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Sermon / Homily on Luke 21:5-28

Lectionary Blogging on Luke 21: 5-9

by John Petty

5When 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.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And 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.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there 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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Translation:

And, as some were speaking concerning the temple, that it had been adorned with good stones and offerings, he said, "These things you see, days will come in which there will not be left stone upon stone, that will not be thrown down." But they asked him, saying, "Teacher, when therefore will these things be? And what (will be) the sign when these things shall come to be?" And he said, "See that you might not be deceived, for many will come upon my name, saying, 'I am' and 'the time has come near.' Do not go after them. But when you hear of wars and disorders, do not be terrified, for it is necessary for these things to come to be first, but (they are) not immediately the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will be raised upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places, famines and plagues. And there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands upon you and they will persecute, delivering you into the synagogues and prisons, leading you away to kings and governors for my name. It will turn you into a witness. Therefore, put in your hearts not to mediate before you defend yourselves, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to resist or contradict. But you will be delivered over by parents and siblings and relatives and friends, they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated ones by all because of my name, but a hair of your head may surely not be destroyed. In your endurance, you will possess your lives."

Background and situation:

The original source is Mark. See the parallel in Mark 13: 1-13. As he does frequently throughout Luke, Jesus is speaking both to disciples and to a general audience--"in the hearing of all the people" (20:45). The time is the beginning of passion week.

Text:

Someone once said that Mark is a "down and in" gospel, and Luke is "an up and out" gospel. There are signs of this difference of perspective in this Lucan adaptation of Mark. Luke follows Mark closely here, but he made significant changes, even if some are quite subtle, which impart to the passage more of a typically "up and out" Lucan perspective.

First of all, in Mark, Jesus leaves the Temple. Symbolically, he rejects the Temple. He had already struck at the economic and religious basis of the Temple in Mark 11, after which he proclaimed the fig tree, symbolizing the Temple, was rotten to its roots, and incapable of life. In Mark 13: 1, he leaves the temple for the last time.

In Luke, however, Jesus does not leave the Temple. Luke generally takes a more positive view toward the Temple than Mark does. When Jesus was an infant, a key prophecy took place in the Temple. When he was 12, he was "sitting among the teachers" at the Temple (2:46). During passion week, he taught in the Temple "every day" (21:37).

Both Mark and Luke, in nearly identical language, have Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple. One should keep in mind, however, that the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. Luke is writing c. AD 85, about the period c. AD 30. The text is not a prophecy, in other words, but an interpretation of history.

In any case, it would not have taken someone with supernatural predictive abilities to anticipate that the Jews would get trampled in any war with the Romans. The makings of war had been growing for quite awhile. The Jews truly did suffer under the Roman yoke, and there were constant rumblings of dissent and, on occasion, outright revolt.

When King Herod died (4 BC), there were uprisings all over the country. Roman Legions from Syria had to be brought down to quell the revolt, and they were not happy when they arrived. When Quirinius instituted his tax census in AD 6, again there was resistance. Jesus own ministry rallied the poor and disenfranchised against the "powers." Jesus probably could see that war and violence might come, but then so could a lot of people.

The Roman-Jewish War lasted from AD 66-70. In the beginning, the rebellion was widespread. As the Romans brought military pressure to bear in the north, however, the Jews were forced back into "fortress Jerusalem" in AD 69.

Within Jerusalem, the Jewish defenders were divided. In hopes of a ceasefire, some advocated for accomodation with the Romans. Some of the more fanatical Jewish defenders, on the other hand, took an "apocalyptic" view. If they could just hold on awhile longer, they thought, God would intervene and smite the offenders.

These more fanatical defenders gained the upper hand in the city, and some believe they quite likely put pressure on the followers of Jesus, urging them to abandon non-violence and join the struggle against the infidel.

Jerusalem put up a stout defense, and the Romans had a hard time subjugating the city. When they did, it wasn't pretty. They destroyed everything they could destroy. Blood ran in the streets.

The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims...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. (Josephus, cited in Luke, David Tiede.)

The destruction of the Temple was utterly devastating for the people. Some traditions associated with the Temple, such as the Sadducees, were destroyed never to rise again--(which, incidentally, resulted in the rise of rabbinical, synogogue-based Judaism). Luke asserts, however, that though the nations "trample" on Jerusalem, at some point this will end. The nations will trample Jerusalem "until the times of the nations are fulfilled" (21:34). Jerusalem is in for some difficulty, but there is also a limit to it.

But they asked him, saying, "Teacher, when therefore will these things be? And what (will be) the sign when these things shall come to be?" And he said, "See that you might not be deceived, for many will come upon my name, saying, 'I am' and 'the time has come near.' Do not go after them.

This may refer to the aforementioned defenders of Jerusalem in its last days as a city. No doubt there were some self-appointed "messiahs" floating around. The air seems to have been thick with religious fanaticism, fertile ground for the emergence of messianic figures. For the fanatics, the defense of Jerusalem was a "holy war." Luke has Jesus say, as also in Mark, "Do not go after them." Or, in other words, stay out of holy wars.

Luke subtlely alters Mark here. Instead of Jesus speaking with his disciples, as in Mark, Luke has Jesus speaking to "some" (v. 5), who are then referred to as "they" in v. 7. Jesus speaks "privately" to the inner circle of the disciples in Mark. In Luke, the identity of those who hear Jesus is purposefully vague. Perhaps Luke does it this somewhat open-ended way because he wants his readers, c. AD 85, to read themselves into the story.

But when you hear of wars and disorders, do not be terrified, for it is necessary for these things to come to be first, but (they are) not immediately the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will be raised upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places, famines and plagues. And there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.

Mark says, literally, "it is necessary (dei) to happen (genisthai)." Luke says "it is necessary for these things to happen first (protone)." Luke separates the time of war from the time of redemption just a bit, which he then underlines by saying "(they are) not immediately the end." In other words, the destruction of the Temple, difficult though it must have been, was nevertheless not an eschatological event.

In verse 10, there is a sense of rising turmoil, which certainly would have been the case in the run-up to the Roman-Jewish war. Also, these portents appear to have eschatological significance. The cosmos itself--"fearful sights" and "great signs from heaven"--will be disrupted. (Tannehill also draws attention to a citation from Josephus, JW 6, 289, who mentions a comet--"a star resembling a sword".)

But before all these things, they will lay their hands upon you and they will persecute, delivering you into the synagogues and prisons, leading you away to kings and governors for my name. It will turn you into a witness. Therefore, put in your hearts not to mediate before you defend yourselves, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to resist or contradict. But you will be delivered over by parents and siblings and relatives and friends, they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated ones by all because of my name, but a hair of your head may surely not be destroyed. In your endurance, you will possess your lives."

The scribes and chief priests had already tried to "lay hands on"--or seize--Jesus himself in 20:19. The followers of Jesus may expect the same--"they will lay their hands upon you and they will persecute."

Luke may also have in mind the situation of Christians at the time of his writing, c. AD 85. Prior to the Roman-Jewish War, relations between Christians and Jews had been more positive. Many Christians, for example, continued to participate in their local synagogue.

This comity changed in light of the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem. Christians tended to blame the Jews, and vice versa, which contributed to tensions between the two groups. (Mark, incidentally, says that followers of Jesus may be "delivered over" to synagogues. Luke adds "prisons." This indicates heightened tension with political authority as well as religious authority.)

Followers of Jesus will be "delivered over" (paradidomai), the same word that is used, later in Luke, for the arrest of Jesus. Christians can expect the same for themselves. Luke is saying: You will be "delivered over," just like Jesus was, and here's how to handle it when it happens: Witness! Testify! (Will Willimon: "We Christians have done fairly well in prisons.")

Don't prepare your defense, as the Roman and Greek orators do. Mark has "for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit." Luke takes this out. In Luke, it is Jesus himself who will instruct his people.

This is a bit surprising for Luke, who generally takes a strong view of the Spirit. (If someone in the New Testament is "in the power of the Spirit," you can safely bet that Luke is the author of the passage.) This time, however, Luke says that Jesus himself will be with his people in their time of distress, with the message: "Live by me, and not by fear."

A little later in Luke, Jesus himself will face authorities, and again, Luke will use the example of Jesus as a way of instructing Christians on how to deal with suffering and persecution. Stand your ground, as Jesus did. Don't volunteer information, don't admit anything, but don't back away either.

"Not a hair of your head will perish" recalls 12:7: "even the hairs of your head are all counted." Hang in there, trust in God, have "endurance." "By your endurance, you will acquire--katasesthe, the word for getting a wife!--your lives." (I'm opposed to translating psyche as "soul," which is more of a concept of Greek philosophy than either Hebrew or Christian theology. In the New Testament, psyche should be translated as "life.")

The text has nothing to do with predictions of the future, and any interpretation which treats it so is fatally flawed from the start. Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about the future. It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome. How were they to deal with this situation? Luke says to listen for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and use Jesus himself as a model.

Source: Progressive Involvement

See Also:

More Sermons and Bible Commentaries on Luke 21:5-28

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