93. Watch and Pray (Luke 21:29-36)

Audio (22:55)
Gospel Parallels §§220, 221, 223

James J. Tissot, 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

In these verses we come to the last portion of Jesus' teaching session on the End Times. (See Appendix 2G. Introduction to Eschatology.) Here is the outline again, so you can see where we are:

  1. Destruction of the Temple (21:5-6). Lesson 91.
  2. Deceptive Signs of the End (21:7-11). Lesson 91.
  3. Persecution of the Disciples (21:12-19). Lesson 91.
  4. Judgment upon Jerusalem (21:20-24). Lesson 92.
  5. Coming of the Son of Man (21:25-28). Lesson 92.
  6. Certainty of the End Events (21:29-33). Lesson 93.
  7. Be Watchful and Ready (21:34-36). Lesson 93.

Jesus has talked about the destruction of the temple and of the city of Jerusalem. He has discussed persecution, terrible signs, and signs of his own coming. Now he concludes the discourse emphasizing the certainty of his coming and admonishing his disciples to be ready.

"29  He told them this parable: 'Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30  When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31  Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32  I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

34  Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. 35  For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36  Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.' (Luke 21:29-36, NIV)

Parable of the Fig Tree (Luke 21:29-30)

"He told them this parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near." (21:29-31)

Some commentators have made a lot out of the fig tree as being representative of Israel. I don't see any allegory here. It is a simple "this is similar to that" kind of an expression. Just as new leaves on a deciduous tree are a sign that summer is near so, when you see these last signs taking place (21:25-28), you know that the Kingdom of God at hand. 

The Kingdom of God Is at Hand (Luke 21:31)

Jesus uses the expression "the Kingdom of God is at hand" in two ways -- sometimes of the present and sometimes of the future. The word translated "is near" (NIV) or "is nigh at hand" (KJV) is the Greek verb engizō, "to draw near in a temporal sense, draw near, come near, approach."956

The present sense of this is seen in the fact that both John and Jesus proclaimed that "the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15), or as Luke phrases it, "Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near (engizō) you" (Luke 10:9, 11). This sense of the Kingdom of God being present is what theologians sometimes call "realized eschatology."

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was present in his own person and in the power that God was displaying through him and his disciples. He said to his opponents: "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come (ephthanō epi) to you" (Luke 11:20). He said to the Pharisees, "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (17:21, RSV).

But Jesus also refers to the Kingdom as coming at some future time. In the Lord's Prayer he has his disciples pray, "thy Kingdom come..." (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). He says, "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God" (Luke 14:15). He tells a parable because "the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once" (19:11). At the Last Supper he tells his disciples, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18).

Throughout the Bible we see a tension between the partial and the complete, the initial and the final. The "now" and "in the future." The Apostle Paul speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit in this way:

"God ... anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14)

This doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit is less real or less powerful in us. God is fully present in His Spirit as the Kingdom was and is fully present in the person of the Messiah, and in his followers who have been anointed by the same Spirit. But there is still a sense of incompleteness and looking forward to the future when the perfect will reign fully and completely. Paul writes:

"Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." (1 Corinthians 13:8-12)

I know that this concept is hard to grasp. We sense it and yet strive for the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit now -- as well we should. But still we look forward. There is a tension between the "now" and what is to come. We see a present fulfillment that will be followed by a greater and complete fulfillment when God wraps it all up at the End.

This Generation Will Not Pass Away Until... (Luke 21:32-33)

Now we come to a difficult passage to understand:

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (21:32-33)

This is hard because, taken at face value, it seems to imply fulfillment within the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries. The keyword to understanding the verse is the meaning of the word "generation," Greek genea. This word is not used in just one way in Scripture. It can mean variously: 1. the descendants of a common ancestor, 2. a set of people born at the same time, and 3. the period of time occupied by such a set of people, often in the sense of successive sets of people.957

The phrase "this generation" has been the focus of lots of controversy about what Jesus meant. Here are some of the possibilities:

  1. Generation = "the people living in Jesus' day," with the fulfillment seen in the fall of Jerusalem, or with the fall of Jerusalem as a type of this end.
  2. Generation = "the people living in Jesus' day," so that Jesus was wrong in his prediction that the end would occur within a few years. However, he says he doesn't know the time (Mark 13:32).
  3. Generation = "the elect," Christ's followers who would persist right through to the end. This view was held by some of the Church Fathers.
  4. Generation = "the Jewish nation."
  5. This Generation = doesn't refer to a time period, but to "people who stubbornly turn their backs on God's purpose,"958 following the use of the phrase "this generation" elsewhere in Luke's Gospel.959

I don't believe Jesus was mistaken; therefore I reject #2 above. #1 doesn't seem compelling to me from the context. Perhaps the truth is closer to #3, #4, and #5 -- that "this generation" refers to the current mix of stubborn unbelievers sprinkled with some believers who will continue to the very end. Look at the verses in Luke which use the phrase "this generation." I think you'll find them very suggestive of the meaning of the phrase here. Dr. Joel Green comments,

"'This generation' refers in Luke's narrative not to a set number of decades or to people living at such-and-such a time, but to people who stubbornly turn their backs on the divine purpose. Jesus' followers can expect hostility and calamity until the very end."960

I tend to agree. I think Jesus is saying that the End will come not to another type of people (perfected saints in their resurrection bodies or some other group ), but for the type or "set" of people living in Jesus' day, who, like their fathers, had persecuted the prophets before them. It is "this generation," this "set" of people whom Jesus had come to give his life to redeem. I believe "this generation" includes you and me. "I tell you the truth," Jesus says, "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." Perhaps the idea of an epoch or era describes the idea I think Jesus is conveying here.

Jesus is insistent. Verse 32 contains a double negative in the Greek, meaning "certainly" or "surely." Jesus is emphasizing that all these things must take place before the End. God's Word will never pass away!

Be Careful (Luke 21:34a)

Now he turns to the implications of all this for his disciples:

"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch." (21:34-36a)

Up until now Jesus has been talking about future events. Now he is talking about immediate application. Let's examine the words Jesus uses to warn us, his disciples.

"Weighed down" (NIV) or "overcharged" (KJV) is Greek bareō, "to press down as if with a weight, weigh down, burden," of minds that lose their alertness in drunkenness.961

"Dissipation" (NIV) or "surfeiting" (KJV) is Greek kraipalē. Both "carousing, intoxication" and its result, "drunken headache, hangover" are associated in the use of the term, since it means "dizziness, staggering" when the head refuses to function; "unbridled indulgence in a drinking party, drinking bout."962 The word for "drunkenness" in this verse translates the Greek noun methē.

Finally, Jesus talks about "anxieties" (NIV) or "cares" (KJV), Greek merimna, "anxiety, worry, care."963 Notice that Jesus puts the cares of this life in the same category as drunkenness. Both can dull our senses, our watchfulness. We can be so preoccupied with the affairs of this life -- families, jobs, relationships, self-improvement, education, vacations, suffering, sickness, and death -- that we no longer are careful of what is going on around us spiritually. Our whole focus is on living our lives, and this can shift us away from listening to God and observing what he is doing. We disciples are very susceptible to being dulled by the cares of life. In the Parable of the Sower, "life's worries, riches, and pleasures" are compared to thorns that choke us and keep us from maturing (8:14).

Like a Trap Springing Suddenly (Luke 21:34b)

The consequence of being dulled by drunkenness or cares is being surprised.

"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth." (21:34-35)

In this passage, Jesus uses the figure of a trap springing. In verse 36, "snare" (KJV) translates the Greek noun pagis, "a device used to catch animals, trap, snare," a piece of equipment used by bird-catchers among others. "Like a trap" indicates "unexpectedly."964 In verse 35, the phrase "close on you ... like a trap" (NIV) or "come upon" (KJV) translates the Greek verb ephistēmi, "to happen," especially of misfortunes, which (suddenly) come upon someone, "happen to, overtake, befall."965

Most traps, by their very nature, close suddenly and unexpectedly. I live in the country where my wife and I are constantly battling mice, rats, and gophers. I set traps and bait them, hoping to end the current invasion. Sometimes I'm successful. But if a rat has had a near escape from a trap, he is now wary. It is much more difficult to trap him the second time.

Jesus wants us to be just as wary and alert, or the Day of the Lord will come upon us unexpectedly. On other occasions Jesus has used parables to warn his disciples to be alert:

  • The master coming in the middle of the night (12:35-38)
  • The thief in the night (12:39-40)
  • The faithful and wise head servants (12:42-48)
  • The wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom to come to the marriage feast (Matthew 25:1-13)

Now he adds to it the parable of the suddenly springing trap.

Be Watchful (Luke 21:36a)

Though we are given hints about when Jesus will come again, we are never told the date nor the hour -- yet that is what consumes ardent students of prophecy. But what Jesus tells us clearly, again and again, is what we must do: "Be always on the watch...." (21:36a).

"Be ... on the watch" (NIV) translates the Greek verb agrypneō, literally, "to keep oneself awake, be awake." Figuratively, "to be vigilant in awareness of threatening peril, be alert, be on the alert, keep watch over something, be on guard."966

Why do soldiers always post a guard, always have someone awake -- a guard, a duty officer, a charge of quarters, whatever? So that if some threat comes, it will be quickly observed and action can be taken in time to ward off the threat. You and I, my fellow disciple, have been placed on watch duty by Jesus Christ the Lord.

Be Prayerful (Luke 21:36b)

"... And pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen." (21:36b)

The word for prayer here is the common Greek verb deomai, "ask, request." But we are told here to pray and be on watch "always," literally, "at every time." We are to live in a continual state of talking with God and watching and listening. Fully alert, fully engaged -- all the time. That is what Jesus instructs us to be.

The purpose of this watchfulness and prayer is "that you may be able to escape (Greek ekfeugō, "flee from") all that is about to happen." Jesus has told his disciples about perils from false christs, persecution, and temptations to be unfaithful. Jesus is warning them now as he does in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation" (22:40, 46).

That You May Stand before the Son of Man (Luke 21:36c)

But the watchfulness and prayer are just not directed negatively -- to keep from snares and temptations. They are also directed positively -- toward the ultimate goal, "that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man" (21:36c). The phrase "be able" (NIV) or "be accounted worthy" (KJV) translates the infrequently used Greek verb katischuō, "to have the strength or capability to obtain an advantage, be dominant, prevail."967

We are to be steadfast in our goal to please Jesus. This can never be passive, that is why Jesus uses active words -- watch and pray constantly. It takes deliberate effort and constant striving against the obstacles.

The phrase "stand before the Son of Man" creates in me an image of men and women standing victorious before Jesus on the Last Day, a great host of disciples, the company of the redeemed and the faithful. I want to stand with that company on that Great Day of the Lord.

Paul's Example of Jesus' Command

Perhaps the greatest example in the New Testament that typifies the spirit we seek is found in the Apostle Paul, whose precious letters to the churches give us a glimpse into his heart. Paul is not coasting. He is not resting in sublime bliss. He dies fighting:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

He tells Timothy, "Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:3). He writes to the Corinthian church:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

From prison he writes these passionate and inspiring words to the Philippian church:

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14)

Sometimes we oversimplify the concept of grace to the point that we look down on such activity as unworthy of those who rest fully in the grace of God.

Paul is not paranoid. Paul is not fearful of hell. Nor is Paul working to gain righteousness. He lives in Christ's righteousness. He is not striving to gain salvation. He has assurance of forgiveness of sins and adoption as a son.

But Paul is striving -- like Jesus our Lord tells all his disciples to do -- to watch and pray, to avoid all the dulling and tempting experiences of our lives, that we might be faithful to Him.

Paul is striving to be faithful. Jesus calls us to be faithful -- to the very end, the glorious time when we shall suddenly stand before him, and, hopefully, see his smile of joy, feel his hand of encouragement, and listen to those wonderful words, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord."


Father, it is so easy to become lax, lazy, and lethargic in spiritual things. Forgive me where I have lost my edge and become complacent. I don't know when Jesus is coming -- in my lifetime or later. But help me live out the rest of my life watching and praying, living courageously and boldly for you, that on that Day I might stand before the Son of Man without shame. Thank you for your forgiveness and the hope that you place before us to lead us on. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:36)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What is Jesus' reference to the fig tree supposed to teach his disciples? (21:29-30)
  2. Extra Credit. In verse 31, what does the term "these things" refer back to in the context?
  3. Extra Credit. If we assume that "this generation" doesn't refer to merely the people who were contemporaries of Jesus, then what DOES "this generation" mean in the context? (12:32)
  4. Why does Jesus warn us of spiritually-dulling lifestyles? (21:34) How can "the anxieties of life" be just as dulling as drunkenness?
  5. What are Jesus' direct commands to his disciples in light of his teaching on the end-times? (21:36) What will these commands do for us? What will they do for Jesus' cause?
  6. What does it mean, to "stand before the Son of Man"? What does that refer to?
  7. Extra Credit. What is the balance between resting in the assurance of the grace of God, on the one hand, and striving to escape the temptations all around us, on the other?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[956] Engizō, BDAG 270.

[957] Genea, BDAG 191-192.

[958] Green, Luke, p. 42. Marshall, Luke, p. 780. Morris, Luke, pp. 300-301.

[959] Here are some examples of this usage in Luke:
"To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?" (7:31)
"For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. (11:30-32)
"Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all" (11:50-51).
"And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light" (16:8, KJV).
"But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation" (17:25).

[960] Green, Luke, p. 42.

[961] Bareō, BDAG 166.

[962] Kraipalē, BDAG 564.

[963] Merimna, BDAG 632.

[964] Pagis, BDAG 747. The NIV's suggestion of a trap closing isn't found in the Greek construction of verse 35 but in verse 36.

[965] Ephistēmi, BDAG 418-419.

[966] Agrypneō, BDAG 16.

[967] Katischuō, BDAG 534.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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