The final stage in God's plan will begin with the Son of Man's return, a theme Luke has emphasized (9:26; 11:30; 12:8, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8). The question of Jesus' return has always been captivating for believers. People have always speculated whether their own time might be the end. Four factors fuel such speculation. First, Jesus taught that his return was imminent; it could come at any moment. Since the time was not specified, such a "next event" hope naturally has led many to wonder if and how it might come soon. Second, Jesus' return is longed for, since his coming represents the saints' redemption. What Christian would not look expectantly for the day when justice and righteousness are established and God's people are vindicated? Clearly Jesus called disciples to have an expectant attitude toward events of the end—not just to assume that "it will all pan out in the end." Third, it is natural to try to fill the gaps in revelation and put pieces of the eschatological puzzle together. People enjoy trying to solve mysteries. Unfortunately, sometimes such speculation strays into date-setting or leads to dogmatism about exact timing and sequence. Our speculations must be tempered by humility about the gaps in our scriptural knowledge, and we need to carefully distinguish what is clear in Scripture from what is only implied. Fourth, Jesus told his disciples to keep awake and be on the watch (v. 36). So we do need to consider the end if we are to be sensitive to Jesus' instruction. Jesus called on disciples to be "end-time minded" without withdrawing from ministry under the assumption that the time is here.
Jesus does not give a calendar of end-time events as much as a portrait of the moment. Old Testament imagery abounds in his words, since the event will mark the culmination of God's promise to his people. Disciples are to keep watch, in part because the exact time is uncertain (Mk 13:32). The Son of Man is at the door, but no one knows exactly when he will come in. So we should keep watch, while humbly realizing that Jesus did not ask us to determine the exact moment. As this section indicates, we can know the general character of events surrounding the return even if we cannot know the exact timing.
So what will the return look like? Luke 21:25-28 tell us. Its apocalyptic imagery indicates that God is about to work in a major way. Heavenly signs will abound as the cosmos releases its power. Sun, moon and stars will signal the time. In particular, the sea is mentioned, since human beings have often feared its power (Ps 46:2-4; 65:7; 89:9; 107:23-32; Wisdom of Solomon 5:22). Such cosmic signs will indicate a shaking up of the natural order (Is 3:24—4:1; 13:7-13; 24:18-20; 33:9; 34:1-15; Jer 4:23-26; Ezek 32:7-8; Dan 8:10; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Nahum 1:4-5; Hag 2:6, 21; 1 Enoch 80). Such imagery also foreshadows portions of the book of Revelation. To imagine the fear an unleashed, out-of-control creation might generate, think of being caught in a major hurricane, flood or tornado. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. There will be a sense of being trapped and tormented. Faint from terror pictures someone hyperventilating and collapsing because of anxiety. Some argue that Jesus' words about heavenly chaos are figurative for severe destruction. However, a chaotic, destructive situation was already described in verses 8-11, while the chaos of verses 25-27 is of a completely different order. Even creation itself will be in convulsions. Then disciples will know that God is about to act.
Jesus describes the return of the Son of Man in terms that recall Daniel 7:13-14. There the phrase is not used as a title but as a description: "one like a son of man." This one rides the clouds like a god but is a human figure (Ps 104:3; Is 19:1; in the cloud, Ex 34:5; 14:20; Num 10:34). He has human traits superior to the animal traits of the other nations mentioned in Daniel 7. Most important, he shares authority with "the Ancient of Days," a clear reference to God. That authority especially entails the right to judge and make vindication for the saints. Jesus says the Son of Man will return in a cloud with power and great glory. When Jesus does return, it will be to take rulership over all the earth and exercise judgment on behalf of his people (Rev 19:8—20:15). So the saints can lift up [their] heads, because [their] redemption is drawing near. At that moment hope will become confidence (Judg 8:28; Job 10:15; Ps 24:7, 9; 83:2). God's promises to his own are being consummated. As the world shrinks back in fear, the saints will look up in expectation. These things, the immediate signs of his return, will show that God is in control of events—that trust in him has led to vindication.
The discourse changes its focus at this point. Now Jesus applies his teaching. He gives a picture of assurance about what he has predicted (vv. 29-33) followed by an exhortation (vv. 34-36).
Jesus draws a comparison with a fig tree beginning to bud. When that beloved tree with its sweet fruit begins to show shoots and leaves, it is the sign of summer. Winter's barrenness is left behind. Signs of life are visible. A new season has come.
So it will be at the end. When these cosmic signs are displayed, Jesus' followers can rest assured the end is near. In fact, when the whole discourse is taken into account, Jerusalem's fall—predicted as it is and mirroring the end as it does—also serves as a sign guaranteeing that what Jesus says about the end and redemption will come to pass. So Jesus says to look for two things: the fall of Jerusalem and cosmic signs. With these heavenly portents (vv. 25-26), the kingdom of God is near. In this text Luke speaks of the kingdom as not yet arrived, in contrast to earlier texts where it had already approached or come (10:9, 18; 11:20; 17:20). As has been noted, Luke sees the kingdom in two phases: an initial, already-present phase and a consummating, yet-to-come phase. The consummation will wrap up the promise in total fulfillment. Anticipation will become realization. The kingdom will be present in its fullness.
There is much "sign-watching" today, but this text along with others in the New Testament warns against getting too specific about predictions. The history of the church is littered with those who, though well intentioned and sincere in their belief that they had found the key to the timing of end-time events, were proved wrong. Assembling the puzzle of apocalyptic pieces is a difficult interpretive exercise, since it involves making judgments about many difficult and variously interpreted texts (for a discussion of the hermeneutics involved, see Blaising and Bock 1993:57-105, especially 90-96). We should be cautious about predictions of Jesus' return that are too precise. This discourse and the other New Testament apocalyptic texts indicate a general pattern of events, but since Jesus will return "like a thief in the night," the best we can do is keep watching and be prepared for his return. Jesus has told the church to be ready, so every generation should keep watch. But we should be suspicious of anyone who is certain of the exact timing, for even Jesus said only the Father knows that (Mk 13:31-32). In the meantime the church is called to serve him faithfully, share the gospel and grow in grace.
Jesus assures the disciples that these signs will be so. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." The things Jesus has taught are true, more firm than creation itself.
In the midst of this note of assurance is one of the most-discussed passages in Luke. For Jesus also says, "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." The prediction is made emphatically, using the strong Greek phrase ou me. This generation will not (!) pass away.
On the surface it looks as if Jesus is predicting the end within his generation, especially since Luke normally uses the term generation (genea) to mean the current generation (7:31; 9:41; 11:29-32, 51; 17:25; Acts 2:40; 8:33). Often the term also has a negative implication, meaning this current generation is evil. Against applying this interpretation to 21:32, however, is the reality of the delay. The generation of Jesus' utterance was passing away even as Luke wrote, and Luke had described numerous intervening events. Jesus had spoken in the thirties, but Luke was writing, in all likelihood, in the sixties. A reference to the current generation is unlikely.
Neither is it likely that Luke refers to the Jews as this generation. According to this view, the promise is that "the generation of Jews" will not pass away. Though this approach removes any problem for the meaning, it is unlikely because genea is not used in this general, nontemporal, ethnic sense elsewhere.
Two other options are possible. If the term has no temporal force, then it could mean "the evil generation of humankind." Using the term with this descriptive, ethical force would mean Jesus is speaking of a quality of human being: evil persons will not escape the judgment when it comes. This evil generation will not pass away before God deals with them. There will be judgment and vindication.
Finally, the term might refer to the generation of the end. In other words, once the beginning of the end arrives with the cosmic signs of verses 25-26, the Son of Man will return before that generation passes away. Such a meaning honors the term's temporal force and reads it as somewhat contextually limited by Luke's clear distinction between near and far events. This view has been rejected by some as too obvious a sense—the last generation will not pass away (Stein 1992:526). However, this misreads the view's force. It is arguing that the end will occur within one generation; the same group that sees the start of the end will see its end. This is the option I slightly prefer, though the previous sense is also possible.
However the phrase this generation is taken, Jesus' statements in verses 32-33 emphasize that Jerusalem's destruction and then the events of the end, including the Son of Man's return and the cosmic signs that accompany it, are more certain than creation's permanence. Be assured, Jesus says, these things will come to pass.
So Jesus calls for faithful living in the interim. "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life." Harking back to the imagery of 8:12-15 and 12:42-48, Jesus warns that excessive concern for or indulgence in this life's affairs can leach away one's faithfulness. Such distractions "weigh down one's heart" (mepote barethosin hymon hai kardiai). The emotional load can grow into a snare that traps us in that day when our stewardship before God is revealed. However, to the one who is watching, the day will not come as a sudden, embarrassing surprise because of unpreparedness. Still, the day will impact all. No one will escape standing before the Son of Man. We are all subject to him.
So Jesus says, "Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." Here is why Jesus has revealed the plan—to call disciples to be on the alert. Heeding, watching and praying lead to endurance. Heeding really means following in obedience. Watching means that our eyes are expectant and looking for the Lord's return, focused on the fact that he will bring us to himself. Praying means we are dependent, looking to him to give us the strength to walk in faithfulness. No matter how tough things get, we can know as we look to God that he cares for us.
Luke notes that Jesus continues to teach at the temple and to lodge at the Mount of Olives. He is still popular with the people, who rise early to hear him in the temple. But that popularity will not last long. The black cloud of rejection and the cross approaches.