LUKE 21:5-24. THE CONTEXT
We are tempted to ignore apocalyptic texts such as this. Not only are they difficult to understand, but we are embarrassed by the excesses of today’s apocalyptic preachers. However, we must acknowledge that Jesus spoke clearly about the Second Coming (also known as the Parousia), and other New Testament writings emphasize it as well. The lectionary does us a service by helping us to recover this important doctrine.
Our Gospel lesson for this week has its beginning in Jesus’ prediction that the temple will be destroyed (vv. 5-6) and the disciples’ question, “Teacher, so when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are about to happen?” (v. 7). Jesus responds by telling of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and plagues (vv. 9-11), the arrest of Christians and resultant opportunities for witnessing (vv. 12-19), and the destruction of Jerusalem (vv. 20-24). Then come the cosmic signs of verses 25-26, which is where our Gospel lesson begins.
Jesus does not say these things to frighten us, but to prepare us. Our proper response is not to be terrified (v. 9), but to avoid being led astray by false teachers (v. 8) and to take advantage of opportunities for witnessing created by the turmoil (v. 13). We are not to be concerned about preparing our defense, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to withstand or to contradict” (v. 15).
This is very different scene from that which is too often proclaimed from apocalyptic pulpits today. There is no car suddenly left driverless at the Rapture. Jesus does not lift us above turmoil and suffering, but drops us into the middle of it. “The ‘redemption’ that is promised is not a private lifeboat to save a few privileged folk while everything else is destroyed” (Ringe, 253).
Jesus’ purpose is not to insulate us from discomfort, but to prepare us for redemption.
LUKE 21:25-28. THERE WILL BE SIGNS
25“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars; and on the earth anxiety of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the waves; 26men fainting for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption (Greek: apolytrosis—sometimes used for being redeemed from slavery) is near.”
Jesus has been speaking about the destruction of the temple (vv. 5-6) and Jerusalem (vv. 20-24). He now turns his attention to the future of the world-at-large. The former will be characterized by the coming of armies, who will bring destruction (v. 20). The latter will be characterized by the coming of the Son of Man, who will bring redemption (v. 27). Both events will be cataclysmic, but the destruction of Jerusalem will be catastrophic, while the coming of the Son of Man will be redemptive.
The coming of the Son of Man is heralded in Daniel 7:13-14. That chapter describes Daniel’s vision, where he saw frightening beasts doing terrible things. Then the Ancient of Days (God) took his throne, destroyed the beasts, and was joined by “one like a son of man”—a human figure in contrast with the earlier beastly images. This “one like a son of man” is given “everlasting dominion,” and “The kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole sky, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). The picture is that of a world restored to God’s intent—an end of chaos and evil—a beginning of peace and justice.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars; and on the earth anxiety of nations, in perplexity for the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25). When Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, the disciples asked, “Teacher, so when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are about to happen?” (v. 7). Jesus then talked about wars and earthquakes and famines and plagues and great signs from heaven and persecution (vv. 19). Those were the signs that would point to the destruction of Jerusalem. Now, in verse 25, Jesus talks about the signs that will point to the coming of the Son of Man—cosmic signs involving the sun and moon and stars.
Jesus portrays a scene very much like the one described in the book of Daniel. The coming of the Son of Man will seem catastrophic (vv. 25-26)—and Jesus implies that it will be catastrophic for unbelievers—but it will usher in the redemption of believers (v. 28). The picture is that of the birth of a new world—of all creation in labor. However, that labor will give birth to a wonderful new world where evil will be ended—where creation will be restored to God’s design. It is therefore a time for hope—for eager anticipation—for joy.
“the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25b). If the sun, moon, and stars are affected, they can be expected to have an effect on earthly things as well. We know how the moon controls tides. Just imagine the ways an altered sun would affect us.
“men fainting (Greek: apopsuchonton—fainting or dying) for fear, and for expectation of the things which are coming on the world: for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (v. 26). Fear will be so intense that people will faint. The word apopsuchonton can also mean die, so it seems likely that some people will be literally scared to death.
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near” (vv. 27-28). The surprise here is that the warning signs pointed, not to immanent destruction but to the coming of the Son of Man—to redemption. Gardner Taylor, the great African-American preacher, had a sermon on this text that he concluded by shouting, “Look up! Look up!” Then he paused, his voice softening, and he proceeded very deliberately: “For your redemption—draweth—nigh!” Great words for an African-American congregation that has suffered more than its share of turmoil! Great words for us all!
“But when these things begin to happen, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption (Greek: apolytrosis) is near” (v. 28). Jesus’ language seems strange to us, but that would not be the case for Jesus’ disciples, who know Hebrew scripture. Hear these examples (see also Isaiah 13:10; Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:10; Haggai 2:6).
• The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts (Psalm 46:6).
• You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them (Psalm 89:9).
• The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken (Isaiah 24:19).
• I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke (Joel 2:30).
Such language is poetic. We cannot expect to connect it to specific events, but need instead to hear the promise that God intervenes decisively in our history. It is not a threat, but a promise!
“your redemption (Greek: apolytrosis) is near.” Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through a ransom payment—the payment required to secure the redemption. The New Testament presents Jesus’ death on the cross as a redemptive act for humanity—as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Paul speaks of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). He says that Christ Jesus became for us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). He tells us that “we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7)—and that Jesus Christ is the one “in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Colossians 1:14).
LUKE 21:29-33. HE TOLD THEM A PARABLE
29He told them a parable. “See the fig tree, and all the trees. 30When they are already budding, you see it and know by your own selves that the summer is already near. 31Even so you also, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near. 32Most certainly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things are accomplished. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.“
“See the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see it and know by your own selves that the summer is already near” (vv. 29-30). The sprouting of tree leaves tells us that summer is near. Jesus has just concluded portraying great cosmic turmoil. Now he shifts to an image much closer to home. We have all seen buds on trees, and know that it means the coming of summer. So also, when we see these great cosmic signs, we can be sure “that the Kingdom of God is near” (v. 31).
The coming of the kingdom of God is something that we should anticipate with joy rather than fear. Jesus taught us to pray, “May your Kingdom come” (11:2). That is a prayer for Jesus to come again so that he might fully establish the Godly kingdom that is only a partial reality in our world today. The coming of the kingdom will be a time when wrongs will be made right and God’s people will be redeemed from the things that cause them suffering. The coming of the kingdom, however, will be a turbulent time.
“Most certainly I tell you, this generation (genea) will not pass away until all things are accomplished” (vv. 32). This is a difficult verse, because many generations have passed away and we are still waiting. Scholars have proposed a whole host of possible explanations:
• Some (such as Culpepper, 409) think that Jesus (and Luke) believed that the end would come quickly—within their generation. However, Luke wrote this Gospel three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so the people of Jesus’ generation were already dying. It seems unlikely that he would include this verse if he understood it to apply to Jesus’ immediate generation. Also, note that both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels conclude the parable of the fig tree thusly: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32; see also Matthew 24:36). In the Incarnation, Jesus accepted certain human limitations. Knowledge of that day or hour is one of those limitations.
• Others point out that the word, generation (genea), is imprecise. It can mean “the present generation”—those who are living now, which would suggest a span of 30-50 years. However, it can also be used metaphorically for those “characterized by a particular quality such as suffering or waiting or witnessing.” (Craddock, Interpretation, 247; See also Ringe, 253-254 and Gilmour, 369).
• “This generation” could mean this evil generation (Bock, 343; Green 742).
• “This generation” could mean the generation that will be in place at the end (Bock, 343-344; Fitzmyer, 1353).
• These differences among scholars make it clear that any interpretation of “this generation” is, at best, tentative. However, it is also clear that this issue is hardly the central thrust of this text, so we would do well not to give it more attention than it deserves in our preaching.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away” (v. 33). Jesus’ words, which amazed the teachers in the temple when he was still a child (2:46-47) and the synagogue congregation when he spoke with such authority (4:31-32), continue to ring with authority.
• Two thousand years after Jesus’ death, people still do mighty works in obedience to Jesus’ words.
• Day after day, the most unlikely people find their lives transformed by Jesus’ words.
• Evil empire after evil empire has fallen, but the sun never sets on the proclamation of Jesus’ words.
• Repressive governments persecute Christians and destroy churches, but are unable to stop people from spreading Jesus’ words.
• We could pick any day of the week at random, and be assured that more people would hear Jesus’ words for the first time on that day than heard Jesus words during his lifetime.
• Jesus words do not pass away, but just keep building momentum! We can be assured that, if the world lasts another two thousand years, hearts in that day will be full of Jesus’ words.
LUKE 21:34-36. BE CAREFUL
34“So be careful, or your hearts will be loaded down with carousing (Greek: kraipale),drunkenness (Greek: methe), and cares of this life (Greek: merimnais biotikais), and that day will come on you suddenly. 35For it will come like a snare on all those who dwell on the surface of all the earth. 36Therefore be watchful all the time, praying that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Now we come to the point! “So be careful, or your hearts will be loaded down with carousing (kraipale), drunkenness (methe), and cares of this life (merimnais biotikais), and that day will come on you suddenly. For it will come like a snare on all those who dwell on the surface of all the earth” (vv. 34-35). Jesus has instructed us regarding the signs for which we are to watch, and has told us the meaning of those signs. Now he warns us to keep ourselves ready. It is as if Jesus were preparing us to stay alert for something wonderful, such as the coming of the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13). That will be a time of great joy for those who are prepared and alert, but waiting is deadly dull. Who can stay awake hour upon hour, staring into the darkness at nothing? What is the harm if we fall asleep now and then? The answer is that lack of readiness will lead to disaster.
Jesus mentions three Compromisers of Readiness (v. 34):
• Carousing (WEB) or dissipation (NRSV)
• The cares of this life
The first Compromiser is carousing (WEB) or dissipation (NRSV). The Greek word, kraipale, was commonly used to refer to nausea or confusion resulting from drunkenness. My dictionary defines dissipation as “indulging in extravagant, intemperate, or dissolute pleasure,” which tracks closely with the meaning of the Greek word. Note how much it has much in common with the second Compromiser, drunkenness.
However, my dictionary also defines dissipation as “a process in which energy is used or lost without accomplishing useful work.” Again, this tracks with drunkenness, a condition in which energy and resources are expended to no useful purpose. Dissipation is the opposite of stewardship, which tries to make the most of God-given resources. Dissipation squanders time, money, relationships, and lives.
The second Compromiser, drunkenness, is usually associated with alcohol, but applies also to the intoxicating effects of other drugs. Is it stretching a point to say that some people are also intoxicated by power—ambition—sexual conquest?
Drunkenness dulls our inhibitions and judgment and reduces our mental and physical powers. How can we be watchful if we are drunk?
If carousing or dissipation is the opposite of stewardship, the third Compromiser, worry, is the opposite of faith. Like dissipation, worry consumes energy without accomplishing anything. We are as tired after a day of worry as after a day of work—but work gives us a sense of achievement while worry gives us only high blood pressure. Worry also paralyzes, making it difficult to respond appropriately when we see danger approaching.
A few members of our congregations have problems with dissipation or drunkenness, but many have problems with “the worries of this life.” This is one possible focus for a sermon on this text. People in the pews will be surprised to learn that Jesus lumps worry together with dissipation and drunkenness. Worry seems such a mild fault by comparison, but it kills our spirits and our faith. Worry affects more Christians than dissipation and drunkenness combined.
“Therefore be watchful all the time, praying that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36). Jesus calls us to stay alert and to pray. Prayer will help us to avoid dissipation, drunkenness and anxiety. Prayer will keep us open to receive God’s blessings, and will focus our spiritual energies to do God’s will.
For those who are in Christ, this is not a gloom and doom text. It is a call to get ready and to stay ready, because our redemption is drawing near (v. 28). For Christians, these cosmic eventswill signal the end of their suffering (Hendricksen, 941).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (New York: Doubleday, 1985)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Scherer, Paul, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nolland, John, Word : Luke 18:35 — 24:53, Vol. 35C (Dallas: Word Books, 1993)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Wilson, Paul Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (GrandRapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan