As we enter into Lenten preparations for Easter, many great saints have encouraged us during this season to reflect on Jesus’ final coming at the end of time. Although a helpful activity, such reflection has been a source of trouble for many people through the centuries.
Based on passages in Matthew 24-25 and Luke 21, some believe Jesus promised that his final coming would be relatively soon: “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory … this generation (biblically speaking, about 40 years) will not pass away till all these things take place” (Mt 24:30, 34).
But 2,000 years later, Jesus still hasn’t returned. Consequently, many have questioned whether Jesus really was who he said he was. Additionally, if he got this wrong, what else did he get wrong?
Sadly, many have turned away from Christianity for this reason, so it’s important to clear this misunderstanding up, and in the tradition of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both dealt with this question.
Let’s start with the context of these passages. In Matthew 24:1-2, Jesus’ disciples are admiring the temple when he says to them: “You see all these (buildings)? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left … one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”
This is a shocker for them, but Jesus is right. In 70 AD, the Roman army would utterly crush a Jewish rebellion, obliterating the temple in the process. Raging fires melted the gold of the temple into the rubble, and the Romans literally turned every stone recovering it.
The disciples then ask two questions: “Tell us, (1) when will this be, and (2) what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Mt 24:3)
To properly understand these passages, it is critical to know which question Jesus is addressing and when. In Matthew 24:4-34 and Luke 21:8-32, with a few exceptions, Jesus is answering only the first question: when will the temple be destroyed, why will it be destroyed, and how it will all come about? It is the misinterpretation of Jesus’ answer here that causes all the trouble. He is not talking about his final coming at the end of time, as many assume, but his “coming” in judgment against the Jews who have rejected him and the consequent destruction of the temple, the heart of Jewish worship.
In answering this question, Jesus also systematically starts to prepare his disciples for all the things that will happen in advance of the temple’s destruction.
There will be wars, famines, earthquakes (Mt 24:6-8) – all of which eyewitness historians of the time tell us happened leading up to 70 AD.
There will be tribulation. As the double persecution by both the Romans (especially starting with Nero) and the Jewish authorities intensifies, and the Roman army lays siege to Jerusalem, many will fall away.
He then warns them of false messiahs that will come, deceiving many into thinking that he has returned (Jewish and Roman historians record several). Here, Jesus actually does momentarily speak about his final coming, just to reassure his disciples that this last coming will be unmistakable – something they won’t possibly confuse with a false messiah: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
But then Jesus tells them: be ready to run! “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart … for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (Lk 21:20-22).
This is exactly what happened. Church historian Eusebius (340 AD) recorded that Christians fled Jerusalem before its destruction, “The … church at Jerusalem … commanded by a divine revelation … removed from the city, and dwelt at a town beyond the Jordan, called Pella.”
The passage that follows next is the source of most of the confusion. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Mt 24:29).
Here, Jesus is turning to “apocalyptic” language, a style of writing well known in his day and commonly used by prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. Typically, it used cosmological/astronomical terms to describe the fall of political powers.
Isaiah 13:9-19 is a perfect example of this as it predicts the destruction of Babylon by the Medo-Persians: “Behold, the day of the Lord comes … to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light ... Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place … Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them.”
Similarly, Jesus is not speaking about the end of the world in Matthew 24:29, but using apocalyptic language to signal the end of the Jewish world as they know it. No Old Testament Jew would have missed that. And interestingly, there were in fact many strange other-worldly signs seen in the sky at this time, as recorded by both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus.
Jesus continues: “then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth (referring to the 12 tribes of Israel) will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt 24:30).
Jesus uses similar language when addressing the high priest in Matthew 26:64. Asked if he was the Christ, Jesus replies: “I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
This is not Jesus speaking about his coming at the end of time, but rather alluding to two Old Testament passages: Daniel 7 and Psalm 110. Both refer to him going to the Father in heaven, not returning to earth at the end of time as some assume.
As you read on in Daniel 7:13-27, the context is that of a court sitting in judgment: “And behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man … and he came to the Ancient of Days.”
It continues: “The court shall sit in judgment … his dominion shall be taken away… consumed and destroyed to the end.” Then the kingdom will be given to “the saints of the Most High.”
Psalm 110:1-6 speaks of Jesus sitting at the “right hand” of the Father until his enemies are made his footstool. Neither refers to his final coming.
Intimately familiar with these passages and their apocalyptic tone, Jesus’ message is not missed by Caiaphas, who will be judged and his power and authority will be stripped. Caiaphas tears his own garments in response.
Just as it was the Medo-Persians who carried out God’s judgment against the Babylonians in Isaiah 13:9-19, it will be the Roman army, and not Jesus, that the Jews will see when Jesus comes “on the clouds of heaven with power” to judge them.
Jesus now concludes his answer to his disciples’ first question: “When will this be”? When will the temple be destroyed?”
He answers: “This generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Mt 24:34). With few exceptions, everything Jesus has said before this point applies to the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, and not his final coming at the end of time.
But now, Jesus finally turns to his disciples’ second question: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”
With a change of tone, Jesus states, “But of that day and hour,” meaning the moment of his final coming, when “heaven and earth will pass away … no one knows.” (Mt 24:36)
Probably not the answer the disciples were hoping for!
He then goes on to compare his final coming to the time of Noah: life went on as usual right up until the final day. He goes on to give examples: “Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left” (Mt 24:40-42).
He concludes: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:42)
There will be no signs, no clues – like a thief in the night.
Jesus then follows this with several parables illustrating his final coming. Interestingly, time after time the Master, the Bridegroom, is delayed. His final coming isn’t necessarily imminent, as the destruction of the temple is. Jesus’ message again is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13).
Finally, in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus does give us a picture of his actual final coming: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Basing this final judgment on good works, Jesus concludes: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Best to be a sheep.