The question is a simple one. Does Jesus have one or two climactic events in mind when he speaks to his disciples about the future? Following on from his discussion of the “parable” of the sheep and goats, Ian Paul has posted a defence of Dick France’s two-stage reading of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark. Following on from my critique of the “final judgment” interpretation of the sheep and goats passage, I want to restate my view that neither Mark nor Matthew attributes to Jesus a two-stage future.
Briefly, my general thesis is that Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem had one eschatological horizon in prospect: the judgment of a disastrous war against Rome, the vindication of the envoys sent out into the Greek-Roman world to announce this coming act of YHWH, and the renewal of Israel according to the Spirit. In the course of the envoys’ mission it became apparent that these events would also transform the whole oikoumenē, so we now have a second eschatological horizon of the conversion of the pagan empire to worship of the living God. Occasionally in the New Testament we also glimpse a third horizon of a final “putting right” and the renewal of all creation.
Now to the Mount of Olives…
Ian Paul outlines three ways in which the Olivet discourse has been read.
First, the traditional interpretation is that this is an account of what will happen at the end of human history, at the end-of-the-world.
Secondly, N.T. Wright argues that the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 refers only to the destruction of the temple and associated events, though he thinks that the extended discourse in Matthew 24:1-25:46 also has in view a final scenario and the return of Jesus. Paul notes that the idea that the predictions of Mark 13 were fulfilled in the first century is called “preterism.” I prefer the term “prophetic-historical,” or something like it.
Thirdly, Dick France agrees with Wright that the apocalyptic language of Mark 13:23-27 relates to “imminent and far-reaching political change, in the context of the predicted destruction of Jerusalem.”1 But he argues that a decisive temporal break is introduced in both Matthew and Mark with the saying about no one knowing that hour or the day” (Mk. 13:32). So the “coming” of the Son of Man in clouds happened symbolically in the first century; the parousia or return of Jesus is deferred to a remote future, and we are still waiting.
I looked at France’s argument about the parousia of the Son of Man in Matthew a few years ago, and I won’t repeat it all here. I will follow the lines of Paul’s exposition, keeping the focus mainly on Mark’s version.
How apocalyptic literature marks the passage of time
The Jewish apocalyptic imagination had various ways of presenting future chronologies. Daniel refers to a sequence of kingdoms (Dan. 2:36-45; 7:1-8); allegorical dramas must be played out; weeks and times must pass; the book of visions is “sealed until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:7, 9). Paul speaks obscurely of a rebellion that must happen and a restraint that must be removed before the revelation of the man of lawlessness, “whom the Lord Jesus will kill by the spirit of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his parousia” (2 Thess. 2:8, my translation). John inserts a long thousand year period between the overthrow of Rome, in the guise of “Babylon the great,” and the final renewal of creation. Similar devices can be found in the wider canon of Jewish apocalyptic literature.
Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse clearly shares something of this interest in the timing of future events. For a start, the narrative is his answer to the question, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mk. 13:4). He sets out a rather detailed narrative of traumatic events that will result in the destruction of the “great buildings” of the temple (Mk. 13:2). He also makes it clear that all this will happen before “this generation” passes away—for the simple reason that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome would be God’s punishment of the current “adulterous and sinful generation” of Israel (Mk. 13:30; cf. 8:38).
But then we are supposed to believe that Jesus or Mark or Matthew introduced a significant and substantial temporal disjunction into the apocalyptic schedule with the inconsequential and ambiguous words “But concerning that day and the hour…” (Matt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). I find that highly implausible.
The argument is that the words “But concerning…” (peri de…) strongly signal a change of subject. France points to the fact that Paul uses the expression frequently in 1 Corinthians to introduce a new topic—for example, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” (1 Cor. 7:1; cf. 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).2
But the point of the phrase is not that it introduces a change of subject but that it brings a matter into view for consideration. In 1 Corinthians it brings to the reader’s attention a number of issues raised by the church, questions asked in their letter to Paul. In Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36 no extrinsic issue is cited; the reference can only be to something already spoken of in the text. So Jesus says, “But concerning that day (tēs hēmeras ekeinēs) or the hour…” (Mark 13:32, my translation). The strong demonstrative “that” refers back to a moment in time that has already been mentioned. France’s argument here is that there is no singular “day” to refer back to, only “days.” We will get to that in a moment.
In his commentary on Matthew France finds a parallel for the use of peri de to mark a change of subject in Matthew 22:31: “But as for (peri de) the resurrection of the dead….”3 But this surely develops the thought in the preceding verse: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). How a “change of subject” is signalled here is hard to fathom.
The fig tree inclusio
France suggests that the saying about the fig tree in Matthew 24:32; Mark 13:28 constitutes an inclusio that brings to closure a literary unit that began with the cursing of the fig tree Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:12-14, 20:21.
The fig tree saying is certainly climactic, but it seems to me that Mark simply then appends a sobering warning about watchfulness to the affirmation of the fulfilment of the judgment against “this generation,” and Matthew expands on this with the flood analogy, the parables of the ten virgins and the talents, and the judgment of the nations at the parousia. We might also wonder why, if this structure is so important, Matthew excludes the protest in the temple from it (Matt. 21:12-17).
That the disciples fall asleep in Gethsemane and Peter denies Jesus before the cock crows twice underlines the immediate relevance of the exhortation in the “But concerning that day or the hour” passage:
Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. (Mk. 13:35–36)
This does not relate to some remote time far beyond the story of the Son of Man “betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mk. 14:41), who will be seen vindicated by those who are about to condemn him to death. It is all part and parcel of the same tragic narrative of Israel’s revolt against YHWH and rejection of his Son.
That day or the hour
Whereas the distress of the period culminating in the seeing of the Son of Man coming in clouds is referred to as “those days,” plural (Mk. 13:17, 19, 24), Jesus speaks in Mark 13:32 of “that day or the hour.” Does this imply that a different moment in time is indicated?
I have suggested elsewhere that Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse is a remapping of the prophecy against Israel in Zechariah 13-14 LXX. Zechariah says that “days of the Lord” (hēmerai… tou kyriou) are coming and that “on that day” (en ekeinēi tēi hēmerai) the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives and “will come and all the holy ones with him” to judge Jerusalem. Then he adds, “It shall be for one day—and that day is known to the Lord—and not a day and not a night, and at evening time there shall be light” (Zech 14:1-7).
So here we have both the plural and the singular reference to the time of the one event of the gathering of the nations against Jerusalem for battle, the coming of the Lord God with his angels, and the assertion that this day is known to God, with a reference also to the hour of day. This gives us ample reason to think that when Jesus speaks of “that day and the hour…” he is still thinking of the gathering of the armies of Rome against Jerusalem, the destruction of the city, and the vindication of the disciples. The combined expression “that day or the hour” is a narrowing of the temporal frame rather than an alternative to it.
Are we there yet?
I do not see that there is a contradiction between the intensity of the specific signs of Mark 13:5-31 and the “idea of a long time of waiting” in Mark 13:32-37 (cf. Matt. 24:36-25:30). The signs are, at least in part, intended to help the disciples cope with the period of 30-40 years before they would see the concrete vindication of their prophetic stance against establishment Israel: do not be led astray, do not be alarmed, be on your guard, the one who endures to the end will be saved, pray that it won’t happen in winter, and the Lord will cut short the days.
Note, in particular, that the “keep watch” (blepete) of verse 33 echoes the repeated “keep watch” (blepete) of verses 9 and 23; and that the saying that no one knows the day or hour is anticipated by the exhortation to pray that it “may not happen in winter” (Mk. 13:18, 32). It is only as the signs reach their climax that the disciples will know that someone or something is “near, at the very gates” (Mk. 13:29).
The disciples’ double question in Matthew
In Mark’s account the disciples ask, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mk. 13:4). France thinks that Matthew makes this a two-part question, first about the destruction of the temple, then about the parousia of Jesus and the “close of the age” (Matt. 24:3), which Jesus then proceeds to answer in two parts (Matt. 24:4-35 and 24:36-25:46). I don’t think this right.
Jesus warns the disciples not to be fooled by claims that the messiah has been seen in the wilderness or in the inner rooms, for the parousia of the Son of Man will be like lightning which comes from the east and shines as far as the west. I suggest that what Jesus means by this is that the eventual vindication of the Son of Man (and his disciples) by the destruction of Jerusalem will be made known right across the Greek-Roman world.
In any case, the seeing of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” reads most naturally as a reference to the visibility of this parousia. But this belongs to the second question: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). So we do not have the neat division that France claims for Matthew.
The assumption, therefore, is that the “sign” of the parousia and of the end (synteleias) of the age is the same as the “sign” of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:30). The phrase “end of the age” (synteleia aiōnos) occurs in the parables of the weeds and the net (Matt. 13:39, 49). Given that these parables are explained by reference to the commissioning of Isaiah to prophesy against Israel and the account of Israel’s rebellion against YHWH in Psalm 78 (Matt. 13:14-15, 35), they have to be viewed as parables of judgment against Israel at the end of the age of second temple Judaism. The disciples have to endure to the end (telos) in order to be saved (Matt. 24:13); and Jesus promises to be with them, as they proclaim these coming events to the nations, “until the end (synteleias) of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Again, it is all of a piece.
It seems the unavoidable conclusion that the “end of the age” of the disciples’ question is a reference to the same single event: the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, by which Jesus and his disciples would be publicly vindicated not in Judea only but across the Greek-Roman world.
Coming and parousia
Following France, Ian Paul makes a temporal and theological distinction between the “coming” and the parousia of Jesus. The “coming of the Son of Man” belongs to the first century, the parousia belongs to the end of time.
Of the Gospel writers only Matthew uses the word parousia, and only in the apocalyptic discourse (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39). The “coming” (erchomenon) of Jesus on the clouds of heaven must invoke Daniel’s vision of the vindication of persecuted Jews before the throne of God, in the person of the “one like a son of man”:
I was watching in a vision of the night, and behold with the clouds of heaven one as a son of man was coming (erchomenos ēn) and came as far as the ancient of days…. (Dan. 7:13 LXX, my translation)
The disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was installed as Israel’s King and Lord following the ascension, with his exaltation to the right hand of God (cf. Acts 2:32-36). It’s possible, therefore, that the “coming in clouds with great power and glory” is the coming of Jesus, now invested with kingdom, authority, power, and glory, for the purpose of gathering his elect from the four winds (Mk. 13:26-27).
But I think that there is a better way to read this passage. At his trial Jesus will tell the Jewish Council that they will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). Obviously they do not “see” this directly after the ascension as the disciples did. But they will “see” the vindication of Jesus, acted out in the symbolic language of Daniel, when the temple is desolated as Jesus predicted.
So “in those days, after that tribulation,” the leaders of this wicked and adulterous generation of Israel—or the “tribes of the land,” as Matthew has it—“will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” exactly as Jesus had predicted at his trial. They will see what the disciples saw 40 years earlier—only now it is too late.
Then Jesus, as the exalted, authorised, and glorified Son of Man, seated at the right hand of God, will send out the angels to gather his elect. These are the envoys sent out with the simple purpose of announcing the coming “kingdom of heaven” and training others to do the same. At the end of the age their dangerous mission will be finished and they will be regathered, having been faithful over little, to take up their even greater responsibilities (cf. Matt. 25:21, 23) in the renewed people of God.
Following the cataclysmic event the Son of Man becomes “present” in a royal parousia that shines, like lightning, from Jerusalem in the east to the furthest reaches of the empire in the west. Within the eschatological horizon of the Gospels the enthronement of Jesus over his people will be acclaimed by the onlooking peoples of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.
Within the second eschatological horizon of the apostolic communities Jesus will not only be acclaimed by the nations as Israel’s king; he will eventually displace the multitude of pagan lords. To this end Paul quotes Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12; cf. Is. 11:10).