Did Jesus Intend to return in the first century?

When the disciples questioned Jesus about the timing of His prediction concerning Jerusalem's fall, He responded with a prophetic discourse that seems to link His second coming with that first-century event. Did He really intend to return that soon? Was He simply mistaken? How are we to understand His words?

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is a professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The interpretation of Jesus' prophetic discourse, recorded by the Synoptic Gospels in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, contains a fundamental problem: How are the two major events about which the disciples ask the destruction of Jerusalem and Christ's glorious second coming with its world judgment at the end of the age (the Parousia)—interrelated within the Synoptic accounts?

Both Mark and Matthew (we accept the common assumption that Mark's record was probably the first of the Gospel accounts) seem, on the face of things, to place the Parousia at the time of the fall of Jerusalem (see Mark 13:24-27; Matthew 24:29-31 even says "immediately" after the distress of those days). This, among other considerations, has led many scholars to conclude that Mark's "mistaken" forecast is not really an authentic record of Jesus' words, but a mixture of Mark's own additions to an older, unknown apocalyptic pamphlet that supposedly warned the Jews against the attempt of Emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem around A.D. 40. This is known as the "little apocalypse" theory.1

The fact that Jesus' assuring words in Mark 13:30 ("'I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened'")* follow the Parousia description of verses 24-27 has only intensified the problem and even caused some to conclude that because His parousia did not take place in A.D. 70, or shortly thereafter, Jesus simply was mistaken. 2

Christ seemed to predict that "all these things" (tauta panta, verse 30) described in verses 5-27—including His parousia—would take place within His contemporary generation. But some have interpreted this phrase, along with the words "these things" (tauta) of verse 29, as referring only to the signs described in verses 5-23, thus excluding the Parousia.3 Others have identified "this generation" (genea, verse 30) with "mankind," "the Jewish race," "Christians," or "unbelievers." Yet the context seems rather to point especially to Christ's contemporary generation— those that rejected Him (see Matt. 23:35, 36; Luke 19:44; 21:32, 22).

In order to account for the period of many centuries that have elapsed between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Parousia, conservative scholars have basically proposed five different solutions.

One proposal sees a pattern in which Jesus' words about the fall of Jerusalem (Mark 13:5-22) alternate with His words about the Parousia (verses 24-27), return to the fall of Jerusalem in verses 28-31, and back again to His parousia in verses 32-36. Few seem satisfied, however, with this solution of abrupt alternations. 4

A second solution, an old one defended today by R. T. France5 and C. Brown, 6 applies almost the whole dis course—including the cosmic imagery and the Parousia description (Mark 13:1-31)—exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem. The cosmic imagery is taken as symbolic language indicating the doom of the nation by divine judgment. The strength of this proposal lies in its recourse to the Old Testament prophetic sources of Christ's terms and images. The argument of J. S. Russell (written in 1878) is attractive: "Is it not reasonable that the doom of Jerusalem should be depicted in language as glowing and rhetorical as the destruction of Babylon, or Bozrah, or Tyre?. . . If these symbols [see, e.g., Isa. 13:9, 10; 34:4] therefore were proper to represent the fall of Babylon, why should they be improper to set forth a still greater catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem?" 7 Colin Brown points out, further more, that the apostle Peter applied the cosmic imagery of Joel's prophecy (chap. 2:28-32) symbolically to God's visitation on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:15-21).

But can we assume that New Testament applications of Old Testament prophetic terms and images do not correspond to historical realities in the apocalyptic future simply because they have not been realized in history? To do so shows a fundamental disregard of the apocalyptic perspective in the Old Testament prophetic oracles and confuses poetic expression with metaphorical language (allegorism). G. E. Ladd has rightly warned against such speculative spiritualization. He calls the cosmic imagery of the Old Testament prophets "semi-poetical language" because it rep resents eschatological events that transcend our present historical experience. 8 David Wenham also points out that "Mark 13:24-27 has parallels elsewhere in the New Testament, where the reference [of an apocalyptic Parousia] is unmistakably to the last day (e.g., Matt. 13:30f.)." 9

In short, the inadequacy of this approach is its exaltation of the Old Testament typological fulfillment as the ultimate norm without allowing room for the greater, cosmic-universal consummation at the Parousia.

An exact opposite solution to the structure of Mark 13 and Matthew 24 is proposed by dispensationalism in the New Scofield Reference Bible. This view simply asserts that Mark 13 and Matthew 24 deal exclusively with the Jewish people in Jerusalem during a future crisis in the end-time after the church has been raptured from the earth to heaven. It accepts only Luke 21 as a prophecy of Jerusalem's fall in A.D. 70. The inadequacy of this fundamental dichotomy between Mark and Matthew on the one hand and Luke on the other has been dealt with in my articles "Where Did Jesus Place the Seventieth Week?" (MINISTRY, July, 1982, pp. 12-14) and "The Church and the Great Tribulation" (MINISTRY, March, 1982, pp. 13- 15). It is vital to the proper exegesis of Jesus' prophetic discourse to apply the term "the elect" to both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the gospel church (cf. 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9).

A fourth school of interpretation reads Jesus' prophetic discourse as a continuous description of the whole Christian era. 10 This view relies mostly on Luke's account, especially on the extended historical application of the "times of the Gentiles" in Luke 21:24. Luke's phrase seems to denote an indefinite period of suppression for Jerusalem and the Jewish people following the events that occurred in A.D. 70.11 In this way, the historian Luke unmistakably indicates that there is to be a certain time span between the fall of Jerusalem and the Parousia with its world judgment. The implication of Luke's account clearly seems to stress that Christ's return should not be expected immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. Significantly, Luke places the cry. "'"The time is near"'" (verse 8) on the tongue of the false prophets. Luke's record also suggests that" 'there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars'" as a warning prelude to the Parousia; he classifies these cosmic signs, together with disasters in nature on earth, as indicators that " 'your redemption is drawing near'" (verses 25-28; cf. Joel 2:31).

Mark's account likewise contains an indication of a lengthy time span before the end of the world: " 'And the gospel must first be preached to all nations'" (chap. 13:10; cf. Matt. 10:17-22; 24:14). In Christ's vision, this would begin on a universal scale only after the fall of Jerusalem (see Matt. 22:7-10; 23:38;_ 21:41, 43). The problem of Mark's" and Matthew's still-shortened perspective is resolved in this approach by inserting the "times of the Gentiles" of Luke 21:24 into the "days of distress" of Mark 13:19 and Matthew 24:21. In other words, Mark's and Matthew's time of tribulation for the elect is enlarged chronologically by Luke's "times of the Gentiles" so that the prophetic discourse can more easily be applied as straight forward history. A real problem for this continuous-interpretation approach, however, is the phrase "this generation shall not pass . . ."in Mark 13:30, Matthew 24:34, and Luke 21:32. The expression can no longer be applied to the fall of Jerusalem because these words appear after the Parousia description in the Synoptic Gospels.

Finally, the solution that seems to be the most adequate and defensible to most interpreters is called the prophetic perspective view. In this view, the fall of Jerusalem as God's judgment on the Jewish nation is a foreshadowing of His final act in world judgment. "The long ages between are telescoped in the prophetic perspective to a negligible length, and in the events of A.D. 70, the Parousia, though clearly conceived as a distinct and more distant event, is already in essence present." 12

The convincing power of this approach is that it continues the pattern of Old Testament prophecy with its dual focus on both the immediate national judgment and also on the final, universal judgment of God. Israel's Old Testament prophets consistently placed their predictions of God's impending judgment on the wicked nations in the eschatological context of the day of Yahweh with its characteristic cosmic imagery (see Eze. 32:7, 8; Hab. 3:11; Isa. 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; Amos 8:9). Because the same Yahweh would be the judge in both the present and the final crisis, contemporary history was viewed in an eschatological perspective. H. Ridderbos explains the typological principle involved: "In the judgment upon Israel, God has provided the world with an example. At the last [day] the world of the nations will stand before the very same judgment." 13 No line of separation is drawn, no differentiation in time is made, between the impending, contemporary judgment and the last judgment at the end of the world. Both are depicted as taking place at the same time. The chronological distance is deliberately omitted as irrelevant.

Isaiah's oracle against Babylon is a case in point. The prophet made the following prediction in the year 716-715 B.C., as chapter 14:28 indicates: 14

"Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. . . .

The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.

The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. . . .

Her time is at hand" (Isa. 13:6-22).

This prophecy of doom for Babylon was first fulfilled during the lifetime of Isaiah, when the city of Babylon was utterly destroyed by the Assyrian army under Sennacherib, in the year 689 B.C. Nevertheless, Isaiah's prophecy of the day of the Lord did not find an exhaustive and permanent fulfillment in this historical fall of the city. Babylon was rebuilt soon afterward to become one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world under Nebuchadnezzar. Only many centuries later, at the end of the first century A.D., 15 did it become permanently "like Sodom and Gomorrah" (see verses 19-22). However, the cosmic imagery of Isaiah 13:10 still had received no literal fulfillment.

The New Testament emphatically applies Isaiah's prophecies of doom for Babylon and Edom to the future day of the Lord. This is the developed apocalyptic perspective in Christ's discourse (Matt. 24:29) and in John's Apocalypse (Rev. 6:12-14). Just as Isaiah blended the imminent historical day of judgment for Babylon with the eschatological judgment of the day of the Lord, so Christ's prophetic perspective refers first to the immediate historical destruction of Jerusalem during the time of His contemporary generation (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30), but focuses likewise on the ultimate cosmic-universal judgment at His parousia in the unknown future (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32). In basic continuity with Israel's classical prophecy, Christ blended the two great judgments—on Jerusalem and on the world—into one comprehensive prophetic perspective. 16

The apocalyptic term "' "the abomination that causes desolation"'" (Mark 13:14; Matt. 24:15) or '"the desolating sacrilege'" (R.S.V.)t also participates in this dual prophetic perspective. While Luke omits this term from Daniel, he applies Mark's apocalyptic expression directly to the devastating Roman armies that defiled the Jerusalem sanctuary by their sacrilegious legionary standards, their pagan sacrifices, and their destruction of the Temple (Luke 21:20-24). But Luke's historical application of Daniel's prediction (verse 22) does not exhaust its fulfillment. Mark's prophetic perspective of Daniel's anti-Messiah (Dan. 8:9-13; 11:31, 36) remains open to a future eschatological fulfillment, a perspective clearly endorsed by the apostle Paul's prophetic outline in 2 Thessalonians 2. The masculine form of "the abomination" in Mark 13:14 (hestekota, "standing") corresponds to Paul's "man of sin" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, K.J.V., that is, to the antichrist himself. We agree, therefore, with C. E. B. Cranfield's comment on Mark 13:14-20, "It seems then that neither an exclusively historical nor an exclusively eschatological interpretation is satisfactory, and that we must allow for a double reference, for a mingling of historical and eschatological." 17 To recognize an apocalyptic perspective in Christ's reference to unequaled "days of distress" or tribulation (Mark 13:19) seems justified, because the phraseology is borrowed from Daniel 12:1, which speaks clearly of the final "rime of distress" followed by the final deliverance with its dramatic resurrection of the faithful ones (verse 2).

Likewise, Christ's warning of future "false Christs and false prophets," who will perform supernatural signs and miracles to deceive, corresponds exactly with Paul's warning against the revelation of a coming antichrist who will deceive with lying signs and wonders, even taking his place in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:9-12). Here we see the thought developed that the antichrist power was active only in a preliminary way in the Roman defilement of the Jerusalem Temple, but would manifest itself more fully within an apostate "new" Israel or Christianity. Cranfield observes here what may be called the "typological principle": "Thus in the crises of history the eschatological is foreshadowed." I8

Christ's blending of the imminent with the future eschatological abomination evidently excluded placing His remarks in a continuous chronological succession. The "days of distress" are applied explicitly to true believers in Christ, His "elect" (Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Matt. 24:22, 24, 31), who are finally delivered by His parousia (Mark 13:27; Matt. 24:31; Luke 21:28). Mark states that the Parousia will take place after the "distress" of those days (chap. 13:24); Matthew says, '"Immediately after the distress of those days'" (chap. 24:29). It seems obvious that it is the final eschatological time of tribulation for the elect of Christ that is in view here " 'never to be equaled again'" (Matt. 24:21; Mark 13:19; Dan. 12:1). By taking a typological approach to Jesus' prophetic dis course, we have no need to ignore or explain away this definite temporal link. In the types, there are, by definition, only partial fulfillments, as we have seen in Isaiah 13. The church needs to be especially alerted to the final manifestation of apostasy and deception and to the final deliverance by the glorious Parousia, which follows immediately (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8).

The question, then, whether Mark and Matthew imply a period of time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the eschatological time of distress for the elect of Christ may be answered by the consideration that the prophetic perspective principle does not function the same as the apocalyptic approach, which describes a continuous historical succession. The historical-succession structure can be discerned rather clearly in Luke's interpretation of Jesus' prophetic forecast; Mark and Matthew follow Israel's classical principle of a dual prophetic perspective. As has been pointed out in an earlier article (MINISTRY, May, 1982, pp. 14-17), the prophetic-perspective style gives no warrant, however, for the insertion of any gap between time units in Biblical prophecy. I9

Mark and Matthew introduce the Parousia by the familiar Old Testament description of unnatural signs in the sun, moon, and stars (Mark 13:24, 25; Matt. 24:29). These passages have been called "the most obviously apocalyptic verses" in Christ's prophetic discourse. 20 The Old Testament taproot of this cosmic imagery is the standard apocalyptic language of Israel's doom prophecies for apostate nations: Isaiah 13:9, 10 (Babylon); Isaiah 34:4 (Edom); Ezekiel32:7, 8 (Egypt); Habakkuk 3:11 (Babylon); Amos 8:9 (Israel); Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15 (Judah). Although the doom oracles refer first of all to an imminent judgment on the sinful nation, each time the prediction is couched to some degree in the stereotyped, cosmic imagery of the judgment setting at the day of Yahweh. The deeper lesson to be learned was that Israel should view each historical judgment of God in the light of the final cosmic-universal judgment (see Isa. 24:21-23) and should prepare for it accordingly. This theological significance of the cosmological signs of the day of Yahweh is given a new, christological meaning by the Synoptic Gospels: the Judge of the world is not Yahweh in isolation, but Jesus Christ as the Danielic Son of man (see Dan. 7:13, 14; John 5:22, 27). The Old Testament theophanies of Yahweh are reconstituted in the Synoptic Gospels as a glorious apocalyptic christophany.

This christological application of the day of Yahweh as the Parousia is undoubtedly the theological thrust of the new setting of the cosmic signs that usher in the coming of the Son of man (Mark 13:24-27; Matt. 24:29-31; Luke 21:26, 27). Then Christ will be fully revealed to all nations in His messianic glory. "The clouds of His parousia unveil His hitherto hidden glory, which is the glory of God, the Shekinah; He is seen to be the eternal Son of God, sharing in the majesty and power of God." 21 The Synoptic Gospels unite in stressing that Christ's parousia will take place first and foremost for the purpose of salvation: the Son of man will gather His own to Himself (Mark 13:27; Matt. 24:31; Luke 21:28).

In summary, the ultimate question regarding Christ's prophetic discourse is the nature of its theological structure. It seems that Mark and Matthew follow the typological perspective of Israel's classical prophecy with its compressed time scale, while Luke rather follows a straightforward historical description, which inserts the "times of the Gentiles" after the fall of Jerusalem. Both approaches must therefore be considered complementary and equally valid. They should not be declared mutually exclusive, because each approach continues an Old Testament tradition: the classical prophetic and the apocalyptic style of forecast.


* Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

+ From the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

1 In spite of the arguments of G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Future: An Examination of the Criticism of the Eschatological Discourse, Mark xiii; With Special Reference to the Little Apocalypse Theory (New York: MacMillan, 1954), the "little apocalypse" theory is still assumed by various modern exegetes (see, e.g., The Interpreter's Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1951] on Mark 13). A variation of this theory is presented by K. Orayston, "The Study of Mark XIII," Bull. J. Rylands Univ. Lib. 5 (1973-1974), 371-387, with his so-called "Instruction Leaflet" of Mark 13:7, 11, 14, 21 as the original nucleus.

2 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977, 3d pr.), pp. 208, 209, refers to O. Cullman and others.

3 Ibid., p. 209; C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959), p. 409.

4 R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971). Appendix A mentions a few older commentators for this approach (p. 228, n. 5).

5 Ibid.

6 The New International Dictionary of New TestamentTheology, C. Brown, ed. (GrandRapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1979; 4th pr.), vol. 2, pp. 38, 39.

7 The Parousia (London: 1887, 2d ed.), pp. 80, 81, as quoted in France, op. cit., p. 234. France mentions further modern interpreters of this solution of the structure of Mark 13.

8 The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 61-63, 316, 317. Cf. also G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 41-71; G. R. Beasley- Murray, A Commentary on Mark 13 (London: Macmillan, 1957), pp. 87, 88.

9 In Theol. Stud. Bull. 72 (Summer, 1975), 6.

10 Beasley-Murray, A Commentary on Mark 13, pp. 87, 88 (note 1), refers to the German scholars W. F. Gess and Th. Zahn.

11 For a larger treatment of Luke 21:24, see my book The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews Univ. Press, 1983), Chap. X.

12 This characterization of the "prophetic perspective" view is in the words of France (op. cit., p. 228). Beasley-Murray mentions many representatives of this view since]. A. Bengel, in Jesus and the Future, pp. 131-141, 147-167 (note 1).

13 Matthew's Witness to Jesus Christ, World Christian Books (New York: Association Press, 1958), p. 79. See also Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 89, 90, 199.

14 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, on Isa. 13:1, p. 163.

15 Ibid., on Isa. 13:19, p. 166.

16 Cf. E. G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 628.

17 Cranfield, op. cit., p. 402. Cf. D. Wenham, in Theol Stud. Bull. 72 (Summer, 1975), 8; H. Ridderbos, Mattheus, Korte Verklaring (Dutch) (Kampen: Kok), on Matt. 24:15.

18 Ibid.

19 For a fuller treatment of 2 Thessalonians 2, see the present author's article "Paul's Prophetic Outline in 2 Thessalonians 2," in Andrews University Seminary Studies, Summer, 1983.

20 Ibid.

21 Philip Mauro states correctly, "Never has a specific number of time units, making up a described stretch of time, been taken to mean anything but continuous or consecutive time units."—The Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation  (Boston: Hamilton Bros., 1923), p. 95.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is a professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1983

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