Luke 21.5->. Yesterday or tomorrow?

Some people were talking about the Temple and the fine stones and votive offerings with which it was adorned.

He said, “These things which you are gazing at — The time will come when not one stone of them will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

“Master,” they said, “when will it all come about? What will be the sign when it is due to happen?”

He said, “Take care that you are not misled. For many will come claiming my name and saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The Day is upon us.’ Do not follow them.

“And when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not fall into a panic. These things are bound to happen first, but the end does not follow immediately. Nation will make war upon nation, kingdom upon kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and famines and plagues in many places; in the sky terrors and great portents.

“But before all this happens they will set upon you and persecute you. You will be brought before synagogues and put in prison; you will be haled before kings and governors for your allegiance to me. This will be your opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to prepare your defense beforehand, because I myself will give you power of utterance and a wisdom which no opponent will be able to resist or refute. Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you. Some of you will be put to death, and you will be hated by all for your allegiance to me. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By standing firm you will win true life for yourselves.

“But when you see Jerusalem encircled by armies, then you may be sure that her destruction is near. Then those who are in Judea must take to the hills; those who are in the city itself must leave it; and those who are in the country must not enter — because this is a time of retribution, when all that stands written is to be fulfilled.

“Alas for women who are with child in those days, or have children at the breast. For there will be great distress in the land and a terrible judgment upon this people. They will fall at the sword’s point; they will be carried captive into all countries; and Jerusalem will be trampled down by foreigners until their day has run its course.

“Portents will appear in Sun, Moon, and stars. On Earth, nations will stand helpless, not knowing which way to turn from the roar and surge of the sea. Men will faint with terror at the thought of all that is coming upon the world; for the celestial powers will be shaken.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory. When all this begins to happen, stand upright and hold your heads high, because your liberation is near.”

He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree, or any other tree. As soon as it buds, you can see for yourselves that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this happening, you may be sure that the reign of God is near.

“I tell you this: The present generation will live to see it all. Heaven and Earth will pass away; my words will never pass away.

“Keep a watch on yourselves; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation and worldly cares, so the great Day closes upon you suddenly like a trap; for that day will come on all people, wherever they are, the whole world over. Be on the alert, praying for strength to pass safely through these imminent troubles and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man.”

His days were given to teaching in the Temple; and then he would leave the city and spend the night on the hill called ‘Olivet’. And in the early morning, people flocked to hear him in the Temple.


5 responses

  1. Okay, this is a gnarly one. It’s in all the synoptic gospels, with slight variations. NT Wright makes a pretty good case that Jesus is saying: “When you see Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed, that will be my vindication.” And is not talking about “the end of the space-time universe.”

    Written after the Temple was destroyed? (70 CE) Well, no, any such report should show a more journalistic sort of accuracy. The Romans who destroy the Temple, for example, leave one wall standing to show how strong a fortress they’d overcome. “Not one stone on another” is the gist, for all practical purposes — What can you do with one outer wall? And an altar where a pig (not kosher) has been sacrificed to Jupiter?

    Josephus mentions an assortment of false prophets and failed Messiahs gaining momentary fame in the years before war with Rome finally breaks out; the Romans respond violently to all of them and slaughter their followers.

    But waiting until Jerusalem was literally ‘surrounded by armies’ would not have been a good idea; while literally fleeing ‘to the hills’ then, as the Maccabees had once done, would have sent a would-be refugee directly to the Roman camps there. What we have is probably not a detailed prophecy written down at the time, but a well-confirmed oral tradition that Jesus did, in fact, prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem within the lifetime of his audience — as understood and subsequently remembered by his audience.

    Subsequent church legend is that the Jerusalem church, warned by a dream, fled to Pella barely ahead of the oncoming Roman armies. As this tradition would have prepared them to do.

    The sheer magnitude of the language — is appropriate to the scale of the event, what it would have meant to all First Century Jews, the first ‘Christians’ included. In Mark it’s described as “the end of the Age.” In Daniel, the Son of Man comes, on the clouds — to God, not the Earth, to be given his rightful power, to establish the final, lasting world kingdom…
    — — — — — — —

    Interspersed in all this are details that have convinced many readers, throughout subsequent history, to expect the imminent arrival of Jesus, justifiably angry, to enact what Walter Wink called ‘redemptive violence’ on everybody not “awake” and prepared for this event.

    All of these readers, at least so far, have proven ‘wrong’ about the date. Does this mean the whole idea is a mistake? That the destruction of the Temple, the slaughter and enslavement of Jerusalem, the devastation of 1st Century Judea — was all we’re supposed to conclude from these passages?

    Maybe we need to “draw a lesson from the fig tree.” If our civilization shows signs of being karmically ripe for destruction: Hypocrites in power, widespread desecrations, violence, cruelties and heedless atrocities — then we should be prepared to see it pass away, and soon. Any ‘fleeing’ involved must necessarily be symbolic; that is, there doesn’t seem to be any refuge available beyond trust in God.

    The Gospel of Thomas has it that “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the Earth, but men do not see it.” So, what does it mean to live there?

    1. I was reading about the destruction of Jerusalem this morning as part of my own study. Given that Josephus was working directly for Titus, we have to take his assertions about TItus with a grain of salt, but from what he wrote, Titus seemed fairly magnanimous and practical about the Jews who would surrender or dessert to him up to a point. So even at the point where Jerusalem was surrounded, some of those who escaped the city (and the rebels who would kill desserters) were permitted by the Romans to leave.

      It was very compelling reading. The description of the burning of the temple the discovery of houses full of the dead who died in the famine the seige brought on and the sheer number of dead, those who were sold into slavery, and those who were fed into the arenas is harrowing.

      1. Wright’s point was that “flee to the hills” here sounds more like a backwards allusion to the Maccabee revolt than a backwards description of the best escape routes out of Jerusalem. As an element of a orally-transmitted prophecy, again, part of an impression of general danger and chaos; the best ‘how to respond’ dictum would be to leave rapidly before things had reached that point. Which was evidently what the church leaders did.

  2. The “Little Apocalypse” has always intrigued me. In the book I’ve been writing that re-reads the gospel, which started out as a book about earth stewardship and has remained close to ecological concerns even as it discovers the “economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God, I devote a whole chapter to apocalypse. I have always wondered why Christian apocalypticists focus so much on Revelation when they have Jesus to parse (well, okay, I know why: because the imagery is so compelling and it offers believers a role in a cosmic drama that gives meaning to one’s life, if you believe it’s going to happen in your own lifetime. Jesus seems to offer only suffering).

    But back to apocalypticism—of any sort. Apocalyptics have, in the long history of apocalyptic movements going back to third Isaiah, almost always been right about the dynamics of the fall of empire, of the world order, and always, always wrong about the timing. Empires fall, the world order crumbles catastophically, and for the reasons that the prophets declare, but not on their timeline and not in the ways they foretold. Except for Jesus.

    I think contemporary Christian apocalyticism is one of the most dangerous cultural forces in our world today. When you believe that God is going to destroy the world as one of God’s last saving acts, it hardly makes you feel like saving the local ecosystem. In fact, to go a bit Jungian for a moment, I fear that these people suffer from a collectively unconscious desire to invoke God’s salvation at the Endtimes by destroying the ecosystems of the world, like a neglected teenager acting out through a half-hearted attempt at suicide as a way to get the Father’s attention.

    Then there’s the problem that we really are heading for apocalypse. That, as ecosystems fail around the world, the victims will look for a narrative that gives their suffering meaning, and Christian apocalypticism is really good at that. (Though we’re not alone. The genocide in Darfur is arguably the first genocide triggered by global warming.) Ask the koolaid drinkers at Jonestown or the Branch Davidians who self-immolated. Or ask Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt, who sold off millions of acres of national forest to loggers because they were all going to be burned up in the immanent Second Coming anyway.

    At the very least, apocalyptics will do nothing to stop ecocide if the signs seem right—and they always seem right. As bioregions in North America inevitably succumb to eco-collapse, as they already are in the midwest and far west with this drought, American evangelical apocalypticists will be increasingly inclined to interpret their own suffering as Signs of the Endtimes and act accordingly. Or, more insidiously, the broader American public will catch their fever, pick up the meme, and begin to ramp up their already rather bizarre rejection of real science for biblical revelation and look for apocalyptic roles to play and narratives that give their suffering meaning.

    But this always takes more time than the apocalyptics expect. It takes a while for a bioregion, let alone a planet to die. And even then—witness the biogregion around Chernobyl—things go on, saturated with poison, living out the time bomb of genetic damage over the long generations. Let’s all hope that the cooling pond at reactor #4 at Toshiba doesn’t crack open catastrophically, as many scientists now fear. We’ll have a global mini-Chernobyl and who knows how many generations it will take for all those mutations to play themselves out. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is in apparent total denial. Does Shinto have an apocalyptic strain?

    1. Interestingly, in Revelation it’s the “destroyers of the Earth” who get thumped the hardest when the Good Guys win the game. What people “like” or “dislike” in this anthology doesn’t seem to have much to do at all with what’s actually in there, as much as what they’ve been told it means.

      An “apocalyptic” person should [technically] mean somebody eager to see the stage crew at work, not someone looking forward to watching the theater burn down! Because the meaning of the word is closer to ‘revelation’ than to ‘destruction’!

      The truly apocalyptic sense — that the Earth has gotten too heavy with iniquity and suffering, that something new needs to be born or we must rip apart… is not the kind of nihilism you’re really complaining about (which we’re as likely to find in rich sociopaths as in the indignant poor.)

      Jesus was not able to satisfy the zealots of his day, either.

      Yeah, the signs of the times look likely to flatline; and meanwhile we go on ‘marrying and giving in marriage as in the days of Noah.’

      Me, I’m ‘voting’ for a mass wakeup, & soon! But all I’ve been Given to understand is the need to trust God’s intention, no matter how bumpy this looks.

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