There is much confusion in Christianity today surrounding the milieu of biblical eschatology. Specifically, there is widespread misunderstanding about the nature and timing of Jesus’ coming, arrival or presence (parousia in Greek). In popular preaching and imagination, it’s often called his “second coming” or “return.” Many life-long Jesus-followers are surprised to learn that these are not terms found in the Bible – and then to consider how these terms effect our thinking on just what this all means.
But the rabbit-hole goes even deeper: What if the confusion about Jesus’ coming reaches even farther back, to a more basic misunderstanding about what a ‘coming of God’ really was in the first place? What was a coming of God according to the Hebrew Scriptures?
In this series, I’d like to try and shed some light on this concept of a ‘coming of God,’ and why it matters to us today.
Before looking at what a ‘coming of God’ is according to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), let’s see if Jesus fit the pattern of a ‘coming of God’. Did Jesus come when, and to whom, he said he would come? Can we show that Jesus kept his promise to come again, in the glory of his Father, to his first-century believers?
Where Do We Begin? Jesus.
In taking a deeper look at this often-taken-for-granted concept, let’s refresh ourselves on when and how Jesus said he would come again. Most Christians today have picked up a futuristic paradigm through osmosis – it’s in the religious air we breathe. Because of an a priori commitment to the idea of a future second coming of Jesus, we bring the baggage of a futuristic paradigm to Scripture, not even stopping to question whether a solid interpretation of Scripture allows for this or not!
Our inherited futurism causes us to inadvertently run right over the plain teachings of Jesus about when and to whom he said he would come. It causes confusion because ministers have not been taught how Jesus fulfilled his prophecies to come, and yet they feel compelled to preach that “the Bible is true.” So while Christians believe Jesus is trustworthy – even the Son of God – their futuristic worldview causes them to necessarily (and yet needlessly) deny what Jesus plainly taught. And that’s a big deal.
Just for a moment, let’s set aside our futuristic presuppositions and open ourselves to questioning the idea of a future second coming – a proverbial “sacred cow” in conventional Christianity. Let’s ask: What do the Hebrew Scriptures show a ‘coming of God’ to be? Then let’s compare this to what Jesus actually taught about his coming. Then let’s hold this in light of what actually happened during the time Jesus said his prophecies would come true.
If a divine pattern emerges out of this that substantiates Jesus’ promise to come to his generation of believers, and if this pattern is different than what traditional Christianity has taught us to expect, then we may need to be open to questioning our previously-held beliefs. We may need to ask ourselves: Who do we trust more – the teaching of tradition or the promise of Jesus?
Let me introduce a thought that will help the rest of this make sense: why did this ‘coming of God’ need to happen, and why did it need to happen when Jesus said it would? Because Jesus didn’t teach that he was coming back to judge the whole physical world – this is something we read into Scripture. He was coming back to judge his conceptual world: the generation that crucified him, and to reward his first century saints.
Jesus was coming to end the world of political and religious power that the old temple system centered upon. It was called the ‘heaven and earth’ of the Old Covenant world. It was a world of concentrated power, burdensome laws and temple sacrifices. It had served its purposes, but its time was up. That world killed Jesus and yet, Jesus made this system obsolete with his life, death and resurrection.
My possibly-provocative assertion – that we will flesh out in upcoming posts – is that after the Great Revolt beginning in AD 66 and subsequent Roman siege of Jerusalem and destruction of its temple in AD 70, God no longer lived in a temple made with hands. God lived in a temple of people now – his Kingdom of people on earth. So Jesus was coming back to establish the ‘heaven and earth’ of the New Covenant world. And Jesus would be the Sun of Righteousness who would never stop shining in this new Kingdom of hearts and lives. Like the new wine that burst the old wineskins, Jesus was coming to establish the new ‘heaven and earth’ and to speed the passing of the ‘heaven and earth’ of the Old Covenant world.
When – and to whom – did Jesus promise to come?
When? This first question is so important. All New Testament eschatology is based on Jesus’ teachings about his coming. And Jesus’ teachings are based upon earlier teachings in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Jesus taught that he would come to his first generation of believers, both explicitly in direct statements, and implicitly in parables and other typological fulfillments of Hebrew Scriptures. I will only be able to touch on a small sample of Jesus’ many consistent teachings to this end.
To Jesus’ followers:
Truly I tell you, some of you who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:28, cf. Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27, emphases mine here and throughout)
To Jesus’ followers:
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23)
To Jesus’ disciples who explicitly asked him when he would come again to end the Old Covenant age:
So also, when you see all these things [seven signs], you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:33–34)
To Jesus’ disciples:
These are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written…when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near…when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:22, 28 31)
Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.’ …When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they understood that he was speaking about them. (Matthew 21:40-41,43,45)
From now on, you [Caiaphas, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the whole Sanhedrin] shall be seeing the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69)
If I want him [John] to remain until I come, what is that to you? (John 21:22)
When did Jesus say he would come? Certainly within the lifetime of his first believers. Jesus taught he would come to his then-living generation of followers to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures, end the Old Covenant age, fulfill the Kingdom of God and dwell with them forever.
But instead of trusting this teaching of Jesus, we are taught from traditional pulpits that Jesus did not come when he said he would come or fulfill what he said he would. This nonoccurence is thought to be so obvious that evidence for it is not even needed. After all, we are all still here, people are still crying and dying, and no new ‘heaven and earth’ or utopian world has replaced our world. But is a physical body floating down from the clouds to take up residence in a new physical planet really what Jesus promised? And did Jesus massively fail in doing this?
If we deny the clear time statements of Scripture pertaining to when Jesus’ coming would occur, then Jesus failed. And if we interpret the nature of the presence of Jesus and the new ‘heaven and earth’ through a physical-literal lens, instead of seeking to use Scripture to interpret Scripture as to the nature of these events, then Jesus failed to keep his promise. If Jesus missed to boat on such a frequent and blatant assertion, we have no reason to believe or follow him. There is no getting around this. We cannot make excuses and call a 2000 year nonoccurence a minor “delay.” It is a massive failure. Especially when Holy Writ holds itself to the mat in asserting that this great coming of God would be happening, posthaste:
For yet in a very little while, he who is coming will come, and will not delay. (Hebrews 10:37, circa 60s AD)
Looking anew at what a ‘coming of God’ was according to Scripture will shed new light on what Jesus and the whole Bible teaches about the nature and timing of Jesus’ coming into his Kingdom. If we set aside futuristic presuppositions for just a moment, letting Scripture and Jesus speak for themselves, these very time statements that have confounded so many become a reliable guidepost for Jesus’ right-on-time arrival. And Scripture itself helps us define the nature of the presence of Jesus and the new ‘heaven and earth,’ or Kingdom that was to come.
This work of discovery is taking context into consideration. It is reading Scripture in light of the ancient near-eastern apocalyptic context that these words were first breathed in. Jesus taught to a predominantly Jewish audience, and he used Jewish ideas – often quoting directly from the Hebrew Scriptures – to communicate with them in a way that his hearers would have understood more readily than we do today. This contextual view must be taken into account. When we do this, a whole new world – and a whole new kind of ‘coming of God’ – appears.
“Did Jesus’ AD70 coming fit the biblical pattern of a ‘coming of God’?” If it does, then far from being wrong, failed, or inexplicably delayed, as many teach today, Jesus’ promise to return to his first followers came right on time.
Stay tuned to this series to see how Jesus is quite vindicated in the pages of both Scripture and history – and why this matters to us today.
Riley O’Brien Powell earned her BA in Art History from Wheaton College, M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and M.A. in Education from Harvard University. She is a mother of four, raising them with her husband, Skip Powell, MD. She is a covenant participant and theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can find more of Riley’s writing on her blogs, at Living the Question and Mostly Raw Mom.