Does Luke 17:31ff Predict the Destruction of Jerusalem?

By Wayne Jackson

“Could you please discuss Luke 17:31-37? Is this context speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem or the Second Coming of Christ? Or both?”

Let us place this text before us for careful consideration.

“In that day, he that shall be on the housetop, and his goods in the house, let him not go down to take them away: and let him that is in the field likewise not return back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whosoever shall seek to gain his life shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. I say unto you, In that night there shall be two men on one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. There shall be two women grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. And they answering said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Where the body is, there will the eagles also be gathered together.”

[Note: Verse 36 is not found in the oldest Greek manuscripts, though the sentiment is expressed in Matthew 24:40. For a discussion of the genuineness of this verse in Luke’s Gospel, see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, London: United Bible Societies, 1971, p. 168.]

Persecution Forecasted (v. 22)

In the earlier context, Jesus had warned His disciples of difficult days ahead. Due to persecution, they would “desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man” (Lk. 17:22). The expression “one of the days of the Son of Man” is the equivalent of “his day” (v. 24). Elsewhere in the New Testament it is called “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor, 1:8), or simply “the day of the Lord” (2 Pet. 3:10), etc. In this context, it is also referred to as “the day that the Son of man is revealed” (Lk. 17:30), and is an allusion to the day of Christ’s return to judge the world.

The meaning, therefore, of the Savior prophecy was that the disciples, in the dark times to come, would long for the return of their Master. But they would not “see it.” This last phrase contained a hint that the Second Coming would not occur in their day.

There are other passages which suggest the same note of caution. In the parable of the ten virgins, the bridegroom “tarried,” i.e., he delayed his coming (Mt. 25:5; cf. 24:48; Lk. 12:45). In the parable of the talents, the Lord would not return until “after a long time” (Mt. 25:19). This effectively refutes the notion that the Second Coming of the Lord occurred in A.D. 70, as the “Radical Preterist” heresy contends.

A Warning About False Teachers (v. 23)

The disciples, therefore, were to ignore any false teacher who might seek to take advantage of tumultuous times, and proclaim that the Messiah had returned. There were Messianic pretenders in those days (cf. Acts 5:36-37; 21:38), and the Lord’s people were not be deceived by them.

The Dramatic Manner of His Coming (v. 24)

As a brilliant burst of lightning, that illuminates the entire heavens, so would be the arrival of the Lord at his final Coming. This clearly indicates that the “coming” here envisioned was not the destruction of Jerusalem, which was a local event that affected but a minute portion of the human family.

First Things First (v. 25)

The Lord sought to further prepare the disciples for the shock that lay in store for them. His “generation” would largely reject him. This would involve many elements of suffering on the part of the Savior (cf. Psa. 22; Isa. 53), and ultimate rejection by crucifixion. He would be the “stone” which the builders “rejected” (Psa. 118:22; Mt. 21:42).

Apathy Prior to the Second Coming (vv. 26-30)

Jesus cautioned that His return would be unexpected, just like in the time of the great Flood, and the later destruction of Sodom —when so many were ill-prepared for a divine judgment.

A Warning to His People (vv. 31-33)

By way of contrast, Christ warned that when “the day” of the Son’s revelation comes, his people should be in a state of preparation. In the language of a first century cultural setting, Jesus says that those on the housetop should not attempt to recover goods from within their house, and those in the field should not attempt to return home. The language is not a suggestion that these activities could be accomplished; rather, it is a dramatic caution for constant preparation.

The Discriminating Judgment (vv. 34-35)

This narrative is concluded with a discussion of the separation that is to take place at the time of Christ’s return (cf. Mt. 25:31ff). The faithful will be “taken” to be with the Lord; the disobedient will be “left” to the withering blast of judgment. The details of this awful fate are supplied elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Mt. 25:46; Mk. 9:-47-48; 2 Thes. 1:7-9, Rev. 14:9-11, etc.).

A Misconception

Some have woefully misunderstood this narrative. Because the language here employed is similar to that used by Christ when He foretold the impending destruction of Jerusalem (cf. Mt. 24:17-18), a few students have assumed that the same theme is under consideration in Luke 17:22ff. But that is not correct.

As mentioned earlier, it is claimed by a few misguided souls that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ represent the identical event. Those who advocate this theory call themselves “Realized Eschatologists,” and they allege that all “end time” prophecies were fulfilled in AD. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This movement, which had a mild resurgence a few years back, appears to be dwindling.

The fallacy of this reasoning involves a failure to observe that similar imagery need not signify the same event in every biblical setting. In the Old Testament, divine judgment upon Egypt was pictured as Jehovah riding victoriously upon a cloud (Isa. 19:1). In the New Testament, the return of Christ is portrayed similarly (Revelation 1:7). That does not mean, however, that the two passages refer to the same circumstance. A different context can give language an entirely new meaning.

Here is an important point to reflect upon. In the context of Matthew 24, when dealing with Jerusalem’s fall, the refugees are urged to “flee unto the mountains” (v. 16). This would have no relevance for those remaining at the time of the Lord’s Second Coming; on the final day of earth’s history there will be no mountains to provide safety from judgment. Significantly, this clause is understandably omitted in Luke 17, because the discussion here pertains to the Second Coming, not the destruction of Jerusalem.

The language of Luke 17:31ff. is thus highly figurative. It is what might be called an idiom of priority. Note Alfred Plummer’s comment in the International Critical Commentary on The Gospel According to Luke (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1896, p. 409).

“In Matthew 24:17,18 and Mark 13:15,16 these words are spoken of flight before the destruction of Jerusalem. Here flight is neither expressed nor understood. The point is absolute indifference to all worldly interests as the attitude of readiness for the Son of Man.”

The Carnage of Judgment (v. 37)

The Lord concludes his discussion of the Judgment by using a common figure of speech. “Where the body is, there will the eagles [vultures] also be gathered together” (v. 37). While this same imagery is employed by Matthew to depict the destruction of Jerusalem (24:28), it is used here to represent the idea of the carnage that is associated with those who are spiritually dead.

R.C.H. Lenski has called attention to the fact that attempting to parallel the usage of the “eagle” figure in Matthew 24:28, with that of Luke 17:37 —as though they refer to the same event, has led to much “misinterpretation” (The Interpretation of Luke, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946, p. 891).

And Godet emphatically states that this image pictures that segment of humanity that is “destitute of the life of God,” and that there is “no reference in the preceding discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem” (The Gospel of Luke, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1879, p. 200).

This, we believe, is the correct interpretation of Luke 17:31ff. The text has reference to the Lord’s Second Coming. It does not allude to the destruction of Jerusalem —despite some similar figurative terminology to enforce the points. Luke’s discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem is reserved for chapter 21.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.