Is Luke 21.25-36 about the Second Coming?

Advent is once more upon us, 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:

  1. 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;
  2. English translations confuse this, by using the same wording (‘coming’) to translate both this word and the quite different present participle erchomenos;
  3. 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;
  4. 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, which is the lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent. 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’ elements 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.

  • 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.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Is Luke 21.25-36 about the Second Coming?”

  1. I do agree, Ian, and have taken the same view in my notes on this passage which will appear in BRF Guidelines next year. It’s worth adding that, in a neglected essay, C. H. Dodd showed that the shift of language from Mark/Matthew to Luke reflects OT passages about the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, notably from the prophets, as well as the end of 2 Kings. The essay is: Dodd, C. H. “The Fall of Jerusalem and the ‘Abomination of Desolation’.” Pages 69-83 in his _More New Testament Studies_. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968.

  2. Thanks for this. I follow a blog called “History for Atheists” which is written by an atheist but wants ot show the Jesus was a historical figure, but only a historical figure. Its very good, as far as it goes, but then falls down as his own position (following Ehrman) is that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and that he got that wrong. This will help in trying to coherently present a different view there. If anyone knows of other material that may help (e.g. taking on Ehrman’s views on Jesus as failed apocalyptic preacher), then I’d be glad of any links.

    • I argued with Tim O’Neill of that website regarding the ‘coming’ of Jesus not always referring to His return, I think I referenced one of Peter’ s letters which I believed referred to the the Transfiguration rather than His second coming. Though having read Ian Paul’s comments it may in fact refer to the Ascension. Ill have to reread it. But O’Neill dismissed my comments as nonsense Christian apologetics. So good luck!

        • I agree but let’s face it it is very understandable why people down through the centuries have understood it as His return, hence the ongoing debate. I tend to take a partial preterist view, but many don’t.

        • Hi Ian, Ive read your excellent book on Revelation but just wondered if you believed the prophecies of John should be understood literally in any sense? For example, you say that ‘Babylon’ is likely the city of Rome (I agree) and John describes its (and probably the the Roman Empire in general) fall. I appreciate his words probably apply to any ’empire’ that works against God, but do you see his words literally fulfilled in the fall of the Roman Empire by the 4th century? Or is John simply saying all such man-made empires will fall.

          Do you understood anything in Revelation to be literally true in the future (our future not John’s which is now our past) apart from the renewed heaven and earth, eg the mark of the Beast, whereby one cannot buy or sell anything – was that just true of Rome, or could it be literally fulfilled in for example at some point in the future whereby we all must have underskin chips! (this is already being trialled).

          Id be interested in your thoughts.

          • We might need a conversation over coffee! Not least because it depends on what you mean by ‘literally true’. Yes, John was literally on Patmos, and I think it was literally the Lord’s day. But all the language is symbolic, as much theological language is.

            What is interesting about the fall of Rome is that John appears to nest his historic symbolisation within a cosmic framework. The fact that he did in fact anticipate the end of Rome within history is testified to by the embarrassment that the church felt about this text after the Constantinian settlement——though I think John would argue that a Christianised Rome is a different Rome from the pagan Rome (or perhaps not!).

            Nevertheless, all human empires fall within history because they rely on the devilish power of absolute totalitarian claims and this devilish power will one day be ended.

      • Thansk PC1. I find that those sorts of sites ask me to sharpen my thinking, even if it is then summarily dismissed as nonsense. Its fun, and as long as not taken to heart, an entertaining wee diversion.

  3. A few other factors to consider:

    -As nioted, Luke has 2 apocalyptic-discourse passages unlike the other 2 (so his message is split between the 2 of them), but this could be another sign of his difficulty in ordering his material from 2 (sometimes 3) sources coherently while being oneself independent-minded (more so than Matt) – it is indeed a virtually impossible task. And these difficulties in ordering his material is directly connected to his possible failure to order his actual thought on eschatology.

    -We should not underestimate the difficulty of writing on the basis of Mark and yet aiming to produce a new coherent whole. The 2 aspects of this work against one another, in the work of Matt and Luke. If ever we find Matt or Luke seeming incoherent or evincing discontinuities then this ought not to surprise us, given the impossibility of reproducing Mark in large part and still being expected to produce a coherent whole of their own. (Narrative readings like Tannehill, and readings which downplay redaction criticism like Green, may not bring this out sufficiently.)

    -If Luke writes of things like ‘one of the days of the Son of Man’ (and ‘take up his cross daily’ etc etc) we have (as has long been noticed) passed beyond the time where there is a single crisp apocalyptic scenario as in Mark, into an era (late 70s) where it is seen that even the fall of Jerusalem was just one episode among many and the overall picture is complex, probably becasuse the author himself finds a clear or simple eschatology hard to discern or enunciate even if he wished to do so.

    -He has become used to sequences with no obvious connection between successive episodes, e.g. in the journey sequence.

    To summarise: any puzzling continuity in thought or sequence is all the fault of the unenviable procedure which has been thrust upon him by his mandate to combine more than one source together with his own contributions.

  4. Fascinating, Ian, and really helpful, thank you; I have muddled through these passages many times.
    I just checked and according to WE Vine ‘erchomai’ can denote either to come or to go which would be a perfect match with the Ascension.
    In terms of Luke having a different focus or choice of terms in his recorded discourse, Marshall also remarks that this could have been because Jesus spoke of the same events at different times and in different places and Luke had access to another source. This would fit with Luke recording Jesus’s words differently elsewhere such as ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew); ‘blessed are you poor’ (Luke). Most of us repeat sermons or teaching and use different phrasing each time to convey the same teaching. Would you consider this a possibility?

    PS If I reply to a reply I end up receiving everyone’s subsequent comments from the whole thread; is this a muddle in the coding algorithm?

    • Quite right on ‘erchomai’, and this is well known across NT usage. It is odd that people get hooked up on it here!

      Yes, Luke has distinct sources (presumably from his research with eye witnesses) and does have some distinct perspectives compared with Matthew and Mark.

      There might be a muddle; you could probably resolve it by choosing ‘no do not subscribe’…?

  5. I wish there were an English word that corresponded one-to-one with erchomai. ‘Travel’ or ‘move’? One could go to literal interlinears or to Young’s literal but translation like bellringing is an art that can drive the unwary or the perfectionist to distraction – better by far to learn the original languages. Of course, even the original languages do not communicate perfectly the realities they are intending to convey….

  6. Hi Ian. Do you think Luke and the other evangelists portray the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as an act of God’s judgement—even God’s judgement through Jesus and on behalf of Jesus’ people (Luke 21:22)? If so, this seems like a major element of Jesus’ ministry that is not at all addressed at the lay level. Many tend to think Jesus put an end to that kind of historical (and seemingly indiscriminate) divine judgement. How should pastors talk to people about this?

    • Yes I think he does (as does Paul). How should pastors talk about this? Carefully! And in the wider context of judgement in scripture and in Jesus’ teaching. From most popular conversation, you’d think Jesus never even mentioned the ‘outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth’!

      The big question is: does God treat us as responsible adults, whose actions have consequences?

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