All three of the Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - contain an apocalyptic discourse of Jesus that describes the future destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the signs of the final tribulation before the Last Judgment. Like most of the eschatological revelations of the Bible, this "synoptic apocalypse" is difficult to decipher, as it makes use of symbolic imagery such as that used by the prophet Daniel, and it is deliberately obscure in its sense of time duration, suggesting events that may take place in the immediate or remote future.
Consequent to this difficulty, many early Christians expected the imminent return or "parousia" of Jesus, as they saw many of the predictions of the synoptic apocalypse fulfilled in the form of Nero's persecution of Christians, followed by the desecration and final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The cataclysmic results of the Jewish War devastated Judea and put an end to the temple-based Jewish religion. As centuries passed, and the world of the gentiles endured, the destruction of Jerusalem came to be understood as an event typifying or foreshadowing the Final Judgment that will occur at the end of history, rather than a sign of the imminent end of the world. The Apostles and later leaders of the Church continually admonished followers against rash expectations of the parousia, the timing of which was known to God alone, but they nonetheless repeated Jesus' warning to be vigilant at all times, since no man knew when the end would come. In every age, various Christians have discerned signs of the Apocalypse as described in the Gospels or in the Revelation of St. John, but needless to say, the world has endured.
Two thousand years later, it is easy for Christians to become complacent about eschatological revelations and assume that the end time will occur in some remote future that does not concern us. This complacency is entirely at odds with the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, though it helps us distinguish ourselves from overzealous kooks who see signs of the end times in every "war and rumors of war". After two millennia of supposedly false alarms, we do not want to be fooled or deceived again. This healthy skepticism, however, can easily elide into a disdain or disrespect for Christ's revelation, which ought to be taken seriously in all its details. Jesus clearly believed in the apocalyptic message, and that it was urgent for all Christians to be aware of it. Thus any skepticism about the imminent end of the world ought to be counterbalanced with a healthy respect for the fact that the Son of Man will indeed come "like a thief in the night."
First, I would challenge the notion that the discernment of signs of the Apocalypse by Christians in ages past were "wrong" or "false" just because the temporal world has continued to endure. There are often preliminary, imperfect fulfillments of revealed prophecy prior to the final fulfillment. For example, the perfect sacrifice of Christ was foreshadowed in the slaying of Abel, the sacrifice of Melchizedek, and the trial of Abraham. The Book of Daniel speaks of the "abomination of desolation," fulfilled partially by the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, yet Jews in the time of Christ still expected a more perfect fulfillment in the last days. This came with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Other prophecies of Daniel can similarly be applied both to the Hellenistic period and the time of Christ. The fulfillment of these prophecies does not preclude the possibility that they may be applied again to the Last Judgment. Quite the contrary, the repeated application of prophecy to successive events is consistent with the theme of salvation history found in the Bible, where covenants are renewed and judgments reaffirmed, each time in a clearer and more perfect form. Thus the covenant of Noah prefigures that of Moses, and the Mosaic Law prefigures the Word Incarnate. Entire treatises have been written about countless other prefigurings of the New Covenant in the Old.
Similarly, the fulfillment of New Testament prophecies may come in the form of successive occurrences, each more emphatic than the previous. These events define the course of history in a way that will bring about the most perfect fulfillment of revelation, at a time when the Gospel is preached to all nations and Israel is converted. The Scriptural basis for this interpretation will be explored as we examine the synoptic apocalypse in detail. The trustworthiness of this revelation is guaranteed by the authority of Christ himself, and we have a sign of its reliability in its accurate depiction of the destruction of the Temple and the occupation of the City of David by gentiles up until the present day. (The Arab sector of Jerusalem includes the entire site of the Biblical city.)
Despite this accurate prediction, and perhaps even because of it, many religious skeptics have argued that the fact that the parousia did not immediately follow the destruction of the Second Temple proves that the "synoptic apocalypse" was a false prophecy, either because Jesus was a false prophet, or because the apocalyptic discourse is not an authentic teaching of Jesus, but a later insertion by the Evangelists. This last contention is implausible, as apocalyptic teachings can be found in even the earliest Christian epistles. Apocalyptic preaching was so common among rabbis in Jesus' time, that it would be far more surprising if Christ did not preach about the end times. Moreover, the prediction of the temple's destruction is contained in all three synoptics, including Mark, which was certainly written before AD 70. There is also a strong case that Luke was written in the early 60s, owing to its otherwise puzzling omission of the martyrdom of St. Paul in Acts (the second volume of Luke). It is circular reasoning to argue that the prophecy about the temple had to have been written after AD 70 simply because it is accurate, and utterly contrary to the historical and textual evidence. This leaves us with the strong probability - and for believers in Scriptural authority, the certainty - that the synoptic apocalypse is substantially an authentic teaching of Jesus, and therefore stands with the authority of the Messiah.
For those who acknowledge the synoptic apocalypse as a genuine discourse of Jesus, any apparent failure of the prophecy would reflect badly on the veracity of Christianity itself. Thus Bertrand Russell found that he could not accept Christianity on account of the Gospel prediction that "this generation will not pass away" until all the signs of the end times would be fulfilled. Russell's perception of a failed prophecy depended on a misreading of the Greek term genea as "generation" in the primary sense of modern usage, as well as a conflation of the apocalyptic events of first-century Jerusalem with those at the end of history. This confusion is understandable, as even devout Christians have made similar errors, owing to the deliberate obscuring of the perception of time in apocalyptic prophecy. We will examine these issues in detail, justifying our interpretations from the relevant texts and parallel usage elsewhere in the New Testament.
In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus' apocalyptic discourse is an answer to the disciples' question, "When will these things (tauta) come to pass?" They ask this after Jesus' prediction that the Temple will be utterly destroyed. It is tempting, therefore, to treat the entire apocalyptic discourse as pertaining to the destruction of the temple, but the Gospels provide additional context that invite a different interpretation.
In St. Matthew's gospel, the prediction of the Temple's destruction is immediately preceded by a discourse against the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem. (23:1-39) This polemic contains several apocalyptic elements that will illuminate the later discourse on the end times and provide context for the apostles' question.
In the discourse against the Pharisees, we will find important uses of the word "generation" in two of its Greek forms, gennema (γεννημα) and genea (γενεα). Both of these words are derived from genos (γενος), meaning "kindred, offspring, or stock", from whence we also derive the Latin word genus. Genos in turn is derived from ginomai (γινομαι), meaning "to come into existence, to be made." Genos thus carries the significance of having some commonality in origin or essence. Its derivatives, gennema and genea may be regarded as specific forms of this generic concept.
Gennema is derived from genos via gennao (γενναω), which means "to beget, or be begotten". Thus it refers to commonality in a particular kind of origin, namely that of biological generation or begetting. A good translation of gennema would be "brood" or some other term signifying common biological origin. This term may also be used figuratively to describe people who share a common trait, and thus may be regarded as of the same ilk. This is in fact the usage in Matthew 23:33, where Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as a "brood of vipers."
The condemnation of the Pharisees is followed by a prediction that Jesus' followers will be persecuted by the Jewish leaders and those of like mind, and that this persecution will be followed by vengeance for all the just blood ever shed, which is certainly an allusion to the Last Judgment.(Mt. 23:34-35)
This is followed by the first apocalyptic usage of the term genea:
Amen dico vobis venient omnia super generationem (Gk: genea) istam.
Amen I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. (Mt. 23:36)
This usage of genea is strikingly similar to the term's later appearance in the synoptic apocalypse (Mt. 24:34, Mk. 13:30, Lk. 21:32), which skeptical commentators have found so problematic. Here, however, there is a clearer context for the term, as it just follows an extensive condemnation of the "generation (brood) of vipers".
Genea can have several different meanings depending on context. We will survey all of these meanings as they are used in the New Testament. (See the Appendix for a list including Old Testament usage.) In classical Greek such as that used by Herodotus and Xenophon, genea referred to the act of begetting or generating, or the act of birth. By the time of the Gospels, however, this term had adopted a broader meaning, to include the product of this act, or progeny, much like gennema.
In the New Testament, gennema is used only in the restrictive sense of a biological product, either literally (e.g., "fruit [gennema] of the vine" in Mt. 26:29; Mk. 14:25; Lk. 22:18) or metaphorically (e.g., "brood [gennema] of vipers" in Mt. 3:7, 12:34, 23:33; Lk. 3:7). Genea, by contrast, is used much more expansively.
There are several instances where genea appears to mean "generation" in the ordinary modern sense of a genealogical level within a family. In his genealogy of Jesus, St. Matthew counts fourteen generations (geneai) from Abraham to David, and so forth. Here, genea might refer to the act of generation or its product, or even to the duration of time represented between successive generative acts. The Hebrew word used in such genealogies is dowr, which can refer to an entire class of people of common kinship living at the same time, like our modern notion of "generation".
There are other places in Matthew where genea does not mean "generation" in our familiar sense, but refers to a class of people. Such is the case in Jesus' response to the scribes and Pharisees who sought a sign: "An evil and adulterous generation (genea) seeks a sign..." (Mt 12:39) "The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it..." (12:41) Taken alone, these verses might be understood to mean the "generation" of all Jews or all men alive during Jesus' time, but they are addressed specifically to the scribes and Pharisees who demand a sign, the same men who are called a "generation (gennema) of vipers" only a few verses previously. (12:34) Thus it is probable that genea refers not to a biological generation, but to a class of men, namely the "evil and adulterous" men who would condemn the Messiah. (They are called "adulterous" because of their infidelity to God.) If a biological generation were meant, this would imply that Jesus was denouncing all men or all Jews as wicked, which plainly contradicts other Gospel teachings, and ignores the repeated references in this discourse specifically to scribes and Pharisees.
On the other hand, in Matthew 17:17, Jesus appears to address the multitude as a "faithless and perverse generation," implying a much broader class of people. Still, there is no indication that genea is formally restricted to people alive at the time of Jesus; instead it is an expression of apparent exasperation with the faithlessness of mankind in general. Such usage seems to be paralleled in Philippians 2:15: "That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (genea), among whom ye shine as lights in the world." The contrast between the "sons of God" and the "perverse generation" implies a distinction in class rather than biology or time. Those who are in Christ are "sons of God", while all others remain slaves of sin, being heirs only of the flesh and all its weaknesses. Similarly, the "faithless and perverse generation" rebuked by Christ is a class of people who live according to the flesh, and thus have only the inheritance of the flesh.
In the Gospel of Luke, we find an even more explicit use of genea as referring to a class of people.
And all the people that heard [him], and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. (Lk. 7:29)
But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him. (Lk. 7:30)
And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation (genea)? and to what are they like? (Lk. 7:31)
They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept. (Lk. 7:32)
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. (Lk. 7:33)
The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! (Lk. 7:34)
Since the "generation" of Lk. 7:31 is identified as those who called John the Baptist a demoniac and regarded the Messiah as a glutton, the term clearly cannot refer to all men alive at the time, but is restricted to the unbelieving "Pharisees and lawyers." (7:30) This is an unambiguous use of genea to describe a class of people, in this case those who wickedly find fault with the Messiah.
Having seen the range of meanings genea might have, we should now look at the context of the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew to determine the term's probable meaning there. Shortly before the main discourse, we found the "generation" (genea) in Matthew 23:36 almost certainly refers to the Pharisees, or "generation (gennema) of vipers" who will face God's final vengeance. Accepting that this condemnation refers to the Last Judgment, it is clear that the target of condemnation is a class of wicked people, rather than all men living at the time of Jesus.
The condemnation of the "generation of vipers" is followed by an imprecation against Jerusalem, predicting its desolation, and that the city will not see Jesus again "till you say: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." (23:39) This is likely a reference to the earlier prophecy that the parousia will not occur until the unbelieving Jews are converted. (cf. Mt. 10:23) Once more, it is only the class of unbelieving Jews that is referenced, since the believers have already said "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord," when Jesus entered Jerusalem. (21:9)
With all this background, we finally come to the apostles' question as Jesus exited the temple. It is not clear if this took place immediately after the discourse against the Pharisees. In reference to the buildings of the Temple courtyard, Jesus predicts "there shall not be left here a stone upon a stone that shall not be destroyed." (24:2) The exactitude of this prophecy's fulfillment merits examination. After the Romans burned down the Temple, they pried apart each stone in order to extract all the molten gold that had seeped into the cracks. All the other buildings of the temple complex were similarly destroyed. All that remains is the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), which was not part of the Temple itself, nor of any building, but was a simple retaining wall to prevent access to the complex from the west, behind the Temple. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled precisely as stated.
The scene moves to Mount Olivet, where the apostles ask: "Tell us when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming and of the consummation of the world? " (24:3) Matthew delineates two distinct questions: the first refers to the destruction of the Temple predicted in the preceding verse, while the second refers to the parousia and Last Judgment. Thus the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world are understood to be distinct affairs, but Jesus is asked to answer both questions at once.
The first part of Jesus' response is to warn against premature expectations of the end of the world.
Take heed that no man seduce you.
For many will come in my name saying, I am Christ. And they will seduce many.
And you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that ye be not troubled. For these things must come to pass: but the end is not yet.
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: And there shall be pestilences and famines and earthquakes in places.
Now all these are the beginnings of sorrows. (Mt. 24:4-8)
This admonition against false messiahs is necessary, for the disciples might otherwise believe that the destruction of the temple and the persecution of Christians are signs of the parousia. Wars and natural calamities are necessary precursors to the end, "the beginnings of sorrows," but they are not the end.
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted and shall put you to death: and you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.
And then shall many be scandalized and shall betray one another and shall hate one another.
And many false prophets shall rise and shall seduce many.
And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold.
But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved. (Mt. 24:9-13)
This part of the discourse is not concerned with providing indicators of when the end will occur, but instead encourages the disciples to persevere in the faith, and to recognize the true Christ by the sign of charity rather than the false apocalyptic signs of imposters. Salvation depends, as always, on persevering in charity to the end, so disciples should not be misled by false messiahs who may promise an end to persecution, matching iniquity with iniquity.
And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world, for a testimony to all nations: and then shall the consummation come. (Mt. 24:14)
Before the consummation of the world can come, the gospel must be preached to all nations. This is the first clear indicator of when the end might come, though even here we are not told how much time might elapse between the universal preaching of the gospel and the parousia. Christians of the first century often understood the "whole world" to mean the Roman Empire, so they would have every reason to be watchful, as Christianity had been preached from East to West by the end of that century. The proclamation of the gospel would certainly have seemed universal to those living in the fourth century. As our concept of the "whole world" has extended well beyond the Mediterranean, the gospel has been preached in far off nations, so that in our day there is scarcely a people on earth that has not at least heard of Christ. The evangelization of the whole world is not a terribly useful predictor of the end time, since our concept of the "whole world" has changed through the centuries. Once again, the concern does not seem to be with providing a timetable for doomsday, but with articulating the duty of Christians in the face of adversity. Just as they must not shrink before persecution, neither should they relent in their task of preaching the gospel to all nations. Indeed, it is necessary for the consummation of the world that this testimony be given to all peoples.
When therefore you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place: he that readeth let him understand. (Mt. 24:15)
The "abomination of desolation" in the Book of Daniel refers, in the first instance, to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC. This Seleucid king entered the Holy of Holies, offered unclean animals as sacrifices on the altar of holocausts, and dedicated the Temple to Jupiter Olympius, building a statue of that deity on the site. Here Christ prophesies that this same abomination will recur in the future, and at that time, those who are in Judea should "flee to the mountains." (Mt. 24:16)
The phrase "he that readeth let him understand" is clearly an editorial insertion by Matthew (or his source). The implication is that such an abomination has occurred or is about to occur. This could well refer to the attempted defiling of the temple by Gaius Caesar Caligula (ruled 37-41), who ordered his statues to be erected in the Temple. However, his general Petronius heeded the supplications of the Jews, and asked the emperor for clemency. Caligula was furious at the delay, but his letter of reply was not received until after he was killed, so the Temple was ultimately spared.
The abomination of desolation would be realized when the Romans attacked Jerusalem in AD 66, beginning their siege during the Passover, when Jews from throughout the empire were massed in Jerusalem. Here we can see the need to advise them to flee the city. In fact, most chose to stay, and suffered famine and slaughter until the city was taken in AD 70, and the Temple was burned (accidentally, according to Flavius Josephus). In tragic irony, thousands of Jews were whipped and tortured, before being subjected to the agony of crucifixion. Yet the One who was crucified at Calvary sought to warn them, so that they might be spared this fate.
How could the Jews in Jerusalem have known when the abomination of desolation was coming? In AD 70, Titus received additional troops to help end the siege. They were led by Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes, prince of Commagene. Antiochus Epiphanes! Every learned Jew would have recognized that loathsome name, and would have known exactly what it meant. Those who remembered Christ's warning would know that now was the last chance to flee.
And he that is on the housetop, let him not come down to take any thing out of his house: And he that is in the field, let him not go back to take his coat. (Mt. 24:18-19)
The sense of urgency is unequivocal. People must flee immediately regardless of circumstances. If the circumstances are unfavorable for travel, so much the worse, but flee they must.
And woe to them that are with child and that give suck in those days. But pray that your flight be not in the winter or on the sabbath. (Mt. 24:19-20)
The precise time of the calamity is not revealed, so neither the day nor season is known in advance. The preceding verses refer both to the devastation of Judea in AD 70 and the final tribulation preceding the Last Judgment. This telescoping chronology is common in Biblical prophecy, as each image refers to both an immediate event and a distant eschatological event of which it is a type. This passage refers to three events. The abomination of desolation by Antiochus Epiphanes described in the Book of Daniel provides the matter for our image, while the destruction of Jerusalem will be its imminent concrete realization. Yet even this calamity is only a type of the ultimate tribulation at the end of days. These three events are all telescoped into a single prophetic narrative, as the destruction of the Temple becomes an exemplar of the destruction of the world as we know it.
Matthew makes no attempt to distinguish between the destruction of the Temple and the final tribulation. This omission suggests that this passage was written before the destruction of the Temple, when there was yet no reason to conceive of such a distinction. On the contrary, the discourse continues immediately to the great tribulation:
For there shall be then great tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, neither shall be. And unless those days had been shortened, no flesh should be saved: but for the sake of the elect those days shall be shortened. (Mt. 24:21-22)
Now we are firmly in the realm of eschatology, as all flesh is in danger of destruction. To understand these verses, we must now see the preceding verses on the destruction of Jerusalem as a type of the final tribulation now described. This final tribulation will be preceded by an abomination of desolation, at which point all are advised to flee for safety from the impending tribulation. This calamity will be so terrible that it would exterminate all human life if permitted to continue, but for the sake of His elect God will cut it short.
Then if any man shall say to you, Lo here is Christ, or there: do not believe him. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect. Behold I have told it to you, beforehand. (Mt. 24:23-25)
The faithful are not to believe too readily in the return of Christ in the last days, even if great wonders are performed by false prophets. There will be no need to seek out Christ in some place on the hearsay of others, for he will be manifest to all when he suddenly appears.
For as lightning cometh out of the east and appeareth even into the west: so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (Mt. 24:27)
The parousia will be instantaneous and universal. The Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, without warning, as indicated in several Gospel parables. Then all mankind will be gathered to Christ, just as eagles gather around a body. (24:28) Therefore it is senseless to heed those who claim Christ is here or there. The great tribulation is a sign that the Second Coming is near, but the day and the hour will remain hidden until the end. Thus every people in every age ought to be vigilant, and guard their souls as if this day were to be their last.
Having given warning about false claims of Christ's return, the discourse returns to the theme of the tribulation, saying:
And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light and the stars shall fall from heaven and the powers of heaven shall be moved. (Mt. 24:29)
These celestial signs immediately precede the coming of the Son of Man. We need not interpret this prophecy as depicting literal astronomical events, but rather it indicates that the very order of the cosmos will be brought to a halt, in order to be reformed anew. The current physical order shall pass away.
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. (Mt. 24:30)
The sign of the Cross shall appear in the heavens, causing all the tribes of the earth to mourn. This means that the entire world at that time will know what the Cross signifies, yet they have largely rejected Christ. Now they realize too late that they have been fools.
And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them. (Mt. 24:31)
Only when the Son of Man appears are the elect gathered to Him. This is in plain contradiction with the "rapture" proposed by many Protestants, in which the elect are gathered into heaven prior to the final tribulation.
And from the fig tree learn a parable: When the branch thereof is now tender and the leaves come forth, you know that summer is nigh. So you also, when you shall see all these things, know ye that it is nigh, even at the doors. (Mt. 24:32-33)
Although the exact day and hour is not revealed, these signs will tell Christians when the prophesied consummation is imminent. The abomination of desolation will show when the destruction of the Temple is imminent, and a greater tribulation, of which the devastation of Judea is but a prefiguring, will be the sign that the parousia is imminent.
Amen I say to you that this generation shall not pass till all these things be done. Heaven and earth shall pass: but my words shall not pass. (Mt. 24:34-35)
From the parallelism in these verses, we can see that "this generation" refers to those who heed Christ's words. Thus the Christian Church will not pass away until the final consummation of the world. This is why Christ leaves us with these warnings, for he knows that his Church will keep his words until the end of the world. In the end, even heaven and earth will pass away, to be reformed anew, but Christ's words will endure even then. Thus he promises that the Church will survive even the end of the present world.
But of that day and hour no one knoweth: no, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone. (Mt. 24:36)
No creature, terrestrial or heavenly, knows the hour of the last day, for that transcends the created order. The angels have perfect understanding of the created order, and can extrapolate its physical trajectory, but have no way of seeing its replacement by a new order. God alone knows this. Even Christ, in his created human nature, does not know this, though he knows it in his divine nature. Christ does not directly address his own knowledge of the day or hour in this verse, for he had not yet fully revealed his relationship to the Father.
And as in the days of Noe, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For, as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, even till that day in which Noe entered into the ark: And they knew not till the flood came and took them all away: so also shall the coming of the Son of man be. (Mt. 24:37-39)
Far from setting a timetable for the apocalypse, Christ repeatedly emphasizes the unknowability of the hour. Life will carry on as usual, but when the apocalypse comes, people will be caught by surprise. This is why Christians need to be vigilant in every age, and always be ready for Christ. We know neither the hour of our own death nor that of the entire world.
Then two shall be in the field. One shall be taken and one shall be left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill. One shall be taken and one shall be left. Watch ye therefore, because you know not what hour your Lord will come. (Mt. 24:40-42)
These verses and similar verses in the Revelation of St. John are the basis of the erroneous belief in the rapture. Their context makes clear that they refer to the coming of the Son of Man, not to some pre-tribulation event. When Christ comes, the elect will be taken to him, while the others will be left, not on earth, but in perdition. This is clear from the analogy with the Flood. Those who were not taken in the ark perished in the Flood; they did not continue their earthly lives.
Since Christ will come like a thief at an unknown hour, we must be vigilant at every hour.
Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family, to give them meat in season? Blessed is that servant, whom when his lord shall come he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you: he shall place him over all his goods. (Mt. 24:45-47)
If we are found doing good deeds when Our Lord comes, caring for those who have been entrusted to our charge, he will surely exalt us among his creatures.
But if that evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long a coming: And shall begin to strike his fellow servants and shall eat and drink with drunkards: The lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not and at an hour that he knoweth not: (Mt. 24:48-50)
Those Christians who think that their hour of judgment is far away might use this as an occasion to abuse others and indulge in vice. They will find that their hour shall come at an inopportune time, and they shall be punished. In both cases, Christians are judged mainly according to how they treat others, and it is only Christians who are being considered here, since we are speaking of servants of the Lord. Those who are bad servants shall be separated and share the lot of hypocrites. "There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Mt. 24:51) This allusion to Hell is a warning to Christians who are unfaithful servants. There is no discussion of the fate of those who do not hear the Gospel.
The Gospel of St. Mark is regarded by most modern scholars to be more ancient or more primitive than that of Matthew. I shall abstract from such source criticism, and compare Mark with Matthew as though the sources were independent, taking each on its own terms.
In Mark's gospel as in Matthew, the apocalyptic discourse is occasioned by the disciples marveling at the buildings of the temple complex. Mark specifies that one of the disciples said: "Master, behold what manner of stones and what buildings are here." (Mk. 13:1) Jesus replied to this disciple, "Seest thou all these great buildings? There shall not be left a stone upon a stone, that shall not be thrown down." (Mk. 13:2)
Mark specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who approached Jesus in private regarding the destruction of the Temple (hence even Matthew would not have been a direct witness). They asked, "Tell us, when shall these things be and what shall be the sign when all these things shall begin to be fulfilled?" (Mk. 13:4) 'These things' in both instances could mean either the destruction of the Temple or the final consummation of the world. Matthew clearly distinguishes these questions (Mt. 24:3), but in Mark they are not distinguished. It could be that the apostles assumed that the destruction of the Temple would take place at the end of the world. At any rate, in Mark's account, there has yet only been mentioned the destruction of the Temple and not a total apocalypse, so we may take it that the apostles were asking primarily about the former, though they may have thought it entailed the latter.
Christ apparently anticipated their expectation that the destruction of the Temple meant the end of the world, so he immediately warned them not to suppose that the parousia is imminent simply because great calamities are occurring.
Take heed lest any man deceive you. For many shall come in my name saying, I am he: and they shall deceive many. And when you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, fear ye not. For such things must needs be: but the end is not yet. (Mk. 13:5-7)
This warning is identical to that in Matthew, as is the admonition that the apostles and their successors will suffer martyrdom. Here he adds, "And unto all nations the gospel must first be preached." (Mk. 13:10) Thus the apostles certainly understood that the parousia could not occur until the Gospel had been preached to every nation. Mark relates Christ's words on martyrdom in more detail:
And when they shall lead you and deliver you up, be not thoughtful beforehand what you shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye. For it is not you that speak, but the Holy Ghost. And the brother shall betray his brother unto death, and the father his son; and children shall rise up against their parents and shall work their death. And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake. But he that shall endure unto the end, he shall be saved. (Mk. 13:11-13)
The Holy Spirit will speak for martyrs in their hour of death, for He is their Advocate, and they are witnesses to the faith. Martyrdom will in some cases be the result of internecine strife, as Christ is a cause of division, not just in family households, but in tribes and nations. Many will be hated for being Christian, but those who persevere to the end shall be saved.
In Mark as in Matthew, the foretold destruction of Jerusalem is itself a foreshadowing of the great tribulation before the Last Judgment, which is why the subjects overlap.
And when you shall see the abomination of desolation, standing where it ought not (he that readeth let him understand): then let them that are in Judea flee unto the mountains. (Mk. 13:14)
Mark, unlike Matthew, does not mention the Book of Daniel by name, but he speaks of an abomination "standing where it ought not," evidently referring to an idol erected in the Temple, as was the case in Daniel. The remark, "he that readeth let him understand," might simply refer the reader to the Book of Daniel, but then there would be no reason for this comment in Matthew, which explicitly names the book. More likely, a contemporary event corresponding to this abomination was known to Mark or his source. This could be Caligula's attempt to erect his statue in the Temple, as suggested previously.
The succeeding verses (Mk. 13:14-18) match the content of Matthew, except that Matthew adds "or on the sabbath," whereas Mark only mentions, "pray that your flight be not in the winter." Mark immediately follows with this verse:
For in those days shall be such tribulations as were not from the beginning of the creation which God created until now: neither shall be. (Mk. 13:19)
'Those days' refers to what was described in the preceding verses, namely the devastation of Judea, which is itself a precursor of the great tribulation before the Last Judgment. This verse and those that follow apply both to the destruction of Judea by the Romans and to the last days of the gentiles. The Jews would suffer the tribulation first, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the catastrophic genocide following the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century. The gentiles, i.e. the whole world, will undergo a similar tribulation at the end of the age. This verse uses the Greek term ekeinon ("those"), which like the Latin ille, signifies something far away from both the speaker and the listener, in contrast with iste ("that"), which signifies something away from the speaker but near the listener. Thus "those days" in Mk. 13:19 are depicted as far away even for the Gospel's hearers.
As in Matthew, St. Mark's Gospel says the tribulation is shortened for the sake of the elect, or all would perish. This applies in the first instance to the Jews, who were not utterly exterminated by the Romans, but were permitted to survive in the diaspora. This was for the sake of God's elect, namely the Jewish Christians. Similarly, the world will not be utterly destroyed in the great tribulation, but God will hold in check man's self-destructive urges, again for the sake of His elect, the Christians among all nations.
Far from encouraging apocalyptic credulity, Jesus warns his followers not to readily believe those who claim to have seen the return of the Christ. Even miracles are not to be accepted as proof, for there will be false messiahs and prophets who would deceive even the elect if possible. (13:22) This advice would be relevant in the first instance to the Jews, most of whom would be led astray by the false messiah Bar Kochba, resulting in the greatest calamity to befall Israel. Not only did the massacre exceed the Holocaust in terms of the fraction of the total Jewish population at the time, but it resulted in the destruction of the territorial nation of Israel, which would not be reconstituted for nearly two thousand years. A similar calamity will befall the entire world shortly before Christ's return.
The remaining verses apply only to the last days of the gentiles.
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light. (13:24)
"Those days" and "that tribulation" are far away from speaker and listener, so we are now discussing what will occur after the great tribulation at the end of the age of the gentiles. The devastation of the earth is followed by the loss of power of the sun, moon, and stars. This might be understood literally, or it may mean simply that the heavenly order, no less than the terrestrial, will come to an end when the Son of Man returns.
The next verses match the text of Matthew, except Mark says, "of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father." The words "nor the Son," which are only in Mark, indicate that the human knowledge of Christ was not commensurate with divine knowledge. This would account for why the synoptic apocalypse is given in the form of a prophetic vision, with telescoping chronology. Jesus was not withholding information or being deliberately obscure, but he spoke all that was revealed to his human nature. The limitations of Christ's human knowledge should not be taken to imply the Nestorian error of two persons in Christ. A thorough analysis of the relationship between the human and divine knowledge of Christ presented in the Gospels has been made by François Dreyfus, OP (Did Jesus Know He Was God?, 1984), using modern exegetical techniques.
Where Matthew continues with the analogy of the Flood coming by surprise (Mt. 24:37-39), and with the "rapture" symbolism of one being taken and another left behind (24:40-41), Mark simply records, "Take ye heed, watch and pray. For ye know not when the time is." (Mk. 13:33) This is consistent with our interpretation of the parallel text in Matthew, which emphasizes the unknowability of the time of the Last Judgment.
Mark also gives a briefer version of the analogy of the servant minding his absent lord's house in Matthew. (Mt. 24:45-50) Instead of contrasting the good servant and the evil servant, Mark's gospel warns the hearer to watch, "Even as a man who, going into a far country, left his house and gave authority to his servants over every work and commanded the porter to watch." (13:34) Christians are entrusted to do the Lord's work on earth until he returns, yet they must also act as the porter watching for the Master's return, lest they be caught sleeping.
"And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch." (13:37) Given the preceding context, this is not a declaration that the parousia is imminent. On the contrary, the command derives its urgency from the unknowability of the hour. The end time being completely indeterminate, save to Divine Omniscience, all Christians, from the Apostles onward, are expected to be vigilant in watching the signs of the times, as the Last Judgment could come at any time.
As Mark wrote for the Romans, he does not dwell on many of the Old Testament analogies found in Matthew's gospel. Otherwise, his account of the synoptic apocalypse is substantially the same as that in Matthew, with a telescoping transition from the destruction of the Temple to the final consummation at the end of days. The Christian community is guaranteed to survive until all these things are realized, and the unknowability of the hour of the Lord's return is repeatedly emphasized, as is the necessity of being watchful for the parousia.
St. Luke's account of the synoptic apocalypse appears in two places. First, in Chapter 17, he recounts much of the Matthaean material on Old Testament analogies and the "rapture" symbolism. In Chapter 21, we find an apocalyptic discourse similar to that in the other synoptic gospels, prompted by the question of the destruction of the Temple. Again, a detailed prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem eventually transitions into a discussion of the Last Judgment. We need not consider source critical questions about whether Luke used Matthew's gospel or an independent source, for we are concerned only with how Luke presents the information he acquired.
The Gospel of Luke takes many diverse sayings of Jesus and compiles them into a continuous narrative, of which the seventeenth chapter is a part. Whether we consider that St. Luke has moved sayings from the context in which they were actually spoken, or allow that Christ may have used similar sayings repeatedly on various occasions, we can discern a coherent narrative in the seventeenth chapter that illuminates how early Christians perceived the synoptic apocalypse.
The first apocalyptic discourse in Luke begins with a question, not from the apostles, but from the Pharisees. They ask when the kingdom of God should come, to which Jesus responds: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say: Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you." (17:20-21) This response, consistent with many other sayings of Jesus, was directed against the Pharisaic supposition that the Messiah would be a military leader who establishes a terrestrial kingdom. Jesus makes clear that the kingdom of God is not a place, but a spiritual state.
The saying about the kingdom is immediately followed by a parallel saying about the Son of Man, the title Christ most commonly applied to himself. This saying about the Son of Man is addressed to his disciples instead of the Pharisees, perhaps implying that this was said at a different time. At any rate, the parallelism is clear.
The days will come when you shall desire to see one day the Son of man. And you shall not see it. And they will say to you: See here, and see there. Go ye not after, nor follow them. (17:22-23)
Christ presents his own person as the locus of the kingdom of God. The disciples will one day desire to see their Lord return, for he will no longer be visible among them. Yet they are not to be led by claims that he is to be found in this or that location. The parousia (literally, "presence; arrival, return"), being a full revelation of the kingdom of God in Christ, is not in a location, but is a spiritual transformation of the world.
For as lightning that lighteneth from under heaven shineth unto the parts that are under heaven, so shall the Son of man be in his day. (17:24)
The coming of the Son of man will be something that permeates the entire world, just as lightning illuminates the entire sky. Christ prophesies of a time when he will not be present in bodily form, but when he returns he will transform the entire world. As with other prophecies, these are fulfilled at first partially, and later more fully and perfectly. The kingdom of God begins by transforming the hearts of Christians, who bring the kingdom to men on earth. The parousia at the end of history is the most perfect realization of the kingdom of God, transforming nature itself so it is ordered toward the spiritual.
Of course, the disciples hoping for Christ's coming must mean that at some point he will no longer be among them in the flesh. Thus Jesus immediately follows by saying: "But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation." (17:25) Again, 'generation' refers to a breed or class of men, in this case the Pharisaic Jews who hoped for an earthly messianic kingdom.
Returning to the theme of the parousia, Christ makes the analogy of the Noachic Flood surprising the unprepared antediluvians, as we saw in the other gospels. A similar analogy is made with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In both cases, the righteous (Noah and Lot) were taken out of the world that was about to be destroyed, while the wicked ate and drank as if all were well, up until the time of their destruction. It is in this context that we should understand the "rapture" verses, where one is taken and the other is left behind. (17:34-35)
Christ advises those expecting that last hour not to take care to gather their goods, acting like Lot's wife, who actually looked back with longing on the cities to be condemned. All earthly possessions will be destroyed, so one should care for his soul rather than his flesh and his money. "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it shall preserve it." (17:33) In other words, those who think to save themselves through worldly means will be destroyed, but those who forsake all worldly things, including their most prized possessions, even their own flesh, will save their souls, which is their life in the truest sense. Lot's wife wished to save what she had in Sodom, and she was destroyed. By contrast, Lot, like Noah, willingly followed God in leaving behind the world he knew, and was saved.
As Jesus concludes this brief discourse with his description of how one shall be taken and another shall be left behind, the disciples ask, "Where, Lord?" The Master's reply: "Wheresoever the body shall be, thither will the eagles be gathered together." (17:37) The disciples wished to know where the elect would be taken, and Jesus' answer is that they will be gathered in his body. As seen earlier in the discourse, Christ's body is not confined to a specific location, but will fill the heavens and the earth. He is speaking of his mystical body, which is whatever is filled with his spirit. Again, this is fulfilled gradually, at first by Christians who are members of the body of Christ, and finally by the definitive establishment of the kingdom of God throughout the cosmos.
The second apocalyptic discourse in Luke resembles those discussed in Matthew and Mark. We will focus on the differences, to see what new insights the third gospel may offer. Again, this discourse begins with a discussion of the Temple.
Luke begins by saying that some were marveling at the adornments of the Temple. It is to this that Jesus responds, "These things which you see, the days will come in which there shall not be left a stone upon a stone that shall not be thrown down." (21:6) This statement alone does not suggest the imminent destruction of the Temple, but might simply be a general observation that even the most magnificent works of men will eventually be destroyed. The point is that even the Temple is a work of man, and is therefore subject to death and destruction. The followers of Jesus ought not place their faith in worldly splendor, even that which is dedicated to God.
Luke, unlike Mark, does not give the physical detail that the remainder of Jesus' discourse was given only to his closest disciples on the mount of Olivet. [Luke does later mention that Christ taught at the Temple during the day, but at night abode in the mount of Olivet. (21:37)] By comparison with Mark, however, we can see that this text covers the same material that was discussed in private with Peter, James and John. Luke 21:8-16 closely matches Mark 13:5-12, with a couple of exceptions. Luke does not mention that the gospel must be preached to all nations. (Mk. 13:10) He also elaborates on what is meant by speaking through the Holy Ghost (Mk. 13:11): "For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay." (Lk. 21:15) Since Christians will be giving "testimony" of Christ (21:13), they cannot be refuted by their enemies, as they are testifying to what they truly witness.
Where Mark and Matthew say that he who perseveres shall be saved in the end (Mt. 24:13, Mk. 13:13), Luke gives further elaboration:
And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake.
But a hair of your head shall not perish.
In your patience you shall possess your souls. (21:17-19)
Here Christ is alluding to the resurrection of the body. The one who perseveres shall keep his soul, and thus he shall preserve his entire life, including the glorified body he will receive at the resurrection. This means Luke understands Christ's allusion to final perseverance to pertain to the Last Judgment. It also applies to perseverance unto death, for each individual will be judged after his own death. Therefore these words also have immediate applicability, for Christians facing persecution in every age.
Luke, unlike the other gospels, gives a physical indication of what the "desolation" of Jerusalem means. He writes, "And when you shall see Jerusalem compassed about with an army, then know that the desolation thereof is at hand." (21:20) Some have taken this as evidence that Luke wrote at some time during the siege of Jerusalem (AD 66-70), but the omission of any mention of the martyrdom of Paul (AD 64) in Acts (the second volume of Luke's work), makes this unlikely. At any rate, the presence of a detailed prediction of the destruction of the Temple in all three gospels makes it clear that this tradition preceded the siege, as it would take some time for the tradition to spread throughout the Christian world. Here Luke makes clear that he takes a physically literalist view of the desolation of Jerusalem, referring to its actual physical destruction by an army. The desolation refers primarily to that of the Holy Place, the site of the Temple, which has not been rebuilt to this day.
Luke's gospel describes the days of Jerusalem as "the days of vengeance, that all things may be fulfilled, that are written." (21:22) Thus the destruction of the Temple completes the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies, so that the kingdom of God can begin to be established through Christ. Of course, the Jews had no such understanding of Scripture indicating that the Temple would be destroyed, but this is because they assumed the Messiah would impose the Mosaic Law and Temple worship on the entire world, in a temporal kingdom. They did understand the Book of Daniel as referring to a brief time of desolation (three and a half years), but not a lengthy period of millennia.
Christ, however, makes clear that the travails of the people of Jerusalem will be long-lasting:
And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and shall be led away captives into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles till the times of the nations be fulfilled. (21:24)
This is perhaps the most stunningly accurate long-term prophecy in the synoptic apocalypse. The Jews were not only expelled from their own country, but they would continue to have no country of their own for nearly two thousand years. The second part of the prophecy gives perhaps the most unambiguous sign of the end times: Jerusalem will be trampled by gentiles until the days of the gentiles are at an end. Here we have some inkling of how the world will be judged. The Jews are punished immediately because they are favored by God (see 2 Macc. 6:12-16). The loss of the Temple and the earthly Jerusalem paves the way for the heavenly kingdom of God to be established first among the believing Jews, and then among the gentiles. The present verse implies a lapse of time before all the nations, that is the gentiles, will be judged. During this time, Jerusalem will be continuously occupied by gentiles.
Conversely, when the occupation of Jerusalem ceases, this is a sign that the time of fulfillment for the whole world ("the gentiles") is at hand. We may therefore see signs that we are in the last stage of history, as the state of Israel was established in 1948, and in the decades thereafter, for the first time in the Christian era, Jews have become nearly as numerous in their own state as in the diaspora. Yet the land of the modern state of Israel does not correspond with that of ancient Judea and Samaria, now collectively known as the West Bank. Perhaps most importantly, the Old City of Jerusalem, the city of David, remains an Arab-inhabited sector, and the Holy Place remains reserved for Muslim worship, with the rock of Abraham laid bare. We cannot say that the gentile occupation of Jerusalem has ended, but never before has this prophecy come so close to fulfillment. Those of us who grew up always knowing of a state of Israel can scarcely appreciate what an impossible dream it seemed for so many centuries, even into modern times. We who live in the atomic age, with technological terrors that could easily wreak a literal Armageddon, take for granted as ordinary what has long been considered a prophetic sign.
With the destruction of the Temple completed, the time of the Jewish dispensation has ended. The remainder of Christ's discourse pertains to the judgment of the whole world including the gentiles. For this reason, the signs are universal in scope, not pertaining merely to Jerusalem. The signs in heaven and earth described by Luke (21:25-26) correspond to those that Mark describes as taking place "after that tribulation" (the destruction of Judea). (Mk 13:24)
After these terrible and fearsome signs, "they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud, with great power and majesty." (21:27) A cloud is a symbol of God's power and majesty, used in the Book of Daniel and elsewhere. We have seen elsewhere that Jesus repeatedly corrects those who impose a material interpretation on his words, and he has already stated that the coming of the Son of Man is not something that is confined to a physical place. At the Second Coming, Christ will come in the visible majesty of God.
Jesus made a similar remark in his testimony to the Sanhedrin, which is recorded in all the synoptic gospels. In Luke, it reads simply: "From this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." (Luke 22:69) This means that Christ will soon ascend to Father, and begin his dominion of the kingdom of God from heaven. Matthew and Mark record the testimony to the Sanhedrin more fully, writing:
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven. (Mt. 26:64, Mk. 14:62)
At first glance, this may seem to suggest that the Second Coming is to immediately follow the Ascension, but that is not the case, if we look at the Scriptures quoted by Jesus. The expression "seated at the right hand" comes from Psalm 110, which Jesus had earlier in his ministry given an explicitly messianic meaning. (Mt. 22:41-45) The expression "coming with the clouds of heaven," combined with Christ's preferred title of "Son of Man," comes from the following messianic prophecy in Daniel, where the prophet sees:
One like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven; When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, He received dominion, glory and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed. (7:13-14)
Viewed in its original Scriptural context, Christ's testimony to the Sanhedrin refers to the ascent of the Son of Man to the Father ("the Ancient One") in heaven, where he receives all "dominion, glory and kingship." Christ's glorious reign begins with his Ascension, and from heaven he reigns over the kingdom of God, which even now is manifested in the world, among people of all nations and tongues. This kingdom shall never be destroyed. The Pharisees expected a political dominion for the Messiah, but Christ's kingship is something far more glorious, overlooking a kingdom "not of this world." (Jn. 18:36)
In the synoptic apocalypse, the glorious coming of the Son of Man refers to the visible manifestation of Christ's already existing heavenly kingdom, which in the end time will permeate the entire visible world. We can better appreciate now why Mark says that first the gospel must be preached to all nations. The kingdom of God that exists in the hearts of Christians and is spread by the gospel is the same as the glorious kingdom that will one day fill the whole world.
Christ's discussion of the end time is followed by an admonition to be watchful for the signs described.
But when these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand. (21:28)
'These things' refers primarily to the signs described in verses 21:25-26. We note the parallelism with verse 20, which says that an army surrounding Jerusalem is a sign that its desolation is at hand. Analogously, the terrible signs in the sun, moon, stars, earth and sea show that our redemption is at hand. While others tremble in fear, Christians are encouraged to be hopeful when these things come to pass, as they are a sure sign of Christ's return. Jesus emphasizes this with the analogy of the fig tree bearing fruit (21:29-31), which is also given in Mark.
Finally, we arrive at Christ's promise to "this generation," identical to that recorded in Mark.
Amen, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled.
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. (21:32-33)
The parallelism of this couplet makes clear that "this generation" is those who have Christ's words. They shall last until the end of time, and even beyond, as the kingdom of God will overtake all of creation.
Luke has already mentioned the analogy with the time of Noah in another context, so here he simply records a more general warning for Christians not to become distracted by worldly pleasures and cares, lest they should be caught by surprise. "For as a snare shall it come upon all that sit upon the face of the whole earth." (21:35) This snare affects not only those who live in the time immediately before the Last Judgment, but all men, who may be called from this life at an unforeseen hour, and held to account before the Supreme Judge.
A final admonition follows:
Watch ye, therefore, praying at all times, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that are to come and to stand before the Son of man. (21:36)
Like the other synoptics, Luke's apocalypse concludes with an exhortation to "Watch!" Although Jesus did not specify the time when the Second Advent would come, he clearly wanted all Christians in every age to be watchful and heedful of signs of his coming. Indeed, Christians in every century may truly discover such signs to varying degrees, as the kingdom of God is more perfectly realized in this world, even in the midst of persecutors and enemies of Christ's faithful. The Christian vision of time is not cyclic, but progressive, with each age witnessing a fuller manifestation of God's self-revelation to man. History tends in a definite direction, toward the full revelation of the kingdom of God. Indeed, 'apocalypse' means "revelation," and Jesus taught about the last times not simply to indulge our curiosity about the future, but to show us the goal and destiny of human history, to which we must orient ourselves. We cannot bring about the Second Coming by our own acts, but rather it is Christ working through us who will bring it about, completing the revelation at an hour known only to God.
The early Christians expected Christ's imminent return, not as something certain, but as something probable. If it were ever regarded as certain, it would have stifled the activity of the community, causing an inward-looking bunker mentality, such as we see in modern doomsday cults. The early Christian Church, by contrast, constantly looked outward to spread its message far and wide, and to build social institutions intended to last for generations. We see this in the establishment of clerical orders, the development of religious texts, and in ambitious large-scale construction projects such as the catacombs. Nonetheless, the early Christians were also constantly on the lookout for Christ's return. In this, they were heeding the advice of Christ himself, as we have seen in the gospels.
There is no evidence that early Christian expectations of the parousia were based on a perceived promise that the first Christian "generation" in a biological sense would live to see the end of history. Rather, they were simply following the Gospel exhortation to be watchful. St. John's Gospel takes care to clarify that when Jesus said of his beloved disciple, "What if I want him to remain until I come?" this did not mean that this disciple would not die, but only meant, "What concern of it is yours?" (Jn 21:22-23) The belief held by some Christians that this disciple would not die was nowhere connected to a general idea that the first generation of Christians would live to see the Second Coming. Indeed, if such an idea had been current, there would have been nothing special about the disciple singled out by Jesus.
We have already seen that several expressions in the Gospels suggest that the Second Coming is a distant event: “In those days...” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my Word will not pass away.” It is poor exegesis to cite only the verses suggesting an imminent parousia while ignoring those showing the contrary. The synthesis of all the evidence shows that Christ did not intend to reveal when the world would end, but wanted his followers to always be watchful of the signs of the times, so that they would remain vigilant and faithful at all times. In other words, they should live every day as if the Lord might come that day, rather than frittering life away on worldly vices. (Mt. 24:48-50) Since the hour of the Second Advent is not known, Christians should continue to make provisions for the future, so that they may be found as good stewards and servants when the time of judgment comes. (Mt. 24:45-47)
We have noted that the term genea ("generation") has many different meanings in Scripture. (See list given in the Appendix.) To take a famous Gospel example, consider Christ's pronouncement: “A wicked and faithless generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah.” (Mt. 16:4, also Lk. 11:29) The meaning of genea that makes best sense here is a “breed” or class of men, referring either to the Jews in general or the Pharisees in particular. It could hardly be the case that Jesus considered the people living in his time to be more wicked than those who lived thirty to forty years ago, taking "generation" in the modern colloquial sense. On the contrary, Pharisaic Jews of that time were highly scrupulous and observant of the Mosaic Law in comparison with their ancestors. Furthermore, many rabbis were much older than Jesus, so he could hardly have intended "generation" in the sense of a biological cohort.
When Christ speaks of the "generation" that will not pass away until all things are fulfilled, he does not refer simply to those living at that time. If indeed the parousia were imminent, there would be nothing remarkable about that generation "not passing away," which suggests longevity. Rather, Christ refers to a certain class or "breed" of people, those who keep his word (as we saw earlier from textual parallels). The Christian community will endure until all things are fulfilled, which is a bold prophecy indeed. In fact, the longer the world persists, the more remarkable is the endurance of the Christian Church, which has resisted persecution and hostility from countless political and intellectual authorities who would pretend to relegate it to the dustbin of history. The Church does not merely survive, but it thrives and flourishes. Even as it is mocked and condemned by the world, it continues to penetrate the world and transform it. Though its members often lapse into infidelity and sin, the vitality that is Christ permeates the Church, giving it a creative energy that more than supplies the deficiencies of human weakness.
The apostle Paul warned Thessalonian Christians not to be deceived by false letters or statements saying that the day of the Lord is at hand. Other things must happen first, namely the apostasy and the revealing of the lawless one, "doomed to perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god." (2 Thess. 2:3-4) This image of the Antichrist is derived from the book of Daniel, and will be more fully revealed in St. John's Apocalypse. St. Paul says the "mystery of lawlessness" - i.e., the devil who is behind Antichrist and other agents of evil - is already at work. (2 Thess. 2:7) Just as the kingdom of God is already unfolding in the Christian Church, in preparation for the full revelation of Christ in glory, so do the agents of evil prepare for the revelation of the false Christ or Antichrist. When the lawless one is finally revealed, the Lord will strike him dead "with the breath of his mouth and render [him] powerless by the manifestation of his coming." (2 Thess. 2:8)
The Antichrist will be a deceiving power, so that all who follow him, the disbelievers in truth, will partake in wrongdoing and thereby be justly condemned. (2 Thess. 2:9-12) The Christian community, since they already believe in the truth, are "firstfruits" of salvation, as their firm faith already protects them from the deceptions of Antichrist. With good reason, Jesus speaks of the false messiahs who work signs and wonders trying "to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect." (Mk. 13:22) The chosen faithful cannot be deceived, because they already know Christ personally and would recognize an imposter. As long as they keep the gospel they have received, they are secure in the knowledge that anyone who preaches a different gospel, even it be an apostle or an angel (Gal. 1:8), is not in Christ.
Just as all the "antichrists" from Nero to Napoleon have laid the groundwork for the Antichrist at the end of history, so have the other fulfillments of apocalyptic prophecies directed history toward its final and definitive fulfillment. Each successive prefiguring, more perfect than the previous, further assures us of the truth of the prophecy, which is not merely a description of the Last Judgment, but a guide for interpreting the dynamic of salvation history throughout the Messianic era.
The Second Letter of Peter warns of scoffers who will say: "Where is the promise of his coming? From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation." (2 Pet. 3:4) This mention of "ancestors" does not mean, as some ignorant exegetes claim, that several generations of Christians had already passed away. The ancestors are those who died well before the time of Christ, and the reason for mentioning them is to point to the fact that the natural order has not changed in all of history, nor are things apparently any different in the Christian era. Peter remarks that things are not in fact as they have always been, for the earth was created from "water" (formless matter) by the word of God, and then destroyed once by the Deluge. The world after the Flood is to be preserved until a final destruction by the same Word through fire, reserved for "the day of judgment and the destruction of the godless." (2 Pet. 3:7) Thus Christ, who is the Word Incarnate, certainly has the power to destroy the present order of things, just as he brought the earth into being and destroyed the antediluvian world.
Judging from the context, Peter is warning against the "false teachers" he had just discussed (2 Pet. 2:1-22), who revel in animal pleasures and try to persuade Christians to do likewise. They distort the letters of Paul and other Scriptures to their ends. Such people, much like their modern counterparts, would undoubtedly argue that the natural order is all that there is in this life, so they are blind to the transformations that Christ even now is working in the world. Peter regards them as little better than brute beasts. Though they promise freedom, "they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him." (2 Pet. 2:19) Small wonder that the second letter of Peter is neglected by modernity; its message hits too close to home.
The apostle reminds his flock "that with the Lord one day is a thousand years and a thousand years like one day." (2 Pet. 3:8) Operating outside of time, the Lord does not "delay," but he permits the world to unfold so that many should have the opportunity to come to repentance. In agreement with Matthew 24:43, Peter warns that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief," after which the heavens will pass away and "the elements will be dissolved by fire," and all deeds on earth will be revealed. (3:10) This total destruction of the old order will be superseded by "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." (3:13)
It is important to be found "without spot or blemish" before the Lord. (2 Pet. 3:14) This is why St. Paul exhorts wives to obey their husbands, husbands to love their wives, children to obey their parents, parents not to vex their children, slaves to obey their masters, and masters not to bully their slaves. The apostle takes the world as he finds it, with its natural, political and social order, and shows each person how to live as a Christian within that order, transforming his role through love and obedience to God. Christianity does not aim primarily to alter the material conditions of life nor to promote social and political reforms. Rather, the Christian experience provokes an interior transformation in each person, both in himself and in relation to others, that may result in other external changes. Yet these external changes are subordinate to the living Christ who is at the nexus of the transformative Christian experience.
[Source: Easton's Bible Dictionary]
1. Gen. 2:4 "These are the generations," means the "history."
2. Gen. 5:1 "The book of the generations" means a family register, or history of Adam.
3. Gen. 37:2 "The generations of Jacob" = the history of Jacob and his descendants.
4. Gen. 7:1 "In this generation" = "in this age."
5. Ps. 49:19 "The generation of his fathers" = the dwelling of his fathers, i.e., the grave.
6. Ps. 73:15 "The generation of thy children" = the contemporary race.
7. Isa. 53:8 "Who shall declare his generation?" = His manner of life who shall declare? or rather = His race, posterity, shall be so numerous that no one shall be able to declare it.
8. In Mt 1:17, the word means a succession or series of persons from the same stock.
9. Mt. 3:7 "Generation of vipers" = brood of vipers.
10. Mt. 24:34 "This generation" = [sic] the persons then living contemporary with Christ. [We have argued at length against this anomalous interpretation. Rather, it is the "breed" or "race" of those who keep Christ's words. (see Mt. 24:35)]
11. 1 Pet. 2:9 "A chosen generation" = a chosen people.
12. The Hebrews seem to have reckoned time by the generation. a. In the time of Abraham a generation was an hundred years, thus: Gen. 15:16 "In the fourth generation" = in four hundred years (compare Gen. 15:13, Ex. 12:40) b. In Deut. 1:35 and 2:14 a generation is a period of thirty-eight years.
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