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Commentary: Luke 21:25-36

These verses represent Luke's adaptation of Mark's "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13), more specifically the second half of that chapter. One can readily detect Luke's modifications of the Markan material, the changes, omissions, and added traditions, by reading the two side by side. The gist of these verses in Luke is that when the final cosmic signs occur, people are to know the end is at hand. Implicit is the warning that until such signs occur in the heavens, the end is not yet at hand. Yet the reader is to realize that just as Jesus' prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem has been fulfilled (Luke 21:6, 20), so his predictions of the return of the Son of man will just as surely occur.
Because the season of Advent is, as the name implies (Lat. advenire —"come to," "arrive at"), the time that celebrates Jesus' arrival, these verses are appropriate. We know about Jesus' first advent, namely, his birth; that is in the past. Advent is therefore for Christians now a time to be watchful for Jesus' second advent, namely his arrival as judge of all the earth. If his coming at birth was hidden and known to only a few, his arrival as judge will be public and unavoidable, and will come, as Luke says, upon all those who dwell on earth (21:35).
In the opening verse of this pericope (v.25), Luke does not identify the nature of the cosmic signs, as Mark does (13:25), but the use of similar language in Isaiah 13:10 which this verse seems to reflect, probably means that the heavenly bodies will be altered in their appearance and function, i.e. being darkened. The description of the earthly signs at the end of the verse probably reflects Psalm 65:7. The fear caused by these portents will, as v. 26 notes, literally "take people's breath away," that is, they will faint, or perhaps even die, from the fright induced by these signs. The end of v. 26, with its final mention of heavenly signs, forms an inclusio with the beginning of v. 25, thus emphasizing that point. Such heavenly signs signal God's judgment in the OT as well, e.g. Is 34:4; Joel 2:10; Hag 2:6, 21; Ezek 32:7. Like Rev 8:7-12; they present a sort of creation in reverse, as the chaos from which creation was delivered by God at the beginning now returns and the orderly universe begins to dissolve.
The concluding act in the final judgment is the descent of the Son of Man, the apocalyptic ruler/judge described in Dan 7:13-14.
Interestingly, Luke has here changed the "clouds" mentioned in Matthew and Mark to the singular "cloud," probably intending to recall the Transfiguration, where all three Gospels refer to "cloud" rather than "clouds.'' It also recalls the prediction by the two "angels" in Acts 1:9, 11 that Jesus, taken up in a cloud at his Ascension, would return the same way. The cloud symbolizes the divine presence in this descent, since the cloud in the OT is the signal of the presence of God, whether on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:9), in the wilderness (e.g. Ex 13:21;16:10), or in the Tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38; Lev 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10-11). That is also the symbolism intended in the scene of the Transfiguration, where God speaks from such a cloud. Unlike the fear these events cause that paralyzes the earth's inhabitants, Christians are to take heart and lift their heads, because the return of Jesus as Son of Man means their redemption is at hand. "Your (pl.) redemption" is here understood not to pertain to individual salvation but to the final deliverance from evil that occurs with the return of Jesus.
Jesus' parable about the fig tree (vv. 29-30; Luke expands it to "all the trees") points to the certainty of what Jesus here predicts. Just as the first leaves forming on the trees portends the onset of summer, so the signs listed in these verses portend the return of Jesus as Son of Man and the inauguration of God's Kingdom on earth (v. 31). In v. 32, Luke changes Mark's "all these things occur" (13:30) to "all things occur" thus including signs he has not listed in this passage. That has the effect of changing "this generation" from a reference to those living in Jesus' time, as Mark implies, to the "generation of humankind," thus pointing to the certainty that all the signs promised by God will take place before the final judgment of humanity. Luke has thus made it an assurance of God's faithfulness rather than a declaration of some immediate time-table. In v. 33, Jesus claims for his words what is claimed for God's word in the OT (e.g. Is 40:8; 55:10-11; Ps 119:89); thus Jesus here speaks with divine authority.
The final verses (34-36) refer to the period between the present and the time of fulfillment. Do not become so concerned, Jesus warns, with temporal affairs that you forget the final and eternal judgment that comes surely and unexpectedly. V. 35 once again emphasizes the universality of the judgment: it will come upon the whole earth (so also v. 26b), not just upon Jerusalem, the point of the first half of Jesus' discourse here. What happened to Jerusalem will happen to the whole world, and people had better be ready for it. Its unexpectedness is emphasized by the reference to the "trap" at the beginning of v. 35; it is probably an allusion to Is 24:17, set there in the context of God's universal judgment as well. The Son of Man bringing God's final judgment and Kingdom comes upon earth's inhabitants as suddenly and unexpectedly as the springing of an unseen trap by an unwary animal. In light of Jesus' sure but temporally unknown advent, the only proper stance for his followers is watchful waiting and prayer (v. 36).
Paul J. Achtemeier