April 7 (1): Luke 21:5-38

Today’s Easter season note is on the Son of Man sayings in the so-called “eschatological discourse” of Jesus in Luke 21 (par Mark 13 / Matt 24), in verses 25-27, and again in the concluding saying of v. 36. This ‘discourse’ is part of the Synoptic tradition, set during Passion week (Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem). It is perhaps best understood as a collection of sayings and teachings, uttered by Jesus on various occasions, rather than a single self-contained sermon. This is indicated, as previously noted, by the elements in Matthew’s version (Matt 24:26-27, 28, 37-38, 40-41 and 10:39) which are found in a different location (and order) in Luke (Lk 17:23-37). The same likely applies to the core Synoptic discourse.

Luke 21:5-38

In all three Gospels, the eschatological (Olivet) discourse, follows the saying of Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple (Lk 21:6 par), and is introduced by a subsequent question from the disciples (Lk 21:7 par). The Lukan and Markan versions of the question are quite close:

Mk 13:4—”when will these (thing)s be? and what (is the) sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together [i.e. fully completed]?”
Lk 21:7—”when, therefore, will these (thing)s be? and what (is the) sign when these (thing)s are about to come to be?”

Matthew appears to have added an interpretive layer, an early Christian gloss on the question: “when will these (thing)s be? and what (is the) sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a, parousia] and the full completion of the Age?” (Matt 24:3). This direct specification of Jesus’ (second) coming and the “end of the Age”, better fit the concerns of early Christians than the immediate question of the disciples in the historical context of the narrative. The core of the discourse, leading up to the Son of Man saying, can be seen from the outline in Mark:

    • Mk 13:5-8—beginnings of tribulation (“birth pains”): false Christs, wars, earthquakes, famine
    • Mk 13:9-13—persecution of Jesus’ followers (early Christians), by the Jewish authorities, also by friends and family, etc
    • Mk 13:14-23—more intense period of suffering and distress, marked by the desecration of the Temple (v. 14) and the appearance of false Messiahs (vv. 21-22)
    • Mk 13:24-27—the appearance of the Son of Man, coming in glory, with the angels, to gather/deliver the Elect and bring the Judgment (implied)

Luke’s version has some interesting additions and omissions:

    • Lk 21:8-11—beginnings of tribulation [Mk 13:5-8]: no mention of “birth pains”, false prophets will declare “the time has come near”; Jesus also specifies that with these events the end will not come immediately (v. 9b), and adds that there will be plague/diseases, fearful things, and “great signs from heaven” (v. 11).
    • Lk 21:12-19—persecution of Jesus’ followers [Mk 13:9-13]: with greater specification (v. 12, 16, cf. the narratives in Acts), encouragement for believers in the face of it (vv. 14-15), and a promise of protection (v. 18).
    • Lk 21:20-24—more intense period of suffering and distress [Mk 13:14-24]: instead of the allusion to Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11 (and the desecration of the Temple, Mk 13:14), Jesus prophecies specifically regarding the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.
    • Lk 21:25-28—the appearance of the Son of Man [Mk 13:24-27]: cf. below.

By the reference to the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem in vv. 20-24 (generally fulfilled during the war of 66-70 A.D., and subsequent events), Luke’s version more directly relates back to the prediction of the Temple’s destruction in verse 6, and apparently sets a more definite historical context for the appearance of the Son of Man. Mark (and Matthew) use the expression to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$ (“the stinking/disgusting [object] of desolation”, from <m@ovm= JWQV!h^ in Dan 11:31 etc)—”when you see the stinking (object) of desolation having stood where it ought not (to be)…”. In Luke, this reads “when you see Jerusalem (en)circled by swaths of soldiers, then know that her desolation has come near” (v. 20). The chronology involved is expounded in the following verses, especially v. 24: “…and Jerusalem will be trampled down under the nations until (the moment in) which the times of the nations are (ful)filled”. In Luke’s account, Jesus sets an indefinite period between the destruction of Jerusalem (c. 70 A.D.) and the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. Overall, the eschatological immediacy of the early Gospel tradition has been softened or modified in Luke-Acts, as in Matthew.

Luke 21:25-28

In Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Son of Man, Luke follows the common Synoptic tradition, differing at only two points: (1) expansion of Mk 13:24-25 par to include mention of the distress and fear coming upon humankind (vv. 25b-26a) and (2) instead of a description of the angels gathering up the Elect (Mk 13:27 par) there is an exhortation for believers (v. 28). For the signs in the sky and throughout nature (vv. 25-26), these are derived from Old Testament imagery—Joel 2:30-31 [Hebrew 3:3-4]; Isa 13:10; 34:4, cf. also Isa 24:9; Ezek 32:7; Hag 2:6 etc. The exhortation in verse 28 is parallel to the pronouncement of judgment/destruction on Jerusalem in v. 20:

“When you see Jerusalem circled by armies, know that her desolation has come near [h&ggiken]”
“When these things are beginning to come to pass…lift up your heads because your release from (bondage/suffering) is coming near [e)ggi/zei]”

The description of the Son of Man’s appearance—”coming on/in a cloud with power and glory”—ultimately derives from Daniel 7:13. This tradition has already been used by Jesus in Lk 9:26 par, and we will see it again in Lk 22:69 (to be discussed in the next daily note). Jesus identifies himself with a divine/heavenly figure who is to appear as Judge (and Deliverer) at the end-time. Some scholars have held that originally Jesus referred to a figure separate/different from himself, but this is rather unlikely, given the frequency of the association in Gospel tradition, and the regularity with which Jesus uses the expression “Son of Man” in reference to himself. The coming/eschatological Son of Man figure has been involved in a number of the sayings explored thus far in these Easter season notes (cf. Luke 12:8-9, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8).

Luke 21:36

The eschatological discourse in Luke follows the Synoptic tradition in the last two sections—the illustration of the fig tree (21:29-33) and an (eschatological) warning to be watchful (vv. 34-36). Luke concludes this final section (and the discourse as a whole), with another Son of Man saying by Jesus:

“But (as for you) be without sleep [i.e. stay awake] in all time(s), begging (God) that you might be strong against (it) [i.e. be strong enough] to flee/escape out of all these (thing)s th(at) are about to come to be and to stand in front of the Son of Man!”

This clearly sets the Son of Man in the context of God’s (end-time) Judgment, serving as Judge or overseer of the Judgment (cf. Lk 12:8-9). It is not just a matter of escaping the suffering and natural disasters that may be coming; part of the end-time tribulation involves religious travail and testing—persecution of believers, false prophets, false Christs/Messiahs, etc. We should see a parallel in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “do not bring us into (the) testing” (Matt 6:13 adds “…but rescue us from the Evil [One]”). It is no certainty that those claiming to be Christians (i.e. Jesus’ followers) will be able to stand and pass through the Judgment (cf. Lk 13:24-28 par; 18:8, etc)—only those who endure to the end will be saved (21:19 par).

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