Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 7)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
Contextual Ambiguity Regarding the Delay of the Parousia
We’ve been talking about the problem of the delay of the parousia; that is to say, how is it that we have in the Scriptures these predictions of the end times and the return of the Son of Man by Jesus and by Paul that seem to suggest that this is something that is a long way off and yet there are a pair of sayings by Jesus that are very curious that suggest that this was an event that he thought would take place within the lifetime of his hearers? How is this best to be explained?
I am going to suggest a view that doesn’t have a name so I’ve just given it my own name – this apparent conflict is due to what I’ll call contextual ambiguity. The idea behind this proposal is the well-known fact that context crucially affects interpretation. How a sentence or saying is to be interpreted is going to depend upon the context in which it appears. I think all of us know that this is true. Take the saying, “That’s exactly what I think.” That is completely ambiguous unless you know the context in which it occurs.
In the Gospels, it is a well-known fact by New Testament scholars that the evangelists (that is, the Gospel writers) exercise considerable editorial freedom in giving back the teachings and sayings of Jesus. They will move them around, and sometimes these sayings will appear in different contexts. When they are in these different contexts they can seem to take on a different meaning. I want to suggest that these passages about the Second Coming of Christ that appear to suggest that Jesus thought this was going to take place within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses is a false impression that could be attributed to this contextual ambiguity.
Let me give you what I consider to be a knockdown argument for this sort of contextual ambiguity that is in the Gospels. What I am referring to here is the mission of the Twelve on which Jesus sends the disciples to preach and to heal. This is a sending or a commission that is during the lifetime of Jesus. It is early in his ministry. It is prior to the death of John the Baptist. We read about this in Mark 6:7-13. If you have your New Testament, I really encourage you to open it with me because these passages will be illuminated much more if you have them in front of you.
And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Where you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.” So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.
Now, there is nothing unusual about this mission of the Twelve. It is a preaching and healing mission that Jesus sent the twelve disciples on, and they went out and did what he said and came back, and the rest of the Gospel story continues. But now I want you to turn over to Matthew 10 and look at the way Matthew relates the story of the sending of the Twelve. Matthew 10:5-23. Remember Matthew is using Mark’s Gospel. Mark was the more primitive, earliest Gospel, and Matthew uses Mark as part of his source. I want you to look at the editorial freedom that Matthew exercises in using material from Mark’s Gospel.
These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”
So far he is basically following Mark’s narrative. But now look what he inserts in verses 16 and following:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; [now look at this verse] for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.
Now, here it sounds as though Jesus is saying before the mission of the Twelve is completed – before they go through the towns of Israel – the return of the Son of Man will occur. Where does this extra material that Matthew inserts into the narrative come from? Well, it comes from the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13! Look at Mark 13:9-13. This is Jesus’ prophecy about the end times:
But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
So what Matthew has done is he has taken words from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse about the end times and he has inserted it into Jesus’ charge to the disciples on the mission of the Twelve when they go out preaching in the towns of Israel. As a result, it creates this bizarre illusion that Jesus is predicting that before they finish their mission the Son of Man will return – the coming of the Son of Man will take place. We know that Matthew didn’t believe that. Right? Matthew relates the rest of the Gospel about how the disciples come back and continue with Jesus. There is the remainder of his ministry and then his death and resurrection and so forth. So Matthew knows that the coming of the Son of Man didn’t occur prior to the close of the mission of the Twelve. But because of the context into which he inserts this material from the Olivet Discourse, it gives the false impression that before they have gone through all the towns of Israel on their preaching mission the Son of Man will return.
I think this is a perfect and remarkable illustration of the kind of contextual ambiguity that I am talking about. A saying about the return of the Son of Man can look like it means different things when it is put in different contexts. Given the editorial freedom that the evangelists exercise, I am suggesting that we can’t know for sure that this is what Mark 13:30 meant – that before everyone listening to him at that time died off that the Son of Man would return. I think that the way you solve this problem is not by trying to soften the problem ironically; you try to sharpen the problem. You point to what Matthew has done in the charge to the mission of the Twelve and you can see exactly this kind of textual ambiguity that I am speaking of.
Let’s look again at this pair of verses that are the problem that we are dealing with. I want to suggest that these, too, could have a different sort of meaning depending upon the original context in which they were uttered. We may well not know the original context in which they were uttered, just as a reader of Matthew’s Gospel wouldn’t know the original context of this material that is inserted into the charge to the twelve disciples.
Look first at Matthew 16:28 where the problem appears. Here is Matthew’s version of one of these sayings: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” That looks pretty clear, doesn’t it? But now I want you to turn over to Mark 8:38-9:1 which is the passage that Matthew has adapted and gives back in somewhat different words. Jesus said,
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Now that is a very different rendering of these words. Mark’s passage uses the future tense – “There are some standing here who will see” (future tense) – “that the kingdom of God has come” (perfect tense). That looks back to the past. So what will these people who are standing here see? They will see that the Kingdom of God has come with power. That is very different than what Matthew says. Matthew says “they will see the Son of Man coming in power.” He is paraphrasing or giving back Mark’s words in a way that gives them a very different sort of meaning. What Mark says is that they will see that the Kingdom of God has come with power. Notice the break between 8:38 and 9:1. There is the end of the saying “he will come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” and then there is sort of a break “And he said to them” and then here comes this saying of Jesus. What was the original context of that saying? Has Mark appended that here as the break sort of suggests? We don’t know. But look at the wider context. What is he talking about in Mark 8:31? “And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” He is predicting his death and resurrection from the dead. And Mark says, “And he said this plainly” to make it clear. “And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Here Peter is rebuking Jesus. Now, suppose Jesus then says, “There are some standing here who will not die before they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” This could be a reference to his resurrection from the dead. That is the context more broadly. So this may not be a reference to the Second Coming of the Son of Man, but what he is saying is that some of the people who are hearing him will see that in fact, yeah, the Kingdom of God has come with power. After the resurrection, Peter and the others will look back and say, yeah, the Kingdom of God really has come with power. But Matthew gives back the words of Jesus in a somewhat different way that would give a different impression. So I am suggesting that it may well have been that chapter 9 and verse 1 isn’t really about the Second Coming. It could be about the resurrection.
Similarly, let’s look at Mark 13:30, the Olivet Discourse. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” What was he referring to in the original context when he said “all these things?” This saying comes after the prophecy of the return of the Son of Man in verses 24-27. So in this context you think he is talking about the return of the Son of Man when he says “all these things will take place before this generation passes away.” But look at the broader context of Mark 13. The phrase “all these things” occurs in Mark 13 in verses 4, 23, and 29 before Jesus says this in verse 30. Look at Mark 13:4, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” What is the sign going to be when all these things are going to take place? Then in verse 23, after describing the destruction of Jerusalem and the false Christs that will come, he says, “But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.” Then in verse 29, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you will know that he is near, at the very gates.” Here again, “these things” – what are these things? The things that he has been talking about with the destruction of Jerusalem. This concerns these things before the return of the Son of Man. He says “you will know then he is near, at the very gates.” But the things that he is talking about are the events prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Then he says “I say to you this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” So this could well have been in the original context talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the tribulation that will happen at that time. But, because Mark has in verses 24-27 this passage about the return of the Son of Man, reading verse 30 one gets the misimpression that he is saying the Son of Man is going to return before this generation dies off. It may well have been that in the original context what is being discussed is the destruction of Jerusalem and the trials and the signs that will lead up to that. In fact, Jesus then goes on in verse 32 to say, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” How could Jesus have been predicting that his return would occur before this generation is dead when he himself says that even the Son of God doesn’t know when the return of the Son of Man will take place?
I think that it may well have been the case that in the original context what you have here are prophecies about things that will take place before that generation dies off, but not predicting that the return of the Son of Man will occur any more than Matthew thought that the return of the Son of Man would occur before the Twelve had completed their mission to Israel despite what it says in Matthew 10:23 that before they’ve gone through all the towns of Israel they will see the Son of Man come.
Parables of Delay of the Parousia
If this weren’t enough, what I have not shared with you is that while you have this pair of troubling verses about this generation not passing away and some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom has come with power, what we also have in the Gospels is a parade of parables by Jesus precisely about the delay of the parousia – that it is going to be a long time. It is going to appear to be delayed. Look at these starting in Matthew 24. Matthew 24:45-51 is the first parable:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed,” [Look at that! There it is!] and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.
You can compare the same parable in Luke 12:35-48.
As if that weren’t enough, Jesus gives a second parable in Matthew 25:1-13 which teaches this same thing:
Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Here again you have the delay of the return, the delay of the bridegroom. The lesson is: always be watchful.
Again, if the disciples still hadn’t gotten the point, another parable – Matthew 25:14-30:
For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
There is much to be learned from this parable, but the point we want to focus on is, again, a long time during which this money could be invested and grow and even gather interest if it was simply put into the bank. So you have here this prediction again of a long time before the return of the master.
Now, you’d think the disciples haven’t gotten the point yet? Maybe not! Matthew 25:31-46 is another parable teaching this same thing.
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Again, in this parable you see that even though Christ is absent – they’ve never seen Christ – the church ministers to the sick, the poor, and those who are in prison. It is describing the ministry of the church to others that will transpire before the master finally comes again and does the reckoning. As they did it to the least of these his brethren so they’ve done it to Christ.
So I think that when you consider on balance the teachings of Jesus about his return, it is clear that Jesus says he doesn’t know the time of his return, nobody knows when he is going to come again. But he prepared the disciples over and over again for a long time – a long delay – during which the church will minister in his name to the unfortunate, the Gospel will be preached to all the nations, and finally at some indeterminate time in the future the end will come. This odd pair of sayings that seem to imply otherwise, I suggest, is due to some sort of contextual ambiguity. It may well be the case that in the original historical context in which Jesus uttered those words he wasn’t talking about the Second Coming or the return of the Son of Man at all.
 Total Running Time: 31:38 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)