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Did Jesus Claim to Return and Get it Wrong?

January 7th, 2005 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My brother took up my previous post on this issue on his own blog. I am following suit and returning the favor here.

He writes: First, note that the parables listed (about drowsiness, about delay) and the tasks given (preach the Gospel to the nations) invoke no timescale. Will the Church take a decade or centuries to “fall asleep?” When the known world is fairly small (no guess that North America even exists, for example), how long will preaching to “all the nations” take? Looking back, current theologians will say, “Obviously centuries for both,” but this is because centuries have come and gone. We’ll see below why this isn’t fair to the text.

Jim is right to point out that there is “no time scale” involved in the aspects of Matthew’s gospel that I mentioned. A specific time-scale was not the point. Rather, the suggestion is that the second Advent of Christ is going to be delayed, and apparently for long enough for a significant missionary impulse to occur. My brother highlights the fact that the “known world is fairly small” during Jesus’s period, but surely 37 years (33 ad-70 ad) is an extremely short period of time to “preach the gospel to all nations.” At any rate, the broader emphasis of the whole Gospel of Matthewseems to be on a delayed return.

My brother then writes;

If anything, [Matthew 24:36] could be seen to deny Jesus’s full divinity; if Jesus is “fully God,” how could the Father know something he doesn’t? But we leave that particular difficulty aside, and focus on the fact that Jesus uses the phrase “day or the hour,” which refers more clearly to a very-soon-coming (imagine if Jesus had said “the year or the decade” instead) than it does to a far-off-coming; at any rate, it’s hardly compelling evidence for the latter.

My brother’s worries about Matthew’s (rather high, actually!) Christology might be answered by perusing some of NT Write’s Jesus and the Victory of God, for a full scale treatment of early understandings of Christ. However, he argues that “day or the hour” might still admit us knowing the “month and the year.” Again, my brother (and I neglected to point out!) the subsequent eight verses, ending in 44: “So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Again, Jesus seems very careful to emphasize our ignorance as to the time of the Christ event as a means of exhorting us to be in constant readiness. I will submit only that the overwhelming emphasis of this passage is one of delay.

We see that the first statement simply isn’t supported in the text. The “all things” in 24:34 make little sense if they refer to the “all things” in 24:3. The “all things” in chapter three are physical objects; the “all things” in 24:34 are events (physical objects don’t “happen”). Read the whole passage for yourself, and see if the meaning is as plain as I think it is.

Allow me to clarify my point: I was not suggesting that the “all things” in 24:34 was a direct reference back to the “all things” of 24:2. That, indeed, would be foolish. Rather, the disciples very question in 24:3 suggests that they are correlate the destruction of the temple with the second Advent of Christ.

Curiously, my brother appeals to a “straightforward” reading of the text, assuming that “the meaning” is plain. This isn’t really an argument–rather, it seems somewhat naive (to be blunt) given the considerable amount of debate and disagreement this chapter has historically caused.

I would point out to my brother that the movement of the passage does not suggest strict temporal succession. For instance, after highlighting some general aspects of the age in verses 4-7, Jesus says in 8 and 9, “All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then (tote) you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” Is there a strict temporal succession between these events? It seems that there is not–rather Christians will be persecuted during the period of the birth pangs. So the NIV translates the next tote, “At that time” (10).

For an interesting take on Matthew 24, I would suggest D.A. Carson’s work, which is excellent. Carson argues that 4-28 form one “age”, of which, the only specific information we have is the destruction of Jerusalem in 15-21. The reference to “those days” in 22 refers to the whole period, as is evidenced by Jesus’s return to the more general description including refering back to the “false Christs” of verse 5. This means that what happens “immediately”, happens “immediately” after those days, the length of time is unspecified. This at least accounts for the numerous references to delay in a more natural way than yours, which has to explain them away.

Here’s what it boils down to: to accept that Jesus didn’t “really” mean what he said, you have to accept that “near” doesn’t really mean “near,” that “immediately” doesn’t really mean “immediately,” that “right at the door” means “miles away trudging through the snow,” and, most important, that Jesus’s conference with his disciples was a ruse–not just in the sense that his prophecy never came true, but in the sense that he never really meant it for them.

There, fifteen minutes, done. How’d I do?

Are you really against close readings of the text like this? This makes twice in one blog post that you have eschewed interpretation (what I consider necessary for the task of reading!) in favor of straight-forward literalistic readings of Scripture, the sort of “literalism” that is mocked by, oh, just about everyone. I am attempting to find the literal meaning of the text–I just think that it has to be done within certain canons of literary interpretation, namely that genre and context matter a lot. When those are taken in to account, sometimes the “plain meaning” of the text is not the actual meaning of the text. One thinks of people who read The Republic the first time and think it’s all about a city and that he is wife-sharing and what not as having this sort of problem.

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.