Signpost for Sunday 17 Nov 2013: Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Thess 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Whenever I open the gospel of Luke I can’t help but think of verses 1-4 first. Luke purports to be giving us an orderly account (RSV) of what had happened. But historians in the first century were not like the historians we read. Even Josephus can’t be read in the same way as A.J.P. Taylor (one of the 20th century’s greatest). They simply didn’t have the resources to draw from and they certainly didn’t take the same objective viewpoint we have come to expect.
Having said all of which, Luke is still more like history than Matthew and Mark, while John is the best writer of the lot – but certainly not an historian.
The point is that this week we have a passage that echoes quite a few others but is grounded in events of the time more than the others. Luke focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem, while Matthew (24:1-19) and Mark (13:1-17) focus on the end of the age. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Luke was writing, but quite a few modern scholars have suggested it was between 70 and 90AD. If that is the case, then Luke knew jolly well that the temple had been destroyed by Vespasian and his troops in 70AD.
21:20 becomes all the more powerful when we remember that Vespasian destroyed the city and the Temple after a five month siege when Jerusalem was full of Jewish pilgrims.
These days, people often look at 21:9-11 and get all excited because they see these ‘signs of the times’ in our own times. But even a conservative commentator like Dr Bob Utley (now retired from the Religion Department at East Texas Baptist University) says, “These are precursor signs that are observable in every age. They designate the kind of world we live in, not uniquely the world immediately before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”
And, of course, the main reason bad events seem so numerous today hasn’t necessarily got anything to do with what Jesus was talking about; it has a lot more to do with modern communications. We learned almost immediately about the disaster in the Philippines this week, for example. In ancient times we wouldn’t have found out about such things for months or even years, if ever.
And if we read on, we see that Luke 21:24 is a genuine grieving for the 1,100,000 that Josephus tells us were killed and the 97,000 that were taken prisoner (cf Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3). Like many ancient historians, Josephus often exaggerated his numbers, but apparently the terror and horror of this event is fairly accurate.