Advent is once more upon us (pun intended!), and with it comes two sets of confusion:
- the idea that Advent is the anticipation of Christmas (when it is really about looking forward to Jesus’ return and The End);
- and the notion that the set passages in the lectionary are all about Jesus’ return.
As we are about to enter Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, then we turn to the Gospel of Luke and its distinct focus. (If you need the lectionary for your electronic calendar, the best place to go is Simon Kershaw’s offering at Oremus. You can specify exactly which parts of the lectionary information you want in your calendar, and choose the appropriate format.)
I have previously argued (agreeing with G B Caird and R T France, who influenced Tom Wright) that in the parallel account in Matt 24 (and Mark 13), the section read in the lectionary which is commonly taken to refer to Jesus’ return is actually about the Ascension and the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, which we read about in Acts. The key elements of the argument are:
- the ‘technical’ language of parousia (used repeatedly by Paul in e.g. 1 Cor 15.23, 1 Thess 2.19) occurs in the second half of Matt 24 (Matt 24.37, 39) but is absent in the first half, except in Matt 24.27 when Jesus says all that is happening is not sign of his coming;
- English translations confuse this, by using the same wording (‘coming’) to translate both this word and the quite different present participle erchomenos;
- the language of the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ in Matt 24.30 is a direct allusion to Dan 7.13, which refers to the Son of Man coming from the earth to the throne of the Ancient of Days. Matthew conflates it with a reference to Zech 12.10, which talks of the Spirit being poured out on the House of David, and all the tribes of Israel seeing the one they have pierced—used in reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and then the events of Pentecost;
- the main stumbling block for the ‘traditional’ reading comes in Matt 24.34–35:
Amen I say to you: this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
- Despite some attempts at fancy footwork, the term ‘generation’ does refer to those listening to Jesus, so Jesus emphatically states that all these events will happen within the next 30 to 40 years. If you do not think that ‘these things’ relate to the fall of Jerusalem, the Ascension, and the preaching of the gospel including the gentile mission, then the only coherent thing to do is (with Albert Schweitzer and others) believe that Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic prophet, and that the early Jesus movement was constantly concerned with managing its disappointed apocalyptic hope.
I think the strongest argument against this reading is that the events in Matt 24.4–35 don’t come in the right order, in that if the language of the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ refers to Jesus’ ascension, why doesn’t this come in the narrative ahead of what almost everyone agrees are events associated with the fall of Jerusalem? In response to this, I would note that the presenting question is about Jerusalem and its fate, and this is what Jesus addresses first. And the whole discourse deals with themes rather than chronology; Jesus talks of the events that are to come, drawing on language from Daniel to connect it with God’s purposes, and the suffering that will be involved—but only then turns to the source of hope and the reason why the disciples should stand firm. It is quite characteristic of both Mark and Matthew to organise their record of Jesus’ teaching thematically.
With all that in mind, let us turn to the Lukan parallel to Matt 24, and in particular Luke 21.25–36 which is the lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent in Year C. Matthew and Mark run quite closely in parallel, at least until Matt 24.36, when Matthew includes Jesus’ extended teaching about the parousia but Mark’s account finishes quite abruptly. But Luke’s record is quite distinct here, not least in setting the teaching in the city of Jerusalem itself (so that others can hear, and not just the disciples) rather than on the Mount of Olives. Let’s look at the relevant sections side by side (this is a photo of the page from Throckmorton, the standard English synopsis of the first three gospels):
You can see immediately that, even in this short section, Matthew and Mark agree closely, whilst Luke is looking quite different at several points. There are two main trends in Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching here.
The first is the downplaying of the cosmic and ‘eschatological’ language of the discourse in several different ways.
- The language of sun, moon and stars loses its particular details (darkening, not giving its light, and falling) which comes from the source in Is 13.10 and Is 34.4. Instead, Luke postpones this detail to Peter’s Pentecost speech, where he cites similar language from Joel 2.28–32.
- Matthew’s citation of Zech 12.10, and the language of ‘gathering the elect’ from both Matthew and Mark are omitted.
- Several parts of the Matthew/Mark account are relocated earlier in Luke: Matthew’s reference to the coming of the Son of Man as lightning and the parallel with the ‘days of Noah’ are found in Luke 17; and the later ‘Parable of the Talents’ (highly abbreviated in Mark) becomes the Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19. Some other sayings gathered into this section by Matthew are found in Luke 12. (This is similar to the way that Matthew has gathered teaching of Jesus into the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7 which is found in other places in Mark and Luke.)
But the second, complementary, trend in Luke is the much more explicit association of these events with the fall of Jerusalem. As elsewhere in his gospel, Luke ‘translates’ Jewish apocalyptic ideas and language into more prosaic terms in order to make it understandable to a wider, non-Jewish audience.
- Luke replaces the rather oblique reference to Daniel in the phrase ‘desolating sacrilege’ (or ‘abomination of desolation’) in Matt 24.15 and Mark 13.14 with the much more mundane ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies…’ in Luke 21.20, just before the lectionary passage that we have (which shows why chunking the text into lectionary bites is not always very helpful).
- This connects the teaching here with the earlier, uniquely Lukan, passage Luke 19.39–44 where Jesus weeps over the city because ‘the days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ Notice here the quite explicit references to the Roman siege of the city (‘build up an embankment’) and the anticipation of the question about stones that then comes in Luke 21.5 and parallels.
- The language of the ‘roaring of the sea and the waves’ draws on the apocalyptic imagery of the sea as the peoples of the world from which four beastly empires emerge in Dan 7 and the Roman Empire as the beast from the sea arises in Rev 13.1. In fact, there are numerous surprising links between Luke and Revelation, including Luke’s unique addition of ‘patient endurance’ in the parable of the soils at Luke 8.15 connecting with John’s participation in ‘suffering, kingdom and patient endurance’ in Rev 1.9. In our passage, the language of ‘falling by the sword and going to prison’ in Luke 21.24 connects with the language of sword and captivity in Rev 13.10, and the ‘trampling by the Gentiles’ in the same verse connects with the image of the temple being trampled in Rev 11.2. In both cases, there is a clear focus on contemporary cultural reality, rather than the distant future.
- Luke’s unique addition in Luke 21.28 and the further section of encouragement in Luke 21.34–36 connect the events quite specifically to the trials that Jesus’ own disciples will face.
I think it is this kind of shift which explains why Conzelmann saw Luke as displacing eschatological expectation with his own perspective of ‘salvation history’, in which God’s purposes are worked out and made manifest through the Gentile mission rather than in waiting for the eschaton. I think this is actually a false dichotomy, but it does reflect Luke’s unique emphasis on ‘salvation’ as something that comes in the present, and not merely in the future. (On this, see Mark Allan Powell’s very helpful study of salvation in Luke-Acts here.)
Commentators deal with this all in a variety of ways. Howard Marshall in his NIGTC p 780 explores all the ways in which ‘this generation’ has been understood, and opts for a reading that gives certainty that the events of the end ‘have begun’ but are not time limited. (It is worth noting that Marshall explicitly rejects France’s reading of the parallel passage in Matt on p 776—but he does so on the basis that ‘France applies the parousia language to the fall of Jerusalem’. The centre of France’s argument is that the parousia language is actually absent!) But as Tannehill (Abingdon) points out (p 308), the whole point of Jesus’ saying that the generation ‘will not pass away’ is that it offers a temporal perspective, and stripping it of its temporal significance renders the statement meaningless. Interestingly, Joel Green (in his very good NIC, and with whom I hesitate to disagree!) sees a switch to the eschatological perspective from the historical at verse 25, but Mikeal Parsons (Paideia, p 303) notes that the flow of the text here is ‘seamless’, though drawing more on cosmological images. Parsons then goes on to note something significant: that, in keeping with the consistent and distinctive emphasis in Luke on promise and fulfilment, this passage with its predictions of difficulties for the followers of Jesus is actually fulfilled in a range of elements of the narrative in Acts:
What does all this mean for preaching this passage on Sunday morning?
First, we need to take it seriously in its historical context, noting that Luke is writing to his first audience, and being careful to hear what God might be saying to us through what Luke wrote to his first audience.
Secondly, we need to ensure that we read this passage within the context of the whole of Luke-Acts, so that we see the connections Luke makes between the events of the fall of Jerusalem, Pentecost, and the gentile mission. The significance of the fall of Jerusalem, the suffering the comes, and the scattering of the (Jewish) followers of Jesus is bound up with the breaking out of God’s grace in Jesus to gentile as well as Jew—it is the reason that most of you (who I suspect are not Jewish) are reading this at all!
Thirdly, we need to note that, for Luke, the End was not simply something future (though it is that); rather, the ‘end days’ have already commenced with Jesus’ Ascension, the fall of Jerusalem, and Pentecost. God’s covenant grace has now been broken open to include gentiles within the ‘Israel of God’.
Fourthly, because of all this, the troubles that Jesus’ followers experienced throughout Acts are troubles that we ourselves might well encounter. Like them, we are to ‘hold our heads up’ and not be dismayed, since this Jesus is Lord, and he will return.
As we approach Advent, how do we make sense of the language in the New Testament about the ‘end of the world’? Why is it pastorally important to get this right? Is all the language about ‘rapture’, ’tribulation’ and ‘millennium’ helpful—or a distracting fiction?
Come and find out at Ian Paul’s Zoom teaching morning on Saturday 4th December: