There has been a good deal of hype concerning the end times recently. Harold Camping predicted that Jesus was going to come back, first in the spring, then in the fall, of 2011. 2012 saw people preparing for the end which they believed the Mayan calendar foretold. After Pope Benedict’s announcement that he will resign, a thousand year old ‘prophecy’ has made its way to the internet. Supposedly, the world will end before the end of the next Pope’s papacy. This is nothing new. A.W. Tozer informs us that after WWI, the U.S. was full of traveling teachers promoting their own particular end time scenarios. The 1970’s ushered in a new era of interest with the appearance of The Late Great Planet Earth. When I was saved, the rapture was the main topic of conversation. One of my new Christian friends stated that the earth had only 7 more years, based on the time table set in motion by the founding of Israel. One person said that her children would never graduate from high school because the end was near. Many single guys declared they were going to be bachelors for the rapture. In the end, they all got married, except me. I was incredulous concerning what I was hearing because I had enough historical knowledge to know that throughout the centuries, Christians were certain the end was at hand.
It is believed by many within and without the Church that the first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return before their generation died out. Some believe that Jesus’ own words prove that he had made such a promise. He did tell His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” (Mk. 9:1) Did Jesus really promise to return before the first generation of disciples died out? Did the early Church really have such a belief? The scriptural and historical evidence says, “No.”
During Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, the High Priest asked Jesus, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mk. 14: 61) Jesus replied in Mk. 14:62, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” As Hendrikus Berkhof in Christ the Meaning of History points out, the meaning of this declaration is made even plainer in Matthew and Luke’s account. Matthew quotes Jesus: “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mt 26: 64) Note Matthew’s use of the word “hereafter.” Luke uses it as well in his account. Berkhof writes of its significance to these three accounts: “Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in the victory over the beasts and the taking over of power by the Son of Man. But this great event is not a once-for-all incident, or like a flash of lightning. It is extensive through time.” As Berkhof and other commentators have shown, Jesus’ declaration to the Sanhedrin is a combination of three Old Testament verses. They are Dan. 7: 13-14 and Ps. 110:1. Dan 7:13 reads, “I was watching in the night visions, behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.” Ps. 110:1 reads, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make your enemies Your footstool.’” This positioning of Jesus at the Father’s right hand is not simultaneous with Jesus’ final triumph, the Second Coming, but precedes it. The early Church’s use of Ps. 110:1 in Acts and the Epistles makes it clear that they saw the fulfillment of these words between the Ascension and Consummation. Dan. 7:13 speaks of Jesus coming to the Father; Ps. 110: 1 speaks of Jesus before His return to earth. Ps. 110:1 reveals a time period between Jesus being given power over all nations (Dan. 7:14, Mt. 28:18) and his return to earth. The great Day of the Lord consists of a) the coming of the Son of Man to the Father, b) his sitting down at the Father’s right hand, and c) his return to reveal His power over the whole world. Berkhof writes, “The Day of the Lord has arrived with the death and resurrection of Jesus. That day will be revealed by visible signs, and will continue in an irreversible progress until the revelation of the Son of Man in glory.” The Day of the Lord is not just a mysterious heavenly reality. It is a reality worked out in events here on earth. Jesus declared that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Mt. 28:18); then he commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Jesus having power on earth becomes a fact through the proclamation of Christ to all nations. “The missionary task itself,” Berkhof writes, “is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s glorification.” Manifestations of this power include the destruction of Jerusalem for rejecting its Messiah and the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation.
Jesus himself stated that he did not know the day or hour of his return. Once the early Church realized that Jesus would not be returning before the first generation of Christians died out, this realization should have produced a crisis of faith. That is, if they believed in such a time frame for Jesus’ return. Paul didn’t display any such crisis when he realized that he was going to die before the consummation (2Tim. 4: 6-8). No such crisis is to be discerned elsewhere in the New Testament, or in the writings of the next generation of Christians. When Peter wrote of those who declared that Jesus will not return, he calls them “scoffers.” Berkhof writes of the early Church: “Whether the duration of the history of the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus would be short or long has never been an article of faith. They were seeing the Kingdom of God arrive in power. For that reason there was no place for doubt in the consummation of this event. Even if they hoped this would take place soon, the fact that the period of waiting seemed longer did not lessen the assurance in which they walked in that Kingdom. The joy of the great Beginning removed all alarm over the delay of the End.”
So, how do we now deal with Mk. 9:1? Prior to this verse, Peter had just made his confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Father’s anointed one. It was after Peter’s confession that Jesus’ began to strongly emphasize his death and resurrection. Peter resists Jesus’ message by rebuking Jesus. Jesus responds by rebuking Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”(Mk. 8:33) Then Jesus summons all those following him and exhorts them to mind the things of God, not the things of men: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the son of Man will also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels.” This was a hard word for Jesus’ followers to hear. This hard word ends with reference to His Second Coming. After this hard word comes Mark 9:1: “And He said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.’” Is Jesus saying that he will return in their lifetime? No. Mk. 8: 38 speaks of events in the Consummation, with another reference to Dan. 7:13. In Mk. 9:1, he speaks of a different period of time, when the Kingdom of God is present on earth with power. Mk. 9:1 is partially fulfilled in the very next verses on the Mount of Transfiguration. (Mk. 9: 2-13) Greater fulfillment occurs at the day of Pentecost, when the 120 are first in filled with the Holy Spirit in the upper room. (See here on just what is the Kingdom of God.) Subsequent fulfillment occurs when others are filled with the Spirit at the time of salvation. Also, those already saved received further infillings of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 4:31)
Without reading it within its context, Mk. 13: 30 could appear to be a prophecy from Jesus himself that he would return during the lifetimes of the earliest disciples. Jesus says in this verse, “Assuredly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” What is this verse’s context? On leaving the Temple in Jerusalem with Jesus a couple of days before Jesus’ arrest, the disciples marvel at the Temple’s grandeur. Jesus tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” (Mk. 13:2) When they leave Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask Jesus when this would occur. Jesus answers, telling the disciples of a great tribulation in which they themselves would be persecuted. He warns that false prophets would arise claiming to be the Messiah. (Mk. 13: 5-23). Then Jesus speaks of His return in the future, again referring to Dan 7:13. (Mk.13: 26) So Jesus is referring to two events, the destruction of Jerusalem and his Second coming. Which relates to verse 30? The former, or the later, or both? Just two verses later, Jesus tells his disciples that not even he knows the day or hour when heaven and earth will pass away. How could that verse possibly be related to the time period that it took for that generation to pass away? In verse 30, Jesus was not speaking of his Second Coming, of which he did not know when it would occur. He was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, which would be seen within that generation’s life span.
Finally, we must also consider the teaching of some who claim Jesus never intended to leave earth in the first place. Those who believe this point to Mt. 10: 23. Here Jesus has selected the twelve Apostles and then sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God, perform healings, and cast out demons. When sending them out, Jesus warns them, “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Some consider this proof that Jesus promised he would return before the first generation of disciples died out. In fact, some think Jesus believed His Kingdom would begin without his dying on the Cross. This is true of the “Jesus of History” school of thought. This school of thought originated with the writings of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). Schweitzer and his followers believe that the Biblical portrait of Jesus is false. They believed the gospels that we possess were written centuries later than when the Church has claimed they were written. They believe the Gospels portrayal of Jesus, especially concerning his claim of being the Son of God, was fabricated by one faction within the Church which had gained ascendancy and final victory over other factions. The winners wrote the history, portraying a Jesus that never existed. Schweitzer believed Jesus was leading a rebellion to overthrow the political establishment and replace it with a theocracy. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he thought they would inspire the people to rebel. This is how Schweitzer interpreted Mt. 10:23. When the disciples returned without bringing about a revolution, Schweitzer believed that Jesus was in crisis mode. That is why Jesus went to Jerusalem, so that his death would inspire the revolution he and his disciples had failed to ignite. Besides believing that Jesus never claimed divinity, and believing the Kingdom Jesus spoke about was a political kingdom, where did Schweitzer go wrong? For one thing, Schweitzer confused the sending out of Mt. 10: 23 with the sending out of Mk. 6:7-13 and Lk. 9: 1-6. In the later two, Jesus sent them on a short mission which had a definite ending. (Mk. 6:30 and Lk. 9:10) Also, the latter two were not immediately following the selection of the Apostles as was the sending out in Mt. 10. During the Apostle’s journeys in Mark and Luke, they suffer no such persecution as Jesus warns about in Matthew. In Mark and Luke, Jesus gives no such warnings. The warnings Jesus gives in Matthew find their fulfillment after the completion of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus was speaking of an extended period of time. Matthew’s account of this sending out does not mention a return. This sending out is broader in scope since witnessing to Gentiles is included. (Mt. 10:18) In this passage, Jesus mentions everything pertaining to the experience of the missionary task. Jesus links this sending out to Mt. 10 22, “…But He who endures to the end will be saved.” What about the wording concerning the disciples not going through all the cities of Israel before the coming of the Son of Man. Must we interpret this passage literally. It is the height of irony that a school of thought which tells us that the Bible is not literally true to insist on a literal interpretation of Mt. 10:23. Must we reject the notion that Jesus was capable of employing hyperbole? Schweitzer and his followers interpreted this text based on beliefs they read into it. A careful reading of Mt. 10:23 within the context of the entire passage as well as the other Gospels will lead readers to conclude that Jesus was not referring to a fulfillment in a short period of time.
Today I don’t hear as much talk about the end times among Christians. I don’t hear it among those I fellowship with. I don’t know of a new teacher appearing on the scene who teaches on the subject. While my views on the subject have altered considerably, in a way I’m a little sad that interest in the subject has waned. The Christians I fellowshipped with in the 1980’s were all about living counter culturally. The younger Christians I see today seem to be about seeking acceptance from the culture. The promise of the Second Coming has been a great comfort to Christians for 2000 years: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20) The sure knowledge of coming judgment has been a great motivation to holy living: “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness…?” (2Pet. 3:11) It has been noted by prominent evangelicals that the promise of heaven is losing its appeal to the lost in a rich, materialistic culture such as ours. What about those who claim to be Christ’s disciples? Is the lack of talk concerning the end times a sign that the Church in America has grown wiser, or has it gown colder?
(Scripture quotations from the NKJV)