Sunday, September 12, 2021

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (17)

“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

New believers seeking to understand scripture for themselves with the aid of Google and/or an online concordance may be forgiven for throwing up their hands in despair when they encounter verses like this one. There are at least three major schools of thought about Luke 17:33, and multiple variations within each.

Nevertheless, even in passages like this where there are genuine questions about what exactly the Lord was telling his disciples, some interpretations remain more logical, careful and likely than others.

A brief outline of the major views follows.

1/ The Historical Interpretation

One of the more popular commentators of the last few centuries, Matthew Henry writes:

“There would be no other way of saving their lives than by quitting the Jews, and, if they thought to save themselves by a coalition with them, they would find themselves mistaken: ‘Whosoever shall seek to save his life, by declining from his Christianity and complying with the Jews, he shall lose it with them and perish in the common calamity; but whosoever is willing to venture his life with the Christians, upon the same bottom on which they venture, to take his lot with them in life and in death, he shall preserve his life, for he shall make sure of eternal life, and is in a likelier way at that time to save his life than those who embark in a Jewish bottom, or ensure upon their securities.’ ”

Henry views the events of Luke 17 as past. As he puts it, the timing is “When Christ comes to destroy the Jewish nation, by the Roman armies”, which we now know occurred in AD70, though the disciples could hardly have anticipated this at the time. (At least, the Roman army part of it occurred. The bit about Christ ‘coming’ remains open for discussion.) Henry imagines Jesus addressing the disciples as Christians, distinct from their own Jewish roots, and telling them to break all ties with their brothers and sisters who were mistakenly clinging to Judaism, with its forlorn hopes of establishing some facsimile of Messiah’s kingdom by way of a first century revolution against Rome.

It should be conceded there are certainly parallels to the events of Luke 17 to be observed in the AD70 destruction of Jerusalem — the wisdom of fleeing and abandoning possessions, for example — but Henry’s interpretation ignores numerous clues in the passage that point the reader in other directions. Especially, there is nothing whatsoever in the Luke passage to suggest a temptation to preserve one’s life by apostatizing from the Christian faith, and everything to suggest the temptation at hand is unwisely attempting to save goods and property when in peril of life and limb.

2/ The Present Day Interpretation

On the other hand, Paul Bayne writes:

“If a man goes about his life doing everything he can to preserve that life (in other words, worship of self), then he will lose it in damnation and wrath.

If he lays down his life for the sake of the Gospel, and regards his life as nothing in accordance to bringing God the glory He deserves, then he will be rewarded eternal life and life forever in the glorious presence of God.

If you live for yourself, you will be judged to hell.

If you live for Christ, you will be rewarded with eternal life.”

Hmm. Unlike Mr. Henry, who plays fast and loose with context, Mr. Bayne has basically abandoned it entirely.

It’s true these words echo a more general truism about Christian living. (Compare this passage with Matthew 16:25 or Luke 9:24, or with John 12:25, where the Lord makes similar promises in the context of discipleship rather than in view of a specific apocalyptic or historical scenario.)

However, in Luke 17, leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Jesus was speaking of AD70 or another day to come, his subject was indisputably the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, not the Christian’s experience when seeking to faithfully preach the gospel. In Matthew 24, the words “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” accompany virtually identical language, including the warning not to come down from the housetop to save your goods, and not to turn back if you are in the field when disaster occurs.

While it is certainly true that laying down one’s life for the gospel results in eternal reward, this is not what is being taught in Luke 17:33. At best, Bayne’s is a rather remote application of the teaching in Luke 17, rather than any kind of explication of the text.

3/ The Futurist Interpretation

William MacDonald, among many others, refers Luke 17 to Christ’s second advent. He writes, “The disciples fully understood from the Savior’s words that” — far from being heralded by three years of violent upheaval and the incursions of Caesar’s armies into Judea — “his Second Advent would be a catastrophic judgment from heaven on an apostate world.”

This divine judgment is compared to the days of Noah and the days of Lot with respect to its rapidity. It is said to come without obvious warning, so that most are caught unaware, “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage”. This was not at all the case in AD70. There was plenty of warning Jerusalem was in grave danger of being sacked and its population killed or dispersed. Nobody paying the slightest bit of attention could have missed it.

The case made by Joel Richardson here focuses mainly on Luke 21, but applies equally to the Lord’s warnings in Luke 17:31-35:

“If Jesus’ warning ... concerned Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem, as so many commentators argue, then He gave some truly poor advice. Anyone in Jerusalem who waited until the city was surrounded to attempt to flee would have been taken prisoner or killed.”

Indeed, there are multiple references to not just the coming but the revelation of the Son of Man in Luke 17 that suggest a far-future fulfillment of the Lord’s words. These events are said to occur in connection with “one of the days of the Son of Man” (v22), “the Son of Man in his day” (v24), “in the days of the Son of Man” (v26) and “on the day when the Son of Man is revealed [Greek: apokalyptō]” (v30). If Titus’s siege of Jerusalem was truly a revelation of the Son of Man, it could hardly have been accomplished more obscurely. We might as reasonably refer to any cataclysm at all as revelatory.

Moreover, the Lord specifically tells his disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Let’s grant for a moment the assumption that the phrase “one of the days of the Son of Man” rightly applies to the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD70. If attempts to date the latter books of the New Testament are even remotely in the ballpark, then, of those present during the original airing of the words preserved in Luke 17, at bare minimum Peter and John were still around to see “one of the days of the Son of Man”. The earliest postulated dates for the works of Peter and John are right in the middle of that distressing period. A few historians even date these letters twenty years or more after the destruction of Jerusalem. Best case scenario: we would require a less-than-perfectly-obvious interpretation of the word “you”. Worse case: the Lord was wrong.

Let’s just say we should regard that as unlikely.

Preserving One’s Life

Bearing in mind the association of Luke 17 with the city of Jerusalem, and that a future fulfillment seems the least problematic interpretive fit, the Lord was most likely addressing the disciples in their capacity as representatives of the Jewish remnant rather than of the then-future church.

So then, my best attempt to interpret Luke 17:33 contextually goes something like this:

During the period when the Lord Jesus returns to Earth to establish his millennial kingdom, the comparatively few believing Jews in Jerusalem will be wise to abandon their property and hopes for this world in order to physically escape the chaos that will accompany his return. Attempting to preserve homes and property will surely end fatally, while abandoning the trappings of this life will preserve the wiser believers into the millennial reign of Christ while still in the body.

That’s not how we usually hear the verse used, but it seems to me the best fit.

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