Did Jesus say that he would return within the lifetime of his disciples?

Read time: 10 minutes

People who believe in the “internal consistency of Scripture,” Craig Bartholomew says, are likely to be troubled by a handful of sayings in the Synoptic Gospels that seem “at first glance” to mean that the “second coming” would happen during the lifetime of at least some of the immediate group of his disciples. Bartholomew examines the three basic forms that this teaching takes with the aim of demonstrating that “there are reasonable explanations for all three.”

My aim here is to demonstrate that such a defence of the traditional view is not reasonable, and to suggest that conservative evangelicals would do much better to defend the internal consistency of scripture on narrative-historical grounds.

Some of you will not taste death

The statement in Mark 9:1 (cf. Matt. 16:28; Lk. 9:27) that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” is fulfilled, Bartholomew thinks, the following week when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain. He seems to find confirmation for this understanding in 2 Peter 1:16-18:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

The argument, presumably, is that Jesus’ three companions on the mountain saw what Jesus had said they would see the week before, namely, the “power and coming” of Jesus, which was equivalent to the “power and coming” of the kingdom of God.

I have two immediate objections to this.

The first is that the saying about not tasting death presupposes what Jesus has just said about his followers having to deny themselves, take up their cross, and lose their lives for his sake (Mk. 8:34-35). Some of them—perhaps many of them—will lose their lives in the course of a mission that will not begin, note, until after his death. But they will not all lose their lives—they will not all taste death—“until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

All entirely coherent.

So a fulfilment of the prediction within six days, apart from being absurdly anticlimactic, is ruled out by the fact that none of them will die until after Jesus has died—they must take up their cross and follow him, not precede him. That some of them are expected to die before the kingdom of God comes must be a reference to the risks that they would face over a number of years, if the New Testament record and tradition are anything to go by. Peter, for example, was probably executed in the 60s. In other words, it would be decades before those who survived that long would see the kingdom of God come with power.

The second comment is that the author of 2 Peter took the revelation of Jesus’ “majesty” on the mountain not as evidence that the kingdom of God had already come with power, but as a visible sign of the future “power and coming (parousian) of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:16). On the one hand, the parousia is always a future event in the New Testament. On the other, the author goes on to say that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19). The point, I think, is that the transfiguration and the “prophetic word” serve the same purpose: they provide assurance to a community that is getting impatient (2 Pet. 3:8-10) that the day of the Lord, the parousia of Christ, the kingdom of God will eventually come.

So the transfiguration is not the fulfilment of Mark 9:1. It is another way of saying that the kingdom of God will come in power and that Jesus will be acknowledged as the vindicated and enthroned Son of Man.

This generation will not pass away

Towards the end of the “apocalyptic discourse” Jesus says to the four disciples who had questioned him privately about the destruction of the temple that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mk. 13:30). Bartholomew gets this half right, in my view, though I would delete “at least provisionally”:

“These things” in verses 29–30 must… refer to the events described in verses 5–23, all of which can be understood to have been at least provisionally fulfilled in the years between Jesus’s death… and the destruction of the temple in AD 70—a 40-year period, or a generation.

But he also gets it half wrong when he argues (if I have understood him correctly) that the “these things” of verses 29-30 must precede and not include the seeing of “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mk. 13:26).

This is unconvincing. The clause “when you see the things taking place” in verse 29 is, indeed, a reference to the climax of the narrative of Mark 13:6-23. They will know, as the tragic dénouement unfolds, that he is at the gates, that the glory of the Son of Man will soon be revealed to Israel, that his emissaries will soon be gathered and vindicated with him.

But in verse 30 Jesus speaks of “all these things,” which arguably includes the seeing of the Son of Man by this generation. The words “this generation” do not refer to the disciples. It is the sign-seeking, “adulterous and sinful,” and “faithless” generation of Israel, represented supremely by the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk. 14:61-62; cf. 8:12, 38; 9:19), that will live long enough to see the comprehensive vindication of Jesus’ message to Israel following the destruction of the temple.

You will not have gone through all the cities of Israel…

In Bartholomew’s view, this is the hardest of the three passages to “decipher.” In the context of his preparation of the disciples for their mission Jesus says to them that they will “not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23). It appears, Bartholomew comments, as though “Jesus thinks his second coming will happen within a matter of weeks or months.”

He dismisses the view that Jesus was simply planning to “meet up with the Twelve again somewhere before they’d completed their mission.” When Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming, he is thinking of his “return in glory,” which makes it unlikely that he was referring to a future get-together, or the resurrection, or Pentecost, or to “his invisible coming in judgment against Israel with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.”

The proposed solution to the problem is to differentiate between two sections of teaching in this chapter. In the first section (Matt. 10:5-15), Jesus is clearly speaking only about the mission of the disciples to the cities and villages of Israel. But from verse 16 onwards, Bartholomew argues, the wider perspective of the mission to the nations after Jesus’ death and resurrection is in view (cf. Matt. 28:19-20). So it is best to understood the temporal saying of verse 23b in this context. Basically, the future and continuing mission of the church to the “cities of Israel”—“understood both literally and (by extension) to refer to all Jewish people everywhere”—will not be completed before the Son of Man comes.

This is hardly tenable.

1. The “cities of Israel” in verse 23 are the “cities” of the lost sheep of the house of Israel in 10:5-15. To take verse 23 as a reference to Jewish communities everywhere and throughout the ages is entirely unwarranted.

2. Both blocks of teaching end with reference to the same climactic event. It will be more tolerable on a day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for the cities and villages of Israel which reject the disciples’ message (Matt. 10:15). The period of persecution described in 10:16-23 ends with the coming of the Son of Man, which, according to Matthew 24:29, comes “immediately after the tribulation of those days.”

3. The reference to the betrayal of the disciples by members of their households (Matt. 10:21 ) presupposes the original Palestinian context of their mission. The saying may well anticipate the allusion to Micah 7:6 later in the chapter:

Do not think that I came to cast peace upon the land; I came not to cast peace but a sword. For I came to turn a person against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law. And the person’s enemies are his household-members. (Matt. 10:34-35, my translation)

The rejection of the disciples by their own families will be part of the wider disintegration of community life in Israel in the period leading up to the judgment of AD 70.

4. There is the question of how long it would have taken to go through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Not forty years, surely?

In context this is a reference not to the mission of preaching and healing but to the flight from persecution. Things will deteriorate to the point that “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:21–22). The inclusion here of the saying that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” synchronises this period with the apocalyptic discourse (Matt. 24:9-14).

Jesus is talking neither about the next few months nor about some remote and indeterminate future. He is talking about a period of intensifying violence against his followers in the years leading up to the war against Rome. Then they are to keep on the move, fleeing from one city to the next, until the Son of Man “comes” to send out his angels to deliver them from their sufferings (Matt. 24:31). That they “might not finish (telesēte) the cities of Israel” in their efforts to escape persecution may even have a wryly ironic tone to it.

Finally, let me pick up on the passing reference to “his invisible coming in judgment against Israel with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.” This misses the point, I think. If the appearance of the Son of Man in Matthew 24:29-31 is connected with the catastrophe of AD 70, it is not because Matthew, writing after the event presumably, imagined that Jesus had returned invisibly. What he describes is a visionary or symbolic fulfilment of something that was first grasped by Daniel and then redeveloped by Jesus.

The “tribes of the land”—the last of the corrupt “generation” of Israel which had opposed Jesus—would see more or less what Daniel saw: a vision or revelation of Jesus as the one vindicated before the throne of God, given kingdom, glory, authority, and power, to judge and rule over God’s people and over the nations (Matt. 24:30).

This, it seems to me, gives us a properly consistent reading of Jesus’ “eschatology” that does justice both to the natural meaning of the three statements and the historical purview of his mission to Israel.

It also shows us how to speak of the “eschatological” crisis of our own times. If the looming climate catastrophe, of which the current “heat dome” over the western US and Canada is likely to be a “sign,” is not averted, it should go down in the annals of prophecy not as a vindication of the Son of Man—we are well beyond that—but of the whole biblical witness to the rightness of the creator God and the inveterate, systemic sinfulness of humanity.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 08/12/2021 - 18:47 | Permalink

I’m assuming, without having checked it out, that your view here is more or less the same as Wright (NT.), though I also realise you think that Wright didn’t go on to work out thoroughly the consequences of his view.

I’ve been revisiting the subject recently, in the light of having read Thom Stark — The Human Faces of God. Stark points out what seems to me a significant weakness in Wright’s interpretation (of the “coming” of Jesus as demonstration of his authority and power in the destruction of the temple). He proposes an alternative interpretation which I don’t think has been considered by anyone (not even Albert Schweitzer, who proposes a different kind of “failure”), because it seems too unthinkable. It does seem the most obvious interpretation of them all however, staring at us in plain sight, as it were.

If you had time and inclination to look at Stark, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

@peter wilkinson:

It does seem the most obvious interpretation of them all however, staring at us in plain sight, as it were.

OK, I’ll bit.  Care to share what it is?

@peter wilkinson:

I would say, I think, that the “coming in clouds with great power and glory” is a reference not to a coming for the purpose of destroying the temple but to the consequent vindication of the one who was persecuted and rejected. That’s what it means in Daniel: thrones are set up on earth, the pagan empires are judged, and after that the one like a son of man, representing persecuted righteous Israel, comes with the clouds to receive vindication and rule over the nations which formerly served the beasts.

From Jesus’ point of view the destruction of the temple would be the “judgment” that would deal with the internal aspect of the eschatological crisis (the apostasy analogous to the one described in Daniel 11:32-35), and at that moment the leadership of this wicked generation would “see” that he and John the Baptist and his persecuted followers were “righteous,” they were the “wise,” they had been “right” all along (cf. Mk. 14:62). The sending out of the angels to gather the elect would be part of that act of inclusive vindication (Mk. 13:27). They would then sit on thrones judging Israel—and eventually, as the story later unfolds, they would also rule with him over the nations.

So what does Thom Stark say?

@Andrew Perriman:

I think you should read Stark for yourself Andrew. The full argument, which includes a detailed critique of Wright, is too extensive to summarise here.

The book itself is not simply about the meaning or timing of Jesus’s “coming”, but a broader critique of the belief of biblical inerrancy.

However, the key chapter in question focuses in particular on Jesus’s prediction of imminent judgment within the lifetime of his disciples  Mark 8:34-9:1 (Matt 16:24-28, Luke 9:23-27) and Mark 13 (Matt 24:1-44, Luke 21:5-36), with the key verses for this particular argument being: “there are some standing here who will not taste death etc”; “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened”.

He summarises four ways in which this is commonly explained, which includes Bartholomew’s, adding Wright’s as a fifth, with the extensive critique. He could have added yours as a sixth, since it is a nuanced variation of Wright’s view. I wonder what he would make of it.

His own view includes the many references throughout the NT, in addition to the gospels, to the expectation of an imminent “end”, and has the virtue of being simple, clear and straightforward. Jesus was mistaken in believing in an imminent “final judgment”. 

Your instant reaction may well be that Jesus wasn’t mistaken because he didn’t believe in an imminent final judgment. However, the argument is more extensive than that. Stark also explains why he does not think it casts doubt on the integrity of anything else that Jesus did or said, which would be an obvious reaction. Nor is it simply the fallible “human” part of the “God-man”.

To look at the whole argument, which is supported by considerable cross referencing and footnotes, you’d have to read it for yourself. I do think it is providing a credible alternative to those already proposed, and has the virtue of being the most straightforward, with the only reason for it not being taken up is that it seems too unthinkable!

I’d summarise Stark at more length, but it would take up too much space in a humble comment box attached to a post on a different author!

@peter wilkinson:

Your instant reaction may well be that Jesus wasn’t mistaken because he didn’t believe in an imminent final judgment.

Exactly. But I’ll have a look at Stark’s take on it.

…and has the virtue of being simple, clear and straightforward. Jesus was mistaken in believing in an imminent “final judgment”.

Although I don’t agree with this eschatological sentiment, this notion has to be as equally tenable with those who propose Paul was likewise eschatologically “mistaken”… again, not something I agree with.