How does the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Luke 21 relate to us?

Sunday’s gospel lectionary reading (Second before Advent, Year C) is Luke 21.5–19. As usual, we need to read on to put this text in its context to understand both the text itself and how it compares with its parallels in Mark and Matthew.

The opening of the discourse, which stimulates the whole narrative, is the observation of the wonders of the temple, and Jesus’ response that ‘every stone will be thrown down’. In Mark and Matthew, the question comes from the disciples, and the following discourse takes place between Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Olives (so that this passage is often called the ‘Olivet Discourse’). But, as we have seen happen in Jesus’ travelling ‘on the road’ from Luke 9.51, Luke does not identify precisely Jesus’ audience, and does not distinguish between the crowds and the disciples. So it is ‘some’ who speak of the temple (verse 5), and the follow-up question is address to Jesus as ‘Teacher’ (verse 7), the characteristic form of address by those who are not disciples (the disciples call him ‘Lord’). Luke omits any reference to Jesus and the disciples sitting on the Mount of Olives, and the comment in Mark 13.3 and Matthew 24.3 that they discuss this ‘privately’.

Luke has relocated Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, which Matthews includes immediately before this episode, to an earlier point, Luke 13.34–35. The language of Jerusalem being ‘forsaken’ and ‘desolate’ (Matt 23.38) naturally links it with the mention here of the city’s ‘desolation’ (Luke 21.20), but its location earlier in Luke suggests (in line with John) that Jesus visited Jerusalem more than once. Luke also relocates the warning about premature claims that Jesus has returned to Luke 17.23–24; in its position in Matt 24.26–28 it runs the risk of confusing the reader, with its mention of the parousia of the Son of Man, when in the rest of this section it is not the parousia which is in view.

But, just as in Mark and Matthew, Luke includes at the end of this teaching Jesus’ stern words ‘Amen, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place’ (Luke 21.32). It is striking that Luke includes Jesus ipsissimum verbum in the ‘Amen’, just as Mark and Matthew do, despite writing primarily for a non-Jewish audience, indicating how important this point is. At other places he seems to omit references and comments that Jewish readers, or those familiar with the Old Testament, would appreciate.

  • Luke omits the Jewish eschatological language of the ‘birth pangs’ of the new age, the kingdom of God, breaking into this age (Matt 24.8, Mark 13.8).
  • There is no mention of testifying ‘to the Gentiles’ (Matt 24.24, also mentioned in the parallel in Matt 10.18) or being hated ‘by all Gentiles’ (Matt 24.9).
  • There is no mention of ‘false prophets’ (Matt 24.11), a concern echoing the history of Israel.
  • Where Matthew and Mark allude to the ‘abomination that brings desolation’ of Daniel 9.27, 11.31 and 12.11, Luke 21.20 makes a more prosaic allusion to the Roman armies besieged then destroying Jerusalem, something Jesus has already alluded to in Luke 19.43–44.
  • He omits the allusion to Zech 12 in Matt 24.30 that ‘all the tribes of the earth will mourn’.

All this confirms that the content of our reading is not about ‘distant end times’ but was going to be immediately relevant to Jesus’ audience in the period up to the fall of Jerusalem. If it has relevance to us, then it needs to be interpreted from this starting point.

If the order of events in Jesus’ teaching is slightly unclear in Mark and Matthew, Luke is careful to make the chronology clear. He alone describes the opposition and trouble that his followers will face as coming ‘before all this’, that is, before the fall of Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus’ teaching here offers a summary of what will happen as described by Luke in his second volume:

(from Mikeal Parsons, Paideia Commentary, p 301).

This connection makes clear its relevance to us: although we are living in a different chronological time, after the fall of Jerusalem rather than before, we are living in the same theological time, in the ‘end times’ prophesied by Joel (Acts 2.17f) in which the Spirit is poured out, but before ‘the end’ when Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is fully revealed. So if these things happen to and amongst Jesus followers in Acts, they will happen to us too.

So, what might we learn from these comments?

First, that we should not be unduly perturbed by what seems to us to be catastrophic political upheavals. The Jewish War and the destruction of the temple were absolutely catastrophic for the Jewish nation, and Jewish followers of Jesus most likely would have felt no less distressed about it. And yet Jesus is quite explicit: even such a catastrophic event does not shake or undermine the purposes of God.

Secondly, in uncertain times Jesus’ followers are bound to face opposition. When things are being shaken, people feel insecure, and they are quick to find scapegoats and make minority groups objects of vilification. We should not be surprised.

Thirdly, this is a time for testimony. It is a time to be rooted with confidence in the good news of Jesus, and to trust the Spirit of God that he will guide and direct us in speech and action.

Fourthly, this is a time to be rooted in the teaching of Jesus, and not to be blown off course by various teachings claiming to be from him, but in fact misleading us away from the gospel.

Fifthly, this will be a time of division, even division within households. After all, Jesus was clear that, in an important sense, he came to ‘bring division and a sword’.

Sixthly, the primary quality for Jesus’ followers is ‘endurance to the end.’ This is a consistent emphasis of both Luke’s gospel and the Book of Revelation. In the parable of the sower, Luke alone qualifies the nature of the fruitful soil as those who endure:

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and produce a crop in patience endurance (Gk hupomone) (Luke 8.15).

This quality of ‘patient endurance’ is the one that frames John’s testimony to his visionary experience in Rev 1.9:

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance (Gk hupomone) that are ours in Jesus…

We might be living in a different moment from those Jesus was speaking to in Jerusalem, but many of the lessons are ones we need to hold on to.

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7 thoughts on “How does the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Luke 21 relate to us?”

  1. Thank you, that’s really helpful. I’ll be speaking about courage and the things that stop us being courageous – “I’m so small”, “everything’s falling apart”, “I might not know what to say”, “people might not like it”…

    • Hmm. Luke calls Jesus the consolation of Israel, but Simeon himself warns that he will cause many to fall as well as rise, and many will oppose him. The proclamation of the kingdom starts with John’s warning about the wrath to come, namely the killing of two thirds of Judah’s population and the exile of the survivors (if I read Zech 13:8 aright) one generation later. There is much to justify the term ‘consolation’ when Jesus comes on the scene, but his prophetic ministry ends with a re-affirmation of John’s warning at the beginning (Luke 21:6 12-19). The rest of chapter 21 refers to the end of the age, still ahead of us.

  2. Has anyone suggested that the visits Jesus made to Jerusalem which John records, were made while the 12 and the 70 were out and about on their own undertaking their apostolic missions recorded in Luke 9 & 10?


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