I have spent most of the last eight years writing on incarnational-Trinitarian theology for pastors and church leaders in the Global South. I have developed a program called the Academy of Bible and Theology that offers free educational resources to impoverished pastors in the villages and rural areas of the Global South. As of this month, our program consists of ten courses. The following post is from our course on the Gospel of Luke.
While Jesus is teaching, some of his disciples comment on the beautiful stones that adorn the temple. In response, Jesus says that “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” The disciples want to know when “these things” will happen and what will be the “sign” that they are about to take place (vs 5-7). Jesus responds with a controversial prophecy about false prophets, wars, earthquakes, famines, disease and “great signs from heaven” (vs 8-10). He tells the disciples that they will be persecuted and brought before kings, “all on account of my name.” They are not to worry, however, because he will give them wisdom to speak in defence of themselves (vs 12-15). The disciples will be betrayed by family and friends and everyone will hate them. Some will even be put to death. But Jesus tells them to stand firm and they “will win life” (vs 16-19). (Since some will be put to death, Jesus must be referring to spiritual protection and the eternal life that awaits his followers.)
In this complex passage, Jesus is warning his disciples. He is preparing them for the trials and tests that lie ahead. In the years to come, many Jews will remember Jesus as the one who turned people away from the law of Moses, the one who kept company with sinners, who befriended Gentiles, and who threatened to bring down the wrath of the Romans, because he preached about another kingdom that was coming. As a result, his followers will be persecuted, put on trial and blamed for many of the troubles that the Jews experience under Roman oppression. Some, including Peter, James, the brother of Jesus, and later, the apostle Paul, will be put to death. But through it all, Jesus will be with them, both in this life and in the life to come.
What is the “sign” of the terrible things that will soon happen? What great event are the disciples to watch for? Jesus has already given the sign. He has enacted the judgement to come upon the temple by driving out the merchants and money-changers. The temple stands for everything Jesus is against. It has become a “den of robbers” (Luke 19:45, 46). With its corrupt priesthood, it is the symbol of Israel’s perversion, and its failure to fulfil its calling as the light to the nations. Thus, the temple’s destruction cannot be far away.
COMMENT: The destruction of the temple is unimaginable to most Jews in the 1st century. It will seem like “the end of the world.” It will mark the end of their existence as they have known it. A similar event today would be something like a foreign army destroying Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace in the U.K, or the White House, the Congress Building and the Washington monument in the U.S.A.
Next, Jesus predicts events concerning the city of Jerusalem. The city has failed to heed his message of peace, and the people will put their Messiah to death. Nevertheless, Jesus will be proven right. The Jews’ failure to follow his way of peace in favour of armed rebellion will lead to disaster. When the disciples see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they will know that its destruction is near. Thus, everyone should flee to avoid the disaster (vs 20, 21), like the Jews in exile, who fled when destruction came upon the city of Babylon (see Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; 51:6). This will be a dreadful time of “punishment.” There will be distress and wrath in the land, and people will fall by the sword. (Hundreds of thousands of Jews will be killed during the fall of Jerusalem.) Many will be taken as prisoners to “all the nations” and “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (vs 20-24).
COMMENT: The meaning of “the times of the Gentiles” (vs 24) is subject to debate. It may refer to the time that Jerusalem is ruled by pagan (Gentile) empires. In 1st Century Jewish thought, Rome will be the last pagan empire to rule Jerusalem before the coming of the Messiah to establish his kingdom.
Signs in the sun, moon and stars will follow, and the waves of the sea will toss and roar. People will faint with terror because of what is happening, for “the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (vs 25, 26). Jesus uses apocalyptic language, the dramatic speech of a prophet, to describe a major event in the history of God’s people. This is “end of the world” language, because that is how it will seem to those who experience the terrible destruction to come.
“At that time,” says Jesus, “they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” When these things take place, the disciples will know that their “redemption is drawing near” (vs 27, 28). According to Professor N.T. Wright:
“The ‘coming of the son of man’ must then be understood, as first-century Jews would certainly have understood it, as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel 7. One of the most popular prophecies of the day, this passage was believed to speak about the time when God’s true people [Israel] would be vindicated [“declared in the right”] after their suffering at the hands of the ‘beasts’, the pagan nations who had oppressed them. This prophecy imagines a great lawcourt scene, in which God, the judge, finds in favour of his people [Israel], ‘the son of man’, and against the oppressive ‘beast’. The judgement that falls on the pagan nations is the same judgement that vindicates ‘the son of man’, who is then brought on a cloud to share the throne of God himself.”
[NOTE: The term, “son of man,” can refer both to the nation of Israel as a whole and to the Messiah as an individual.]
Professor Wright continues: “The best way of understanding this passage in Luke is then to see it as the promise that, when the Jerusalem that had opposed his message is finally overthrown, this will be the vindication of Jesus and his people, the sign that he has indeed been enthroned at his Father’s side in heaven (see 20.42–43). Luke does, of course, believe in the ‘second coming’ of Jesus (Acts 1.11), but this passage is not about that. It is about the vindication of Jesus and the rescue of his people from the system that has oppressed them.”—Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 255-256). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
COMMENT (from the Academy of Bible and Theology): The prophet Daniel has a vision of four beasts, or powerful pagan nations, that oppress God’s people. The four beasts are Babylon, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire beginning with Alexander the Great, and finally, the Roman Empire. These four beasts, or pagan nations, rule over God’s people at one time or another. In the time of Jesus, God’s people are ruled by the most powerful beast of them all, the Roman Empire. In Daniel’s vision, one like the “son of man” comes on the clouds to the throne of God, where the “Ancient of Days” (God) is seated. The “son of man” is given authority over the nations and his kingdom will last forever. Finally, the fourth beast is slain. The city of Rome, capital of the empire, falls to invaders in 476 A.D.
In regard to Daniel’s vision, Jesus is the “son of man.” At his trial, just before his death, Jesus says, “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (see Luke 22:69). Just before he ascends into heaven after his resurrection, Jesus says to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (see Matthew 28:18). When Jesus ascends to heaven, he is given authority to rule the nations and his kingdom will last forever. This is what Professor Wright calls Jesus’ “vindication.” It is Jesus, the faithful Son of God—not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the teachers of the law, and not the Roman Empire—who is shown to be “in the right.”
Daniel 7, like Luke 21, is the subject of endless debate and argument. There are many different points of view about the events described in these chapters. For example, many Evangelicals, especially in the United States, believe that Daniel is describing events leading up to “the second coming of Christ,” an event they believe may occur in our time. The Academy of Bible and Theology encourages its students not to be overly concerned about the exact meaning of these passages and the events they describe. We are to keep our eyes on Jesus and go about his work, playing our parts in bringing his kingdom to this troubled world.
Luke continues: Just as they know summer is near when leaves sprout on the fig tree, Jesus says, they will know that the kingdom of God is near when they see all these things happening (vs 29-31). Then Jesus makes a statement that should be the decisive clue as to when these events will occur. He says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Heaven and earth will pass away but his words will not pass away (vs 32, 33). Jesus warns the disciples not to be caught up in the anxieties of life, so that that day will not fall upon them like a trap. Jesus tells them to pray that they may escape all these things and “be able to stand before the Son of man” (vs 34-36).
COMMENT: This long passage, along with its parallels in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 is the subject of much controversy. As we saw earlier (see page 64), Jesus’ prediction about the “signs of the end times” has been interpreted in three major ways: 1) Jesus is referring to events that will happen during the disciples’ lifetimes; 2) he is predicting events that will occur throughout the course of history until he returns at the end of the present age, or 3) he is referring to events that are largely yet to come but, as many evangelicals today believe, will soon occur. The Academy of Bible and Theology endorses the first view, given the fact that Jesus says that “this generation” (the one living in the 1st century) will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled. As we have said several times in this course, the destruction of the city and temple that Jesus predicts occurs in 70 A.D. when the Roman army, under General Titus, surrounds the city of Jerusalem, lays siege to it, and finally destroys both the city and the temple. Many of Jesus’ disciples will still be living when that terrible event happens.