What does the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Luke 21 teach us?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for the Second Sunday before Advent in Year C) is Luke 21.5–19, this gospel’s version of what is often called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. 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.

Watch James and Ian discuss the passage and its application here:

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20 thoughts on “What does the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Luke 21 teach us?”

  1. Am I right in thinking that Luke’s Gospel was written *after* the Fall of Jerusalem? In other words, is the reference to prophetic events retrospective rather than predictive? I like to try to position the narrator’s own vantage point.

    That wouldn’t mean Jesus didn’t predict the catastrophic event, but the narrator in Luke is looking back on something that has already happened, so he sees the whole storyline, and is able to put the whole picture together with the benefit of (traumatic) hindsight?

    As we read the gospel accounts, we put ourselves in the position of the listeners, and the destruction still lies ahead, but did the actual authors observe it as an event in the past which they already knew had happened?

    (I like to try to get into the heads of the authors, because their vantage points may contribute to how they set out their accounts and what, where, and when they insert narrative.)

    Outwith that issue, in my 70th year, I have lived through all kinds of drama… the Cuban missile crisis… the six day war… 9/11 etc. And I’ve heard all manner of latter-day prophets attribute meaning and significance to events. Yet history meanders on. The founding of the state of Israel is seen by some as fulfilment of prophecy, and some read all manner of events as signs that we are in the very last chronological times. Personally, I suspect history will carry on winding its way through time for thousands of years.

    The Fall of Jerusalem was clearly dramatic, but any expectations that Jesus would return imminently turn out to be unfulfilled almost 2000 years later. Human life is short. We inhabit our own end times, and in our brief sojourns on Earth how much we should try to open our lives and our actions to the grace and love of God. For we shall soon die and return to dust.

    Yet, day by day, and year by year, God sends the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth… and the hearts of people and communities. ‘Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall’… but God’s kingdom never does.

    • Dates before or after are suggested probably in both cases influenced by theological considerations. For me the issue is simple. The discourse is resented as a prophecy. Jesus’ prophetic credentials and other credentials rest on this being a genuine prophecy in keeping with OT canonical prophecies.

      There is no suggestion from Luke that the destruction of Jerusalem has already happened when he writes. This is not ‘prophecy’ after the event – or is not presented as such. If it is prophecy after he event then Luke’s integrity is discredited.

      Now someone like Christopher Shell can seal with the more academic questions but for me the answer lies ultimately in my confidence in Luke. I simply cannot conceive of Luke as being deceitful. The message he presents militates against deceit. The tone throughout is one of honesty. Nor can I see him adopting a convention that is deceitful. He presents himself as a diligent collator and recorder of what Jesus said and did from eyewitnesses and reliable ‘ministers of the word’. He writes that Theophilus may be certain of what he has believed. The gospel rings with integrity the kind of integrity that says pretence is shameful.

      When all is said and done for the Christian the bible is its own witness as is the gospel. To put it another way for Christian hearts Luke and the rest of the Bible has the ring of truth.

      • I’m not saying Luke is being deceitful, John. My view: Jesus correctly prophesied that Jerusalem would fall. Luke correctly and honestly reported what people told him that Jesus had said. And if Luke actually was writing a few years after Jerusalem had fallen, why does that make him dishonest? He’s simply reporting a credible prophecy of Jesus, handed down to him by others. My interest is more about how Luke would feel – if he was aware of the shocking destruction – and how that fed into his narrative and where he placed it, and with what emphasis.

        Luke does not have to be a liar to report what people have told him.

        Alternatively, he compiled the first text before 70 AD, so neither he nor his readers would know about it yet.

        We – need – Ian!

        • But Susannah

          Would it not be dishonest for Luke to write his gospel and not refer to the fall of Jerusalem. It would be very strange if he could verify that Jesus’ prophecy had come true and failed to do so. When Jesus says ‘this generation will not pass away…’ it would seem appropriate for Luke to interject an editorial comment of verification. But no such comment is forthcoming.

          Furthermore if Luke is writing after the event we may expect more detail about the desolation than we are given.

          Its certainly a legitimate question to ask but the scholarly answer will at best be tentative and circumstantial (Okay Christopher, I hear you). That is why I rarely get too concerned about these questions. They have little ability to build us up in our faith.

          And speaking of faih, there may be some who come to faith through studying the dates of books, but they are likely to be few. This is where I repeat my earlier point faith is a response to the book itself. The book, as the living and powerful word of God, can generate and sustain faith through the Spirit. Christians will be ready to embrace a view that gives the book authority as the word of God while non-Christians will normally find ways to deflect that authority. This stands good for the whole of Scripture.

          • Thank you John,

            What you say is coherent, and leads me to think that Luke’s narrative may already have been assembled in some form, prior to 70 AD. That would explain lack of reference to the prophecy’s fulfilment. I hope I am understanding you correctly.

            As you say, the main thing is the narratives themselves; and what the authors were trying to tell their audience. Dating does interest me though, just to get my bearings.

  2. Thanks Ian lots of helpful material here. How do you interpret the various texts alluding to the coming of the Son of man in Luke?

    Both Luke and Matthew discuss the destruction of Jerusalem AD70 and the Coming of the Son of Man (the Second Coming). It does seem that Luke’s emphasis os more on the A D 70 destruction of Jerusalem while Matthew is concerned more with the end of the age (Matt 24). Luke has more of a gentile perpective and is less concerned with Israel in prophecy (no abomination).

    The disciples inquire only about the destruction of Jerusalem unlike in Matthew where they also inquire about his coming and the end of the age (Matt 24:3). Nor does Matthew mention Jerusalem’s end is near (v20). V24 places the events firmly in AD 70. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the gentiles until… There is no ‘abomination of desolation’ in Luke perhaps because in AD 70 there was no event that could justifiably be called this or perhaps because Luke is less concerned with the way AaD 70 fulfils OT prophecy about Israel and more concerned with the ability of the early disciples to survive this holocaust. The personal experience of the disciples up until the destruction of Jerusalem is closely described by Luke (vv11-19).

    The events up until v 32 all take place up until AD 70. The events will happen within a generation. However, it is possible ‘ this generation’ has a double reference a) the generation then living b) the unbelieving and perverse generation (9:41, 11:26). For that first generation the destruction of Jerusalem signals that the time of gentile world control still continues (v24). Israel will not rule ‘until’ that time is complete. However, alongside this summer is near… the kingdom is near.. redemption is near. Thus in the epistles the coming of the Lord is near. This is the perspective of faith whatever the ‘delay’. Gentile rule will end with the return of Messiah (to the Mt of Olives) when he will destroy his enemies, redeem ethnic Israel and set up his everlasting king at the centre of which will be the heavenly Jerusalem people and place.

    The ambiguous transition from AD 70 to the Second Coming is seen in the escalation of distress. In v25,26, 35. The distress is cosmic and affects all nations. It bears resemblance to those in Revelation who call upon the mountains to fall on them.

    The coming of the Son of Man should not be understood as AD 70 this is not a visible sign to the world (25, 26). The language of the coming of the Son of Man finds echoes elsewhere. In Daniel The Son of Man goes to the ancient of days to receive a kingdom. The Son of Man is both Christ and the redeemed Israel (Dan 7). This was fulfilled at Christ’s ascension. (Acts 7:55.56). He entered heaven in a cloud. However, the one they saw go into heaven they are told will return in the same way and so Christ says he will be seated at the right hand of God and come with the clouds of heaven.

    Its arrival destroys every other kingdom; not gradually but immediately. The picture is not of the triumph of the gospel but of the overthrow of the last gentile power and the establishment of Messiah and his people’s eternal rule (Dan 7:26,27)

    The Son of Man’s Coming in end of history glory is often referred to (Matt 24:27; Mk 8:38; Lk 18:8). The language used to describe the Coming of the Son of Man in Matt 24 is the same language used to describe the Second coming of Christ in other parts of the NT.

  3. Thank you and really helpful to have the distinctive elements of Luke made clear. Some of us have to preach on this passage within a Remembrance Day service – wars and rumours of war .. and where is God for us in our crises? Not dissimilar a situation, as you say, from the challenges for those living with and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple within it.
    What then becomes more difficult and tendentious is the question of God’s judgement, which I think is more pronounced in the way that Luke shapes his gospel, judgement on a city that did not see its kairos, did not recognise its visitation. How does this element reach across the intervening years to the present, if at all?
    If the people of Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus, would they really have been spared destruction? After all, Jesus was not exactly seen as a friend to Rome!
    Or is this more of a recapitulation of the Jeremiah theme around the first destruction 600 years before, to help make sense of what happened in AD 70?
    Susannah’s question about when Luke was written is also germane to any discussion; what did the first audience and readers already know?

    • As I point out in When the Towers Fall: A Prophecy of What Must Happen Soon, ‘rumours of war’ – the equivalent in Luke is ‘when you hear of wars and tumults’ – refers to the period when the Jews are exiled from their land, i.e. from AD 70 to 1948. The phrase ‘rumours of war’ is ingrained, but is meaningless when you think about it. What significance would rumours have? The Greek (ἀκοὰς Matt 24:6) means ‘report’, as in Matt 4:24, 14:1 etc. If the whole nation is at war, one doesn’t know merely by report that a war is going on, one knows because one is in the midst of it (as in AD 67-70). On the other hand, if you are a Jew in the Middle Ages living in England or Germany, you know that war is going on (i.e. the Muslim takeover, followed by the Crusades) only by report.

      Around the end of this period of exile ‘nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom’, referring (as should be obvious) to the first and second world wars. So we know that we are now well beyond that point in Jesus’s discourse.

      • “…referring (as should be obvious) to the first and second world wars”.

        It is not in the least obvious to me. Surely, “nation rising against a nation”, or “kingdom against kingdom” (note the singular in both cases) is just a description of any war. What is a war if it is not a nation rising against another.

        • If it were just any war, it would not be the unusual large-scale conflict implied both by the Lord’s choice of words and by his mentioning it at all. Wars are going on all the time, but he says that at a certain point, around the conclusion of the period when wars are heard of only by report, war will flare up on an international scale. It will be part of the birth pangs (by implication following a long period of gestation) leading up to the birth of the kingdom, but followed first by the yet more painful period of travail (still ahead of us).

          You should also note that Jesus is speaking to his disciples specifically as Jews. So he is talking about ‘reports of war’ in the land of Palestine, an abomination of desolation that will be seen in Jerusalem. By contrast, there will be earthquakes ‘in various places’, scil. not necessarily Palestine, and nation will rise against a nation, scil. Gentile nations, and kingdom against kingdom, scil. Gentile kingdoms (Judah was not a kingdom).

        • If you tap Stephen’s name David you will get a link to his you tube summarising his book. You will then understand the way he looks at the Book of Revelation.

    • Hi Peter,

      I think so. Having been given the last chance it seems the destruction of Jerusalem sealed Judah’s long delayed fate in line with that received by northern Israel in their exile in 722 BCE.

      Compare Jeremiah 3:6–11, Malachi 4:5–6, with Matthew 23:37–38.

    • Remind the people that God does not change and if he judged Jerusalem and Israel he will most certainly judge us. 2 Peter 3 or Jude might supply a way in.

  4. A helpful article. My only quibble would be with the statement that persecution arises indirectly, as a result of people responding to uncertainty and hardship by picking on minority groups. Nothing about the Kingdom of God threatening the established order, then?

  5. Jason

    Do you think that the kingdom of God in its present phase really threatens the established order. It’s a hard question to answer. It does at the level of the allegiance it demands and the values it espouses. Rulers have seen these and been threatened by them, hence the persecution. I suppose it is this you are referring to.

    But there is another sense in which Christ’s kingdom is inoffensive. My kingdom is not off this work else would my servants fight. It is not the aim of the kingdom to Christianise the world. The triumph of the kingdom awaits the end of history and the Second Coming. Hope you agree.

    • Hi John,

      Yes, I had in mind a quotation from Francis Legge, “The officials of the Roman Empire in time of persecution sought to force the Christians to sacrifice, not to any heathen gods, but to the Genius of the Emperor and the Fortune of the City of Rome; and at all times the Christians’ refusal was looked upon not as a religious but as a political offence…. Whatever rivalry the Christian Church had to face in its infancy, it had none to fear from the deities of Olympus” (from Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity).

      So, according to Legge, the offence of the Christians was political, even if the Christians did not intend to be political or adopt political methods. The question of the Lordship of Christ made the Gospel a threat to the existing political order. This makes sense to me. So if the Gospel does not threaten the status quo with its appeal to Christ’s lordship, then we are probably missing something.

      • Thanks Jason … that makes sense, as we become increasingly non-Christian as a company this dividing line of allegiance will become ever more sharp.

  6. Ian

    The disciples do not ask about the end of the age just the destruction of Jerusalem. There is no mention of an abomination of desolation which really was not present in AD 70. There is mention of tribulation but not ‘great tribulation’. Could this point to LK 21 have. Greater focus on the destruction of Jerusalem and Matt 24 giving greater attention to the end of history.


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