Is the Second Coming Imminent?

As I write this we are drawing to the end of the season of Advent where those who use the revised common lectionary (the set of readings used by the Church of England and many other liturgical churches) will encounter readings featuring the traditional themes of Advent; heaven, hell, final judgement and the second coming. Amongst these readings are sections from the Olivet Discourse where, on the Mount of Olives prior to his death, Jesus taught his disciples about the future and concluded with an apparent warning that his followers are to be ready for his return. However, in the world of biblical scholarship there have been many in recent decades who have questioned whether the Olivet Discourse is really about the second coming at all. This view has frequently struggled to gain popular currency; and the inclusion of the Olivet Discourse in the readings of Advent alongside other clearer passages serves to confuse the issue. But, do these passages actually teach that the return of Christ is immanent as is often claimed? In this piece I intend to walk the reader through the first part of Matthew 24 and offer to a wider audience a broad sketch of the view that Jesus was primarily addressing events that would happen in the lifetime of his hearers: those events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. [1] I invite the reader to open a Bible and follow along.[2]

Firstly, we must realise that the teaching of Matthew 24 is the climax and conclusion of Jesus’s conflict with the religious leaders. Therefore we must have some understanding of what has come earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. One major theme in the teaching of Matthew 24 is of future judgement on the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation. Almost all commentators agree that at least some of this was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. However, the theme of judgement against the Jewish leaders and the Temple is one that runs throughout Jesus’s ministry. In fact before Jesus’s own ministry had even begun, John the Baptist warned his fellow Jews to repent and bear fruit in line with repentance following the example of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 3). Just as the Old Testament prophets used the language of judgement to warn Israel of coming socio-political disasters, when John spoke of judgement he was not speaking directly about the last judgement but rather some great national crisis (e.g. conquest or exile). Jesus picks up the mantle of John and the prophets by continuing to address the theme of judgement in his teaching. The high point, however, is after the triumphal entry where Jesus curses the fig tree, a well-known symbol of Israel, immediately after cleansing the Temple (Matt 21).[3] The section following includes a number of parables which ratchet up Jesus’s indictment of the Temple and the religious leaders.[4] This section concludes with Jesus pronouncing woes against the religious leaders (Matt 23:13-36) and his famous lament over the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39).

All this sets the scene for Jesus to prophesy Jerusalem’s destruction. Most interpreters agree that at least some of Matthew 24 refers to the destruction of the temple. However, the verse which must govern interpretation of the whole passage is the statement of verse 34   ‘Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.’. Some have tried to escape the force of this verse by re-interpreting the word genea (generation) as ‘race’. This reading of genea makes it into many bible footnotes but has little linguistic backing.[5] Others have taken the view that what is meant is that these events began to take place in that generation. These interpretations have been shown to be inadequate and the plain reading of the verse remains defensible. Jesus uses the same word genea eight other times in Matthew always in reference to his contemporaries. We have no reason to understand it to mean anything different to ‘generation’ in this context.[6] If so, Jesus was expecting these things to happen within that generation. I will argue here that Jesus was speaking about his ‘coming’ in judgement and not his final coming at the end of history.

The teaching of Matthew 24 begins with the disciples admiring the Temple which leads to Jesus’s statement that ‘not one stone here will be left upon another’[7]. The disciples then ask:

Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? (24:3)

Some interpreters see two questions here. The first about when the destruction of the Temple will be, the second about Jesus’s second coming and the end of the world. Others such as N.T Wright see an elaboration of one single question about the destruction of the Temple. Even for those who see two questions here the change of subject to the second question does not occur until verse 36. Consequently, the majority of Jesus’s teaching here is in regard to the destruction of Jerusalem.[8] In this piece I will stop at verse 36 and therefore bracket the debate about whether verses 36-end refer to the same coming or a different one to the earlier section.

In immediate response to the disciples’ question (v3) Jesus responds with a series of general signs which are to be expected. False Christs (v.5), wars and rumours of wars (v.6), famines and earthquakes (v.7), persecution of Christians (v.9) and great temptation to apostasy (v.10). These are certainly things that have happened at every point in human history. However, these are also things which clearly happened in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus informs us of the messianic fervour and the numerous failed messianic movements in the lead up to the Jewish war.[9] We know that although this is the period of the Pax Romana there were numerous wars on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.[10] In the book of Acts we read of one example of a famine prophesied by Agabus (Acts 11:28) which came to pass in the reign of Emperor Claudius. As for persecution of Christians, the whole book of Acts bears witness to the persecution of the Church following Jesus’s ascension and perhaps spanning the next 20 years. Moreover, other New Testament books like 1 John and Hebrews bear ample witness to the pressures to apostasy among the early believers. In sum, all that Jesus has spoken of up to verse 11 clearly fits with events which would take place in the lifetime of some of the disciples.

However, as we read on we encounter several elements in Jesus’s teaching that at first glance do not seem to have been fulfilled in the first century. In verse 13 Jesus refers to the ‘one who endures to the end’ and verse 14 says that before the end comes ‘This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations…’ In relation to verse 13, what is ‘the end’ being talked about here? Jesus is talking about the ‘end of the age’ meaning the end of the old covenant age marked by a sign of God’s judgement on the Temple and the people who had killed the prophets and rejected their messiah. Therefore, ‘the end’ in view is not the end of the world.[11] Secondly, what is meant by the gospel going to the whole world? Clearly by 70 AD the gospel had not yet gone to the whole world. However, the Greek word oikoumenē only refers to the inhabited world. In a similar way when oikoumenē is used in Luke 2:1, to describe the census of Caesar Augustus, it refers only to the Roman Empire. Moreover, the book of Acts does record the advance of the gospel in the years prior to the destruction of the Temple in ‘Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the remotest parts of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). In other words before the temple was destroyed the gospel did advance to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire, and no one in the first century would have regarded it as untrue to refer to that as the ‘whole world’.

In the verses that follow (15-28) Jesus gives more specifics which help us to locate the things he is talking about in the lifetime of his hearers. In verse 15 Jesus refers to the ‘abomination of desolation’ from the book of Daniel.[12] In Daniel this is widely regarded as referring to the desecration of the Temple under Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century BC.[13] By using the same phrase here Jesus is predicting that the temple will again be desecrated and this will be the sign that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. As a result, in verse 16, Jesus counsels those in Judea to flee to the hills. Note that this must be a local event if people can escape it by fleeing to the hills. Again, it is striking that this is what the Christians did when faced with the events of the Jewish War. When the Roman armies withdrew the Christians fled to the town of Pella.[14] In a similar vein, in verse 20, Jesus counsels his hearers to pray that their flight will not be on the Sabbath. Likewise, these directions about the Sabbath will only apply to events which befall his Jewish hearers, and they would not be relevant if Jesus were talking about the end of the universe many centuries in the future.

As we continue through Jesus’s teaching in verses 21 and 22 we find the events of the Jewish War described in cosmic terms.

For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will again. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.[15]

We must recognise that scripture uses the full toolbox of rhetoric. This includes hyperbole. Jesus’s use of hyperbole here is by no means inappropriate; emphasising the seriousness of God’s judgement on Jerusalem and the Temple. Just as the prophets used strong and exaggerated language to describe great political events in their day, so we should not be surprised to find Jesus using similar language when talking about the calamity which would fundamentally change Judaism forever. Moreover, given all the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities leading up to this moment, it comes as no surprise that the reprisals on those who rejected Jesus will be very serious indeed.[16] Moreover, the reference to the suffering of the elect in these events is surely in reference to the Christians who would be caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem and the being ‘saved’ here is not spiritual but a physical surviving of those events.

In the verses that follow, Jesus describes again the messianic expectation and fervour which, we know from Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, abounded in the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.[17] But, again on the face of it verses 27 and 28 pose a problem for a first century fulfilment.

27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

In other words the event Jesus is referring too will be seen by all. For those contemporaneous with the events of the Jewish war and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem this was a public event. It would be widely heard about and reported across the Roman Empire. The Romans intended for the destruction of Jerusalem to be heard about as a deterrent to others. Indeed this is connected with the verses that follow where we read that the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the sky by all the ‘tribes of the earth’ (v30). None of this language requires something that will be seen by every person in the world, but rather events that would be seen widely and not hidden.

The cosmic imagery Jesus uses continues in verses 29-31 with imagery of the moon and sun going dark and the stars falling and the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds. To many Christian readers this is undoubtedly the second coming. However, this hinges on our assumptions about the meaning of ‘coming’ (v30) and the notion that cosmic language must be read literalistically. N.T Wright argues compellingly that the word ‘coming’ (parousia) has acquired connotations to Christian readers that it would not have had to Jesus’s hearers. Parousia means coming or presence. [18] Moreover, cosmic language of stars falling and heaven being shaken is used by the prophets to denote the fall of earthly kingdoms. In the Old Testament, God’s judgement in history is described in similar cosmic terms.[19]  It is more plausible to see this coming as a coming in judgement on those who rejected Jesus than as a final judgement coming from heaven to earth. Indeed this view is strengthened by the allusion to Daniel 7 where the ‘Son of Man’ comes before the ancient of days and goes up. This is a scene of vindication. Jesus is vindicated on the day when he comes in judgement upon Jerusalem and the Temple.[20] In light of this, the gathering of the elect from all points of the compass is best explained as referring to the great harvest of the gospel among the Jews prior to the destruction of the Temple. This is seen again in the Book of Acts, where Paul’s mission strategy was to go first to the Jews in diaspora cities.

The crescendo to this section of teaching is the verses leading up to 34. Verse 32 provides the metaphor for recognising when these things are near as with observing the fig tree. It is worth noticing at this point that Jesus regarded the things he has described as a distinct enough sign for his hearers to recognise. This again indicates that Jesus was referring to events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem which would have been readily recognisable to his Jewish audience. The earlier wars, earthquakes and famines were background to the more specific sign of ‘the abomination of desolation’.

In this piece I set out to explain how the primary focus of Matthew 24 is on events which would occur in the lifetime of Jesus’s hearers.[21] Moreover, I have argued that those momentous events of the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the Temple ought to be interpreted by Jesus’s own words as God’s judgement on those who rejected Jesus. This interpretation, I have argued, makes most sense of the flow of Jesus’s teaching and indeed the trajectory of the gospel account. But, what is the implication of all of this for our reading of this part of scripture? What difference does it make? As I implied in my introduction, many Christian readers have got lost in these verses by reading them as a roadmap to the second coming. Moreover, this is a confusion which has been compounded by the inclusion of these passages as lectionary readings in Advent. To such confusion this contextual interpretation provides a useful antidote. But, in addition, we can also find confirmation of the truth of Jesus’s claims in the fulfilment of these verses. As we have seen Jesus clearly and repeatedly predicted the destruction of the Temple and within one generation this would be accomplished.[22] The second important issue, which N.T Wright points out, is that this interpretation provides a timely rebuttal to the common sceptical claim that Jesus predicted he would return immanently and he was simply wrong. In actuality, as I have argued, the immanent return which did take place in the first century was a coming in judgement. This is not of course to deny that there is a Parousia yet to come. But rather a corrective to the idea that the Olivet Discourse gives us a roadmap to it.



[1] I recognise that within the guild of biblical scholarship there are those who take a more sceptical view of Matthew 24. For example, there are some who believe Jesus was teaching an immanent apocalypse in the lifetime of his hearers, but was mistaken about this. It is also common to hold that Jesus probably did not say these words at all and that they were placed into his mouth (after the fall of Jerusalem) by the Christian communities for whom the synoptic gospels were originally written. I am not persuaded by these readings and so in this piece my comments will be directed to the range of views typically held by evangelical scholars.

[2] Unless indicated, quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). However, for the sake of space I will not always quote the verse being addressed.

[3] Mark’s parallel account of the fig tree event is split either side of the cleansing of the temple making even clearer the fact that the unfruitful fig tree is the temple representing the religious establishment. (Mark 11:12-25).

[4] Matt 21:28-22:14

[5] Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, (Apologetics Group Media, 2009), pp.344-49

[6] For usage of genea elsewhere in Matthew  1:17, 11:16, 12.39, 12:41, 12:42, 12:45, 16:4, 17:17,  23:36.

[7] Matt 24:2

[8] See R.T France and Kenneth Gentry for the twofold view with a change of subject at verse 36. See N.T Wright for the view that this entire discourse concerns first century events.

[9]  Neil Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-73, (Amberly Books, 2002),  p.112

[10] Gary DeMar, Last days madness, (American Vision, 1996),  pp.78-79

[11] See Wright, p.346 for a fuller discussion of what the disciples would have understood by ‘end of the age’.

[12] Daniel 9:27, 11:31,12:27

[13] Dale Ralph Davis, The Message of Daniel (Bible Speaks Today), chapters 11-14

[14] Wright, p.353

[15] Matt 24:21-22

[16] For example the Jewish historian Josephus writes of these events ‘Accordingly, it appears to me that the misfortunes of all people, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were.’ (Wars of the Jews. 1.12)

[17] Faulkner, p.112

[18] Wright, pp.341, 345

[19] For example the fall of Babylon as described in Isaiah 13 and 14.

[20] Wright, p.361

[21] Parallels found in Mark 13 and Luke 21.

[22] A fact which precludes many biblical scholars from allowing that these teachings came from Jesus himself.

1 thought on “Is the Second Coming Imminent?”

  1. I also despair at times at the uncritical use of Matt 24 in sermons and popular thought, particularly in parts of the evangelical constituency.

    One major problem is that the New Testament has no doctine of a SECOND comming at all! The adjective ‘second’ is not to be found. What is clear (to me anyway) is that there will be a further coming and probalbt best exressed in two parts. A coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when Jesus is now alive in the life of the church and a future coming in judgement. This future coming may well be the ‘end of the world’ or it may be a coming to judgement for all at the end of our life. There are many ways of interpreting what happens between an individual’s death and the judgement, but judgement is assured!

    I would prefer to talk (and write) of THREE comings: the Incarnation, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the final judgement. Importing the word ‘second’ simply confuses matters.

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