Jesus’ prophecy about his return


  • Question 119, from RW

    I have read and reread Matthew chapter 24 and from what I see, Jesus was talking directly to the apostles about what would happen to them specifically. As far as the “generation” He spoke of, how could He mean something thousands of years away? I am beginning to see why Jews have nothing to do with Christ.

    Whenever I ask people of faith about this, they look at me as if to wonder why I even bring up the question. I also get these long explanations as to why the return is some future event.

    I smell a cover up and seriously wonder if the Christian community will ever come clean on this issue.

    This question highlights a major difficulty with eschatology (the study of the ‘end times’). Certainly, a number of studies of the Christian belief about the end of the world ignore sections of the Bible, such as Matthew chapter 24, which suggest the second coming/judgement day is just about to happen, although this shouldn’t perhaps be viewed as a deliberate “cover up”.

    In Matthew chapter 24, Jesus is recorded as warning his disciples about the imminent destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and how they could tell when the destruction is going to happen. It is generally accepted that the reference to “the abomination that causes desolation” – a phrase used in the book of Daniel – was probably a coded reference to the standards of the Roman legions, which were considered to be idols. According to the ‘prophecy’, When the Roman standards were placed in the Temple, the city would be destroyed.

    While there are a number of different theories as to when the gospel we call Matthew was written, the majority of scholars would say it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem. The debate then hinges on whether this is a genuine prophecy from Jesus regarding the destruction of the Temple, or whether it’s been written ‘after the fact’ to explain why the Temple has been destroyed.

    If there was a Jewish-Christian faction who saw Christianity as a renewal movement in Judaism rather than a new religion in its own right, the destruction of the Temple would have cast significant doubt on the veracity of Christ’s teaching. Matthew, long recognised to be the most ‘Jewish’ gospel, may have included this whole passage precisely to counteract the argument that the destruction of the Temple disproved Jesus’ claims to be the Jewish messiah.

    The destruction of Jerusalem is closely linked with Jesus’ description of the end times. In fact, Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples that the “days will shortened” (verse 22) between the destruction of Jerusalem and when the ‘Son of Man’ comes in glory (verse 30). After telling his disciples to be mindful of the ‘signs of the times’, he then says that all this will happen before “this generation” passes away.

    The New Testament is definitely written anticipating the future return of Christ within a lifetime. In the fourth gospel, there is a story included to disavow the rumour that Jesus would return within the lifetime of the ‘beloved disciple’ (John chapter 21, verses 22-23). But the common thread to all references to the second coming/end of the world is that nobody knows when it will be. In Matthew chapter 24, verse 36, Jesus is recorded as saying even he doesn’t know when the end would come. Previously in Matthew, Jesus refers to the time ‘being short’ (chapter 10, verse 23) and explicitly states that “some standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (chapter 16, verse 28).

    The fact that the New Testament anticipates Jesus’ return “soon” (Revelation chapter 22, verse 20), without defining how long that ‘soon’ will be, has led to a number of different possibilities being put forward.

    The simplest solution to the conundrum is that Jesus was prophesying and got it half right – the destruction of Jerusalem, but not the follow on end of the world. Obviously, Christians who hold that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God would be very unhappy at this interpretation. However, it has been a long-standing tradition within Christian theology that as a human being, Jesus felt hunger, thirst and grief, but as the incarnate Son, he exhibited divine characteristics such as prophecy and miraculous acts. It would be possible to claim that in his human person, Jesus made a mistake, stemming from the human limits to his knowledge (chapter 24, verse 36). This mistake would have no bearing on his deity, or his divine nature.

    Another explanation is that the gospel writer got it wrong. It is simply impossible to know that the words recorded as coming from Jesus were actually spoken by him. If the writer(s) of Matthew was of the Jewish-Christian tradition, maybe for him the destruction of the Temple felt very much like a prelude to the end of the world. Jesus’ words may have been recast to reflect the writer’s state of mind.

    Tying in to this is the alternative translation of the word ‘genea’, which can mean ‘generation’ or ‘race’ (it is the root of our English word genealogy). If Jesus meant ‘race’, then he was saying there would still be ethnic Jews present to witness the second coming, which, given the situation under the Roman occupiers may have looked uncertain at the time the gospel was written. However, ‘genea’ is ambiguous, and certainly it would seem, from context, that the word ‘generation’ was meant.

    In terms of understanding how apocalyptic predictions are not necessarily future predictions, it helps to think of ‘apocalyptic’ literature being rooted in its contemporary culture. Certainly Revelation reflects the first century experience of the church in a hostile society. Matthew’s gospel also reflects a particular expression of early Christian culture, in this case the believing Jews who still practised elements of the Jewish faith, including Temple worship.

    There is, of course, a large subculture within the Christian faith dedicated to studying the ‘end times’ and predicting the future return of Christ. For them explaining why Jesus promises an imminent end of the world, which is still yet to happen, becomes a challenge.

    One method of explaining confusions in Scripture is to use Scripture to interpret itself. So, those who would hold that Jesus didn’t make mistakes when prophesying, and that the Bible is accurate, would probably appeal to the ‘Great Commission’ that appears in Matthew chapter 28, verse 16-20. In this Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (verse 19). Not only has this phrase inspired centuries of dedicated missionary work, it has become a key element in ‘predicting’ the end of the world. According to this theory, until this condition is met, and there is a believer in every nation (or ‘people group’), Christ will not return.

    In terms of understanding Matthew chapter 24, it’s interesting that this phrase appears only a short while later, admittedly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Given that it’s a later statement, it can be regarded as superceding Jesus’ previous prophecy. There is, of course a religious historical precedent for prophecies of destruction not coming true referred to in Matthew – the case of Jonah’s prophecy about Ninevah. The gospel writer(s) describe the resurrection as ‘the sign of Jonah’ in chapters 12, verses 38-41 and 16, verse 4. It is interesting if Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ followed the same pattern as Jonah’s.

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