Luke 21: 20 – 38 The destruction of the temple and signs of the end times – Part 2
‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled upon by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a crowd with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
He told them this parable: ‘Look at the fig-tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.’
Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.
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There are several different ways of understanding this passage. These include:
- Reading these as the literal words of Jesus;
- Accepting that Jesus taught like this, but that the words have been filtered both through an oral tradition and through the evangelist, St Luke;
- Reading as though the words reflect more the teaching of the early church than the teaching of Jesus;
I am going to adopt the second view point. If after reading this you feel strongly that I’m mistaken, do please write in the comment box below and let me know.
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Oh dear – that first paragraph (verses 20 – 24) is hard going. It fits as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. If Jesus actually spoke the words written, then his prophecy of the event was accurate. However, the gospel was probably written about 80 – 90 A.D. so the writer would have known about the fate of Jerusalem. I should say here that there is considerable debate about the date of St Luke’s gospel. Those scholars who subscribe to the view that every word of the bible is literally true would date it as earlier, precisely because this passage is presented as prophesy.
I can keep an open mind on the dating of the gospel. What really sticks in my throat is the description of this event as punishment. The words attributed to Jesus identify pregnant women and nursing mothers as suffering particularly harshly. That’s always the way with war; the weak suffer, while the strong rarely do. Why does a God of love use violence against the vulnerable as a punishment?
The only way I can rationalise this to myself is to make two suppositions. The first is that God doesn’t will these events (although he permits them to happen through having given us free will). With this supposition, prophecies about ‘God’s punishment’ can be understood as the inevitable consequences of the sinfulness of mankind as a whole.
The second supposition is that those who suffer when they are innocent, either through man’s inhumanity or through natural events like earthquakes, are somehow compensated after death. I can’t think of anything in the bible that explicitly supports this point of view; but I’ll keep looking.
Verses 25 – 26 read as though they came out of a lucky dip bottle labelled “Prophecies – Various”. The prophecies are completely unspecific.
Then we have verse 32: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.’
It’s 2020 A.D. and this prophecy is still unfulfilled.
I think, overall, that this passage is St Luke’s attempt to represent for us something of the flavour of the way Jesus taught. It doesn’t seem at all unlikely that he would have spoken of the consequences of human sin in terms of punishment by God. That was the way his listeners thought.
The passage conveys essential teaching about the transitory nature of human life. The time available for each of us to turn to God is limited. Yesterday’s passage included teaching on how we are to witness for Jesus, using the words that he gives us rather than our own thought-out arguments.
Jesus is also very likely to have used prophecy in his ministry. St Luke may have included the prophecies of this passage as an illustration of how Jesus used the gift, rather than as a literal record of specific prophecies.
I could, of course, be completely wrong…
I believe in you as a God of love; I find it hard to believe that you could desire human punishment. Please help me to deepen my understanding of your nature, that I may grow closer to Jesus.
In Jesus’ name, Amen