Jesus of the Gospels: His Apocalyptic Vision

One of the more controversial, but seemingly very “settled” portions of Jesus ministry in the minds of most Christians is the apocalyptic angle of his ministry. By apocalyptic vision, we refer to our understanding of Jesus sayings regarding events that are supposed to happen at the “end of the world”. In this scheme of thinking then, this world is to undergo some catastrophic destruction, so that all the righteous of God will be in heaven, and the unrighteous go to hell. To put it in Jimmy Reeve’s words, “this world is not our home, we’re just a passing through”. Some scholars therefore claim that either Jesus’s sayings about the end of the world didn’t come true (which most ordinary Christians don’t agree with) or that everything that Jesus said referred to a yet to be fulfilled future.

This apparent problem of fulfillment is further worsened by the determination of Christians of dispensationalist leanings, to paint the picture of a great rapture and something called a “Great Tribulation”. Whether this “tribulation” will happen before the “rapture” or not is itself another subject of debate, and therefore we have pre-tribulational dispensationalists, and post-tribulational dispensationalists. In fact to even attempt to address these issues in a single post is a daunting task, and yet my focus is to put the spotlight where the debate needs to be focused – not of our own interpretations of the book of Revelations over the last 200 or so years of Christianity, but on 1st Century Jewish thinking of what the end will be like, and how Jesus Christ captures this end in nowhere else but the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The End of the World?

First and foremost, there is a problem with the translation of the phrase “end of the world”. This translation easily lends itself to abuse, strengthening the picture in our mind of everything being destroyed and the righteous being carried off into heaven. Jews never expected the “end of the world”, but the “end of this age”. For the Jew, the coming of the Messiah represents the end of the old world order, where the kings of the world did as they pleased in spite of Yahweh’s will, to a state in which the Messiah does the will of the Father, and dispensing justice to all and putting the worldly kings in their proper place. This is captured in many places in the Psalms (Ps 2, Ps 72 etc). This, the Jews called the coming of “the kingdom of God”, or “the kingdom of Heaven”. To them, this earth was the good creation of God flawed by sin, and when his kingdom comes in its fullness, God will only transform this world into what he really desired it to be like, not throw it away and carry us all off to heaven.

But how did we come to these previous ideas about the end of the age? It’s because of a literalist attempt to analyze documents which were never meant to be literal. Jewish and biblical apocalyptic literature was not meant to be understood literally, but was meant to be a symbolic and metaphoric way of talking about how God intended to bring his justice to the world in a language that only it’s recipients can fully discern, and not any other average Joe (or in this case, average Babylonian, Syrian or Roman conqueror of the Jews). To refuse to see its metaphorical nature is to be open to folly. Dr. Ben Witherington III relates a story of somebody and his wife giving him and a friend a ride in a mountainous area in the US after their car broke down, and in conversation the couple stated that they believe the earth was flat. They explained that if the earth was not flat, why does the book of Revelations say that angels will stand at the 4 corners of the earth holding the 4 winds (Rev 7:1)? Being stuck in need of a ride, he refused to challenge them or face walking in the cold. If in the 20th century, people can think like this about apocalyptic literature, do we not have questions to answer?

So let’s take a closer look at Jesus’s ministry vis-à-vis Jewish thinking about the end of the age in the synoptic gospels.

The Kingdom of God

And so Jesus goes about saying all sorts of things about “the kingdom of God” being near and being amongst them and so on. The unfortunate thing for us Christians is that the bible doesn’t record the fact that before and after Jesus Christ there were many other people claiming to be the “bringers of the kingdom of God”, from John of Gischala (BC) to Simon Bar Kochba (AD). And yet none of them said “hey get ready, God is going to destroy this earth and carry us all off to heaven” (if you want to know more of these, there are freely available online copies of Josephus the historian’s book ‘War of the Jews’ and other histories of 1st century Judaism which are informative on the subject).

However what made Jesus stand out was his insistence that Israel had failed its commission to be the light of the world (something I mentioned in my previous post here). Therefore not only was the kingdom of God arriving in him, but the Jewish nation were under judgment if they do not come and follow him, the true light of the world. Note that the words that the prophets like Isaiah used to describe Israel like “light of the world”, “the vine”, and “the sheep” etc., Jesus Christ used to describe himself in the gospels. He was the true Israel, and all who were “in him” could now enter the kingdom of God.

Suffice it to say that many people despised Jesus for what he said, but he purposed to show them who he was, and how their rejection of him will lead to their destruction. And so he begins a sequence of prophetic activities which although they seem random, are actually references back to and fulfillment of what the prophets had said about him, but also what they had said about unfaithful Israel. This is easiest to see when we use the Gospel of Mark, since all scholars agree it’s the gospel with which does the best at recording events of Jesus life according to the order in which they happened.

The Coming Judgment

He begins by riding into Jerusalem as a king, but as an unexpected one – on riding on a colt (Mk 11:1-11). Because it’s late, he then stays at Bethany and returns to the temple in the morning. On his way from Bethany to the temple, he does a weird thing by cursing a fig tree, even though the fig tree was not guilty because “IT WAS NOT THE SEASON FOR FIGS” (Mk 11:13, my emphasis). His disciples don’t understand, but he was enacting what Jeremiah had said about unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 8, especially v 13 – “there will be no grapes on the vine, there will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither”). He goes on to the temple, and drives out those selling and buying there. In the process, he accuses them of making the place “a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). Again, he is symbolizing the coming destruction to the temple, using the same words that Jeremiah used against unfaithful Israel before Babylon came to destroy the temple and carry everyone off to Babylon (Jeremiah 7, especially v 11). In Mk 11:16, Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts”, same as prophesied in Zech 14:21 (“And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty”).

And when the next day they pass by the fig-tree, the disciples realized it had withered, just as Jesus had said. Asking him about the fig tree, he makes an even more astonishing (and probably one of the most abused) statement – “If anyone says to THIS MOUNTAIN, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23, my emphasis). Anyone who is familiar with the topography of the land from Bethany to Jerusalem will have known that “THIS MOUNTAIN” is a specific reference – to the temple mount. Jesus is not giving us a license to move mountains (as our motivational speakers like to tell us). He is really talking about a mountain that is already under condemnation – the temple of Jerusalem.

The Destruction of the Temple and City

In Mk 13, his disciples ask him for signs of the end of the age (again, not the end of the world). Note where Jesus was at the time – “Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives OPPOSITE THE TEMPLE …” (v 3 my emphasis). He uses he whole chapter to talk about the coming destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem and towards the end, makes a pivotal statement which has become a boulder to many to swallow – “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mk 13:30).

I posit to you that this happened in AD 70, when the Roman legion matched down on Jerusalem and did exactly what Jesus predicted, in exactly the time he predicted it – one generation after his death around AD 33. And interestingly it is recorded in history that the Jewish Christians were obedient to the words of Jesus Christ, and fled before the coming destruction of the Roman armies. Their key was to look out for the occurrence of Lk 20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near”. For the Romans indeed surrounded Jerusalem to destroy it before AD 70, but had to return due to an emergency at home. This provided the Jewish Christians with the perfect opportunity to leave, and a year later, when the Romans did return, the final destruction of Jerusalem was completed.

But the Bible Said …

Now here are some of the typical objections people raise to the above

  • But the bible said “there shall be wars and rumors of wars …? Nations will rise against nations … etc.?” – Well, who said these things didn’t happen in that one generation? Just read Tacitus, Josephus and other historians of the time.
  • But what about the “tribulations” as described in these gospels? – Again, there was indeed a lot of violence visited on Jewish Christians after Jesus’s death. Let’s not forget Stephen being stoned, Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, James the brother of Jesus being killed, and a whole lot more. The name of Jesus Christ was still dangerous, whether before or after his death. The historical extra-biblical sources bear witness to these tribulations.
  • But Matt 24:29-31 talks about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling from the sky etc. Did those things not point to the future destruction of the earth? – Ah, that is apocalyptic language for you. It’s metaphor, not literal. It’s meant to show the significance of the events that will happen. Let me give you an example (not even from New but the Old Testament, and not even from the prophets, but somewhere further back).

When the Lord delivered David from his enemies, he sang a song in 2 Samuel 22, which makes use of Jewish apocalyptic language to describe how God fought the battle on his behalf …

“In my distress, I cried out to the Lord, I called out to my God … The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook, they trembled because he was angry … the valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord … he reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep waters.” (2 Samuel 22:7-17).

Now I’m not sure you can point out anywhere in the OT where God actually dried up the valleys of the sea or where the earth trembled for David to be delivered. The point is, such language is used to describe how significant God’s activity in the physical sense was. As NT Wright says, apocalyptic imagery is used to “invest natural events with their theological significance”

So, is there A Second Coming of Jesus?

Yes, Jesus Christ is coming again. But his kingdom has already began, and he is king of the world now and our task as the church is not to be the voluntary association of the saved, but the place that he both manifests his kingdom, and brings that kingdom’s benefits to the rest of the world. And when he comes in power and in glory, he’s not coming to carry us away to heaven. He’s going to bring heaven and earth together, and the dwelling place of God will be amongst men (Rev 21:1-3).

The Jews did believe that when they die, they go to heaven. But they certainly held that when God’s kingdom is fully revealed in power and glory, God will come down with his saints to join those on earth, and not the other way round (this is what they meant by “resurrection”). The Greeks on the other hand, believed that this earth is a hopeless place, and our ultimate destination is in a heavenly place with the gods. Well, the last time I checked, Jesus was a Jew, not a Greek.

There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, but there’s too little space to write it in one post. I’ve intentionally kept the focus on what Jesus Christ himself said and what a 1st century Jew of his day would have heard him say. Until we can answer the challenge of apocalypse as presented by the Gospels, let’s not be busy confusing ourselves with other biblical apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Revelations. Apocalypse was fully woven into the ministry of Jesus, and his kingdom coming is the beginning of the end of the age, not just the announcement of its future fulfillment.

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