Eschatology and vita Christiana – a Biblical-spiritual reading of Luke 21:20–24

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Luke 21:20–24 is usually treated in scholarly circles as a test case for Lucan eschatology, more specifically the relationship between eschatology and world history. In Luke 21:20–24 this has to do with the relationship between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world (telos). The key question is: Is the fall of Jerusalem part of history or part of the telos? This debate was first started with Conzelmann’s book in 1954, Die Mitte der Zeit, in which he stated that Luke, by writing a follow-up to his Gospel, namely the book of Acts, no longer regarded the time of Jesus as the end time but as the “middle of the time”. Conzelmann sees the way Luke introduces the fall of Jerusalem into the eschatological discourse in Luke 21 as radically historicising Lucan eschatology; Luke does not think in terms of the Naherwartung any longer, but replaces it with salvation history whereby the parousia of Christ is delayed and pushed into the distant future.

My goal with this article is not to try to solve the exegetical problems raised by Conzelmann’s book (these have been done most capably by scholars in past decades), but to approach the matter from the angle of Biblical spirituality. This means that the various valid exegetical results that diachronic and synchronic approaches to the text have delivered over time will be used in order to arrive at answers to the question: How did Luke try to influence his first-century audience to think differently about the fall of Jerusalem? The kind of Biblical spirituality offered here is thus not in the first place how it affects us today (that is more of a hermeneutical question), but how Luke’s audience had to change their spiritual views about eschatology and history.

Thereafter an exegetical framework is argued that can help identify the relevant Biblical spiritual questions in their historical context. This exegetical framework amounts to the following:

  • Mark 13 can be accepted as the source for Luke 21. However, Luke expands his source redactionally and with his own and other traditional material.
  • Luke places much emphasis on the destruction of Jerusalem, as can be gathered from both a diachronic and synchronic approach to the text.
  • Luke historicises the events that led to the fall of Jerusalem and describes the latter as a vaticinium ex eventu of 70 A.D., without abandoning the prophetic nature of the pronouncements of judgement against Jerusalem.
  • Luke places Jesus’ eschatological discourse within his temple teaching. In so doing he imparts an official and universal character to his teaching about the telos. It is not esoteric teaching to the disciples alone but addressed to all of Israel.
  • Jesus’ teaching in the temple is part of God’s visitation of Israel.
  • Temple and Jerusalem for all practical purposes are the same to Luke; the pronouncements against the one concern the other equally.

The results arrived at by my Biblical spiritual reading of Luke 21 can by summarised as follows:

  • Believers can trust God’s promises about the future. Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem was fulfilled with the events of 70 A.D. Therefore, believers can be sure that the prophecy about the parousia and the telos will occur likewise. God’s words remain trustworthy, even when the parousia has seemingly retreated into the distant future.
  • During the late first century, when it became clear that the church was facing persecution, Luke admonishes his audience that the parousia is not forgotten by God. Luke points to the permanent imminence of the kingdom of God, and that the parousia can happen at any time and is not linked to a specific term, for example the existence of Jerusalem. Indeed, the fall of Jerusalem carries a symbolic character and points forward to the final end. But this should not make believers fretful; they should not draw “apocalyptic” conclusions from the end of Jerusalem and other similar catastrophic events – such as that the end is at hand, that all is lost, that God has forsaken them, and that it is the end of God’s people. Rather, they should rest in the knowledge that the future is in God’s hands, that He presides over it in his wisdom and will guide it to its end, when the final salvation will appear. Believers may take comfort in the task that God has given them on earth.
  • The certainty of the parousia and the permanent imminence of the kingdom do not lead away from everyday life, but rather make it possible. Believers’ conduct is in fact governed by eschatology. No wonder parenetic utterances form an inclusion for the eschatological discourse of Luke 21. The time before the parousia is not empty, but fulfilled time, filled with a fruitful life in service of the kingdom. Thus, the vita Christiana is forced into the domain of the kingdom. It offers a lifestyle that witnesses to the advent of the kingdom in Christ Jesus, and that promises a life that turns away from unbridled decadence and turns towards vigilance, dedication and prayer, issues that also stand central in the rest of Luke’s Gospel.
  • Times of crisis always lead to re-evaluation and restructuring of priorities. Luke 21:24 interprets the catastrophe of 70 A.D. as the end of an era: the special position of Israel. But it is also the beginning of a new era: the time of the nations. On the one hand this holds suffering and hardship for believers, because the nations will wield their power. On the other hand, believers may rest in the knowledge that the rule of the nations is under the supervision of God. The nations, too, will stand trial before God for their actions. Furthermore, it inaugurates new opportunities for believers: They become witnesses to the nations of the great deeds of God in history, particularly those in Jesus Christ. This, too, is part of the vita Christiana that God has in store for them.

Keywords: Biblical spirituality; delay of parousia; diachronic and synchronic approaches; divine promises; eschatology; fall of Jerusalem; Luke 20:20–24; mission to the nations; Naherwartung; salvation history; vaticinium ex eventu; vita Christiana


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Eskatologie en vita Christiana – ’n Bybels-spirituele lesing van Lukas 21:20–24

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