A decent sermon at a well known central London Anglican church Sunday night was spoilt, in my view, by the excited closing announcement that Jesus is coming back soon. Apart from the fact that the dogma is questionable on biblical grounds, which I’ll come to, I don’t understand how or why such a reputable church would think it necessary or plausible or wise to proclaim so confidently that finally, at this point in history, after centuries of us getting it wrong, Jesus is about to come back. It seems to me that we would have to be pretty sure—on some sort of collective ecclesial basis—that we’ve got it right this time before raising false hopes yet again and subverting our long term missional commitment to creation-as-we-know-it. Otherwise, this sort of fitful eschatological guesswork strikes me as plain irresponsible.
On top of that, I chanced upon this short and unhelpful video by Michael Kruger addressing the question “Did Jesus promise to return within the lifetime of his disciples?” Here we get to the matter of the biblical grounds for the belief that the church is still waiting for Jesus to return any time soon.
Kruger is responding to sceptics who say that Jesus expected to return within the lifetime of his disciples and that he got this badly wrong. Kruger thinks that we do not have to accept this analysis.
He starts by saying that the sceptics don’t understand how eschatological language works.
Jesus does talk about how he could come back at any moment, he does talk about the imminence of his coming, but there’s nothing that binds him to the idea that he had to come back while his disciples were still alive.
Yes, Jesus asserts—in the Olivet discourse for example—that those standing by him would experience “these things”. But “these things”, Kruger argues, were not the second coming but the trials and tribulations of the interadvent period—in particular, the turmoil leading up to the destruction of the temple. But we should not conclude from this that Jesus had to come back in the lifetime of his disciples.
When we look at the New Testament and Jesus talks about it being the “last days”, we have to remember that the phrase “last days” is not about the quantity of time. It’s about an eschatological concept, that the next thing that is will happen on an eschatological level is that Jesus will return.
There are three issues here. First, is Jesus bound by his language to the idea that he would “come” in the lifetime of his disciples? Secondly, is the coming of the Son of Man included in “these things”? Thirdly, how are we to understand the phrase “last days”?
1. There’s nothing that binds him to this? Really?
It’s very difficult to understand how the sayings about imminence do not bind Jesus to the idea that what he was talking about would happen in the lifetime of his disciples: “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23); “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28); “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mk. 9:1; cf. Lk. 9:27); “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34).
There is nothing peculiar about the grammar or the logic of these statements. We can compare the construction in Numbers 35:12 LXX, where we have the same aorist subjunctive verbs and the conjunctive phrase heōs an: “the one that commits murder will not die until (heōs an) he stands before the congregation for judgment”. They mean exactly what they say: some of Jesus’ disciples would live to see the coming of the Son of Man or the coming the kingdom of God. To suggest that Jesus was not bound to this idea is to say that he didn’t mean what he said.
When would be the “last days”?
Jesus doesn’t actually use the expression “last days”. He makes reference to “those days”, but this is clearly in the context of the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: alas for women who are pregnant “in those days”; if “those days” were not cut short, no one in Israel would survive (Matt. 24:19, 22).
The phrase “last days” occurs, however, in the passage from Joel quoted by Peter in his Pentecost speech (Acts 2:17):
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)
Joel describes a time—a “great and awesome day of the Lord”—when there would be signs in the heavens, some would survive the catastrophe that was coming on Jerusalem, after which God would “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (Joel 2:28-32). Peter clearly thought that the pouring out of the Spirit indiscriminately on all Jesus’ followers—men and women, young and old, male and female servants—signalled the beginning of these “last days”, the beginning of a historical process that would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration of God’s people.
Kruger takes no account of context. He makes a hypothetical, theologically motivated distinction between “quantity of time” and events on an “eschatological level”, but what determines the meaning of the phrase “last days” in these passages is the narrative setting in which it is used, which is the story of the judgment and restoration of national Israel.
So if Jesus was expected by early Jewish-Christian tradition to “come” in the last days, it is quite nonsensical for a preacher in London two thousand years later to declare that Jesus is coming soon.
What were “these things”?
One way to answer the question “How does eschatological language work?” is to look at how the same language works in the Old Testament and in other Jewish writings from the period. There is no reason to think that Jesus, as a first century Jewish prophet with a penchant for apocalyptic imagery, was playing by an entirely different set of linguistic rules.
For example, the saying about a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21) sounds very much like Daniel’s prophecy of a catastrophe that would come upon Israel:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. (Dan. 12:1)
The thought is echoed not only in the Gospels but also in other first century Jewish writings:
And there shall come upon them a second visitation and wrath, such as has not befallen them from the beginning until that time, in which He will stir up against them the king of the kings of the earth and one that rules with great power, who shall crucify those who confess to their circumcision. (T. Mos. 8:1)
…it had so come to pass, that our city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again. Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were (Jos., War 1.11–12)
This strongly suggests that Jews around the time of Jesus viewed the crisis facing Israel in the first century through the lens of Daniel’s prophetic narrative. Whatever direct relevance it may have had in the second century BC, it provided a powerful way to assimilate these new circumstances into the ongoing story of God’s purposes.
The eschatological language of a “son of man” figure coming with the clouds of heaven works in exactly the same way. It is part of the same prophetic reimagining of immediate historical experience.
Israel has come under severe pressure from a regional pagan power to abandon its ancestral worship. Large numbers of Jews are happy to apostatise, but there are many righteous Jews who remain faithful to the covenant even at the cost of persecution and death (cf. Dan. 11:29-39). The meaning of Daniel’s vision is that eventually the pagan oppressor will be judged by God and destroyed, the persecuted righteous will be vindicated before the throne of the Ancient of Days, and they will receive kingdom and glory and will rule over the nations. Moreover, many of those Jews who died in the course of the conflict will be raised, either to everlasting life or to everlasting shame and contempt (Dan. 12:2).
This points to the fact that the political-religious crisis facing Israel and the coming of the Son of Man were inseparable; they belonged to the same apocalyptic vision and the same historical narrative.
To assign the tribulation of the build-up to the war against Rome to the first century and the coming of the Son of Man to a remote and speculative future makes a complete nonsense of eschatological language. It is not only that there are no good exegetical reasons for driving a wedge between the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs in the heavens—where, indeed, Matthew says that “immediately after (eutheōs… meta) the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man…” (Matt. 24:29–30). It breaks the whole narrative coherence of the apocalyptic vision.
So have the sceptics won this debate? Not at all. The image of one like a son of man coming on the clouds signifies the vindication and empowerment of the suffering righteous at the time when YHWH would judge and restore Israel and defeat his enemies. Jesus applied this image and its associated narrative to himself in the first place, but he extended it further to include the followers whom he would send out to the proclaim just this impending event both to Israel and to the nations of the Greek-Roman world: “he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31).
Jesus is telling part of the story here, in apocalyptic language that would have been familiar and meaningful to many in Israel. The early church would take the argument a significant step further when they predicted that Jesus would “come”, just as YHWH “came” in the Old Testament, to judge the nations and be glorified across the Greek-Roman world. But that’s all behind us. Our eschatological hope now is simply in the creator God who will finally remake heaven and earth.