October 2018 Credo
Jesus’ statements concerning the timing of the consummation of the kingdom of God, recorded in the Gospels, have generated considerable debate among some scholars.
For instance, in Mark 9:1, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power’.
Another example is found in Matthew. Weaved into his instructions to his disciples, as he sent them off on a preaching mission to Galilee, is this statement: ‘I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Matthew 10:23).
Yet another example is found in the Olivet Discourse, where after providing a list of the harrowing signs of the end-times, Jesus said: ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’.
Two millennia have passed since these predictions were made. Yet, the kingdom of God has not been consummated, the Son of Man has not returned, and the world continues to be in the grip of sin and evil.
Was Jesus mistaken? Some modern scholars of the Bible certainly thought that he was.
Dale Allison is one such scholar. Echoing a widely accepted view, Allison firmly believes that Jesus’ message was infused with a robust apocalyptic vision.
In Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010) Allison writes: ‘I wish I could believe that Jesus, as one theologian from the nineteenth century put it, “thrust aside apocalyptic questions, or gave them an ideal turn, and floated them away on the current of spiritual religion”. But I do not’.
Allison argued that Jesus taught an apocalyptic eschatology – in concert with others in the Second Temple period – that envisioned that God would overcome evil, restore Israel, raise the dead, and establish his divine kingdom, within his lifetime.
‘Like the historical Zoroaster’, writes Allison, ‘the historical Jesus foretold a resurrection of the dead, a universal judgement, and a new, idyllic world with evil undone, all coming soon’. The fact that none of these things occurred during his Jesus’ lifetime makes him either a failed or a false prophet, Allison opines.
In some sense, Allison’s view reprises that of Albert Schweitzer in the last century. Schweitzer challenged the liberal view of Jesus as a charismatic rabbi who did nothing more than preach the ethic of God’s kingdom.
In his The Quest of the Historical Jesus Schweitzer famously writes: ‘The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb’.
In contrast, Schweitzer’s Jesus – the Jesus he believed the Gospel writers were at pains to portray – bore an urgent message concerning God’s eschatological kingdom. He devoted his whole life to this eschatological vision and hope, in the conviction that he was called not just to be its messenger but also its catalyst.
But Jesus was wrong, according to Schweitzer. The wheel of the world that Jesus tried to set in motion that would lead to the realisation of his eschatological vision turned in a different direction and crushed him.
Here is Schweitzer’s famous account: ‘Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn … Then it does turn; and crushes him’.
‘The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign’.
How, then, should we interpret the enigmatic sayings of Jesus about the time of the kingdom? Space does not allow us to go into all the exegetical details, but many scholars have not understood them quite in the same ways that Allison and Schweitzer have done.
With regard to Mark 9:1, many scholars are of the view that careful attention must be given to the context if we are not to misconstrue its meaning.
In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ statement is placed just before the account of the transfiguration. This means that expressions like coming of the kingdom in power (Mark) and the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom (Matthew), understood in context, do not refer to Jesus’ return. Rather, they point to the epiphany of the glory of the Son during the transfiguration.
As William Lane has quite convincingly shown, given the context, ‘Mark understood Jesus’ statement to refer to this moment of transcendent glory conceived as an enthronement and an anticipation of the glory which is to come’.
Schweitzer has argued that Matthew 10:23 refers exclusively to the mission of the first disciples of Jesus. However, more recent scholarship has shown that the periscope of the passage suggests that the mission of future disciples – not just that of the original twelve – is also included. Thus understood, many scholars would agree with G. E. Ladd that Matthew 10:23 ‘says no more than that the mission of Jesus’ disciples to Israel will last until the coming of the Son of Man’.
What about Jesus’ statement in the Olivet Discourse that his generation will witness the things that he had predicted? A careful reading of the passage would show that Jesus’ second coming and the kingdom’s consummation are not included in the list.
The things that Jesus’ generation will witness are merely ‘birth pangs’ (Matthew 24:8) – ‘the beginnings of travail’ – that must take place, but ‘the end is still to come’ (Mark 13:7).
In addition, Jesus repeatedly exhorted his hearers to watch and pray, ‘for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning, lest he find you sleeping’ (Mark 13:35-6).
Considered together, these passages do not indicate the timing of the return of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom. They only stress the certainty that these events will occur.
As William Lane has succinctly put it: ‘The time of the appearance of the Son of Man in glory is unknown, but the fact that he will come is certain. The Church is called to live vigilantly in the certainty of that coming’.
When these critical passages are understood properly, the conclusions of scholars like Allison and Schweitzer are untenable, and must therefore be rejected. Jesus is neither a false prophet (Allison) nor a tragic figure who sacrificed his life for his false beliefs (Schweitzer).
Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who came ‘for us and for our salvation’, and whose return will transform this sin-marred world into the new heavens and new earth.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.