Truly, I say to you that this generation will not pass away until all these things should have taken place. The heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not even the Son, but the Father only.
Just to be clear, there will be a final judgment of all the dead, a final renewal of heaven and earth, and a final destruction of all that is contrary to the goodness of God’s creation. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). At least, that is my belief. But it is not what Jesus is talking about here when he tells his disciples that not even he knows exactly when the sequence of events that he has just recounted will reach its climax. A lot of people are clutching at this text at the moment to reassure themselves that Harold Camping doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Under the circumstances a little exegetical clarity—indeed sanity—probably would not go amiss.
Before we go any further, I should also say that this is not about promoting any particular eschatological theory—preterism, partial preterism, amillennialism, or whatever. At stake here is not primarily eschatological outcomes but how we read the New Testament. It is about hermeneutics. What follows is a reading of Jesus’ words according to a narrative-historical hermeneutic, not according to some predetermined eschatological schema.
Jesus’ Olivet discourse is given as a direct and relevant response to a question put to him by his followers concerning the destruction of the temple: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). This establishes a clear temporal frame of reference for everything that follows: i) the events relating to the destruction of the temple; ii) the sign of Jesus’ “coming”; and iii) the end of the age of second temple Judaism. Nothing in the question suggests that these three elements do not more or less coincide.
Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples what they can expect to have to face in the tumultuous period leading up to the war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The language has a distinctively apocalyptic ring to it in places, but it is no different to prophetic descriptions of comparable historical events in the Old Testament and overlaps quite remarkably with Josephus’ eye-witness account of the Jewish War.1 These events would have a massive impact on the fragile communities of disciples as they proclaimed Jesus’ message of a radically novel way of salvation for Israel. We are bound to assume—really as a matter of practical and moral necessity, apart from anything else—that the “prophet” Jesus gave serious consideration to the challenges that they would face in a foreseeable future.
The signs in the heavens described in verse 29 are likewise drawn from Old Testament texts that speak of catastrophic events—events of divine judgment—that will dramatically affect the fate of cities and nations. They are evidence, as Jesus says, that the “powers of the heavens will be shaken”. Israel’s world will never be the same again. Matthew is quite emphatic about the temporal connection between the sufferings of the war and the cosmic events that will follow immediately (eutheōs) upon it. The signs in the heavens are a theological interpretation of what is happening on the ground.
Then a further “sign” will appear—we are still in the realm of the symbolic. Israel will “see”—as Daniel once “saw”, as Caiaphas would “see” (Matt. 26:64)—the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. What Jesus asserts, through the prophetic symbolism, is that Israel will see in the disaster of the war the divine vindication of Jesus and of his followers.
So the disciples are told—in a thoroughly appropriate apocalyptic idiom—that as they see the events described in 24:4-28 unfolding, they are to believe that the one who will save them from their enemies, who will establish his people, is near (24:32-33); their redemption is near (cf. Lk. 21:28).
There are other temporal indicators in the passage that we should note. Many of Jesus’ followers will fall away because of opposition and deception, but those who endure “to the end will be saved” (24:12-13). Realistically this has in view the immediate community of disciples: Jesus exhorts them to remain faithful during this extremely difficult period, as they walk this narrow and dangerous path leading to life, because they will eventually be vindicated., Similarly, the end will not come before the message of what God is doing in Israel—the “gospel of the kingdom”—has been proclaimed throughout the empire (oikoumenē). We should think here of Paul’s ambition to proclaim his gospel from Jerusalem all the way through to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24).
All of this, Jesus affirms, will take place within a generation (24:34), within the lifetime of at least some of his disciples (16:28)—and of course, history proved him right. Did he expect heaven and earth literally to pass away at that moment? I doubt it.
In the later chapters of Isaiah the creation of new heavens and a new earth is made the symbol of a far-reaching restoration of Israel and renewal of the worship of God. The event follows on from judgment upon a ‘rebellious people’ (Is.65:2; cf. 66:24). Jerusalem will become a place of rejoicing; ‘no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress’ (65:19). Salvation will be extended to the Gentiles (51:4–6); some of them will be employed as priests and Levites in the house of the Lord (66:21); and all flesh will come to worship before the Lord (66:23).2
But exactly when this would all happen—the year, the month, the day, the hour—not even the Son could say. It was not for the disciples to know the “times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” for the restoration of Israel (Acts 1:6-7).