Did Jesus Make a False Prophesy About His Return?

warner_bros_wolf_in_sheepBut any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet shall die.” And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?” — if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.

Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (JPS Tanakh)

As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

Mark 13:1-2 (NASB)

Last Friday, in my commentary on Torah Portion Shoftim, I stated that of the various prophesies of Jesus, we can verify those that described the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, a bit of a challenge came my way, questioning the certainty of my statement. The question was whether or not Jesus was foretelling of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem or a future Jerusalem.

Here’s what I mean.

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven.

“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Mark 13:24-30 (NASB)

If this is Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we have to ask ourselves if the sun and moon went dark, the stars fell out of heaven, and the powers in the heavens were shaken. Of course, this part of his prophesy is generally applied to the return of Jesus in some unknown future except that he says, “I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” A plain reading of the text in English seems to indicate that Jesus was talking about his eventual return after a future destruction of Jerusalem and that he expected all of these events to take place during the lifetime of the (then) current generation.

Guess what? It didn’t happen.

However there are a few things to consider. We tend to read the Bible chronologically front to back, but it’s not always presented that way, even in the same book. I remember sitting in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue many years ago and hearing the Rabbi say that even the events that occurred in the Torah portion for that week (Mishpatim) may not be in chronological order. I don’t remember the details of that discussion, but it certainly got my attention.

Going back to Mark 13, what was the interval of time between the statement Jesus made in verses 1 and 2 and what he was saying in verse 3 and beyond? Remember, in verses 1 and 2, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple. Starting in verse three, he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple. At least minutes and perhaps hours passed, but we don’t really know. We also don’t know in the first two verses, if he was talking about the 70 CE destruction of the Temple or the future destruction. Certainly the context would imply that all of Chapter 13 in Mark was a discussion of the same topic, but it’s not necessarily so. Remember, when this Gospel was written, there were no such things as chapters and verses. For that matter, the exact construction of sentences and insertion of punctuation isn’t absolutely fixed. Chapter 13 could involve more than a single topic, though the ancient and future destructions of Jerusalem are related.

messiah-prayerBut that doesn’t solve the problem that Jesus seemed to believe his return was going to be in the lifetime of his disciples, which makes it a matter of years or decades at most. How do we solve “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”?

I’m sure someone must have addressed this puzzle throughout the long history of Christianity. It’s an obvious question. I also don’t doubt (sadly) that this chapter may have contributed to the loss of faith in more than a few people.

Without being a theologian or being able to ask one, I did find one thing. The word “generation” in verse 30 can also be translated as “race.” If that’s the case, then the sentence could read, “Truly I say to you, this race will not pass away until all these things take place” (emph. mine).

I’m assuming that “race” is being used as in racial type or addressing an entire people group. If that’s true, then maybe Jesus is saying that the Jewish people will not pass away before his return, which would seem obvious but it takes the idea of an imminent return out of the sentence. He may simply be reassuring his disciples that the Jewish people will not all be exterminated by the Romans (or anyone else) before he comes back.

On the other hand, multiple translations of that word always render it as “generation.”

I dunno. A plain read of the text still presents a problem. Here’s what a couple of Christian commentaries say about this verse:

“This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished.” This is one of those prophecies which admit of a growing fulfillment. If the word “generation” (γανεὰ) be understood (as it may undoubtedly be understood) to mean the sum total of those living at any time on the earth, the prediction would hold true as far as the destruction of Jerusalem was concerned. The destruction of Jerusalem took place within the limits of the generation living in our Lord’s time; and there might be some of those whom he was then addressing who would live to see the event. His prediction amounted, in fact, to this, that the destruction of Jerusalem would take place within forty years of the time when he was speaking. But it may have a wider meaning. It may mean the Jewish people. Their city would be destroyed their power overthrown. They would be “peeled and scattered.” But they would still remain a distinct and separate nation to the end of the world. And there are other prophecies which show that with their national conversion to Christianity will be associated all that is most glorious in the future Church of God.

-Pulpit Commentary

Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass fill all these things be done—or “fulfilled” (Mt 24:34; Lu 21:32). Whether we take this to mean that the whole would be fulfilled within the limits of the generation then current, or, according to a usual way of speaking, that the generation then existing would not pass away without seeing a begun fulfilment of this prediction, the facts entirely correspond. For either the whole was fulfilled in the destruction accomplished by Titus, as many think; or, if we stretch it out, according to others, till the thorough dispersion of the Jews a little later, under Adrian, every requirement of our Lord’s words seems to be met.

-Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

Seems kind of thin. It’s possible that Jesus was talking about all Jews who would ever live when he said “this generation (race)” or that what was to be “accomplished” wasn’t literally all the events leading up to his return, but only the beginning of a long list of signs that signal his eventual return. Yeah, like I said. It seems kind of thin.

waiting-for-mannaA number of other Christian commentaries on the same verse yield similar results. I can’t help but think these Christian Bible commentators are all reading into the text what they need to see in order to justify the fact that Jesus has yet to return. Unless there’s something about the original Greek that strongly suggests Jesus couldn’t have been talking about a literal generation of men, then Houston, I think we have a problem.

To add to the problem, there are other verses where Jesus spoke of “this generation” seeing his return.

“Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

Matthew 16:28

“Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

Matthew 23:36

Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”

John 21:22

I can’t imagine that generations of Christian theologians simply missed all this or explained it away using inadequate interpretative methods, but then again, I don’t like to make assumptions. OK, Bible smart people, what is a credible way to refute the rather annoying problem…or does it exist?

The floor is now open.

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10 thoughts on “Did Jesus Make a False Prophesy About His Return?”

  1. Hi James. Could it be that “This generation” was an idiom meaning people within the Olam HaZeh (This World) since Yeshua’s main message was the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven that is going to be in full development in the Olam HaBa (The World to Come)?

  2. You might have touched, here, on a problem rooted in the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how various manuscripts were pieced together to form the continuous narrative that we see nowadays. Its not entirely impossible that the various statements were compiled together in a slightly different order than originally presented, and spoken in reference to separate events. It is not entirely impossible that Matt.24:34 might have appeared in a slightly different location more closely related to the events that would occur within the immediate generation’s timeframe. Even without any manuscript “problem”, there is some uncertainty about unraveling multiple questions posed by the disciples in Matt.24. After Rav Yeshua observes in verse 2 that not one stone will be left upon another, they ask three questions all in one breath: “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”. The answer likewise contains fragments that address all the individual questions, but we can’t be completely sure which is which or in what order. Events in verses 5-10 could well be within the timeframe of a single generation, Verses 11-14 appear a bit more teleological. Verses 15-24 might actually have a dual fulfillment, because they can apply to some events relating to the Hurban and they may yet apply again in our own era as we can currently observe a desolating abomination standing where the Temple must be rebuilt, and we have seen the immediate Jerusalem area surrounded by armies within the past generation; and while these same armies were pushed back to just across our borders, they are still surrounding us, they are none too friendly, and they are likely to become less so if we Israelis take the actions necessary to rebuild the Temple. Verses 26-31 sound as if they are addressing ultimate events not within the current generation addressed by Rav Yeshua. Verse 32 basically advises the disciples to read the signs of the times to be alert for the things that would come upon their generation, though it has been read also as an oblique reference to the restoration of Israel as a nation after its 20-century exile. We moderns would prefer that the passage had been neatly structured to indicate what was immediately impending, what would stretch across a period of centuries, what would happen just before Rav Yeshua’s return as Messiah ben-David, and what would happen after that pertaining to the “end”. We would also have appreciated repeating certain phrases if they were to apply in some degree in one period and then again in another. Notwithstanding what we might like, prophetic material has never been that neatly and unambiguously presented. Disputes still remain to be resolved about prophecies that are read in connection with Rav Yeshua’s first coming, so why should we expect the prophecies currently under discussion to be any different?

  3. Great coverage, and fully compliant with 1Thess 5:21, sir! I’m not a preterist-which may obviously color my conclusion-but after taking time to do a bit of research (time which I cannot spare, by the way…thanks a lot, James!) it seems to me that the problem lies in the exegesis. The original seems to me to be (as Bob Dewaay puts it…) “not a chronological…but a qualitative” reference.

    God is a rock. Abraham is our father. The Jewish penchant for metaphor seems to me a reliable foundation to anchor the apologetic in this case.

  4. @PL: I was thinking along those lines but apparently, I didn’t take the idea far enough. If the construction of these verses or the entire chapter (or more) isn’t chronological or focused on a single topic, then interpretation becomes far more challenging. However, as I mentioned above, at least some Rabbis believe even the Torah isn’t constructed in chronological order, so there is a precedent for this that can be applied when reading the gospels.

    @Alfredo: As PL suggests, the problem of interpretation may exist on multiple levels.

    @Leo: You’re welcome. 😉 Oh c’mon. What else could be better than digging into scripture?

    I have to keep reminding myself as a pursue these avenues, that my own coming to faith was not based entirely on logical arguments. A long series of highly unlikely events took place that led me down a path with Jesus at its end…or its beginning depending on how you look at it. If someone had just tried to convince me that Jesus was Messiah, Lord, and Savior from a logical examination of scripture, I’d never have believed.

    Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.

    John 20:29

  5. I liked what PL had to say, that makes a lot of sense to me. Also as you mentioned there are apparent difficulties throughout the Tanach. so most likely, we’ll probably find some in the NT also. The important part is to use these opportunities to learn and to strengthen our faith instead of dismantling it.

  6. Even though we have different religious beliefs, and I have no knowledge of the New Testament, I thought I would share something interesting about the Torah from a Kaballistic view. I’ve heard it numerous times and it is the basis of Kaballah, but the Torah is not a history book, but rather a code. While most of what is written is true to the literal word, you have to read between the letters (Kaballah has a belief of code within the Hebrew letters). Time is something that was made up and can take on different constraints during different times. I can’t go on to say more since it’s not an area I’m comfortable with talking about. But I hope what I have shared can help!

  7. Yes, Chana, Kabalah uses such techniques to develop insights, but its scenarios are no more real than science fiction or fantasy. Their purpose is to draw out deeper meanings, not to clarify events or historical processes.

  8. The Bible is the ULTIMATE history book – presenting a history of God’s relationship with man from “the beginning” of creation right through to the establishment of a NEW creation where only righteousness dwells.

  9. Although there are some portions of the Bible that could be considered a legal document, I agree that you can’t read it primarily like a court document or a newspaper. I also believe the Bible is extremely, densely packed with information, most of which we don’t get with a simple surface reading, especially when not read in the original languages. One of the reasons we have all these troublesome questions is because reading the Bible isn’t like reading a 21st century novel. There are depths of information that can only be acquired by careful study. I’m convinced that there are areas that we’ll only truly understand after the Messianic Era arrives.

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