Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Luke 21:5-38

We need to take seriously that all of Christianity is based historically, and the basis of Christianity is not our period in history, but that of Jesus.

This is so obviously important when it comes to a passage like this in Luke 21. Too often, modern readers read a passage like this purely in reference to themselves and an anticipated "second coming of Jesus." Now, the New Testament does talk about Jesus coming again, very clearly. But we so often become self-centered and read this chapter purely in reference to our own time, to our own expectations, to our own anticipation of how soon Jesus might come back for us. We completely miss the point, and it has hurt our churches. So much.

While deeply committed Christians may read the Bible, even they rarely get to know the history of the first century. Some will know a little bit about the fact that the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, but even that tidbit doesn't help them read their Bibles better. Instead, they go on reading as though every word was written for their self-focus.

Fact is, it is of tremendous value to read the Bible, and I believe with all my heart that God speaks through its words. But we have to add a step. Like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip when he was telling Charlie Brown how he felt guilty going to Vacation Bible School where they were studying the letters of Paul, we are "reading other people's mail." That's exactly what we are doing, and we need to take that seriously.

The original audience for Luke's gospel was a man named Theophilus, most likely a Roman official who had become a Christian. Beyond that, Luke rapidly came to circulate within the Christian communities of the first century. They at least could read it with some sense of its proper context.

We, however, take a chapter like this one and we read it from our own perspective, never thinking about the fact that Jesus' original hearers lived in a completely different frame of reference than we do. So we misunderstand a lot of what Jesus said because we read in this irresponsible way.

When we start to dig into the first century historical events Jesus was talking about -- and if you doubt that was Jesus' intent, you are ignoring verses 6-7 and verse 32 -- there is a lot to learn. Where can a person start? Here are a few recommendations:


  1. Get a good academic study Bible. Life Application Bibles and such are great, but if you want to dig deeper into what the Bible is really saying and learn a bit of the history, find a Bible that includes diagrams of Jerusalem, timelines of the period between the Testaments, and talks about which Roman emperors were in power when the New Testament was being written.
  2. Read a few articles on an easy to understand source, even one like Wikipedia. Here are some ideas what might be most helpful to read about: 
    1. The Jewish War of 66-70
    2. Several Roman emperors including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. 
    3. Study up on "apocalyptic literature" and realize what exactly it is, and what it is trying to accomplish.
  3. A good historical atlas of the Bible is very helpful, whether online or in print. Often church libraries have one of these stuck back in a dusty corner somewhere. 
  4. Read up on Josephus, and then dabble in his histories a bit. Josephus was roughly contemporary of the Apostle Paul and wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and a fascinating autobiography that gives us tremendous insights into the world of the New Testament. 
How will this kind of study change your reading of the Bible? Let's start with Luke 21. What will we learn about this chapter?
  • Realize the context. Jesus and his disciples are speaking as they look at the temple, still under construction, being built out of massive limestone blocks. It was a huge project undertaken by Herod the Great who died in 4 BC, but the project continued on and was finished a few years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The project was designed to intimidate and inspire. The giant white blocks (a few from the platform are still visible at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but as Jesus predicted the temple itself was knocked down completely) gleamed and gave the Jewish people of Jesus' day a deep sense of national pride -- a national pride that eventually led to the revolts that precipitated the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. 
  • Everything Jesus described in this chapter happened in the generation after his crucifixion and resurrection. But what about verses 25-33?? Surely here Jesus is talking about his own second coming? Not so fast. Don't skip over verse 32! Jesus says he is talking about the generation of his hearers. What then, to do with the words about "the Son of Man coming on the clouds"? Here is where studying apocalyptic literature becomes helpful. While in our day we are tempted to read for some literal meaning, Jesus' contemporaries out of necessity became experts at shrouding their meanings in figurative religious language. So the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation in our Bible, along with other passages here and there, are full of apocalyptic imagery that is designed to hide its meaning from the enemies of God's people but to reveal basic truths and encourage God's faithful people. Jesus' words here are an apocalyptic way of speaking of the rise of Jesus' own followers and the spread of his message throughout the Roman world, not of some cosmic second coming. (Though, as stated earlier, the New Testament does in fact teach about Jesus' second coming -- just not right here.) 
  • Always, always in the New Testament when we read about these "end times" kinds of teachings, scripture points us clearly -- usually in the very next breath -- to pay attention to our own conduct. This passage is no exception, as Jesus brings his teaching home in verse 34-36. Watch yourselves. Stay awake. Pay attention. This is where Jesus calls us to focus. Don't get fascinated by end times speculation. Instead, do what Jesus clearly calls you to do. Meet together for worship. Pray. Steep yourself in scripture. Be kind to your neighbors. Bear witness to all God has done for you. Don't grow weary.