5 As some people were remarking about the Temple, how beautiful its stonework and memorial decorations were, he said, 6 “The time is coming when what you see here will be totally destroyed — not a single stone will be left standing!” 7 They asked him, “Rabbi, if this is so, when will these events take place? And what sign will show that they are about to happen?” 8 He answered, “Watch out! Don’t be fooled! For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time has come!’ Don’t go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and revolutions, don’t panic. For these things must happen first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
10 Then he told them, “Peoples will fight each other, nations will fight each other, 11 there will be great earthquakes, there will be epidemics and famines in various places, and there will be fearful sights and great signs from Heaven. 12 But before all this, they will arrest you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors. This will all be on account of me, 13 but it will prove an opportunity for you to bear witness. 14 So make up your minds not to worry, rehearsing your defense beforehand; 15 for I myself will give you an eloquence and a wisdom that no adversary will be able to resist or refute. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends; some of you they will have put to death; 17 and everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will be lost. 19 By standing firm you will save your lives.
20 “However, when you see Yerushalayim surrounded by armies, then you are to understand that she is about to be destroyed. 21 Those in Y’hudah must escape to the hills, those inside the city must get out, and those in the country must not enter it. 22 For these are the days of vengeance, when everything that has been written in the Tanakh will come true. 23 What a terrible time it will be for pregnant women and nursing mothers! For there will be great distress in the Land and judgment on the people. 24 Some will fall by the edge of the sword, others will be carried into all the countries of the Goyim, and Yerushalayim will be trampled down by the Goyim until the age of the Goyim has run its course.
25 “There will appear signs in the sun, moon and stars; and on earth, nations will be in anxiety and bewilderment at the sound and surge of the sea, 26 as people faint with fear at the prospect of what is overtaking the world; for the powers in heaven will be shaken.27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with tremendous power and glory. 28 When these things start to happen, stand up and hold your heads high; because you are about to be liberated!”
Luke has edited his source material from Mark’s gospel and given this prophecy of Jesus his own distinctive notes. The crucial event in the prophecy for Luke is the destruction of the Jerusualem Temple and the dispersal of the Jewish population, which are mentioned in verse 6 and verses 20-24. In between Luke places a prophecy of the trials that will afflict the disciples in the times before the last days. Finally Luke describes the coming of the Son of Man, namely Jesus as the ruler of the humane kingdom, as prophesied in the book of Daniel chapter 7.
Matthew and Luke, following Mark place this material in this place, because all of them see the death and resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of the end time, the time when God will complete his/ her creative work in this world. The prophecy anticipates the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and guards against any impatience in the Assemblies of Jesus that might be exploited by people claiming to be the returning Lord. Not every social, political or natural disaster is to be seen as a sign of the last days. Not even the terrible events of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, which were in the recent past for Luke and his audience, are to be taken as signs of the last days. The fact that Jesus had prophesied this destruction should make them feel that history, although terrible, is not out of control, but in God’s hand.
The prophecy of the arrival of the Son of Man in power uses the convention imagery of apocalypse, the signs and the heavens and the shaking of heavenly powers. The planets and stars were believed to represent the powers that controlled the earth, so cosmic perturbations did not mean the end of the universe but rather the end of the evil powers that ruled the earth.
The Son of Man language seems to have been used by Jesus or the Gospel writers, in preference to Messiah language, perhaps because in its original setting it refers to an individual who represents the “saints of the Most High” who will rule humanely in the world. The Rule of God instituted by Jesus will be shared with those who have waited faithfully for its arrival. Only with its arrival should believers trust that their liberation from the evil of the world has arrived.
That’s the gist of this passage, but we should note that the section about persecution is quite detailed, indicating enmity both from fellow Jews and from Gentile rulers. Doubtless some members of Luke’s audience had painful experience of this. They are reminded that Jesus expected that both he and his followers would be made to suffer. It’s reasonable to deduce that Luke saw the present time in which he wrote as a mixture of joy that flowed from the shared life of the Spirit in the Assemblies of Jesus and sorrow because of the ruling powers of evil in the world. True disciples would know that this hard road was Jesus’ road. He had foreseen their trials while promising their liberation.
The elephant in the room here is that of course that the Son of Man did not arrive to liberate Luke and his audience. Moreover, his arrival has been so often postponed that most Christian believers have removed it from their timetable altogether. For certain reasonably comfortable believers this may not matter much- indeed for some of them the arrival of the Son of Man might spoil their next trip to Madeira. But for those who, like the first believers are subject to persecution, believers in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, let’s say, the non-arrival of liberation is a challenge to their belief. Sophisticated theologians may be able to interpret Jesus’ promises as symbolic encouragement rather than historical prediction, but that seems to me surrender the fierce hope expressed by the gospel Jesus, who says that the Son of Man will come.
Some will argue that the promise of resurrection life with God, in heaven or hell, takes the place of the arrival of Jesus as Son of Man, and provides justice for saints and sinners alike. But that eschatology gives hope only to individuals, not to the world.
Others will describe the whole Son of Man scenario as a dated relic of Judaism, which we simply have to dismiss as untrue.
I think that the worth of Christian belief stands or falls by this issue and will therefore take it up in my other blog on Friday. Join me then at: xtremejesus.co