Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

177. The Olivet Prophecy [5] (Luke 21:34-36; 12:35-48; Matt. 24:42-51; Mark 13:33-37)

The Lord's solemn warnings—already given concerning the day of his coming, that his servants be prepared-were now reinforced with repeated earnest exhortations on the same theme.

In a vivid mini-parable he pictured an eastern burglar quietly and patiently working away at the cement holding the stones of a house in place. He can do this without detection because the house-holder is away from home, occupied with business or pleasure. After a while the stone is loose and can be pulled away; and then another, and another, so that now there is room for the lithe body of this nefarious rogue to worm his way through. The valuables of the house are now at mercy.

Later the owner returns to the sickening experience of finding money, jewels, treasured ornaments, fine clothes, all spirited away. As every minute reveals the greater extent of the depredations, he mutters angrily to himself: "Fool! you fool! were you not warned that house thieves have been active lately in this locality? Then why did you not stay at home and guard the house?"

Or even if he had been at home, would it have helped if whilst the thief was stealthily making his burglarious entry he had been in bed snoring his head off?

Like a thief

From this parable, and from one or two similar passages, the false inference has often been made that the Lord's coming will be utterly unperceived by all the world, saints and pagans alike. This view not only ignores Christ's very plain declarations to the contrary (e.g. Mt.24 :23-27,30), but it also misses the point of the parable-that it is to the unprepared, unwatchful disciple that his Lord comes as a thief. And in every other place in Scripture where this figure is used (Rev.3 :3; 16 :15; 1 Th.5 :2; Lk. 12 :39) the same basic idea dominates the context ("The Time of the End", chapter 16). This also is the emphasis of Christ's exhortation: "Therefore become ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh".

Peter's response to this warning was: "Lord, speakest thou this parable unto us, or even unto all?" (Lk.12 :41). Since the Master's parables were more often addressed to the multitude or to Pharisees, he doubted whether this latest example could have special reference to themselves as the Lord's stewards.

The faithful steward

The Lord's next parable did not answer Peter's questions explicitly: "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household?" Anyone bearing special responsibilities of administration and guidance in the Lord's house needs both qualities. What use is the man who is faithful and yet foolish? What sort of an influence will he exercise who is capable, but with evident lack of dedication to his Master's work? And that work is, first and last, "to give them their portion of meat in due season." This is an imitation of the Fatherly care of God Himself: "The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand (cp. the finger of God; Lk.ll :20), and satisfiest the desire of every living thing" (Ps.145 :15,16). This faithful concern is excellently exemplified in Joseph's care and provision for his own family (Gen.47:12 LXX).

The Lord pronounced a special blessing on those who are thus faithfully and discreetly occupied at the time of his return-and also a special destiny: "He will set him over all that he hath." What this reward may mean, in practical terms, it is hardly within the powers of such servants to assess in this day of small things. Faith accepts that it will be a great blessedness, even though present imagination cannot conceive what it might be.

The unfaithful steward

The obverse side of the picture was now painted yet more vividly, its warning being the more needful: "But if that servant (the same servant?) say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the men-servants and maidservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware."

Here is a hint that Peter's later warning concerning those who speak with doubt or indifference about the Lord's return-"Where is the promise of his coming?" (2 Pet.3 :4)-are within the ecclesia, and not its critics from outside. Of course, no servant of Christ puts this into so many words, but not a few proclaim it by their attitude. Yet how little such individuals (who dare to treat uncertainty about the time of the Master's return as equivalent to certainty that he will not return soon) realise that it is themselves who are largely responsible for the delay! "If that hope (of the Lord's early return) is allowed to perish, it will soon be supplanted by the hope that he will nor come soon" (Plummer).

The scepticism regarding the Lord's coming is to be manifest alongside another unhappy development-a rough dictarorial attitude towards "fellowservants" (Mt.). To equate this detail of the parable with papal authoritarianism or any other characteristic of the apostasy would be a grievous error, for Jesus was speaking entirely with reference to his own household, and not about those with false pretensions to be such.

However, the word "begin" implies that such a crude ungracious exercise of power will have no time to ripen in the last days, because the Master's return will interrupt its progress. Perhaps it may be seen as a unique sign of the times that today tendencies of this kind are unexpectedly perceptible in some quarters.

The parable also hints at a trend of another sort: "Eating and drinking with the drunken" (Mt.) suggests the formation of cliques obsessed with and intoxicated by certain shibboleths. The Lord's faithful remnant have eagerly strained their spiritual sight, peering into outer darkness for signs that he is near, when one of the best signs is within their own community.

Comparable warnings

The first century had a splendid exemplification of these attitudes: "Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come (cp. Lk. 12 :46), I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and them that would, he forbiddeth, and casteth them out of the church" (3Jn 9-10).

It is possible that, when Paul wrote words of good counsel to Titus regarding the qualities to be looked for in an ecclesial leader, both positively and negatively, he had in mind the stewards, both faithful and unworthy, described in the Lord's parable: "A bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not angry, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but given to hospitality" (Tit.1:7,8). Paul seems to have come as near as possible to taking the parable literally!

The self-willed steward of the parable and the details of his fate were apparently created by Jesus out of the warning given by Moses to Israel: "Lest there should be among you a man . . . whose heart turneth away this day from the Lord his God ... and it come to pass . . . that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace ("My lord delayeth his coming"; cp. lTh.5 :3), though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst (i.e. to lust after evil, and to indulge that desire with impunity). The Lord will not spare him, but then k anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man . . . And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel" (Dt.29:18-21).

In the parable the fate of the evil servant is similarly described: "He shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites" (Mt.). The verb used here means, literally: "cut Mm in two (Gk: dichotomize!)." It has usually been taken figuratively as a close equivalent to "separate him unto evil." But it may be that there is a fairly literal intention behind it, for such a pseudo-servant of Christ is really a double personality, a spiritual schizophrenic. Openly, he is dedicated to the service of his Master, but in actuality he seeks the honour and pleasure of a different master-Self. Appropriately, then, in the day of reckoning he is "appointed his portion (Jer.13 :25 LXX) with the hypocrites", because hypocrite means play-actor, a man who pretends in public to be a character altogether different from what he really is—also with hypocrites because he intended to act the part of a faithful steward in the presence of his returned Master. In Luke (12 :46) the word corresponding to "hypocrites" is "the unfaithful", to point a contrast with the "faithful and wise steward" whom the Lord appreciates and honours.

Yet another possibility about this "cutting in two" is an allusion to the idea of a covenant. When a covenant was made, why did the contracting parties pass between the pieces of the covenant sacrifice? (Hence the Hebrew expression "to cut a covenant"). Surely the implicit idea was: 'If I fail to honour this agreement, then may I be cut in two as was this solemn sacrifice!

"Few and many stripes"

Jesus went on to enunciate a principle of graded retribution according to varying degrees of knowledge and responsibility. "And that servant which knew his lord's will, and prepared not (his fellow-servants), nor (himself) did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes." There is fairness in this even by human standards. A fairly considerable catalogue of Scriptures (see Notes) emphasizes it as a divine principle also, right from the giving of the Law.

Let it be noted that the servant who knows not his Lord's will is none-the-less reckoned blameworthy, for he could have known it, had he been possessed with any sort of eagerness for it. The very fact that he continues in ignorance argues a lack of concern for the will and honour of his Master. But regarding the one who already knows well what his Lord's mind is, there is palpably far less excuse. "To whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (in return)"-and so also the heavenly Master.

Watchfulness and duty

But however well or incompletely men are equipped for the service of Christ, in one respect they are all the same-all know that their absent Master purposes to return one day and judge the quality of their service in his absence. "For it (the time of return) is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch" (Mk.). The last phrase here clearly implies a special responsibility on the shoulders of anyone who is a leader«in an ecclesia.

Never must there be any relaxation of the spirit of wakeful alertness for the Lord's return, because that awe-ful occasion may happen at any time. No man can ever be in a position to assert with sureness that "the time is not yet." In what light do the blithe and ingenious computers of prophetic dates appear alongside their Master's emphatic word: "Ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning" (Mk.). Was Jesus speaking literally about the time of day, or figuratively about the season of the year, or about a time in one's life, or about an epoch in history? Whichever it is (and he may have been deliberately ambiguous), there is no mistaking the solemn emphasis of his warning: "Watch ye therefore.. lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch." And there, Peter, you have plain answer to your question: "Unto us, or unto all?" It is to you specially who have the responsibility of leadership, but in almost equal degree it is to all the rest also. Their Lord's exhortation must surely have brought to the apostles' minds the familiar temple practice of setting a night watch at no less than twenty-one specific points, and in addition a regular tour of inspection by others to ensure that all the watchmen stayed awake.

The unready

In Luke's gospel this earnest warning to all is drawn out in a most graphic fashion. There is need for watchfulness not only regarding the signs of his coming but also the signs of one's own spiritual condition: "Take heed to yourselves (contrast Mt.24 :45), lest at any time your hearts be overcharged (weighed down) with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life." The first of these reprobated vices describes "the morning after the night before," the nausea of it. The second is present dissipation. The third is worry about the future (Lk.12 :22). Thus, the evils of life yesterday, today, and tomorrow are wrapped up in one parcel and together pronounced illicit for the faithful and expectant disciple, because preoccupation with any of these things necessarily makes a man unready for his Lord's coming. To all such, that day inevitably comes "unawares"-"for as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth." This last phrase is very close to Jer.25 :29 LXX; and note also v.27: "Drink ye, and be drunken, and spue, and fall, and rise no more."

Was Jesus laying the vigorous figure of Ecclesiastes under contribution: "For as the birds that are caught in the snare, so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it (the evil time) falleth suddenly upon them" (9 :12)? Or was he directing his disciples to give special heed to the apocalyptic prophecy in Isaiah: "Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth" (24 :17). This latter is the more probable reference. Its context (in LXX) has also "surfeiting, drunkenness, perplexity, worthy to escape." (See "The Time of the End", chapter 20).

"Watch ye therefore, and pray always in order that ye may be accounted worthy to escape (flee from) all these things that shall come to pass (distress of nations with perplexity, men's hearts failing them for fear; v.25,26)." The comprehensive character of this crisis is emphasized by a repetition which is obscured in translation:

"all them on
all the earth...
all the time pray... to escape
all these things."


A plain implication, also, is that escape from these dire troubles will be possible—not through any human contrivance but by the purposeful providence of God. A means of escape and safety was provided for Noah and his family, and for Lot (note how these come together in Lk.17 :26-29), for Rahab also (Josh.6 :17,22), and for the faithful observers of the Passover in Hezekiah's time (Is. 31 :5); and for the early believers in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Lk.21:10,21). Clearly this is God's method. And deliverance, by some means not specified, is promised also for His faithful remnant in the Last Days: "Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast. For, behold, the Lord cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity . . ." (ls.26 :20,21; cp. ch.4 and 25 :4).

Rather remarkably, Jesus quoted this passage on an earlier occasion: "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy chamber, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Mt.6 :6). And now, in Luke 21, Jesus insisted that "escape" depends on prayer and watchfulness. So it would seem that, for God's true servants, the place of safety is the place of prayer.

These who are watchful will be not only "worthy to escape" but also "worthy to stand before the Son of man," as he was counted worthy to stand before the Ancient of Days (Dan.7 :13). The verb is actually passive in form, and implies: "worthy to be stood (by the angels who gather the elect; Mt.24 :31) before the Son of man." Here is a further indication of safety through removal to the Lord's presence at the time of his manifestation.

This use of the word "stand" becomes the more impressive, when it is considered that both Ezekiel (1 :28; 3 :23) and Daniel (8 :17) fell upon their faces in the Divine Presence, and had to be lifted up before Him. "Who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?" (Mal.3 :2; Ps.130:3; l:3; Eph.6:13).

It is an awe-inspiring climax to a breath-lolling prophecy. The essence of it is watchfulness. Combining the three gospels, it may be seen that no less than six times in the course of his peroration Jesus bade his disciples watch (Mt.24:42, 44; Mk.13:35, 37; Lk. 21:36; Mt. 25:13 - noneof these coincide): The repetition expresses his intense concern because of foreknowledge of evil times and their debilitating effect on the faith of his servants. Strange that the Lord gave no indication that his sombre warnings are really for a generation coming 2000 years later, and not for those who heard them spoken! See "Revelation" (by H.A.W), p. 259ff.

In this present time, of which Jesus spoke so portentously, watchfulness brings its own immediate reward: "When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh." Jesus was alluding to Psalm 24 :7,9. Note the similarities:

Luke 21

Psalm 24
The sea and the waves roaring.
The sea and the floods.
Stand before the Son of man.
Stand in his holy place.
Lift up your heads
7, 9.
Lift up your heads,
Commanded the porter to watch.

O ye gates (i.e. gate keepers).
Your redemption draweth nigh.
Righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Mt.24 :31
He shall send his angels to gather his elect.
The Lord of hosts.

As the days become more corrupt and violent and frightening, the faithful, bowed down with the burden of an ungodly world (Lk. 13:11 uses the same word about the bent woman in the synagogue), are uplifted in spirit at the imminent prospect of seeing Christ in glory. With outstretched neck (Rom. 8 :19) they look away from all these evils to the coming of the King.

Notes: Mt.24:42-51

Clearly, all rewards will not be the same. Contrast the reward in Lk. 12 :37.
Day... hour. These words look back to v.42RV, 44. See also 25 :13.

When he looketh not. The idea is: When he is confident that he will not come.
Cut him asunder; s.w. Rom.16 :17; 1 Cor.3 :3. In this way he smote his fellow-servants!

A portion with the hypocrites. This seems to imply that before the ultimate fate of the rejected there will be first a living exposure of the unworthiness of these unfaithful ones. Cp: "a sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed" (ls.65:20). What a contrast with v.47!

Gnashing of teeth. Ps.112 :10, and Studies 154,163.

Lk. 12:35-48

Problem: Why should Luke insert this paragraph here?
Household A remarkable double-meaning word: (a) an act seeking the special favour of God (as in Jl. 2:15; 1:14 LXX); (b) healing the sick! (English: therapy).
47, 48
Lev.4 :3,13,22,27; 27 :8; Num.11 :1 (contrast before the Law was given: Ex.14 :11-14; 15 :24,25; 16 :2-8; 17 17:3-7; Heb.10:26-29) 2Sam.6:7(cf. 1 Sam.6:7-8); Jas.3:lRV; Mt,10:15.

Lk. 21:34-36

Upon all the face of the earth must surely be read with reference to the Land. Else why did Luke not use oikoumene ? The allusions to Is.24 seem to have an "Israel" context. The word for "dwell" supports this; cp. also Jl.2:32.

Watch. Here, and in Mk.13 :33, our Lord used the much less common word which means "chase sleep away" (Heb.13 :17; Eph.6:18). In other places in this Olivet exhortation "watch" is equivalent to O.T. paqad, act as overseer

Always RV; at every season. The word here may refer to one of the feasts of the Lord (LXX usage). If so, here is a pointer that the Lord will come at Passover or Pentecost or Day of Atonement or Tabernacles. The first?

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