Jesus says, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30)
This one specific verse in the Gospels that appears to record an example of a failed prophecy out of the mouth of Jesus.
Even the great C.S. Lewis called it “…certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” and conceded that it was unlikely a scribal error since surely such a mistake would have been corrected early on. Therefore, it’s most certain that Jesus really DID say this, even if it messes with our eschatology. [See C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night”, 1960]
But, that’s sort of the point. Isn’t it?
I mean, we read these words from Jesus and what we hear is: “Some of you will still be alive when the Second Coming happens.”
But, that’s not quite what Jesus says here. Yes, it’s what we “hear”, but if those early New Testament translators and scribes didn’t see this verse as a failed prophecy, then perhaps we are the ones who need to re-examine our ideas about the “End Times” and re-think what Jesus might actually be saying here before we conclude that Jesus is the one who is wrong.
As one of my early Bible Teachers once told me, “Anytime you see the word ‘therefore’ in the Bible, you need to ask ‘wherefore?’ and back up to look for the context.”
And that is great advice. Especially in this case.
If we back up to the very first verse in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 13, we notice that this entire conversation begins when the disciples point to the Temple, marvel at its beauty, and then Jesus warns them that one day soon it will be destroyed. Shocked, the disciples ask Jesus, ‘When shall these things be?”
And what follows is a prophecy about when and how the Temple will be destroyed. NOT about when the Second Coming of Jesus will take place.
Note: This passage is known as the “Olivet Discourse” [because it takes place on the Mount of Olives] and it is paralleled in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.
In each case, the dialog begins with the disciples marveling at the Temple, Jesus predicting that it would soon be destroyed and the disciples asking when and how this would take place.
See for yourself:
“And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
“And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” [Mark 13:1-4]
So, this “coming” that Jesus refers to is not a literal return where he will physically come back to earth. Instead, this was a reference to a very common idea of how God warned – numerous times in the Old Testament – that he would “come” to disobedient nations in judgement against them.
Note that in every case God’s “coming” to them was fulfilled by an invading army who either destroyed their city, and/or took them captive as slaves of that nation.
Note also that this same concept of Jesus’s “coming” to judge disobedient cities is repeated in Revelation when Jesus warns that he will “come to” those disobedient people and “remove your lamp stand” if they do not repent of their sins.
This is known as “Apocalyptic Hyperbole” and it’s never taken literally – as in no one thought that God was going to come “riding on the clouds” in any literal fashion as if it was a pony. This was metaphorical language intended to evoke a spirit of repentance on the audience.
And, by the way, when Jesus says that there are some standing there who will not taste death until all these things come to pass, he was totally, 100 percent accurate in that prediction. Because the events Jesus foretells regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple took place exactly 40 years after he said they would, and we know that some of Jesus’s disciples were alive when that happened in AD 70.
So, this verse is only “an embarrassment” to those who attempt to force a meaning onto the text that Jesus did not intend, and that later Christians misunderstood as being about his “Second Coming” – a notion that didn’t get attributed to this Olivet Discourse until around 1830. Before that, most New Testament scholars understood that this was about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – and nothing else.
Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.
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