Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned Luke 12:41-48 as demonstrating that Jesus promises that there will be degrees of punishment for the damned. However, I’ve never attempted to work through the passage in its entirety or literary context. Recently, some readers have questioned my reading, and so it seems timely to sort through the text in more detail.
As long-time readers know, I take a conditionalist interpretation of the hell passages in the scriptures. That is, I believe that the saved are given immortality by God as a reward for their faith in Jesus (including their trust and faithfulness). This is grace and hence unmerited. No one actually deserves to live forever with God. It’s a gift.
On the other hand, the damned are not given immortality. Rather, they are judged, punished with perfect justice (by separation from God and whatever other suffering is just), and then extinguished. They cease to exist, which is the “second death” of Revelation or eternal death, in contrast to the eternal life received by the saved.
Hence, I reject the traditional teaching of perpetual conscious torment as simply not taught in scripture and plainly unjust as, under the tradition interpretation, even very good people, with very few sins, suffer the same fate as the greatest sinners in history. The NT routinely describes the fate of the damned as “death” or “destruction,” which words are the very opposite of “don’t die” and “aren’t destroyed” — which is the traditional teaching.
Matt 24:45–51 is a second version of the same parable. Matthew’s version is much shorter than Luke’s and does not contain the portion of the saying dealing with degrees of punishment. However, very significant is the fact that Matthew’s version of the parable is placed immediately after Jesus’ prophecy of the Second Coming, which takes up the middle portion of the same chapter.
I covered the interpretation of Matt 24 in a recent series:
(PS — These posts are based on a lesson I taught in 1975, the first adult Bible class I ever taught. You know, “Fools rush in …” Still, the interpretation (not original with me) has stood up well over the decades, and the necessity of reading Jesus in light of the OT has stuck with me all these years.)
Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright
In his monumental Jesus and the Victory of God, N .T. Wright argues that many of Jesus’ warnings and parables speak to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, rather than the Second Coming. He doesn’t deny the Second Coming (he’s not a full preterist) and doesn’t deny that many of Jesus’ sayings in fact relate to the Second Coming. He just wants us not to assume that every prophecy is about the Second Coming.
Therefore, when we take up a saying of Jesus, we need to ask which event is he speaking of — the destruction of Jerusalem, the Second Coming, or even some other event?
Wright takes the position that this passage is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, but gives only a conclusory argument. I disagree because —
- In Matthew’s parallel account, it immediately follows a prophecy of the Second Coming.
- In Luke’s account, as explained below, I believe the parable immediately follows a series of parables speaking to the Second Coming.
- I can’t see any way that the teaching on degrees of punishment fits the historical reality of the destruction of Jerusalem. Innocents — mothers and infants, for example — were starved to death. Jews trying to escape rather than rebel against Rome were crucified. The suffering of Jewish people during their rebellion was not tied to their awareness of God’s demands.
- I find that, while I agree with Wright’s general claim that some of Jesus’ teachings relate to the destruction of Jerusalem, he includes more of Jesus’ teachings in this category than I think the text justifies. So I’m not surprised that he might include this text in his list, as I believe that he overreaches in a number of cases.
Context in Luke
In Luke, the parable is part of a series of parables. Luk 12:13-31 is the parable of the rich fool, tied closely to Jesus’ teaching — “consider the lilies” — on worry about possessions.
(Lk. 12:20 ESV) 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
Luke 12:20 does not sound like the destruction of Jerusalem to me.
In Luke 12:22, Jesus urges his listeners to accumulate treasures in heaven, concluding —
(Lk. 12:39-40 ESV) 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
This is language that, in Matthew 24 and 1 Thess refers to the Second Coming. In fact, Jesus, in Matt 24, gave his disciples guidance to know when to flee Jerusalem as the Roman army approached — so this seems clearly to refer to the Second Coming. (It really helps to have first sorted through Matt 24 before working through these other passages.)
So I read the parables and sayings that precede our parable to be Second Coming teachings.
Verse by verse
Immediately following the close of the preceding parable (Luke 12:39-40 quoted above), Peter asks a question:
(Lk. 12:41 ESV) 41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”
Peter, who is always the most outspoken of the apostles, seems worried about the teaching. He knows it applies to the apostles. My guess is that he was concerned with —
(Lk. 12:37-38 ESV) 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!
Jesus promises a sumptuous reward for those who are prepared for his coming. Peter is thus asking whether this reward is for all disciples or just the apostles.
Jesus replies with another parable and offers no direct answer — but his point will be clear enough.
(Lk. 12:42-43 ESV) 42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.
Jesus now speaks directly to the obligations and opportunities for a faithful and wise manager (“steward” in the KJV). The Greek is oikonomos, which refers to the manager of a household or personal estate. This person was usually a slave or freed-man (former slave).
In Jesus’ parable, the manager was charged to distribute food presumably raised on the master’s farm to the manager’s household. He is charged with feeding the master’s family.
“Servant” in v. 43 translates doulos, which means bond-servant. “Slave” is usually not used by translators, as the word brings up images of American slavery in the 19th Century — and Greco-Roman slavery was different in some key ways. “Servant” is the alternative, but it doesn’t capture the idea either.
The closest analogy to the American experience would be indentured servants prior to the American Revolution — free people who sold their labor for up to seven years, often in exchange for payment for passage to the New World. In fact, the English seven-year limit on indentured servitude was based on the Torah (Deu 15:1-3). They were effectively slaves for seven years, but they were also countrymen, had significant legal protections, entered into the arrangement voluntarily, and were assured of freedom in seven years. The arrangement was economic rather than racial.
Thus, indentured servants were generally treated with far greater dignity than the African slaves in America — who were thought of as property and had no legal rights and little expectation of freedom.
The manager of a master’s estate in this case was a doulos, meaning an indentured servant. The Jews were not allowed to have fellow Jews as slaves, only as indentured servants or free employees. Therefore, we have a man, surely a Jew in this context, who held the lowest social estate possible among their fellow Jews but who was given a very high responsibility.
Clearly, Jesus seems to be answering Peter’s question by addressing the responsibility of the apostles. The early church took this to also include church leaders charged to feed Jesus’ family with the Word. I think the early church got it right.
Jesus’ first conclusion is that the manager would not know when the master would return — and so he should be ready for the return at any time. Jesus is no fan of procrastination when it comes to Kingdom work.
[to be continued]