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Nov 29, 2015

Did Jesus Predict the End and Get It Wrong?

Dr. Andrew Swafford

In the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21), Jesus seems to predict the end of all things—using such cataclysmic language as the following: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the stars will fall from heaven …” (Mt 24:29). Further, Jesus claims that these things will happen within a “generation” (Mt 24:34).


Use of Cataclysmic Language in the Prophets

The prophets often used such language to describe the judgment in history of some earthly power that had come to oppress the people of God. For example, in Isaiah 13:1 we have an oracle concerning “Babylon,” followed by cataclysmic language: “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” (13:10). Finally, in verse 17 the historical reference becomes clear: “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them”—a reference to the Medo-Persian Empire (founded by Cyrus) that will end Babylonian hegemony in 539 BC (cf. Isa 44:28-45:1). Babylon had of course decimated Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews in 586 BC. Cyrus sets in motion the return from exile, beginning in the mid-530s and culminating in the rebuilding of the Temple in 515 BC.

So What Did Jesus Mean?

In short, Jesus is referring—not to the end of the world—but to the end of a world, namely, the end of the Old Covenant embodied in the Temple. Jesus’ words most directly refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans, which would indeed mark the end of the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system—those aspects of the Old Covenant which definitively come to an end in Christ.

What Was So Problematic about the Temple?

In Jesus’ day, the Temple had come to stand for something directly inimical to Jesus’ purposes. God’s ultimate promise to Abraham was that of a worldwide family (cf. Gen 12:2-3). But in Jesus’ day, holiness was often equated with separation from all that is unclean, especially the Gentiles. In this context, the Temple embodied this Jewish nationalism and separation. While the Gentiles could enter the outer court, a sign overhung the entry into the inner courts which prohibited on pain of death the entry of any non-Jew. Thus, the Temple embodied the sequestering of God’s presence to the Holy of Holies. Jesus’ death on the Cross unleashes the presence of God for all people, a point symbolically made when the Temple veil (which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place) is torn upon Jesus’ death (cf. Mk 13:38; cf. CCC 586). And in fact, when we go before the Blessed Sacrament, we approach that of which the Holy of Holies in all its glory was merely a type.

Jesus is the New and Living Temple (cf. Jn 2:19-21; Mt 12:6). From the Cross to the fall of the Temple is a transition period—from the earthly to the heavenly, from the Old to the New. Since Jesus said these words around AD 30 just before his death, it appears he got the prophecy exactly right: about a generation later, the Romans destroyed the Temple, effectively marking the end of the Old Covenant and the definitive ushering in of the New.

Does Any of This Refer to the End of the World?

In the Jewish mind, the Temple was thought to be a microcosm of creation (and creation a macro-temple). Accordingly, the fall of the Temple does bring to mind the end of all things; in short, the destruction of the Temple prefigures the end of the world. So, yes, Jesus is indirectly and secondarily referring to the ultimate end; but his primary and most direct meaning refers to the end of the Temple.

Thus, Jesus didn’t get it wrong; we just need to be more attentive to the first-century meaning of his words, and not immediately jump to their twenty-first-century connotation.

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  • I can understand this explanation but how to explain the verses in between ’30 And then the sign of the Son of Man* will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
    31 And he will send out his angels* with a trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.’?

    • Laurie An,

      Great question; these are tough passages; I think the first thing to reiterate as we noted above is that just below the passages you mention, Jesus tells us that these things will happen within a “generation” (Mt 24:34). The Son of Man, coming on the clouds imagery comes from Daniel 7, especially verses 13-14, where the inauguration of the Kingdom of God through the “Son of Man” takes place in the context of the “fourth beast,” which in Jesus’ day was taken to be Rome. In Dan 7:13 the Son of Man comes to the “Ancient of Days” and receives an everlasting kingdom; the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees the fulfillment of this very passage in Christ’s Ascension (CCC 664), with Christ ascending to the Father. Jesus also alludes to this imagery at the trial with Caiaphas: “You will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64). With these words, the trial is over, showing that Caiaphas understood what Jesus meant.

      So while you’re right, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the things you reference in vv. 30-31 have “happened.” But in a real sense the Son of Man has come and inaugurated His kingdom in and through the Paschal Mystery. Further, the language of the trumpets, sending out angels, and gathering of His elect is judgment language at home in the prophets. In other words, we tend to read this apocalyptically as only having an end-times reference; and no doubt, ultimately, this is where it’s pointing. But such language is at home in the prophets regarding historical judgments wherein a historical remnant (i.e., the elect) are saved through a purifying judgment (e.g., Ezek 5 and 9 which concern the onslaught of the Babylonian exile in 586 BC).

      In other words, I do agree that all these judgments ultimately point to and prefigure the final judgment at Christ’s Second Coming; but it is quite natural to read the initial meaning of Christ’s words as referring first to the judgment of AD 70 when the earthly Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed by the Romans, much like it was in 586 BC by the Babylonians. Reading it this way squares with Jesus’ view of the proximate fulfillment of His words (“within a generation”) and simply adds a typological layer to the way we’re used to reading such passages (namely, the destruction of the Temple prefigures the ultimate end of all things).

      We would do well to speak of three “comings” of Jesus: (1) historically, in AD 70; (2) liturgically in the Holy Eucharist; and (3) eschatologically in His Second Coming at the end of time. For my part, this “thicker” view allows us to move organically from an initial meaning of the words in their first-century context (and one that squares with Jesus’ own assessment of His words, i.e., “within a generation”) to their ultimate meaning for us in the present and for future generations.

      Hope this helps!

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