Luke 21 – A Second First Look at the Second Coming

Luke 21 Bible with Green and Blacks Organic Milk Chocolate with Almonds

Today’s Chocolate: Green & Black’s Organic Milk Chocolate with Almonds

Today’s PassageLuke 21

Sometimes, even though you’ve read a passage before, you open it up again and find that you’re reading it as if for the first time. It must have been early 2001 when I had that experience with Matthew 24, the analog of today’s chapter in Luke, and Matthew 25, which comprises several parables about the last days. I seem to recall that I was in Georgia visiting relatives over spring break, and I was sitting in the back of the family Toyota Sienna reading the passage. But wherever I was, I had recently learned from some book of N.T. Wright’s about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, and I remember trying to sort out the passage, asking which of Jesus’ prophecies had already been fulfilled and which ones genuinely pertained to the Second Coming.

We find the same subject and much of the same material in Luke 21. As I read Jesus giving his disciples prophecy after prophecy about the catastrophes ahead, I found myself thinking, “You know, most if not all of this stuff would apply to the 70 AD destruction of the temple.” Real talk: it still amazes me that I didn’t really learn about the destruction of the temple until late high school. Before then, I’d considered Jesus’ teaching here to be eschatological, apocalyptic, entirely pertaining to the Second Coming. But if that were the case, how would you make sense of his claim, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place?” (32) It’s not as if it all falls into place with the knowledge of the temple’s destruction. But I can’t imagine really looking at the passage and trying to sort it all out without the benefit of that historical knowledge.

To be sure, though, there are portions that it complicates. Take, for example, when Jesus says, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (27). That sounds pretty clearly like the Second Coming, doesn’t it? It refers back to a vision in Daniel in which the celestial Son of Man receives “dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples…might serve him…an everlasting dominion that will not pass away” (Daniel 7:14). And that clearly hasn’t happened yet. What do we do with that?

We can do what I did back in 2001: consider that Jesus’ prophecies were partially fulfilled by the temple’s destruction, but will be wholly fulfilled at some future time when he returns, and then attempt to sort out what’s already happened and what will. But it occurs to me that there may be an alternate explanation. What if the Son of Man has already come with power and great glory?

To put it another way: what if we shouldn’t be looking to the literal, physical skies for the fulfillment of this prophecy? When Jesus Christ talks about the kingdom of Heaven, he doesn’t mean for the name to suggest that if we flew up high enough we’d get there; it’s not like it’s a matter of physical altitude. God’s kingdom is called “heaven” because he’s morally and ontologically above our own kingdoms, just as the sky is above the earth. Jesus Christ, having died and risen again, now reigns at the right hand of the Father.

The kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but in the time since he spoke the words of Luke 21 to his disciples, he’s conquered sin and death on the cross, and the gospel has advanced all over the globe from the backwater recesses of Roman-occupied Judea. If we don’t look to the physical clouds in the sky, Luke 21:27 has in a very real sense already come to pass. And when it says, “They will see the Son of Man coming…” (27)? The antecedent of that “they” may be the “powers of the heavens” which the preceding verse says “will be shaken” (26). Sin, death, and the forces of Satan are cosmic, spiritual powers, and I dare say nothing has shaken them like the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

To be honest, I feel tired. When I sat down to write this post, I wasn’t looking forward to untangling a spaghetti bowl of prophecy; I would have preferred something encouraging about God’s love and forgiveness. But I do believe God has a reason for calling us to study the Bible assiduously and for bringing us through the things we’ve considered today. We don’t always get to go where we want. We’re adults now. We can handle it.

And even if we can’t, God can.

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