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Luke’s Great Eschatological Discourse
Most of chapter 21 is given over to what might be called Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse (cf. Mk. 13 and Matt. 24). He has already recorded Jesus’ teachings about in Luke 17:20-37 along with some eschatological remarks in Luke 19, but here is where a fuller development of Jesus’ eschatology takes place. Again, I remind the reader that my purpose is to try to present the salient teachings of Jesus having to do with the covenants as they are given in each Gospel, particularly in Matthew and Luke. I therefore intend to first comment on Luke 21 as if it were our lone sampling of this discourse. In another chapter I shall attempt to pull it all together.
The prelude to the discourse is the disciple’s observation in Luke 21:5 about the grandeur of the Temple complex and Jesus’ retort that it would all be cast down (a prediction of A. D. 70). This elicits a question from the disciples: ““Teacher, but when will these things be? And what sign will there be when these things are about to take place?” (Lk. 21:7).1 What follows in reply goes well beyond A. D. 70. The Lord refers to “the end” (Lk. 21:9), and most of what He will say appears to concern that time. We see, for instance, the mention of those who come in Jesus’ name, posing as Christ (Lk. 21:8). Accompanying these false Christs will be “fearful sights and great signs from heaven” (Lk. 21:11), which are quite beyond the purview of the first century, although commentators have tried to link Jesus’ words with apocalyptic language to make it fit A. D. 70.2 This looks like an attempt to straddle the discourse with a genre that will make it relate to the Fall of Jerusalem, but the cosmic signs, if taken as real, point to the events preceding the second coming.
When one analyzes the verses, I think it is important to put oneself into the situation of the disciples and not into some imagined scenario wherein the Gospel writers are presupposing the tragic events which occurred forty years after these words were uttered.
Let us begin with verse 11:
And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. (Luke 21:11)
What sort of “fearful sights and great signs from heaven” are being referred to? The preposition indicates that the signs (plural) are not mere atmospheric anomalies, but rather that they are heaven-sent. If this is so then “great earthquakes…famines and pestilences” as well as the “fearful sights” or “things that strike terror” (phobētron), call to mind other prophetic oracles.3 One obvious passage is in Revelation 6, where all of these phenomena are reported (Rev. 6:8, 12-14). That chapter was written long after A.D. 70 and concerns things to come. Another passage that Luke 21:11 calls to mind is Joel 2:30-31:
And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
Blood and fire and pillars of smoke.
The sun shall be turned into darkness,
And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD.
Luke cites Peter using this passage in Acts 2, and I shall have something to say when we arrive there. But as they stand Joel’s words are predictive of what we call the second advent of Christ, complete with manifestations reminiscent of Luke 21:11. I agree with Vlach that what we have in Luke 21:8-11 come after the events of Luke 21:12-12-19, hence, “But before all these things” (Lk. 21:12) refers to 21:8-11.4 The “signs” are signs of the end (21:9), not “apocalyptic” descriptions of the destruction of Titus’s armies.
The Days of Vengeance
To my mind, Luke 21:12-19 can be placed in the first century. But what about the prediction of Jerusalem being surrounded by armies? Surely one must conclude that this is a reference to A.D. 70? I am not so sure. We must give it room to breathe. The desolation of Jerusalem was written about by the Prophets. Zechariah 12:2 says,
Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem.
Yahweh has promised to protect Jerusalem when this occurs (Zech. 12:7-9), although it will be far from unscathed (Zech. 14:2-3). Now the thing about Luke 21:20 is that it is set within a context that leads the thoughts in a certain direction. Here are the verses:
Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:21-24)
Apart from the resemblance of verses 21 and 23 to Matthew 24:16-19 and Mark 13:14-18, which shall be explored in their place, what Luke has left us is a deliberate route back to Isaiah and his prophecies of God’s vengeance in Isaiah 34:8, 61:2, and 63:4. Those prophecies do not concern 1stcentury. They are final, describing God’s judgment upon the nations of the world and their armies “in recompense for the cause of Zion” (Isa. 34:8). The context is worth studying.
The call is for all the earth to hear the doom of Yahweh; in fact “the world and all things that come from it.” (Isa. 34:1). It is almost as though the revulsion of God with everything that despoils the earth has come to its boiling point. This is the decisive “day of Yahweh’s vengeance.” (Isa. 34:8). It is concentrated upon Edom and Bozrah, which comprises modern day Jordan. Which in turn reminds us of another “vengeance passage” in Isaiah 63:
Who is this who comes from Edom, With dyed garments from Bozrah, This One who is glorious in His apparel, Traveling in the greatness of His strength?– “I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.”
Why is Your apparel red, And Your garments like one who treads in the winepress?
‘I have trodden the winepress alone, And from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, And trampled them in My fury; Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, And I have stained all My robes.
For the day of vengeance is in My heart, And the year of My redeemed has come.
I looked, but there was no one to help, And I wondered That there was no one to uphold; Therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; And My own fury, it sustained Me.
I have trodden down the peoples in My anger, Made them drunk in My fury, And brought down their strength to the earth.” (Isaiah 63:1-6)
Here again we find Edom and Bozrah mentioned. Now the Avenger is depicted as traveling from there to help His people (“My redeemed” in verse 4). There is also an unmistakable similarity with Revelation 14:19-20 and 19:15. The challenge is to rightly interpret the Isaianic passages. From what has been assembled so far it looks like these “vengeance passages” to which Luke is calling our attention are about the second coming. There is one more passage to look at:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
If you think some of this looks familiar you are right. The first part of this oracle was read out by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue (Lk. 4:17-21). Everyone notices that the Lord suddenly cuts off the quotation at Isaiah 61:2a and “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Lk. 4:19). He does not proceed to the next phrase which is, “And the day of vengeance of our God.” The reason is quite obvious; that part of the prophecy was not fulfilled at Christ’s first coming: it is a second coming prediction. One should notice the consolation of Zion in the context (Isa. 61:3a), which matches Isaiah 34:8 and 63:7 (“the great goodness toward the house of Israel”). The case is strong. Jesus in Luke 21:22 is referring to His second advent, not A.D. 70!
1 Stein has said that the whole understanding of the passage depends on how this verse is interpreted. – Robert H. Stein, “Jesus, The Destruction Of Jerusalem, And The Coming Of The Son Of Man In Luke 21:5-38,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 16:3 (Fall 2012), 19. I understand but respectfully disagree. The key verse is Luke 21:22. Stein does not explain how the cosmic signs of verse 11 concern the fate of Jerusalem in A. D. 66 – 70.
2 Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 765.
3 Many have tied Luke 21 with Jeremiah’s Temple sermon in Jeremiah 4, but aside from the uncreation narrative in Jer. 4:23-24 there is not much from the prophet to interpret Luke.
4 Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God, Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2017, 389.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.