The Doctrine of the Last Things (part 5)

November 01, 2009     Time: 00:35:52

We want to talk now about the question of the delay of the parousia. You’ll remember that in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gives many, many signs that must take place prior to his coming, prior to the return of the Son of Man. These included things like persecution and worldwide witness of the church – the Great Commission would be fulfilled. There would be a time of religious apostasy. There would be wars and conflicts throughout the world. There would be natural disturbances in the world. Then you will remember Paul as well said that certain things must take place before the Son of Man returns. This would include the coming of the lawless one predicted in 2 Thessalonians 2, and then also there would be the full number of the Gentiles come into the church, and then finally all of Israel would be saved before the second coming of Christ.

So you read these passages and I think this gives you the impression that it is going to be a long time until Christ comes again because there is a lot that has to transpire first. That is why it is so stunning then when Jesus says in Mark 13:30 that all of these things will pass away within this generation. One is stunned at this because one has been led to expect a very long period of time before the return of Christ. Then he says in verse 30 that all of these things will take place within this generation. Similarly, in Mark 9:1, if that were not clear enough he says, “. . . there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” So Jesus at face value seems to be saying that some of the people who were his contemporaries would live to see the coming of the Son of Man in power and the Kingdom of God ushered in. Of course, that didn’t happen. It is true that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 as Jesus predicted but the Son of Man didn’t return, the resurrection of the dead didn’t occur, and so one is faced with this problem: why was the parousia – the coming of Christ – delayed? Why didn’t it happen when one would have thought it would based on these sayings of Jesus.

Well, there are several ways of dealing with this problem. One we’ve already looked at. That was the preterist view. That was the view that in fact all of these things did take place in AD 70. With the destruction of Jerusalem the Son of Man did come before God and was enthroned. Although this wasn’t a visible event here on earth it did take place in AD 70. So the answer from the preterist point of view is there is no problem! All of these things have been fulfilled just as Jesus said. As attractive as this solution is in being very literal (at least with regard to verse 30), nevertheless I’ve already argued in previous classes that this view really doesn’t hold water when you look at it closely. It just strains the credibility to think that the coming of the Son of Man was some sort of an invisible event that took place in God’s throne room rather than here on earth. This was an event that was supposed to be linked to the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of the righteous and unrighteous and that obviously didn’t take place. So I just can’t buy the preterist line.

Another possibility is to say perhaps the prophecy was changed. We know in the Old Testament there have been examples of where prophecies have been given – for example, Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh where he said “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed” – that have a time line and then something happens so that it no longer becomes appropriate for the prophecy to be fulfilled and the prophecy is changed. So Nineveh in fact wasn’t destroyed even though God had told Jonah to tell the people that in forty days Nineveh was going to be judged and destroyed.[1] So it has been suggested that perhaps here Jesus did give this prophecy that these things would all happen within a generation but then something changed so that the parousia was delayed and that is why it didn’t occur when predicted – the prophecy was changed. Well, that is a possibility I suppose. But again the thing that troubles me here is that there didn’t seem to be anything that would cause the prophecy to be revised or to change. Nineveh repented so that it was no longer appropriate to judge Nineveh. But Jerusalem didn’t repent and nothing changed. Jerusalem in fact was destroyed. So why wasn’t the rest of the prophecy fulfilled? It doesn’t seem to be a good explanation to say the prophecy was simply revised.

So I am driven to a third alternative which doesn’t really have a name but what I am going to say is that the prophecy is ambiguous. That is to say we don’t really know the original context and meaning of these words so that we cannot be sure that Jesus was in fact predicting that he was going to come again within the lifetime of his contemporaries within that first generation. When we remember that the Gospels do not give us a tape recording of Jesus’ words, that the Gospels are written in fact in Greek whereas Jesus probably spoke most of the time in Aramaic, we can already see that we don’t have a verbatim transcript of what Jesus said. This is at least a translation. And when you recall that at this time in history these folks didn’t even have the device of quotation marks, they didn’t have any way to indicate between direct and indirect speech. Often in the Gospels these will blur together. It is hard to know when it is direct speech, when it is indirect speech. They didn’t even have the device of quotation marks. These speeches that were given would often be paraphrased or given from memory as best they could recall. So we shouldn’t think that we always have the words of Jesus exactly in their original context and in exactly in what they might have originally meant.

I think a good example of this is Matthew 10:23 compared with Mark 6:7-13. Let’s look at the Mark passage first. In the Markan passage, we have the mission of the twelve described where Jesus calls the twelve disciples and sends them out two-by-two to preach in the various towns of Israel. So this is a mission during the lifetime of Jesus on which the disciples go and then they return and continue their apprenticeship to Jesus. But when you turn over to Matthew 10 and look at his account of the ministry of the twelve, beginning in verse 1, what you discover is that Matthew blends in with Jesus’ missions charge to these twelve disciples certain prophecies about the end-times, about the coming of the Son of Man. So you get a verse like Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.” So, originally this is probably a verse about the end of the world, the coming of the Son of Man, but here Matthew has woven it into this mission discourse to the twelve. Yet, Matthew clearly knew when he wrote this that the coming of the Son of Man didn’t occur before the mission of the twelve was over. He knew that they went through the towns of Israel, that they came back and continued their apprenticeship with Jesus, and Jesus then went on to the cross and all the rest of it. Yet, by putting this verse in this context, it makes it sound like Jesus was saying to the twelve disciples, “Before you have gone through all the towns of the Israel, the coming of the Son of Man would occur again.” Obviously, that is not what Matthew thought because he is writing afterward. I think this is a perfect illustration of what I’m saying.[2] If Matthew 10:23 did not mean that the Son of Man was going to come again before the mission of the twelve was over, there is no reason to think that Mark 13:30 means that the Son of Man is going to come again within this first generation. We can’t be sure how this saying when it was originally given . . . what it meant or even what context it was. In fact, look again at Mark 13 and see what Jesus is talking about there in verse 30. In verse 30 he says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” What is “all these things” referring to? Well, look at the previous verse, verse 29: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” So “these things” don’t include the coming of the Son of Man himself, right? “These things.” When you see “these things” then you know the Son of Man is near. Then you know the coming will occur. So “these things” don’t include the coming of the Son of Man. What does it include? Well, look back at verse 23: “But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.” He is talking about all of those signs that will take place before the coming of the Son of Man including the destruction of Jerusalem. So at face value what he says is that within this generation all these things – that is to say, these signs, the persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem – will take place before the Son of Man comes. Then the coming of the Son of Man will take place after that. So it may just be that by putting verse 30 later in the discourse after the description of the Son of Man’s coming it makes it sound like the coming of the Son of Man himself will occur within this generation when actually the verse is talking about “these things” that have to precede the coming of the Son of Man and that will take place. So what I am suggesting is that it may not be in its original context, original meaning, that this verse meant at all that the coming of the Son of Man itself would take place within the first generation.

Similarly, look over at Mark 8:38-9:1:

“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.”

What did that mean in the original context of the life of Jesus? What he says there is the people who are alive will see that the Kingdom of God has come with power. That could conceivably mean they will see that it has already come with power, referring to Jesus’ own ministry of his miracle workings and his exorcisms of demonic beings which he said were signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Or it could refer to his death and resurrection from the dead. It might refer to the transfiguration which then takes place next in chapter 9. So it may well be that in the original historical context this utterance by Jesus wasn’t meaning to say there are people here who will see the Son of Man returning in power and glory before they taste death.

But now look over at how Matthew interprets this verse in Matthew 16:28. Here Matthew, given this same event, rewords it. Remember, they didn’t have quotation marks. This is paraphrased. Here is Matthew’s way of saying it in Matthew 16:28, “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.” Now that does sound like they are going to see the return of the Son of Man in their own life. But we know that what Matthew is paraphrasing is this earlier passage in Mark 9:1 which doesn’t really say that.[3] Matthew is giving it back in a somewhat different way. I think again this illustrates my point. These sayings may have a very different meaning in their original context as they were uttered. Someone who only knew Matthew 16:28 might well think that Jesus is saying there are people here who will not die before they see the parousia, but when you read Mark 9:1 that is not at all obvious.

So, that is my plea. We need to remember that we, standing at twenty centuries distance, don’t always have a handle on how these sayings may have been originally used and what they meant. It is quite consistent to think that Jesus thought that things like the destruction of Jerusalem and all of that sort of thing would take place within this generation, but didn’t necessarily think his own coming would take place within that first generation. Remember, as we’ve already seen, Jesus said he didn’t know the date of his return. He didn’t know when the coming of the Son of Man would be. So it is quite consistent for him to say these things, all these things, will take place and then the coming of the Son of Man will take place after that. But how long? He didn’t know. He admitted he didn’t know.

In fact, what you find is quite a number of parables given by Jesus that imply that it will be a very considerable time before the Son of Man returns. Let me just share with you some of these parables. These are bunched together in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 24.

Matthew 24:45-51,

“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,’ 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.

Look over at Luke’s version of this same parable in Luke 12:35-47,

“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”

[That’s an interesting question. Peter is asking, “Is this parable for us? Those of us who are here listening right now? Or is this for all?”]

And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of 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.

[I take Jesus to be saying this isn’t just for you Peter. In a sense, this is an admonition to all believers at all times to be ready.]

But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 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 unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating.

So that would be an example of one of these parables that Jesus tells to prepare his followers for a possible delay of the master’s coming.[4]

Now look at Matthew 25:1-13. One parable isn’t enough! Now we have in 25 another parable:

“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.

[Notice again the delay of the return.]

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.

You don’t know the day nor the hour. Therefore if the master is delayed you still need to be ready.

That is still not enough. 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.’

Again, you see the idea of a long time is in play here before the return of the master.

Finally, one more parable in Matthew 25 making the same point, verses 31-46:

“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?’[5] 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.”

The lesson of the parable that I want to make here is not the idea of punishments and rewards for righteous behavior and so forth. Rather, notice the point again – these people are judged on the basis of how they acted toward other Christians in the world, how they behaved toward Christ’s church, toward his brethren, and suggests again this long period of time during which people who had never known Christ, had never seen him, were nevertheless ministering to the needs of his people and therefore did it unto him.

Taken together with all of the other parables, I think we have good reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth himself believed that he would come again in glory but he didn’t know when it was going to be and he prepared his disciples for the eventuality that this might be a very long time. Therefore, these two verses – Mark 9:1 and Mark 13:30 – I think have to be read against this broader context of the teaching of Jesus where we see within Mark 13 the idea that there will be a lot of stuff that has to transpire first and this fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 may have been just a foreshadowing of a final great tribulation and fall of Jerusalem that will take place again at the end of the age. Although Jesus thought that many of these sorts of things would take place within the next generation, I don’t think we have any good grounds for saying that Jesus believed that the coming of the Son of Man was going to take place within the lifetime of his contemporaries.

So that would be my argument with respect to this problem. These passages like 13:30 and 9:1 are ambiguous, we don’t know their original context, what they meant, anymore than we know what Matthew 10:23 was in its original context. Therefore, we need to read it against the broader teaching of Jesus which is quite consistent with a long delay in the parousia.

DISCUSSION

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The question is: what about the word “generation?” Could this have a broader connotation? Some have suggested for example it might mean the Jewish race perhaps. That generation will not pass away. Maybe it refers to the generation at the end time – that that will not pass away. From my reading on this, although some folks have suggested that, I think the vast majority of exegetes would say that when Jesus uses the words “this generation” that if you look at the way he uses that expression elsewhere in the Gospel he is always talking about his contemporaries. He is talking about the people that were alive at that time. That especially comes out in that verse in Mark 9:1 – there are some standing here who will not taste death. There there is no ambiguity about what generation is being referred to.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah, I think you are absolutely right.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah, I think the passage in 2 Peter 3 is a good passage to look at in this context. It does show that people were troubled by this during that time, too. 2 Peter 3:3-4 says, “[Scoffers will say,] ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.’” They are saying, “Where is he? If he is going to come again, why hasn’t he come yet?”[6] Peter goes on to say in verse 8,

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

You will remember in John 21 as well there was a rumor going about that the beloved disciple would not die before Jesus returned again. John 21, one of the purposes of that chapter is to quash that rumor. He said Jesus did not say that this disciple was not to die. What Jesus said to him was, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” speaking to Peter. “If it is my will that John remain until I come, what is that to you, Peter? You follow me.” It says in John 21 the rumor went about that this disciple was not going to die. Perhaps he was very aged at this time, or maybe he had just died and so people were upset.

So I think you can find, as you say, in the New Testament that there were people that were troubled by this thing as well, wondering if the Lord was going to come at that time. Or, in 2 Thessalonians, some people were even thinking maybe he has come already and we missed it. There Paul says no, no, the day of the Lord won’t come unless the man of lawlessness comes first.

So we need to differentiate here between what people might have believed themselves and what the New Testament teaches. I don’t think you will find Paul anywhere in the New Testament teaching that Christ is going to come before Paul dies or that it would be within his generation. Paul lived with a sense of expectancy but he didn’t teach that Christ was going to return within his generation. So when Paul says things like “When Christ comes again, we who are alive will meet the Lord in the air” I think there he is dividing Christians into two camps – those who are dead and those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return. He can’t very well say “we who are dead” because he’s alive. So he says “we who are alive when the Lord returns will meet the Lord in the air” but I don’t think Paul ever anywhere teaches that the Lord’s return would take place within his own lifetime.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is a really good point you are making. Suppose this tension weren’t there. Then, yeah, people can just relax and take it easy! No – that’s not until AD 5020 when it’s going to occur. Instead, I think you are right. I think in the wisdom of God, this says every generation has to be prepared to be the last. Therefore, we must be like those wise servants who is ready when the master comes at a time you do not expect, whether the first watch, the second watch, or at cock crow you are ready when the master returns. So I like your point. I think this is really part of God’s wisdom for preparing his church – to be vigilant and not to tell us the date of his return.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah, you are thinking I think of the passage in Mark 13 where he talks about these are but the beginning of birth pangs.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: OK, well, I’m not sure what you are thinking of. Of course, the New Testament is written in Greek so we have to look at what those words mean. Here’s one way of thinking about it, too. Somebody who looks at a range of mountains in the distance can see those in the foreground as being very close and then you say, well, immediately behind this mountain is between A is B and C then is immediately behind B. But it may in fact be that these are separated by huge geographical distances – huge spatial distances – even though in a kind of two dimensional space you would say B follows A immediately. So I think as prophecy looks forward to the future, one can say yeah these events occur immediately one after the other but that doesn’t mean that they occur temporally upon the heals of each other.

That would be my best explanation of how I understand Jesus’ teachings on the time of the parousia. Of course the lesson to be learned from all of this is that we need to be like those wise and faithful servants who are always prepared for their master’s return even though we do not expect it.[7]



[1] 4:55

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:05

[4] 20:20

[5] 25:06

[6] 30:14

[7] Total Running Time: 35:51 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)