A reader writes:
What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent claims that the world was going to end within the lifetime of the apostles? It’s something that has always bothered me.
The key to remember is that word “apparent”. Certain passages, such as Luke 9:27 suggest (to modern readers) that Jesus thought his return would be very soon:
But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
There are a couple of things to note about this passage and of the curious notion that Jesus was mistaken about his Second Coming. First, it’s strange to speak of Jesus talking about his “return” if we reject the notion of his resurrection and ascension (which critics of the “Jesus was a mistaken mortal prophet” stripe typically do). Jesus can’t “return” if he’s dead so it’s odd that he would talk this way at all–unless of course all that stuff in the gospels about his predicting his resurrection was not just retrojected into his mouth by the apostles but was, in fact, part of his original preaching.
Second, the notion of the coming of the kingdom is a densely layered idea. In Luke, the striking thing is that the saying of Jesus I just quoted is immediately followed by this story:
28* * Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30* And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32* Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33* And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. 34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35* And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; * listen to him!” 36* And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
That mention of the “eighth day” is no accident in Luke. The Eighth Day is the day of the Resurrection and the inauguration of the kingdom of God. The Transfiguration is a foreshadow of that. So in a very real sense, the promise given in v. 27 is instantly fulfilled in the next verse.
It is not completely fulfilled of course, but the point is that Jesus coming or parousia is being fulfilled in many ways before the Second Coming. A parousia was the term for when a king entered a city with his royal entourage and the citizens of the city went out to greet him in triumph and accompany him through the gates. Jesus made a literal parousia on Palm Sunday, entering the city exactly as Solomon has done a thousand years before–riding on an ass (a sign of humility) and not a warhorse, just like Solomon. He also comes in a sort of mini-parousia in every Mass (something the author of Revelation is acutely alive to as he structures his Revelation on the divine liturgy. It occurs “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (in other words, at Mass on Sunday), and progresses from a penitential rite (letters to seven Churchs saying “repent”) to the liturgy of the Word (in which scrolls are read after the Lamb opens them, just as the OT mysteries are opened to the disciples on the Emmaus road, all pointing to Christ) and it finally climaxes in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (ie., the Eucharist).
Another passage that sounds to moderns like Jesus thought his Second Coming would be within 40 years or so is Matthew 24. After describing troubles that sound a lot like the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but also like the end of the world, Jesus says:
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. 35* Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Seems to clinch it, doesn’t it? Sure Jesus means the Second Coming will be in his generation, right? Not so fast, for the vert next verse says:
36* “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
When’s the end of the world? Jesus doesn’t know. If there was ever a saying the apostles would not possibly invent, it’s that one, because it looks bad having your God not know things. But that’s what Jesus said. So what is Jesus getting at?
He getting at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which did indeed occur with a generation (40 years in Jewish reckoning). The reason it is mixed with imagery of the end of the world is because it *is* the end of a world: the world of the Old Covenant. The temple is a microcosm of the cosmos, as well as the image of the Body of Jesus (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”). With its destruction, we see an image of both the death of Christ and the end of the world. With the passage of the Church through that death and destruction to begin the world of the New Covenant, we see an image of what will finally be fulfilled on “that day” as Jesus calls it.
So, in fact, Jesus never really says anything about when the Second Coming will be. He simply says to be ready at all times “for you do not know the day or the hour”.