Making sense of the Second Coming

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailI’ve come to realise that there is one verse in the gospels which can unlock our whole understanding of what to expect in looking for Jesus’ return, the ‘second coming.’ The verse is Matt 24.34:

‘Amen I tell you, there is NO WAY this generation will pass away until all these things have come to pass.’ (my translation)

There are several ways to make sense of this verse:

1. Jesus meant what he said, but the things he describes in the preceding verses did not come to pass, and Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic prophet whose mission failed, but was revived by the Church who invented stories about his resurrection in order to rehabilitate his teaching. This has been a fairly widespread view amongst critical scholarship, and was expounded most powerfully by Albert Schweitzer.

2. The phrase ‘this generation’ (Gk he genea aute) can be translated ‘this people’, in other words, it refers to the Jews, not to this particular generation. Unfortunately, this does not stack up for several reasons. First, genea consistently refers to a ‘generation’ meaning a people alive at a particular time in the other 42 occurrences in the New Testament. (One possible exception to this is in Luke 16.8, ‘The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation…). But the second, and compelling set of reasons why this cannot be read in this way is Jesus’ emphasis on timing in these verses. The phrase ‘will not pass away’ is a common term for ‘to die’ (and we use the same euphemism in English); Jesus has just talked about reading the signs of the times with the analogy of the fig tree coming into fruit (Matt 24.32), and he draws the conclusion that the ‘time is near’ for all these events; he then goes on to contrast the immediacy of ‘these things’ (v 34) with ‘those things’ in Matt 24.36, whose timing no-one knows.

3. A common ‘escape route’ is to argue that when Jesus says ‘all these things’ he actually means ‘some of these things.’ I was taught that prophecy is like looking at a mountain range from a distance, or looking through a telescope. It is hard to see the distance between things which are relatively near and things which are quite far off, as they all look at though they are next to one another. The problem with this view is that it assumes we know better than both Jesus and Matthew what Jesus meant in the preceding verses, and that both of them were confused in what they said and recorded.

4. One rather extraordinary approach (which I was offered this week) is that ‘this generation’ refers to the generation who are reading it now. To believe this, you have to think that the meaning of language changes almost at random depending on who is reading it, and that in fact the statement was meaningless for Jesus’ hearers and for Matthew and his readers.

This really only leaves one convincing option: Jesus meant what he said.

There is in fact good evidence for believing this. When Matthew records this piece of teaching, he makes some significant changes from Mark’s earlier account. In Mark, the disciples ask Jesus a single, compound question:

Tell us, when will these things happen and what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled? (Mark 13.3)

(Some English translations unhelpfully split this into two, but it is one sentence in Greek.) But in Matthew, this has become two questions about two different events:

Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

In Matthew, the disciples’ question now has a supplementary, about the ‘sign of your coming’ [Gk parousia] and the end of the age, separate from the timing of ‘this’ i.e. the fall of the temple. And Matthew then goes on to structure what follows accordingly: verses 1 to 35 answer the first question, about the all of the temple and the destruction and trauma associated with it, which will happen before ‘this generation pass away’; then verses 36 to 51 address the second question about Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age, a subject which receives a summary treatment only in Mark 13.32–37. This makes perfect sense if Mark was written in the 60s prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and Matthew written after it in the 70s or 80s; Mark is focussed on this as a looming disaster on the horizon, whereas for Matthew, the destruction of the temple has happened and is confirmation of Jesus’ words, and the focus now shifts to the second question, the end of the age. To make this point even clearer, he then goes on to record a whole series of parables, about the end and Jesus’ coming, in the following chapters.

This has some massive implications for our understanding of eschatology and what we are and are not looking for in Jesus’ parousia.

First, we are not looking for ‘sign of the times.’ Jesus explicitly contrasts what the disciples’s attitude should be to the two events. For the first, they are to look for the signs of the times, as they look on a fig tree for fruit when the time is right. But for the second, ‘no-one knows the day or hour.’ Jesus will come at an hour that we do not expect (Matt 24.44), as a ‘thief in the night’ for those who do not know him, but as a friend in the day for those who are his followers.

Second, the things Jesus mentions in Matt 24.29–31 have already happened. Peter is quite clear about this in his Acts 2 speech. He declares that the events the people are witnessing are precisely those foretold by Joel 2, including:

‘The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2.20–21, compare Joel 2.32 and also Romans 10.13).

And this means that the Son of Man has come on the clouds (to the Power = Ancient of Days), the trumpet has sounded (announcing a royal proclamation of good news) and the elect are being gathered.

The Son of Man (Jesus) ‘coming on the clouds’ uses a different Greek word erchomenos for ‘coming’ than is used in Matt 24.3 and Matt 24.37, where we find parousia, Jesus’ royal return as king after his period of absence. In Greek texts, this phrase is actually put in italics, meaning that it is a quotation, in this case from Daniel 7.13. The consistent position of all the New Testament texts is that this has been fulfilled in Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and that in fulfilment of Dan 7, Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus himself predicts this in Mark 14.62; he is clear that the High Priests will see it in their lifetime. Peter confirms it in his speech in Acts 2, which concludes not with the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, but with the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand, as fulfilment of the Scriptures (Acts 2.32–36). This is what Stephen sees at the end of his speech in Acts 7, and (as with the High Priests at Jesus’ trial) is what provokes his listeners’ wrath and leads them to stone him:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7.55–56)

And of course Paul heard this—and realising the truth of this is what leads him to incorporate Jesus into his Jewish profession of the one God, the Shema of Deut 6.4, in 1 Cor 8.4–6. This is a perfect reflection of the ambiguities in Dan 7; it becomes unclear whether the worship of the nations and the power of the everlasting kingdom belong to the Ancient of Days or the Son of Man, or both. (Within Daniel, the Son of Man is a corporate representation of the people of God, but in the NT, as Jesus takes up the destiny of Israel, it comes to refer again to an individual.)

rapturecartoonThe sounding of the trumpet in Matt 24.31 is therefore something quite different from Paul’s trumpet in 1 Thess 4.16; it is a metaphor for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom spilling out from Israel into the whole known world, as recorded by Luke in Acts. And the ‘gathering of the elect’ does not refer to an ‘end times’ return of Jews to the geographical land of Israel; as Revelation 7 makes clear, the numbered members of the tribe of Israel (Rev 7.4) are in fact an unnumbered multitude from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9), just as Dan 7.14 had predicted.

All this suggests that we should not be trying to discern the time of Jesus’ coming from events in world history, and it confirms the truth reinforced over and over in the NT: that all God’s promises to his people are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus’ second coming is not about an ‘end times’ timetable of events like the rapture (which cannot be found in the NT) or tribulation, which is in fact the lot of all who follow Jesus, as Paul makes clear in Acts 14.22, John is clear about in Rev 1.9, and Jesus himself teaches in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

When Jesus returns, he will bring to completion the work begun through his perfect offering of himself, his resurrection and his ascension. That’s what we have to look forward to.

(This is the summary of part of a seminar given at New Wine 1 in July 2014)

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19 thoughts on “Making sense of the Second Coming”

    • No, and i suspect I won’t! From reading the preview, I think he is saying the opposite of my comments above, because he is misreading the key texts he addresses.

      Perhaps the main problem for him is taking the verse fem 2 Peter as controlling, when actually the main teaching on eschatology in the NT comes elsewhere and says something quite different from this verse as it is usually understood.

  1. Hi Ian, thank you for this post… tied in well to some challenging conversations I’ve been having in the last few days. I suspect that the biggest problem for most CoE Christians is not that we’re busy searching for ‘signs of the time’ to guess when Jesus will return – but that we don’t actually think he’s going to return at all. Of course, we say we do in the creed, but I think this is probably the ultimate triumph of habit over belief. I wonder if you agree if for most people in the pew, eschatology (if it has any meaning at all) has been reduced to questions about the afterlife and the fate of individuals, and that the idea of history having a meaningful climax, a true ‘end of the world’, either doesn’t occur or is viewed as barmy fundamentalism?

    I’m sure it’s not barmy fundamentalism, that it’s really, really important – a genuine first order article of faith, up there with Incarnation and Atonement. BUT, I also find it very difficult to articulate in a way that doesn’t sound barmy. At our church on Sunday morning, the preacher said (in a non-bullying way) that whilst many of us might have had a very pleasant Sunday lunch planned that day, we had to realise that it might never happen – not because we might get knocked over by a bus, but because Jesus might return and this present order of things end. He might come at any time. I’m pretty sure this is orthodoxy… and I’m also pretty sure I find it very difficult to accept: it just sounds so mad! (I can’t say why it sounds more mad than Incarnation and Resurrection… it just does). What would you have made of it? Do you think the world (or as Tom Wright would say, the current order of things) will, one day, come to a sudden and unexpected end, and the judgement begin? And do you also think that the answer to that question is of huge significance – that that this not a matter of legitimate doctrinal diversity? Or have I got wrong end of stick entirely?

  2. In my youth at a Brethren church the notices every week were preceded with a note reminding us that should Jesus come again that week many of the events would not happen.

  3. I’m with Schweitzer on this one.

    It’s strange how we’re told that other passages in the Bible must taken at face value, whereas Matthew 24:34 has to be dissected and reinterpreted to explain away its most obvious meaning: but only because the deadline has been passed. Early Christians believed Christ would come again in their lifetimes. But they were wrong. So why shouldn’t they be wrong about other things too?

    As far as I can see this passage is a glaring example of scriptural fallibility. The things it talks about did not come to pass in the stated timescale. Scripture is therefore fallible, so as a guide for understanding the divine it cannot be taken seriously.

    Is it outrageous to imagine that zealots whose predictions fail to come true will bolster their beliefs by inventing fresh myths to try and explain away the disappointment? It happens in the here and now. Look at Harold Camping, for example. Why do we think the early church fathers were any different?

    • “I’m with Schweitzer on this one.”


      Imminent eschatology doesn’t just rest on a handful of words put into Jesus’ mouth by the author of Matthew: it shaped early Christianity. As E.P. Sanders and Dale Allison have shown at length, the historical Jesus was driven by the belief that Adonai was about to intervene in history, end the current world, and establish his kingdom. Stripped of that framework, his actions and teachings make no sense.

      There’s only two reasons it’s doubted: people want Jesus to share their beliefs (the Jesus Seminar problem); or people have a doctrinal objection to the possibility that Jesus could be wrong.

    • I don’t, Lorenzo: later books like John’s Gospel (John 21:23) and 2 Peter (c.3) modify the eschatology to account for Jesus’ failure to return within the lifetime of his generation.

      What I do accept is the reconstruction of the historical Jesus that’s batted off challenges from both liberals and conservatives for a good century. If Jesus wasn’t a millenarian prophet, the trajectory of early Christianity falls apart.

  4. Interesting post. But I’m confused by the apparent difference in your last two paragraphs:
    All this suggests that we should not be trying to discern the time of Jesus’ coming from events in world history, and it confirms the truth reinforced over and over in the NT: that all God’s promises to his people are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus’ second coming is not about an ‘end times’ timetable of events like the rapture (which cannot be found in the NT) or tribulation, which is in fact the lot of all who follow Jesus, as Paul makes clear in Acts 14.22, John is clear about in Rev 1.9, and Jesus himself teaches in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

    When Jesus returns, he will bring to completion the work begun through his perfect offering of himself, his resurrection and his ascension. That’s what we have to look forward to.

    How does the last paragraph fit with the one before it? Do you think Jesus will return, from what scriptures?

    • There’s no end of Scriptures that tell us Jesus will return…not sure where to start on that one!

      But the point is: we should be interested in what he will do when he comes, not in a series of events that might (or might not) precede his actual coming. Because the stuff about the fig tree comes before Jesus saying ‘all these things will happen’ he is actually telling us to watch for the signs of the destruction of the temple but *not* watch for the signs of his coming. I don’t think there will be any.

      Does that help?

  5. No, that doesn’t help in terms of which scriptures say he’ll come back, outside of your earlier exegesis! List half a dozen passages please, perhaps with a sentance or two for each.

    But I do agree with your signs analysis, thanks for arguing that so clearly.

  6. Ian, helpful post for me as I do some thinking on this – but I have a couple of questions left hanging. The biggy, I hoped you might address, but it didn’t come up. It’s how v.29 and v.30 start. “Immediately after the distress…At that time…” If vv.29-31 are referring to Christ’s first coming, which you argue persuasively from Dan. 7, then why is it not happening until after 70AD?

    Is Isaiah 13:10 (the sky darkening) a reference to the day Jesus died? That wasn’t immediately after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Or is it a reference to the dust and debris left from the Temple being destroyed? Or symbolically a dark time?

    Is it significant that ‘erchomenos’ also means “going”? The Greeks didn’t know whether they were coming or going. Does it then just means that after the destruction of the Temple, the ascended Jesus will continue to be “seen” by people from all nations, as God works out his purpose to bring the good news to all nations and gather the elect?

    So, application point for us: bad stuff will happen and has happened, but don’t worry coz Jesus is still up there doing his stuff and helping us play our part?

    Something like that? What think you?

  7. Ian, are you saying that all the time statements in the New Testament actually mean what they say? E.g. “this generation,” “The Lord is at hand,” “The coming of the Lord draws near,” “Behold, I come quickly!” “Yet a very, very little while and He that is coming will come and will not tarry”?? Are you saying those all mean what they say?


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