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Back from the Dead…

January 5th, 2005 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My brother’s recent “Best of” post reminded me of a conversation that I had left unfinished. He writes in response to my question about the point of his contentions:

[The point is that] Jesus can’t be taken at his word[.] Or, perhaps, his own closest friends didn’t have a clue to his intentions, pre- or post-resurrection. First they expected him to overthrow Rome. He didn’t. Then they expected him to return on his stated timetable. He didn’t. After the “disappearance of God” in the Old Testament, this has to be the second-greatest disappointment in Biblical history.

The response to this disappointment is simple: Jesus never claimed to return within the generation of his disciples. I will limit my comments to the Gospel of Matthew, though similar points could be made from Mark (and probably Luke, though I haven’t read that as closely).

Jesus, in Matthew, seems to claim his return is imminent in two places: 23:36, and 24:34. In both, he states that “all these things” shall happen during the lifespan of “this generation” (or the generation of his disciples).

On the other hand, Jesus seems to indicate that his return will be delayed in a host of other places. In 25:5 (the “Parable of the Virgins”), the bridegroom is delayed for so long that the virgins grow drowsy. Within the context of Chapter 24, this clearly refers to Christ. Furthermore, in the subsequent “Parable of the Talents”, it takes a “long time” for the master to come and settle accounts, which again seems to refer to Christ’s second coming.

Furthermore, Jesus claims in 24:14 that the gospel must be preached to the whole world before his return, and the “Great Commission” at the end of the Gospel implies that the disciples have a significant task to perform before his return.

One final point: in 24:36, two verses after Jesus allegedly claims he will return within that generation, Jesus reminds his listeners that no one knows the day or the hour of the Son’s return, “not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

Clearly, then, it seems unlikely that Jesus Himself thought he was going to return within that generation. One can account for his statement in 24:34 by limiting the scope of “all things” to the destruction of the temple, a limiting that seems plausible in light of the disciples question in 24:3 and in light of Jesus’s reference to the “Parable of the Fig Tree” in 32 and 33. The fact that the fig tree has put forth it’s leaves only means that summer is near, not that it has arrived. The imminence of the fall of Jerusalem is not identical to the imminence of Jesus’s return.

Regardless, the evidence that Jesus claimed to return within that generation seems remarkably thin. Be not disappointed, brother, for the King is coming yet! Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.