THE RETURN OF CHRIST
by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
“Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. It's pretty shocking stuff, really. And the evidence that Jesus believed and taught it is fairly impressive.” - Bart D. Ehrman
I agree with this quote, insofar as it goes. But it leaves much to be explained. The disciples of Jesus called his attention to the magnificence of the temple and all of the things that surrounded the area. But Jesus simply replied, “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matt. 24:2, NIV).
As one could imagine the disciples were shocked and intrigued asking, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3, NIV)? Jesus calmly replied that they would witness his coming within a generation. And just so there would be no doubt in the mind of his disciples he said, “I tell you the truth, THIS GENERATION will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:34-35, NIV, emphasis added).
Many skeptics have grabbed hold of these words from Jesus in an attempt to point out he must have been a false prophet, because although the temple was destroyed within their generation, the second coming of Christ did not take place as prophesied. Full preterists make a mistake at this point, although not quite blasphemous, as well claiming these events were the second coming of Christ. A full study of Eschatology shows their position to be in error as well.
To start with, let me point out that when Jesus said, “THIS generation will certainly not pass away,” that is exactly what he meant. At the risk of being too obvious let me make a clear observation, Jesus Christ was in no way grammatically challenged. He knew precisely what he was saying. If he wanted to point their attention forward to a generation two thousand years later, he would not have confused them by using the adjective “this” before the word “generation.” Let's be clear, there is no hidden, mystical meaning or message intertwined in the grammar used. In fact, the phrase “this generation” shows up regularly in the Gospels and each time it is being applied to the specific generation alive within the time of Jesus. Matthew 23:36 is but one example.
Next, skeptics are completely off track when they think that when Jesus said, “coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” he was referring to his second coming. Understanding biblical language would certainly help them realize that when Jesus said, “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30, NIV), he was using language that all of those who were present would immediately recognize.
Those listening to Jesus would have a comprehensive understanding of the Old Testament, and they would have understood his words right away. For example, Daniel's vision in chapter 7 and verse 13 of the book bearing his name, “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of the heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” Here we have “one like a son of man” who is obviously not descending to earth in his second coming but instead ascending to the throne of God, the Almighty, the Ancient of Days, in justification and exaltation. Many other passages would have flooded to their minds as well, as they may be to yours, like passages in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and many other prophets before him.
What Jesus did was use the language of “clouds” in the same sense of all these others referring to judgment. In particular, to warn his disciples of judgment that would fall upon Jerusalem and the temple within their generation. Jesus wasn't predicting his second coming with these words, instead, he was informing his disciples that those who would witness this destruction would also witness his justification and exaltation as the rightful king of Israel.
Another thing of note, when the disciples asked about the “end of the age,” they weren't referring to the end of the world as they did not use the word kosmos. What they were asking about was the end of the current age, using aion, of sacrifice in the context of this amazing and nearly unbelievable prediction that the temple and its buildings would be destroyed. Common sense would dictate to the unbiased eyes and minds that redefining “coming” to mean “second coming” and “end of the age” to mean “end of the world” is at the very least misguided. When Jesus said, “I tell YOU the truth, THIS GENERATION will certainly not pass away until ALL THESE THINGS have happened,” his disciples didn't for a moment consider he was talking about his second coming or of the end of the world. They may have been a bit confused about all the details, but they were not confused in the least about who Jesus was talking to.
In conclusion, as Jesus was speaking to a first-century group of people when he talked about the destruction of the temple, he was also speaking to a first-century group of people when he talked about his coming in judgment on Jerusalem. “The days will come upon YOU when YOUR enemies will build an embankment against YOU and encircle YOU and hem YOU in on every side. They will dash YOU to the ground, YOU and the children within YOUR walls. They will not leave one stone on another because YOU did not recognize the time of God's COMING TO YOU” (-Luke 19:43-44, NIV], emphasis added). If one reads the Olivet Discourse with biblical eyes and not bias eyes it should be crystal clear that the use of the pronoun “you” all throughout directly and specifically refers to a first-century, not a twenty-first-century, audience.
With all of this said, one more thing needs to be emphasized. There is plenty of eschatological room left, not to mention Scriptural evidence, that the literal, physical, bodily (albeit it glorified) return of Christ to this earth to make all things new is still a future event. The Eschatology covered in this piece is clearly not exhaustive. We still await our Lord's glorious return to raise the living and the dead, declare his final judgment and create a New Heavens and a New Earth. In my opinion, Amillennialism best explains the tension of the “already/not yet” aspect of Eschatology. It is the position that keeps from making the numerous blunders of Premillennial, Dispensational Eschatology as well as the errors found in Postmillennialism, and also in full Preterism.*
Titus 2:13, “while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (NIV).
1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (NIV).
Acts 1:10-11, “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 'Men of Galilee,' they said, 'why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven'” (NIV).
*Adapted from, “AfterLife” by Hank Hanegraaff, (Brentwood TN: Worthy Publishing, pp.168-70).