Welcome to our Friday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you might have about practical issues that you face.
Today’s question is based on comments made yesterday by user the word of me in response to Wednesday’s post. I am very thankful for his thoughtful comments, and I offer this response in respect and in appreciation for the dialogue. I’d encourage you to read the post and the comment thread here so that you will have the context of my response. The question boils down to this: Did Jesus say he would return in the first century A.D.?
Regarding Matthew 24 (and Mark 13, the parallel passage): You are correct to say that Jesus was speaking to the current generation of people, more specifically the disciples—this is clear from 24:1. It is possible, though, that the Greek word genea in v. 34 means “race” or is a reference to all people characterized by the wickedness of the then-present generation; both of these interpretations would immediately eliminate the tension you raise. But even if “this generation” in v. 34 does refer to the generation of those present at the time, there is a way to explain the passage and not come to the conclusion that Jesus erred in predicting his return.
The most critical question here is this: what is the referent of “all these things” in 24:33 and 34? I would suggest that this phrase does not necessarily include the events spoken of in 24:29–31. Why? A distinction appears between verse 28 and verse 29: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days” begins verse 29. This may signal that a new time period of some kind is in view. Furthermore, verses 32 and 33 don’t even make sense if there is no distinction between “all these things” and “it is near” (both found in v. 33).
In short (already too late to say this ), until verse 28 (and until Mark 13:23) Jesus may be speaking of things that would occur during the lifetime of the disciples, most notably the fall of Jerusalem, which you probably realize occurred in A.D. 70. In verses 29–31 (corresponding to Mark 13:24–27), Jesus would then be discussing his Second Coming. Thus, when Jesus says in 24:34 (parallel to Mark 13:30) that “this generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled” (KJV), he is referring only to the events depicted up to Matt. 24:28, and v. 28 itself is a forward-looking verse.
Now, there is no question that Jesus is linking the two periods by saying that the one (Matt. 24:29–31) will occur “near” the other. And though the original post challenges Harold Camping’s use of 2 Peter 3:8, Peter’s words in these verses do indicate that God’s perspective on time is not the same as ours. What may seem to us to be a long time is a very short time in God’s eyes. Peter quotes Joel 2:28–31 in Acts 2, claiming that the first century A.D. was included within the “last days.” But this presents absolutely no problem for Christians, because we believe that we are still living in the last days, and that, to some extent, there is a basic continuity between our own time period and that of Peter, since both are subsequent to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the most eventful moment of history, the inauguration of the New Covenant, and the inception of God’s redemption of the entire world.
Regarding Mathew 16:28: I remember that the famous atheist Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not a Christian, found this verse to be indefensible. With due respect to Mr. Russell, there are a number of defensible interpretations. As Paul suggested in the comment thread, Jesus may be making reference to the Transfiguration, which followed immediately after Matt. 16:28. The same can be said for Mark 9:1 and the following verses. Another possibility is that Jesus is generally referring to the inception of his kingdom, which many believe took place upon his death, resurrection, and ascension—and these events did take place within the lifetime of the disciples.
Furthermore, Jesus need not be referring to exactly the same thing in Matthew 16:27 and 16:28, or in Mark 8:38 and in Mark 9:1. Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1 may simply be a prediction of something that shares a similarity with what is spoken of in Matthew 16:27 and Mark 8:38, and the Transfiguration in particular would fill that bill.
Regarding Jesus’ “the kingdom of God is at hand” statements: It is a mistake to assume that the Second Coming and the kingdom of God are synonymous. Many biblical scholars believe that the Bible presents the kingdom of God as having been inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Christ (Matt. 13:30; 36–43), and again, these events happened within the lifetime of the disciples. Other biblical scholars believe that Jesus offered the kingdom of God but that the offer was rejected and thus delayed. Either way, Jesus’ statements about the kingdom of God being at hand need not mean that Jesus was predicting his return during the first century.
Regarding the title “Messiah”: I’m afraid you are in error about the literal meaning of this term. The Hebrew term from which we get “Messiah” is mashiyach, which is derived from the verb mashach, “to anoint.” Both “Messiah” and “Christ” (from Greek christos) literally mean “one who is anointed.” The term is thus used sometimes of those given a special mission by God himself. Though “Messiah” does not mean “inaugurator of the end,” as you suggest, I think Peter would be comfortable with saying that Jesus was indeed the inaugurator of the end (Acts 2:14–21), but he would object to your insistence that the end must have occurred during the first century.
Regarding the objection that the Bible’s “incoherence” demonstrates that it is not God’s Word: First of all, I believe the Bible is coherent. The fact that people differ on their interpretation of certain passages, furthermore, or that there are tensions between biblical statements, does not mean that the Bible is not God’s Word. I think the Bible is clear enough; you do not. How clear in your eyes must God’s communication be before you would accept it, though? Is it possible that you would not accept it unless God answered every question to your satisfaction? If so, then I would submit that you have placed yourself in the position of God, and this is an a priori stance that makes it unlikely for us to have a fruitful dialogue.
On an issue that I raised but to which you did not respond: If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then even if he was totally incorrect in his statements about his return (which I do not concede), then we must listen to the Bible’s claim that all, including you and I, must be saved through trust in Him as Savior. As Larry Moyer has said, Christianity does not stand or fall on the Bible (though I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God). Christianity ultimately stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). The truth of Jesus’ resurrection has tremendously strong historical backing and should give us pause before questioning statements that Jesus made.
Great discussion. What are your thoughts, all?