Things are not so clear-cut as I had thought they were. Please be sure to check out my photos of the Arch of Titus at the end; they show rhe Romans stomped all over the Jerusalem temple.
Those three chapters, the Olivet Discourse, talk about the distant, apocalyptic end times or the apocalyptic end of an era and the start of a new one down here on earth..
Actually, our focus is much narrower than those three full chapters, though I do put things in the larger context. The focus is on Matt. 24:7-8, 27, 29-31; Mark 13:7, 24-27, and Luke 17:24; 21:10-11, 25-28.
However, new data have come in, so you may want to read these two posts, instead:
Parallel Passages of Christ’s Coming
Before we get to the three options, let’s look at the apocalyptic language in the three parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels. Notice what happens to the cosmos (earth, sky, seas, heavens, stars, moon, and so on).
|Matthew 24:7-8, 27, 29-31 (My translation)||Mark 13:7, 24-27||Luke 17:24; 21:10-11; 25-28 (My translation)|
|7 For nations shall rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 But all these things are the beginning of birth pangs. (vv. 7-8)
For just as the lightning comes out from the east and shines to the west, in this way shall the visitation [parousia] of the son of Man be. (v. 27)
29 And immediately after the tribulation of those days, The sun shall darken and the moon shall not give off its light [Is. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15]. And the stars shall fall from the heaven, And the powers of the heaven be shaken. [Is. 34:4; Haggai 2:6; 21]
30 And at that time the sign of the son of Man shall appear in the heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall mourn and ‘see the son of Man coming on clouds of heaven’ [Dan. 7:13] 31 And he shall send out his angels with a great trumpet and gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (vv. 29-31)
|7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. (vv. 7-8)
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (vv. 24-27, ESV)
|24 For just as flashing lightning shines from one end of the sky to the other end of the sky, so will be the Son of man in his day. (Luke 17:24)
10 Then he proceeded to tell them, “Nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There shall be powerful earthquakes and famines and pestilences everywhere. There shall be both frightening events and great signs in the heaven. (vv. 10-11)
25 Further, there shall be great signs in the sun and moon and stars and upon the earth distress of the nations and in the perplexity of the noise of the sea and rough waves, 26 so that people faint from fear and the expectation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they shall see the son of Man coming in clouds with power and much glory. 28 When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and lift up your head because your redemption is near!” (vv. 25-28)
Apocalyptic Language in OT for Judgment of Nations or Kings
Do you recognize any of the same cosmic, apocalyptic imagery in these next Old Testament passages about national and royal judgment on various nations and kings in the past? I quote them because this is online writing (so no cost per written page!) and because we need to see the verses for a change. All passages are from the ESV, unless otherwise noted, and of course the bold font is added.
Once again, in the following passages, the cosmos–earth, sun, moon, stars, sky, seas–react, but not literally.
All these OT Scriptures have now been moved to another post. Click here:
To wrap up this section, none of these natural events happened literally; otherwise, nature as we know it would have been destroyed millennia ago. No, this cosmic reaction is simply and profoundly super-charged, comprehensive, apocalyptic language to indicate the Creator has shown up on the scene when he judges and overthrows a nation or a king. This is particularly true of Jerusalem and the temple when the son of Man appeared to judge it and the chosen people and after their day of visitation in Christ was unrecognized and soon to be rejected (Luke 19:44).
To interpret the horrific signs in the cosmos literally fails to understand apocalyptic language in its context.
Now we come to the three interpretive options for Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.
Option One: Christ’s Coming in Those Three Chapters Refers Mainly to His Ascension and Enthronement and Subsequent Judgment on Jerusalem
This option says that those three synoptic parallels in the table predict what was fulfilled at his ascension and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. In this section, this coming of the Lord does not apply to the final Second Coming at the end of the age, though there are other passages elsewhere that do teach it.
Here is some biblical support for the first option.
First, Daniel says that the son of Man’s (Christ’s) coming is his enthronement, and apparently he oversees judgment on Jerusalem after he is enthroned. Since these verses are so important. let’s quote them again.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
Jesus told the following to Caiaphas the high priest in Mark:13:61-62:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 13:61-62)
This is about the ascension and later judgment over the temple as represented by the chief priest, Caiaphas. How else could the chief priest see Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One, coming on the cloud of heaven, if it does not refer to the ascension and enthronement? The temple is destroyed as the sign of the ultimate vindication of the son of Man. Now his body, the church, the temple, is the fulfillment of the earthly temple at Jerusalem (1 Cor. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:5).
Second, Matthew describes the persecution of the apostles when he sent them out. They will not get through all the towns in Israel before the son of Man comes. This parallels the same prediction in Luke 21:12-19, which simply means Jesus is repeating himself, as all good teachers do, in two separate contexts.
21 Brother shall betray brother to death and a father a son, and children shall rise in rebellion against parents and put them to death. 22 Moreover, you shall be hated by everyone because of my name, but the one who endures to the end—this one shall be saved. 23 When they persecute you in this town, flee to another. For truly I tell you, you will not complete the towns of Israel until the son of Man comes. (Matt. 10:21-23, my translation, emphasis added)
The only way these words in bold font can be fulfilled is if they refer to Jesus’s ascension and enthronement just a year or two later.
Third, Luke says that this generation shall not pass away until these things happen. “’Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.'” (Luke 21:32, NIV // Matt. 24:34 // Mark 13:30). One of these things is the destruction of Jerusalem, after he ascended with the clouds and judged the city to enact the ultimate vindication of his kingship and his launch of the new kingdom which happened at first while he was on earth.
Fourth, as noted, Jesus predicted to Caiaphas the high priest that the council will see the son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power (God) and coming in clouds of heaven. How can the council see this, when it has not happened in our lifetimes? It had to have happened when some members of the council were still alive. And this fits the description of judgment on Jerusalem.
63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you [singular], from now on you [plural] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power [God] and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:63-64)
Mark says the same thing:
61 Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power [God], and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)
How can this coming refer to the ultimate Second Coming at the end of the age, for which we are still waiting? How can members of the council see that distant coming? Clearly it refers to Christ ascending to his throne and his subsequent judgment on Jerusalem.
Yes, there are passages that refer to his ultimate and visible Second Coming, when Jesus himself appears visible to our eyes, but the three passages in the comparative synoptic table do not refer to that ultimate and final coming, but to his ascension and enthronement and then judgment on Jerusalem.
Option Two: Christ’s Coming in Those Three Chapters Refers Mainly to the Distant Future
This is the view I had held for years before I studied the eschatology in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 more thoroughly. Christ’s coming has not happened yet, so those parallel passages in the table are irrelevant for Christ’s ascension and God’s judgment on Jerusalem. Today we are still waiting for it, so this interpretation lifts the three parallel synoptic passages in the table from their original contexts and moves them to our time. (Yes, there are other passages that do mention his Second Coming outside of these synoptic parallels.)
First, In the parallel table, Matthew and Mark end their pericopes in ways that are global:
31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matt. 24:31)
Mark does the same:
27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:27)
How can the coming of the Lord be local, when these verses say the ingathering goes from one end of the heaven to the other and from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heaven? It is best to take the pericope as a whole. Therefore, the coming is global and has not happened yet.
Second, the end will come only when the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14 // Mark 13:10). This verse goes way beyond Christ’s ascension and the fall of Jerusalem.
Third, this verse in Luke says that troubles will come on the inhabited world (in Greek): “so that people faint from fear and the expectation of what is coming on the world” (21:26). This expands the coming far into the future.
Fourth, the face of the whole earth shall be affected. “For it shall come on everyone inhabiting the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:35). It’s not local.
Fifth, in this passage in Joel, the first part (the outpouring the Spirit) began in Acts and continues today. The second part (about the big changes in nature) has yet to happen, but will take place at the final, global coming.
28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:28-30)
Therefore, the context in Joel 2:28-30 is global.
And therefore, the passages in the table do not refer to the fall of Jerusalem but instead to the global Second Coming. Those who hold to this second option tend to take the earth-shattering and heaven-shaking signs in the cosmos literally, and they have not happened, so they await future fulfillment.
Further, the believers in Option Two have an answer to the question of this generation shall not pass away until things are fulfilled. “Generation” refers to a race or kind of people.
BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT. It says of the noun genea (pronounced geh-neh-ah and the “g” is hard, as in “get”) the following: (1) “those exhibiting common characteristics or interests, race, kind”; (2) “the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all living at one given time and frequently defined in terms of specific characteristics, generation, contemporaries”; (3) “the time of a generation, age”; (a) “of periods of time in terms of a generation, age, generation”; (b) “of an undefined time period, period of time”; (4) “the sense of family history.”
Liddell and Scott, who wrote a lexicon that encompasses the larger ancient Greek world, say of genea: (I)1. Race, stock, family, e.g. “breed of horses”; 2. race, generation; 3. Offspring; (II). Of time and place in reference to birth: 1. A birthplace; 2. Age, time of life; 3. Time of birth.
Both lexicons give many interpreters justification to choose the first definition. “This generation” refers to the Jewish people, so the clause could be translated as follows: “This Jewish race shall not pass away until all these things happen.” God still has a plan for the Jewish people, whether inside or outside of Israel. I don’t think it is the best translation here, but it is the first definition in BDAG and Liddell and Scott, after all.
Option Three: Christ’s Coming in Those Three Chapters Happened at the Ascension and Subsequent Judgment on Jerusalem (Near) and Will Happen in the Distant Future (Far)
This option says that the parallel passages in the comparative table are both / and, not either / or. Jesus speaks of his ascension and enthronement and the subsequent coming judgment on Jerusalem, but then expands it to indicate what God’s judgment will be like with the Second Coming at the end of this age, which will be visible for the whole world to see, on every continent. The judgment on Jerusalem is a paradigm for how he will come in final judgment on the whole world. This shift of focus from local to global agrees with the apocalyptic language in the OT, which describes judgment at various times and on various nations. In the three synoptic parallel passages in the Gospels, the focus goes from the local (micro-) to the global (macro-), from the near to the far.
The Scriptural evidence for Option Three is not hard to find. Combine Options One and Two, in the right order and with the correct shift in focus, from local to global.
As for BDAG’s and Liddell and Scott’s definition, noted just above, the translation “Jewish race” does not fit Matt. 10:23: “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.” Nor does “Jewish race” fit this verse, as Jesus speaks to Caiaphas the high priest: “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 13:62). These verses refer to his ascension and enthronement or his coming in judgment soon after his enthronement or both. Therefore the second definition (generation) in both BDAG and Liddell and Scott is the best one in all the verses about what will happen before this generation ends.
Microcosm / small scale: Jesus coming in judgment on Jerusalem / temple
Macrocosm / large scale: Jesus coming in judgment on globe (Second Coming)
The first one is a paradigm for the second one.
As I see it, the third option is the only way to resolve the puzzle about the verses that say that this generation will not pass away until the son of Man comes or the high priest will see the Son of Man coming in clouds (ascension and enthronement), and the verses that talk of the long-range Second Coming.
So I prefer the third option: both / and.
On the other hand, here is a post that helps me lean towards the second option for Matt. 24:4-36 and the other passages in Mark and Luke:
Photos Depicting the Destruction of the Temple
I took these photos in 2001, while in Rome.
The judgment on Jerusalem happened in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple. They stomped all over it; therefore, the abomination of desolation prophesied in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 actually happened within the generation living at the time of Jesus’s prophecy.
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. (My translation, emphasis added)
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (ESV)
14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (ESV)
Luke clearly connects the abomination of desolation prophesied in Daniel 9:21, 11:31, 12:11 with the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark add that the abomination of desolation will happen when the Gentiles (Roman army) stand in the Holy Place of the temple, which they did.
The Arch of Titus was built in A.D. 81 by Domitian (ruled 81-96), to honor his deceased brother Titus and their father Vespasian’s victory over the Jews and Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Roman army really did stand in the Holy Place in the temple, where the Menorah and other tools were kept. The abomination of desolation already happened within Jesus’s generation, just as he had predicted.
Summary and Conclusion
Here’s a quick summary of the three options. Whichever option you choose, please don’t call the other two heretical.
(1). The coming of the Lord in the three synoptic passages in the comparative table is only about Christ’s ascension and enthronement and God’s judgment on Jerusalem, so the coming was in their near future and in our past (it happened in AD 70); however, there are plenty of other verses that teach the final Second Coming or Return of the Lord, bodily and visibly before the whole world. But these three synoptic passages are not about that Ultimate Return.
(2). The parallel passages in the table is about the global Second Coming, visible to everyone, in the distant future; it is far from Jesus’s time, now two thousand years and counting. Only a few verses deal with the sack of Jerusalem and the temple. (I admit that I held this view all my Christian life because I had not studied eschatology carefully, and that’s how I was taught, inadequately.)
(3). The three synoptic passages are first about Christ’s ascension and enthronement and subsequent judgment on Jerusalem; and second by patterned extension or by paradigm it is also about the future global Second Coming or Return, visible for all to see on all continents of earth. So the third option combines the first and second ones. R. T. France and David. E. Garland in their excellent commentaries on Matthew say that Matt. 24:4-35 is about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and Matt. 24:36-25:46 is about the parousia or Second Coming. N.T Wright says Mark 13 is about the destruction of the temple and not the parousia.
When Jesus ascended into heaven in clouds, he sat at the right hand of God. He was enthroned. His Body was going to be the temple and is now the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:5). As judgment and the vindication of God’s Son, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Judaism ended in the form it had been practiced from Moses to AD 70. That is a big deal. Earth-shattering (so to speak) and world ending. The cosmos shook. However, be assured that God ordained that it should end. It was his judgment. Judaism would never be the same. And it was in fact radically transformed from then to now. To cite just one example, they no longer sacrifice animals in the temple.
We are still waiting for the Final Judgment of all the earth, when Jesus will return visibly for all the world to see. And then the Church Age as we know it will end, and he will reign in his eternal kingdom. Many other Scriptures teach this Second Coming apart from those three chapters in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see the addendum). So have no fear about that.
Replying to Two Objections
Objection: This is replacement theology!
Reply: Yes, it is, but only the man-made temple, where God’s presence used to dwell, has been replaced with the church, where God’s presence now dwells.
1 Cor. 6:16:
For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people. [Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27, NIV]
Also see 1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:5. All of these verses were written when the temple in Jerusalem was still going strong. Therefore,
The temple = the church
And the church = the temple
This equation was a very clear teaching of the apostolic community. God was taking a new direction through the Church, guided and maintained by his Son, by the indwelling power of the Spirit. The true Church is going global and not restricted to the small temple in Jerusalem. The Church has replaced the temple in Jerusalem.
Objection: Then this is replacement theology of Israel!
Reply: God still has plans for Israel. He wants to save all Israel. “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way [or: “and so”] all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26). God regathered Jews into Israel, now speaking modern Hebrew, so they can hear the gospel in their own language. It is about their salvation. All people of all religions–Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Muslims, “Culture Christians,” Sikhs. Confucianists, Taoists (and so on)–need to get saved, as well.
This term calls for some comment. It means “before” or “already.” An event has already passed by or already happened before our time or point of view. So in this context a partial preterist believes that some of the events described in the comparative synoptic table have already been fulfilled, while others have not. “Full preterism” says that all the events have been fulfilled, even the Second Coming! For example, a video on youtube says Christ has already come, so there is no need for him to return again, even in the future. Everything has already happened.
However, I regard the full preterist interpretation to be a misreading of Scripture. The global, visible Second Coming that will change everything has not yet happened. Here are two sample verses.
The first epistle of John was written in the 90’s, long after the destruction of the temple and long after Paul and Peter lived (they were executed before the destruction). It says of the Second Coming: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Therefore, in the early 90’s the Lord did not yet return. The early church was waiting for it in their days.
Rev. 1:7 seems to pose a problem for full preterism. It reads: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” How can the Roman soldiers who pierced him stand with those at the end of the earth? It seems to me that this verse refers to a long time lag, between the cross and the outreach to the whole world. There’s a wide chronological distance between the two eschatological timeframes or bookends. The Roman soldiers will see him when they are reunited with their bodies and see him descend and are judged (John 5:28-29). (Please note, however: some interpreters say Revelation was written before the destruction of the temple, but so far this is a minority opinion.)
Do I need to talk of Rev. 21-22 when the new heaven and new earth appear? That has not happened yet.
None of the passages in the comparative synoptic table or the entire chapters of Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 teach a secret rapture. Jesus has come the first time at his birth, the advent, and he is now teaching us that he will come a second time. Those three passages offer streamlined simplicity, like this:
First Coming → Church Age —————————→ Second Coming
With the Second Coming, the New Age is ushered in.
The coming judgment on Jerusalem, which really did happen 2000 years ago in AD 70, is simply a paradigm for his Second Coming when he will judge the whole world, as he judged the Jerusalem religious establishment for rejecting him and God’s plan. Therefore, we could insert a coming-in-judgement on Jerusalem shortly after the Church Age, but this is not a secret rapture.
And so whichever option you choose out of the three, there is no need and no biblical warrant to muddy the waters with a secret rapture. Let’s keep the plain things the main things, and a secret rapture is not a plain teaching in the synoptic parallels in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (or anywhere else in Scripture).