Posts Tagged ‘eschatology’

Making sense of the Second Coming and Jesus’ words in Matthew 24

August 17, 2017

In preparing to preach on the Second Coming in last Sunday’s sermon (based on Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is at hand”), I read the most helpful book on the subject that I’ve ever read: Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

His book cleared up confusion on my part concerning the so-called Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” delivered to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 24-25 and its parallels.

What was I confused about? Something that N.T. Wright advocates in his commentaries on the subject: everything that Jesus says in this passage (and elsewhere in the gospels), which has traditionally been understood as pertaining to his Second Coming, isn’t about the Second Coming at all. Rather, it’s about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

Now, before the “Wright Is Wrong” crowd start piling on, let me say this: Wright doesn’t for a moment deny the Second Coming. In fact, he affirms it loudly from the rest of the New Testament. He just doesn’t think that Jesus taught it prior to his resurrection. In one of his commentaries, he writes that the disciples couldn’t understand his predictions about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Why would Jesus further confuse them with words about his Second Coming?

So this makes Wright a “partial Preterist”: Jesus’ apocalyptic language has already been fulfilled.

While I see the appeal of this position, and it’s clear that much of what Jesus says pertains to the events of A.D. 70, I certainly don’t believe that this is all Jesus is talking about. In order to buy into the Preterism of Matthew 24, you have to interpret Jesus’ words in v. 30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heavens” in a wildly figurative way: Wright says that when the Temple is destroyed, Christians will “see” Jesus and his glory in the sense of vindication: his warnings about Jerusalem, for example, in Matthew 23:37-38, and Israel’s failure to embrace his way of peace, will be fulfilled, and Christ will be glorified. Something like that…

So Jesus, in Wright’s view, “returns” in this figurative sort of way in A.D. 70, before he returns in a more literal way at the end of the age. In a sense, Wright teaches that there are two “returns” of Christ. And don’t most of us Christians—including Wright himself—fault our dispensationalist brothers and sisters for teaching that Christ returns twice—once for Christians and a second time after the Great Tribulation? Is Wright’s position really so different?

Regardless, as much as I respect Wright—and as much as I fear disagreeing with so fierce an intellect—his argument about Jesus’ “little apocalypse” sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like he’s trying to solve an apologetic problem—namely, Is the Bible, or Jesus, wrong about the Second Coming?

Granted, his “solution” isn’t the worst I’ve heard. C.S. Lewis—speaking of Christian thinkers I admire—happily admits that Jesus was wrong. But that’s O.K., he says, because Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So this is where Hoekema comes in: From his perspective, there is no problem. Not if we understand the way prophetic language works.

For example, I’ve struggled with two aspects of Jesus’ “little apocalypse.” First, if Jesus is talking about the end of the age and his Second Coming, why does his language focus so sharply on events in and around ancient Palestine?

On this point, Hoekema writes the following:

In this discourse Jesus seems to be describing events associated with his Second Coming in terms of the people of Israel and of life in Judea. These details, however, should not be interpreted with strict literalness. Herman Ridderbos has some helpful things to say about this:

… The prophet paints the future in the colors and with the lines that he borrows from the world known to him, i.e., from his own environment…. We see the prophets paint the future with the palette of their own experience and project the picture within their own geographical horizon. This appears in the Old Testament prophets in all kinds of ways. And in our opinion, this is also the explanation of Jesus’ description of the future. He follows the Old Testament most closely, and not only is the temporal perspective lacking at the end, but the geographical horizon within which the eschatological events take place is also restricted in some places to the country of Judaea or to the cities of Israel.

In other words, Hoekema writes,

Jesus was describing future events in terms which would be understandable to his hearers, in terms which had local ethnic and geographic color. We are not warranted, however, in applying these predictions only to the Jews, or in restricting their occurrence only to Palestine.[†]

My second problem with Jesus’ words about the Second Coming in Matthew 24 is how they blur so easily with his prediction about the fall of Jerusalem. Why does it seem so unclear, so confusing? But here, too, according to Hoekema, Jesus is following the pattern of Old Testament prophecies. He is employing “prophetic foreshortening.” I explained this idea in last Sunday’s sermon. I hope you find it helpful:

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns have you had about the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.

“The quiet of a suburban home”

June 24, 2011

(This post follows up nicely on yesterday’s post about hell from C.S. Lewis.)

I finally finished reading a challenging book about Christian reconciliation called Exclusion & Embrace by Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Croatia who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He believes that a Christian commitment to nonviolence (which he affirms almost without qualification) must be premised upon God’s violence, i.e., the God of love is also a God of vengeance. Christ as suffering Messiah does not contradict Christ as the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. Only God can resort to violence justly.

He observes that Christians of the Anabaptist tradition (for example, Mennonites and Amish), who tend to be most committed to nonviolence in this world, are themselves most comfortable in talking about God’s vengeance at the end of it. Volf believes that’s the right perspective.

Maybe this talk of a violent God—as opposed to a God who is always “nice”—makes us uncomfortable? Here’s his devastating response:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

Of course the world’s not ending tomorrow, but not so fast…

May 20, 2011

I'm not laughing about this family's story. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Like fellow blogger Fred Clark, I find this hysteria among a very small number of American Christians about the end of the world—and the very large media firestorm having fun at their expense—too sad and depressing to laugh about. I like what Fred said:

Fortunately, Camping [the self-styled theologian who is predicting the world’s end tomorrow] is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.

These people who are setting themselves up for this kind of existential disappointment are are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. The family profiled in this New York Times article (whose snarky headline doesn’t match the more evenhanded tone of the article) hardly seems like a bunch of lunatics. Nevertheless, I profoundly disagree with their theology and outlook.

Of course the end of the world isn’t happening tomorrow. Or maybe I should qualify it by saying that, even if it were happening tomorrow, it wouldn’t be because some guy has calculated the date from scripture. It can’t be found there. We can know this in part because, among many other warnings in scripture, Jesus teaches us that when the end of this present age comes, it will come unexpectedly (Matthew 24:42-51). Jesus said explicitly that he didn’t know, and he didn’t tell his own apostles. If anyone presumes to know today, therefore, he or she will surely be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »