Remember Lot’s Wife
In the flow of Luke’s narrative, we see how he recorded Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, showing specifically the “two sons” theme, where one inherited and the other did not. In Luke 17 the theme focused on faith as the means of inheriting the Kingdom. Then the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the signs of the coming Kingdom.
Jesus told them that their hearts were not right, and so it was futile for them to try to see or understand “the days of the Son of Man,” as long as they were blind to the truth.
Jesus then reveals that the coming of the Kingdom would be patterned after the days of Noah, when the people were unprepared for the coming flood. Likewise, it would be as in the days of Lot, when the people were engaging in normal commerce, not knowing that fire and brimstone would soon destroy the city.
Prophecies of Desolation
From Matthew’s account we learn that these prophecies were given not merely in response to the Pharisees’ question, but they were Jesus’ explanations to His disciples who had asked Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3).
The disciples had just heard Jesus speak of the destruction of Jerusalem at the end of the previous chapter, so obviously they were very concerned, because if Jerusalem were to be destroyed within a few years, this would disrupt their own lives. Hence, they wondered about the timing of Jerusalem’s destruction. Was this a soon-coming event? Was it yet afar off?
In that context, Jesus told them that the timing was based on the setting up of the “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15), or, as it could be translated, the abomination that makes desolate. Some abomination was to occur that would bring desolation to Jerusalem. Jesus had already revealed this to be inevitable, saying in Matt. 23:38,
38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!
The desolation was firmly linked to the fact that Jerusalem had killed the prophets and would soon kill the Messiah as well. The chief priests would thus usurp the throne of David and set themselves up in the temple as if they were God (or gods). This self-idolatry is the abomination that brought about the desolation of Jerusalem and Judea forty years later. It is the same abomination that will bring about the destruction of Jerusalem one final time to fulfill Jer. 19:11.
The verdict, both in the time of Jeremiah and in the first century, was that they had turned the temple into a den of robbers (Jer. 7:11; Luke 19:46). In Jesus’ day, they had robbed Jesus of His throne rights and had set themselves up metaphorically as God in the temple.
By reading Matthew and Luke together, we may obtain a greater understanding of Jesus’ prophetic teaching. The flood of Noah was to descend upon Jerusalem. Likewise, as with Sodom, fire and brimstone were to descend upon Jerusalem, for John tells us in Rev. 11:8,
8 And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically [spiritually] is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.
Jesus was not crucified in Sodom or in Egypt, but in Jerusalem. Yet both Sodom and Egypt were prophetic types of Jerusalem in its state of rebellion. Sodom represents immorality, and Egypt represents slavery. Jerusalem’s immorality and violence was its link to Sodom, and its Old Covenant (Hagar) slavery linked Jerusalem with Egypt. Sodom was destroyed by fire from heaven, while Egypt was destroyed by the ten plagues and at the Red Sea.
The prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction—as in the days of Noah and Lot—can be seen as an extension of the judgment upon the older brother, the unjust steward, and the rich man who died and went to hades in Jesus’ earlier parables. The deliverance of Noah and Lot, along with their families, is also linked to those who demonstrate faith toward God and to all who repent.
Yet we are admonished also to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). Luke is the only writer to record this particular warning. It shows the urgency of leaving the city before its destruction, and that if one waits until the last moment to flee, one may have to leave everything behind. If this proved to be too much for some to endure, they may turn back and thus perish in the destruction of the city.
Fulfillments in 70 and 135 A.D.
The first major fulfillment of these prophecies occurred in 70 A.D. when Rome destroyed Jerusalem. Before that destruction, the Christians did indeed flee, not only from the city proper but also from Judea itself. They went across the Jordan to Pella, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, where they were safe from the insanity of war. In the second revolt (132-135 A.D.) under the leadership of Bar-Kosiba (or Bar-Cochba), Judea was again laid waste.
The name, Bar-Kosiba, literally means “son of falsehood or lies,” from the Hebrew word kazab. Rabbi Akiva, who had proclaimed him to be the messiah, changed his name to Bar-Cochba, “son of the star.” Professor Graetz tells us that he was from a town called Kosiba. If correct, Rabbi Akiva should have known better than to declare him to be the messiah, for it was well known that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2.
The Christians, of course, refused to support this so-called “messiah” in his war against Rome. They already had their Messiah, and were the “good figs” who were taught to submit to Rome. The others were “evil figs” in the prophecies of Jeremiah 24. Graetz tells us that the Jews persecuted the Christians for refusing to support the war:
Notwithstanding the deep hatred entertained by the Jews for their enemies, they did not avenge themselves upon such as fell into their hands. It was only against the Jewish Christians who lived in Judea that Bar-Cochba displayed his hostility, because they were considered as blasphemers and as spies. This hatred against the Jewish Christians was increased because they refused to take part in the national war, and were the only idle lookers-on at the fearful spectacle.” (History of the Jews, Vol. II, p. 411, 412)
One of the outcomes of this second revolt was that it drove the final wedge between Jews and Christians. Graetz tells us,
“From the time of Hadrian all connection between Jews and Christians ceased, and they no longer occupied the position of two hostile bodies belonging to the same house, but they became two entirely distinct bodies.” (p. 431)
In other words, Jewish Christians finally abandoned the idea that they could remain Jews. Their destiny took them down an entirely different path. From the divine perspective, the two baskets of figs finally had to admit that they were not of the same fig tree.
Remembering Lot’s Wife
The two revolts against Rome also illustrated the broader principle of remembering Lot’s wife. Luke explains this in Luke 17:33,
33 Whoever seeks to keep his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall preserve it.
Lot’s family was instructed to leave Sodom in order to save their lives. By leaving Sodom, they were seeking to save their lives. But when Lot’s wife turned back, seeking to preserve something of her former way of life (culture, parents and relatives), she lost her life. She should have been willing to leave her former life behind. The context shows the connection with Lot’s wife, and so the lesson is: “whoever loses his life shall preserve it.”
Even as Lot’s wife had sought to preserve her way of life in Sodom, so also did many of the Jewish Christians in the first century seek diligently to preserve their culture and way of life in Jerusalem and Judea. Those who could not separate themselves lost their lives in the destruction, even as Lot’s wife died. It appears that few (if any) Christians had joined the Bar-Cochba revolt. Many, however, were executed just for remaining in Judea without joining the revolt.
Perhaps the lesson in that case was that these Jewish believers should have fled from the land in order to avoid the destruction that Jesus had prophesied. Unfortunately, many had lingered in Judea, even as late as the Bar-Cochba revolt, and so they were persecuted for refusing to fight in that war alongside of the evil figs.
One Taken and One Left
Luke 17:34, 35 continues,
34 I tell you, on that night there will two men in one bed; one will be taken, and the other will be left. 35 There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken, and the other will be left.
These prophecies have been greatly misunderstood as teaching the “rapture” of the saints—as if the righteous will be taken, and the unbelievers “left behind” on earth. In the days of Noah, says Matt. 24:39, most of the people “did not understand until the flood came and took them all away.” Jesus was NOT speaking of Noah’s family being taken away, for they were the ones who understood what was happening. It was the ones lacking understanding—unbelievers—who were taken away. So also with the two men in one bed and the two women grinding at the mill. The ones “taken” (by the flood) are the unbelievers; the ones “left” (to inherit the earth) are the believers.
Matt. 24:42 says that the lesson we should derive from these statements is to be alert, because we do not know when the Lord is coming. If we understand the word of the Lord, however, and act upon it by faith, we will know when to wake up or to stop grinding and to seek safety. The coming of the Lord is accompanied by the destruction of Jerusalem, so believers living in that part of the world ought to be especially alert and watchful. But this also applies to all believers everywhere, for they too will need to hear God’s voice and act upon it by faith in order to be left to inherit the earth.
Luke 17:36 was added later by other writers and does not appear in the original gospel of Luke. This is confirmed numerically by Dr. Ivan Panin in his Numeric English New Testament.
Where the Eagles Gather
In Luke 17:37 the disciples asked Jesus a final question to end this section:
37 And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body [soma, “body”] is, there also will the vultures [aetos, “eagles”] be gathered.”
This is repeated in Matt. 24:28, except that he uses the word “corpse” (ptoma) rather than “body” (soma). It speaks of a dead body.
Jesus had just told the disciples that one would be taken and the other left. In other words, where will the “flood” take this (collective) dead body? The question is either, “taken where?” or “where will this event take place?” It is improbable that the disciples would want to know where the unbelievers would be taken when swept away by Noah’s flood or consumed by the fire on Sodom. It is more likely they wanted to know where this “taking away” would take place.
Both Matthew and Luke had presented this entire passage as Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem on account of their sin of usurping the throne of the Messiah after killing the prophets throughout the centuries. So Jesus’ answer simply states the obvious and comes in the form of a common saying at the time. If you want to know where the dead body is, look for eagles or vultures.
Since eagles do not normally look for carrion, the translators believed that it should be translated “vultures.” However, Rome’s military symbol was the eagle. Jesus was probably referring to the eagle of Rome that would surround the dead body of Jerusalem. According to Gesenius Lexicon, the saying should be understood to mean, “where there are sinners, there judgments from heaven will not be wanting.”
How does the “corpse” become “sinners” in their understanding? It is because the word for “corpse” is ptoma (Matt. 24:28), which literally means “a fall, fallen, or downfall.” It is used metaphorically to mean “failure, defeat, or calamity,” as well as “an error, lapse, or sin.”
The corpse itself is the city of Jerusalem. The soma (body) could depict the body of people in Jerusalem who were spiritually dead. However we may view this, their error in understanding or believing Jeremiah’s prophecy of the evil figs proved to be disastrous. In that sense, they “did not understand until the flood came and took them all away.” Where? Look for the “eagle” of Rome.