Similarly, could you image a poster of Jesus pointing his finger at you (like "Uncle Sam") with "I want you" printed in large letters. Then, in much smaller print:
- You will be arrested and persecuted.
- You will be handed over to religious and secular authorities.
- You will witness to these authorities about Jesus.
- You will be betrayed by family members.
- Some of you will be put to death.
- You will be hated by all because of me.
Part of interpreting these verses is to decide if Jesus is predicting a future fate for believers -- something we something we all should be prepared to face, or if Luke is presenting the present reality for believers in his generation. I think that the second option is more likely. Luke presents the believers in the book of Acts as suffering such persecutions, but they used such persecutions as opportunities for witnessing to the governing officials. When the believers were scattered away from Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen, they used it as an opportunity to further proclaim the word (Acts 8:4) in new places. As I suggested above, the real question of the believers at the end of the first century is: "Now that many of these things have happened, what do we do? What does it mean?"
For Luke, the believers are to witness. They are to trust Jesus for words and wisdom to use against their accusers. (In Mk & Mt it is the Holy Spirit who gives such words.)
The word for witness in v. 13 is μαρτύριον (martyrion) -- a word that came into English as "martyr" -- one who witnesses by giving one's own life.
Persecutions and hatred or even possible death shouldn't stifle our witness. Ultimately we know that we have no need to preserve our lives. We are confident in the resurrection. Luke shows us in Acts how such witnessing took place.
I think that we need to ask ourselves: "How do we use times of conflict or turmoil as opportunities to witness?" How do we let Jesus' words flow through us in such difficult situations? For most of us, the conflicts we face will not be as severe as Jesus' mentions, but we face them.
Some years ago, a pastor-friend died at age 52 of a brain tumor. It was frequently said that the way he approached his death over the months of his terminal illness was a witness to his faith. His and his family's angst over his disease gave them an opportunity to witness to others about their faith. It didn't bring healing. It didn't reduce the pain and loss at the time of death. It did strengthen their conviction of a life beyond death.
When a congregation is in the midst of conflict and turmoil, can their approach to the difficulties be a witness to their faith? As many of our denominations are struggling with the issue of homosexuality, can the way we work through this difficult issue be a witness to the world? I'm certain that it will be a witness to the world, but what kind of witness?
I think that this passage says that we need to make use of every opportunity to witness to Jesus. If getting arrested offered them a great opportunity to witness back then, how much easier is it for us when the state and even family members are not trying to persecute and arrest and perhaps kill us because of our faith? Make use of the present time to witness to Jesus.
PROTECTION FORETOLD (vv. 18-19)
I wrote once that maybe the hairs on the disciples' heads didn't perish, but their bodies did.
How is this verse to be understood -- (especially by balding people)?
The phrase "losing hair(s) from one's head" can clearly mean "being protected from death" as these two references indicate.
Paul tells the sailors in the wrecked ship: "Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads." (Acts 27:34)
There is also this OT reference: "Then the people said to Saul, 'Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today." (1 Sam 1:45)
However, the following passage suggests that in reference to God it might mean not protection from physical death, but protection from hell after death.
Jesus said: "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows" (12:4-7).
VERSE 19 IN DETAIL
Verse 19, like v. 18, seems to contradict the persecution and possible death that Jesus says the believers will face -- which they did in Acts.
Luke has adapted this verse from Mark, where it reads, "The one enduring to the end, that one will be saved" (Mark 13:13b).
Luke begins with a prepositional phrase: "in (ἐν – en) your (patient) endurance (or steadfastness or perseverance -- ὑπομονή (hypomonē)...."
The grammar can indicate means or instrument as the NRSV translates it: "By your..." It can also indicate state or condition which is more like Luke’s other uses of ὑπομονή (hypomonē): "But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with (‘en – en) patient endurance" (8:15).
In this second reference, "endurance" isn't for its own sake, but in order to bear fruit. Similarly, I think, the "endurance" in our verse isn't for its own sake, but to bear fruit -- to do the witnessing in the midst of the persecution, betrayal, hatred, and possible death.
As a "state or condition," ὑπομονή (hypomonē) could be interpreted as a state of mind, an attitude that one has in the midst of life's difficulties.
The tense of the main verb in this verse is a bit uncertain. There are two, well-attested variants in the ancient manuscripts. The one preferred in my Greek Bible is the aorist imperative κτήσασθε (ktēsasthe). Apparently the one preferred in the NRSV is the future indicative κτήσεσθε (ktēsesthe). (There’s only one letter difference "a" or "e".) Metzger comments that it is easier to explain a copyist changing from the aorist to the future than going in the other direction.
An aorist imperative indicates a "point in time" event (in contrast to the present tense's continuing or repeated event). This would seem to imply that when one is enduring, then, at that moment, one gains ψυχή (psychē) (more on this word later).
The future indicate in Greek is like our future in English, they point to something in the future. This would seem to imply that sometime after one has endured, then one will gain ψυχή (psychē).
What does one gain (or acquire, κτάομαι - ktaomai)? What is meant by ψυχή (psychē) in this verse?
It can mean physical life, suggesting that "gaining your life" implies being saved from death, but we've already been told that some will be put to death (v. 16b). Some interpret ψυχή (psychē) as referring to that life that comes after death. Tiede (Luke) takes this approach:
The assurances in vv. 18-19 are, therefore, not denials of the reality of persecution and death. The assurance about even "the hair on your head" is a traditional proverb (see 1 Sam. 14:45; 2 Sam. 14:11; 1 Kings 1:52; Acts 27:34), but in this instance it offers an assurance of life beyond death. Similarly Luke's understanding of endurance does not mean mere marathon determination, but faithful reliance on the word of God (see 8:15). The life that is gained, therefore, is not an assurance of surviving the persecutions while others die. Nor is it merely a "spiritual" truth. It is a promise of life and salvation which transcends the need to preserve this life (9:24). Death is physically real, and so are the adversaries (see 12:4-5). But the hope of the resurrection is grounded in God's righteousness, against which all who kill the body cannot stand. This is the eschatological hope which exposes the deceit of those who intimidate the faithful and deny the reality of the kingdom by persecution and murder (see also 17:33). [p. 362]
In other notes, I have suggested that ψυχή (psychē) might be translated "self." It is that which makes me uniquely me. It is that person God has created and gifted me to be. With an emphasis on defining sinfulness as selfishness, we have not often looked at the positive aspects of being a true self. In systems theory, one's self gets lost when one "sells out" to everyone else -- when one becomes what others want him/her to be.
Danker (Jesus and the New Age) suggests this approach with his comments on v. 19: "Their bodies they may and will lose, but not their real selves (cf. Revelation 20:11-15, and see on Luke 12:5)" (p. 212)
With this approach, v. 19 might be paraphrased: "By sticking to the convictions of your faith in the midst of opposition, you acquire your true selves -- namely, that you are children of God who have been promised a resurrected, eternal life."
Stretching this approach a little further, by not being afraid because of our trust in God, we are not letting our "selves" be controlled by the persecutors (or the natural disasters). The self is lost when we react to such threats with such emotions and behaviors like anger or revenge. Then we are allowing these other things to control our lives, rather than God and God's promises. (Note, according to Edwin Friedman, such non-reactiveness ["non-anxious presence" in his terms] occurs at best only 80% in even the most self-defined individuals.)
A DIFFERENT MISSION APPLICATION
I recently read When Better Isn't Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st-Century Church, by Jill Hudson. In the forward, Roy Oswald writes:
... Jill Hudson explodes two myths we find in many congregations. The first is that we can grow without changing. ...
The second myth congregations hold on to for dear life is that we can change without conflict. [p. xi]
Everything has a cost. We know this in our heart, and yet we try to avoid it. We want the "old" church just as it was, with comforting hymns, informally claimed pews, and familiar liturgies. We also want the benefits of the "new church," full of young families and hope for the future. We want new believes who mature in Christ and share the responsibilities of church membership. We don't want anyone mad -- ever! We want it both ways. We want the comfort of the past and the promise of the future without alienating anyone. [p. 20]
Change has a cost, and it often includes the unfortunately loss of families unable to embrace the congregation's new direction. [p. 57]
If the "sign" is Jesus having come, and part of "these things" that will happen are great conflicts, should we expect anything less in our congregation? Is trying to avoid conflicts to make everyone happy, also avoiding our call to follow Jesus? to be on the right path of mission and witnessing to Jesus?
Perhaps similar to Jesus' speech, pastors need to tell congregations, "We are going to emphasize mission and witnessing to the unbelievers, and it will cause conflicts. Members will be fighting members. Families will be fighting families. Some of your friends will leave the congregation. We will wonder if all the turmoil will destroy this church as earthquakes destroy buildings. However, if we continue on the mission path, unafraid of the conflicts, and hold on to our conviction to share Jesus' story with the world, we will gain new life -- both for the congregation, and for the people who come to believe the gospel we have shared with them."
The Christian faith does not remove us from conflict, but, we might say, it gives us a purpose and a use for the conflict -- times and places and opportunities to witness to the grace of God revealed in Jesus.
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