08 October 2014

Apocalypse Now! Or, not...

Of late I am reading much apocalyptic literature. Not a subject in which I have much interest. So why am I reading it? The same reason I got trapped into reading Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s.
Ah, the hazards of joining a book club!

There is much buzz about the major motion picture coming in October starring Nicolas Cage based on the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. SEASONS, the women reading theology group at my church, is reading the first book of the series and plans to see the movie. They hope to be well prepared to discuss it with others.  I gave this book the librarian's look when it first appeared in bookstores in 1995. I looked at a couple of copies being read by family and friends. I read the Kindle sample. These books are badly, badly written and fraught with even worse theology. One reviewer called "eschatological porn." I refuse to read it!
I am reading End Times Fiction by Gary DeMar with an introduction by R. C. Sproul which addresses the theological errors in such books. I downloaded it as an e-book from Better World Books and, for those who have fascination with "the rapture" or "the Second Coming" or "the end of the world," I recommend DeMar's book.
Even better, read this sermon "Apocalyptic and the Beauty of God" by my favorite New Testament theologian, N. T. Wright.
Wright's book The Millennium Myth is also worthy exploring.

Reading--even reading about something in which I have so little interest--is never wasted time.  When I was asked to teach my Sunday School class on the last Sunday of August, I had ample background materials to apply to The Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus from Luke 21:4-36.

A close reading of this brief text from the words of Jesus as offered in Luke's gospel will perhaps lead to a better understanding of biblical apocalypse and allow us to leave behind the noise and distraction offered by LaHaye's fiction.

By definition, biblical apocalyptic literature reveals the transcendent reality beyond the world of historical events; it joins historical events with what is happening beyond history. Biblical apocalypse mediates the eschatological events of the end times and the new beginning which follows. Biblical apocalypse reveals the redemption of Israel and the "coming of the Son of Man with power and glory". It is always a call to expectation and righteous living and its intent is hopeful reassurance.

The other synoptic gospels treat similar material in Matthew 24:1-3 and Mark 13:1-4. In both of these accounts, Jesus speaks from the Mount of Olives to his disciples in Matthew and to four named disciples in Mark. In Luke's gospel Jesus is spending his nights at the Mount of Olives and teaching every day in the Temple. His audience includes not only his disciples but the surrounding crowd of people as well as Pharisees, Sadducees, leaders, scribes, and Herodians.

Our text begins with a prophetic oracle ("the day will come")  in verses 5-6 as Jesus looks at the Temple stones and "devoted things" (the later perhaps resonates with the "render unto Caesar" passage in the previous chapter) and says that they will be thrown down. The destruction of the Temple is a recurring topic in Luke's gospel. See also Luke 13:31-35, 19:28-44, and 23:26-31.
Jesus' apocalyptic discourse is a response to a pair of questions about when the Temple will be destroyed and what sign will mark the coming of the day. This historical event happened ten to twenty years before Luke took up his pen.
When the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in approximately 66-70 CE, Christians had heeded the words of Jesus and fled the city. Reading biblical text requires that one consider not only the time frame of the story--Jesus teaching at the Temple--but also the time frame of the text's original readers. The first readers of Luke's gospel, having survived the destruction of the Temple, an apocalypse of a sort,  are several decades later living in a time of persecution marked by rejection and ejection from their Jewish community and imprisonment and death at the hands of Roman governmental authority. In his telling of the story, Luke places Jesus and his followers in the midst of a crowd, a crowd that will soon demand a crucifixion, a crowd not unlike that surrounding the persecuted church.  What is Luke's primary message to his readers?

One way to read this text is to look closely at its structure.
My structure differs a bit from that offered by Charles H. Talbert: Reading Luke: a literary and theological commentary on the third gospel. (2002) I agree with Talbert's basic structure (ABCDB'C'A') but I preferred  to expand the central point (ABCDED'E'B'C'A') because the repetition makes clear the repetitive nature of history. The structure also supports my contention that the point of this discourse is not the political upheaval and the cosmic disturbances that mark the Apocalypse although LaHaye and other popular rapture writers focus on those things. Luke in this structure makes clear the cycle of history which continues indefinitely. Jesus was asked "when" and Jesus in Luke says "not yet."  In the writings of Luke, Jesus' Eschaton is the final event of earthly history and his readers are not to be misled about its timing. Rather, these readers live in a time of waiting, of readiness, of persecution, of betrayal, of testimony, and of witness.

The structure of Luke 21:8 - 28
  • A  21:8-9  Time, "Don't be led astray"
  • B  21:10       Political upheaval "wars and rumors of war" "Be not terrified"
  • C  21:11          Cosmic disturbance "fearful things..."
  • D  21:12              Persecution "for my name's sake"
  • E  21:13-15            Testimony "Settle in your hearts..."
  • D' 21:16-17         Persecution (betrayal) and death "because of my name..."
  • E' 21:18-19             Witness "in your patience, possess your souls..."
  • B' 21:20-24   Political upheaval "Jerusalem trodden down by the nations..."
  • C'  21:25-26      Cosmic disturbance
  • A'21:27-28   At that time, see "your redemption is near" "the kingdom of God is near"
Talbert concludes that this passage is all about persecution and perseverance.

In 21:29-36, Jesus concluded his discourse with a parable (a fig tree) which marks the passing of seasons. In all seasons, through Jesus' words, Luke urges his Christian readers to "Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down..."

Note: "Generation" in 21:32 has at least two meanings:
  1. a period of time of approximately 30 years. In this sense "generation" is tied to earthly history and is related to a fleshly life and human power
  2. an indefinite number of years characterized by a particular quality.
In the Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus, "generation" carries the second meaning; it is a period of time characterized by suffering and persecution,  testimony/witnessing, and expectant waiting. In this text, Luke has located his audience between the time of Jerusalem's destruction and "the day" when God judges the nations and redeems Israel in the "coming of the Son of Man". The counsel Jesus and Luke offer to their hearers applies equally to Christians today:
  • Don't be lead astray
  • Do not be terrified
  • Settle your hearts
  • In your patience possess your souls
  • Lift up your heads because your redemption comes near
  • Take heed to yourselves lest you lose heart with surfeiting and drunkenness and anxieties of life
  • Watch
  • Pray
  • Be worthy to stand before the Son of Man 

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