Scholars and Theologians of every possible school of thought have debated the details surrounding the Parousia, or Return of Christ, for centuries. Luke’s explanation of how this shall come to pass is certainly crucial in understanding the other passages of scripture dealing with the same subject.
Parousia is the Greek word for advent, coming or presence. Some argue that presence is the only true translation of the word, others suggest a number of different translations. The concept seems to include the aspect of time and the idea of coming, and is closely associated with the idea of the Day of the Lord.
The Old Testament prophets certainly seemed to view the Day of the Lord as imminent (cf. Isa.10:27; Hag. 2:23; Zech. 6:10). The New Testament speaks of the Second Coming of the Lord as Jesus in glory and the end of this world as we know it. The study of the associated events is known as Eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the last days, and the events surrounding the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When compared with the other synoptic Gospels many have accused Luke of “de-eschatologizing “ in his Gospel, while others are fiercely defend him. At first glance, many commentators have focused on the eschatological passages in the other Gospels that Luke omits rather than on the ones he includes and have thereby concluded that he had no eschatological interest whatever. This however fails to take all the passages into account that are clearly addressing the subject.
Some examples are Luke 12:35-48 in which he gives the account of the expectant steward and the faithful steward; Luke states that we will be repaid “at the resurrection of the just…” (14:14). He also gives the account of the great supper (14:15-24), which seems to clearly utilize the familiar language of the great marriage supper of the Lamb; Luke 17:20-37 gives us Jesus’ response to the question of the Pharisees ‘when the kingdom of God would come’, a clearly eschatological passage describing among other things “two will be in one bed, the one will be taken, the other will be left” (v.34), Acts 1:10 gives a clear description of the certainty of Christ’s return in glory:
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
This same theme is later reiterated in Peter’s sermon after the healing of the paralytic (3:21) We see Luke’s interest in the subject in those and a number of other passages, not the least of which is the passage in chapter 21:5-38, that seems to interchange between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming. We shall examine this and other passages in the following discussion.
Luke is writing about salvation not only in the sense of our past salvation, when we turned to Christ from our sins in repentance and faith or our present day salvation often called sanctification, but also about the great day when this salvation will find its consummation in the future, at Christ’s return. This same theme is carried on in both Luke as well as in Acts : salvation is in no other name and victory is Jesus’ alone. The preaching of the Apostles focused on the fact that Jesus was the Messiah; the only hope for humanity and the only possibility to escape future judgment. This idea of coming judgment is likewise introduced at an early point, namely in the account of John the Baptist’s preaching at the Jordan:
“And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9) “The winnowing fork is in his hand…” (3:17).
Concerning salvation there certainly seems to be a continuity of the true people of God and the Messiah who would come to save them. The Messianic concepts are brought out from the very beginning as for example in the songs of Mary (1:46-55) and of Zechariah (1:68-79). The entirety of the Gospel has to ultimately be seen as eschatological in nature since its theme is clearly the good news about Jesus, the Messiah who came to die for sinners and who would return to take his people home. As Ryrie states “It is rightly observed that the Theology of the Gospels is eschatology or it is nothing…even the Christology is essentially eschatological for it concerns the Messiah, therefore it is not surprising to discover that the bulk of the Synoptic teaching concerns the kingdom (Bibl.Theo. of the NT).”
Luke is in that sense no exception as he is clearly concerned with the kingdom of God both now as well as in the future. Luke’s concept of the kingdom included the now and the not yet. In Luke, this is clearly demonstrated by the use of the word ‘today’ which he uses over 18 times in both of his writings. He uses the term starting at the angel’s proclamation of Jesus’ birth (2:11) and culminates in Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross; “today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43) the kingdom had come in the coming of Jesus and the kingdom would find its ultimate fulfillment in His return and glorification.Luke includes vivid warnings against the coming judgment and an encouragement to watchfulness (e.g. 12:40):Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The entire passage in chapter 12 is a discourse on the second coming and the fact that no one knows the day nor the hour when the master returns. This by no means points to the uncertainty of his coming. The return of the Son in splendor to rule and to judge is never in question in Luke’s writings, but the exhortation Luke gives his readers is the careful attention we must all pay to the signs of the time and the focus to be found ready and serving the master faithfully at his coming! Some commentators have suggested that the church in Luke’s day was seriously confused about the parousia and Gaebelein comments on this:
It has been common to picture Luke as writing at a time when Christians were despairing over the return of Christ, which they had expected immediately.
This “delay of the Parousia” was of such major concern to Luke that he devised a scheme that divided history into three phases. The first of these was the OT period, the second the life of Jesus, and the third the period of the church. This idea is set forth in Conzelmann’s Theology of Luke, the German title of which– Die Mitte der Zeit (i.e., the central point in time)–reflects his theory (Exp.Bibl.Comm.p.813,814).
While a number of scholars agree with the suggestion that the church of Luke’s day was experiencing such anxiety Ellis says that it is not this at all “but false apocalyptic speculation that has misapplied the teachings of Jesus and threatens to pervert the churches mission.” It again must be pointed out that about the fact that Jesus return there can be no question in Luke’s Gospel or in Acts, but as to the timeframe thereof the author gives us no definite answer and instead focuses on holy living and preparedness much like Paul does in the epistle to the Thessalonians!
In chapter 14 Luke records the parable of the Great Supper and there can be no mistake that we are dealing with a parable concerning the future salvation. Those who had initially been invited have refused and so the invitation has been passed on to those who were willing to come. The parable records the fact that there is still more room at the table (14:22), which shows that God is always willing to save sinners, and that the future we are looking forward to can be at the table of the Lord instead outside where there will be gnashing of teeth. The motif of the Great Supper is found again in Revelation: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’ (19:9). Those, however, who were unwilling to come are now being judged, they will not be part of the bliss and glory of the coming kingdom.
Luke also has a description of the coming of the Son Of Man (17:22-37), which is giving the response of Jesus to a question by the Pharisees regarding when the kingdom of God would come and the subsequent teaching to his disciples regarding this topic. He includes the descriptions of two in one bed, two women grinding meal together, and two men in the field – one taken and the other left. This passage is so many times interpreted as referring to the Rapture, John MacArthur has a slightly different interpretation, stating that the description referred to is the coming judgment. One will be taken in judgment and the other left.
The largest discourse about the Second Coming certainly seems to be that in chapter 21 and there has been no small amount of debate in regards to proper interpretation of this chapter. There are three basic interpretations that are being defended and propagated. (i) The prophecy regarding Jerusalem is a prefiguration of the end, as Plummer puts it the Day of Judgment is symbolized in the judgment of the guilty city. (ii) The discourse combines two prophecies of Jesus into one in the form of an interchange. In the one Jesus looked forward to 70 AD, in the other to the Second Coming. (iii) The third view sees the discourse as a continuous description of the Christian era or church age. (iv) The fourth view is that of a telescoping prophecy or “Prophetic Perspective” which brings together two events, which are in fact widely separated. (v) This fifth view claims, that the Olivet discourse is made up by fragments of Jesus’ teachings. (Dict. of NT Theol., Vol.2 p.909 – 910)
While Morris and others seem to hold firmly to the idea of an apparent interchange Ryrie rejects this idea strongly and assigns the entire portion of scripture to the discussion of the Second Coming and the millennial kingdom, which he seems to draw out of both Acts as well as Luke at every possible turn.
My personal opinion on millennialism aside, I certainly do not agree that Luke is making this point. He instead seems to record the discourse of Jesus on the Mount of Olive as also recorded in Matthew chapter 24 and Mark 13. This portion of scripture, often called the Olivet discourse, has been suggested to be the compilation of various teachings of Jesus. It seems, however, that Jesus is using the same methodology of telescoping prophecy that is also used so often by the Old Testament prophets. In 1 Kings 13 for example the man of God is making two prophecies one about the child Josiah shall sacrifice the evil priests on the altar and desecrate it by burning human bones on the altar, and that the altar would split in two. The one was a guarantee for the other. One was fulfilled quickly and stood as a sign that the other would truly come to pass as well even if many years, decades or even centuries would pass in between. In the case of above-mentioned prophecy Josiah did not rule in Judah until about 300 years later! In the same way the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70 under Titus, which we can easily verify, is a guarantee that Jesus will return!
Luke may be recording this teaching on the Second Coming in his own way, but that by no means shows that he was disinterested in the parousia, on the contrary, he wanted to make certain that the return of our Lord would not be confused with any other event in history, as some no doubt have. Talbert suggests that there was just that sort of misinterpretation of events. Some may have thought the Ascension was in fact the Parousia others thought the events of Pentecost to be the much-awaited event. In any event there seems to have been confusion as to the Day of the Lord and its coming. It is therefore entirely possible if not probable that Luke addressed the issue of this misunderstanding much like Paul did in his letter to the Thessalonians (2Thess.2:2). Morris suggests that Luke is “refuting erroneous ideas about the End, not denying that the End will come (NT Teol. p.218).” Luke is not even denying the possibility that this will in fact be soon, but he is outlining the stages in God’s plan, and the events that have to come first. As K. Brannen states; “In place of the immanent eschaton, Luke offers an outline of the successive stages in redemptive history according to God’s plan. Luke believes the Spirit, as divine power, will enable the Church to be witnesses of Christ before the world (www.vts.edu).”
In the same context Talbert comments, that “both 17:20-18:8 as well as 19:11-27 aim to protect against an over-realized eschatology (Reading Luke p.164).” He points out three basic problems that the early church may have experienced, which Luke warned against; “(1) the attempt to calculate when the kingdom of God will come; (2) the over-realized eschatology; and (3) the doubt regarding an ultimate, cosmic settling of accounts by God. (Read. Luke p.166).” The problem of an over-realized eschatology is not foreign to other Biblical writers as we see in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians as well as in his epistle to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Outside the biblical literature we see similar sentiments in the Coptic writings (e.g. Gospel of Philip121:1-5 “Those who say ‘they must die first and rise again’ are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing.”) Irenaeus attacks Meander and Hippolytus the Naassenes on the same issue. People believed that the Parousia had already happened (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-4) Luke clearly refutes this, listing instead some of the signs that must come first (21:9-11).
In my estimation, Luke’s eschatology very much focuses on the certainty of Christ’s return not it’s timing which is clearly beyond our reach. Secondly, Luke focuses on His ultimate Judgment. “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk.18:8) The question that is repeatedly asked is, whether Jesus will find us prepared at His return, and whether we were faithful stewards in His service. Luke also makes it clear that the Master of the house will execute judgment (Lk.12:42-49). The focus Luke chooses, therefore, seems to be holy living and faithful stewardship until the return of our Master at which time the faithful will surely be rewarded and the unfaithful will be punished.