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17 November 2019
Luke 21:5 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.”
Luke 21:7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is 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.
Luke 21:9 “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.”
Towards the close of the liturgical year, the lectionary turns to the end of time and to the signs that signal the end. These passages can be difficult to read today because of the language and metaphors used. The underlying teaching—reading the times, conversion and endurance—has not lost any of its relevance. Even the illustration of families divided is a feature of the faith today.
Kind of writing
The passage is a good example of apocalyptic writing. Apocalypse means simply “revelation” and the function of such writing is to help people understand the times in which they are living and to encourage attitudes of faithfulness and resilience. The writing is often highly symbolic (code is too simple an estimate) and, under the guise of describing the future, it offers a key to the present, naming the calibre of the times. Generally speaking, apocalyptic writing occurs at a time when the community of faith is threatened and its identity is being undermined. The basic teaching is threefold: the faithfulness of God, in spite of appearances; the call to renewed conversion, in the light of infidelity; the call to endurance, in spite of apparently overwhelming odds.
Even though difficult to “unpack”, perhaps the current situation of church resembles the social context of apocalyptic. In our time, we need to be able to read the “signs of the times”, discover new resources of resilient fidelity and to walk once more the path of conversion.
Old Testament background
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. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:30–32)
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. (Zephaniah 1:14–16)
New Testament foreground
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:14–21)
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:1–6)
Substantially the same material is found in Matthew and Mark.
Luke follows Mark more closely but there are differences of emphasis. In the saying about the Temple, Matthew and Mark resemble each other while Luke has “some” instead of disciples and the location for the second question is no longer the Mount of Olives. As regards the second coming, Luke leaves out an important expression, “this is just the beginning of the birth pangs”. Labour pain was a traditional Jewish metaphor for the troubles at the end, as the new creation is born. Luke replaces the metaphor with “and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11), perhaps because he is not writing for a Jewish audience. He also strengthens “not yet” to “not at once”. Finally, as regards persecution, although Matthew has put another version of this material earlier in chapter 10 of his Gospel, he follows Mark very closely. Luke makes several significant adjustments, noted in the verse by verse commentary.
Verses 5-6 Luke wrote after the actual destruction of the Temple, a fact which lends increased authority to the teaching which follows.
Verse 7 The questioners are not disciples (named in Mark and anonymous in Matthew) but the same “they.” The location on the Mount of Olives is omitted, perhaps because it would not carry any meaning for Luke’s readers.
Verse 8 The reference is to Christian false prophets.
Verse 9 The change to “not at once” or “not immediately” signals Luke’s awareness (evident in the Acts) that a time of church of unknown duration would take place before the end.
Verse 11 As noted above, the resonant language of labour pains is substituted with the more general “dreadful portents” and “great signs.”
Verse 12 Luke adds prisons, perhaps because being handed over to Jewish synagogues was not a real threat in Greece or Asia Minor.
Verse 13 This verse is different in all three Gospels. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations (Mark 13:10–11). As a testimony to them and the Gentiles (Matthew 10:18–19). This will give you an opportunity to testify (Luke 21:13–14; witness being a special theme in Acts. Cf. Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 6:3, 13; 7:44, 58; 10:22, 39, 41, 43; 13:22, 31; 14:3; 15:8; 16:2; 20:26; 22:5, 12, 15, 18, 20; 23:11; 26:5, 16, 22).
Verse 14-17 Curiously, Luke omits the reference to the Holy Spirit and rewrites the passage: So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:14–16). Contrast 1 Peter 3:15!
Verse 18 A phrase found also in Matthew 10:30. Cf. Luke 12:7.
Verse 19 Luke rephrases to emphasise the personal engagement of the believer.
Pointers for prayer
1. Luke presents Jesus as a prophet, capable of reading the signs of the times, and one who offered wise and insightful advice on how to cope with difficult times. Who are the people you see who act like this in the troubled times we live in today? Maybe you yourself have been a calming influence in the face of turmoil within your family, parish, church, workplace, or elsewhere. Can you claim that gift and give thanks for being such a person?
2. Jesus alerts his listeners to the transitory nature of human grandeur and splendour. How have you been reminded of this truth? What lessons has this given you about life?
3. In any walk of life troubles will come. Jesus encourages his listeners to stand firm in such circumstances, telling them ‘your endurance will win your your lives’. When you are in the midst of inner turmoil and/or outer trouble or opposition, what have you found gives you the strength and ability to endure?
Lord God of all the ages, the One who is, who was, and who is to come, stir up within us a longing for your kingdom, steady our hearts in the time of trial, and grant us patient endurance until the sun of justice dawns.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
When the news from the Middle East—the cradle of civilisation and faith—is so consistently dreadful, our dismay can easily devolve into despair. What about all the innocent lives lost? What of the old, the new-born, the newlyweds and so on? The devastation can be overwhelming, leaving us feeling both powerless and furious. And yet, at the centre of our faith is a deep conviction that the forces of evil and destruction are not, and will not be, the final word. Yes, it is terrible; but no, it is not the last word. God’s faithfulness in Christ’s resurrection assures us and invites us too to the same witness of fidelity, even again the odds.
God of peace, in our time we hear of wars and rumours of wars. Help us not to fear, not to lose hope, but to trust you, our Rock, our only hope.