In my last post, I made reference to CS Lewis’s comment that Matthew 24:34 — “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” — “the most embarrassing verse in the entire Bible”. In the comment section, Bruce from New Hampshire asks where Lewis made this statement.
The answer is in an essay called, “The World’s Last Night,” and here is the quote in full:
“‘Say what you like,’ we shall be told, ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.’ It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance.”
Unfortunately – well actually fortunately – Lewis not Jesus was in the wrong. Jesus wasn’t talking about the Second Coming. The whole of Matthew 24 is about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in AD70, 40 years after Jesus’s words. And so that generation did not pass till all those things were done.
All those things? Really? But what about this:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Surely that cannot be about AD 70? Actually, yes it can be. Jesus is using the same kind of prophetic language that the Old Testament prophets uses repeatedly, not to describe the end of the world, but the end of an empire or kingdom. For instance, Isaiah 13 has this:
“Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. 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.”
What was he talking about? The end of the world? No, he was talking about the end of Babylon, but he uses “collapsing solar system” language to get the message across: Babylon, your lights are going out.
Or there is this in Isaiah 34:
“All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.”
What was he talking about there? Again, nothing to do with the end of the world, just the end of Edom.
So when Jesus uses the same sort of “collapsing solar system” language when speaking to his disciples, what would they have thought of? Unlike us, they would not have automatically thought that he meant that the literal sun would be darkened, or the literal moon would fail to shine, or the literal stars would start falling. Because they were steeped in the Scriptures, they would have understood this as being prophetic language signifying the end of a nation/kingdom – in this case Israel/Judea, since he had just told them that this was to happen in Jerusalem and Judea.
But what about this?
“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Surely that must be talking about Jesus coming down to earth? Again no. The first thing to note is that the verse itself is a slight mistranslation. In the original, it is not “then will appear in Heaven the sign of the Son of Man”, but rather “then will appear the sign of the Son of Man, in Heaven.” What’s the difference? In the first version, it sounds like we are to expect to see the sign of Jesus, and then Jesus himself, descending from the sky. In the second, the sign is not seen by us in the sky, but rather we see a sign — the sign — that he is in Heaven and is ruling.
And so when he talks about seeing the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory, Jesus was not telling his first century hearers to expect to see him descending on a cloud within their generation. Rather he was telling them that the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy would come to pass:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
In other words, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds described in Matthew 24, is not the Second Coming of Jesus to earth. Rather, it is the coming of Jesus to the Throne Room of God, where he receives from his Father the Kingdom, and the authority to rule the world. It is therefore describing an ascension into the clouds (cloud being a symbol used in the Bible many times to describe God’s dwelling place), not a descending from the clouds to earth.
And so the sign he predicts is not a sign for us to look at in the sky. Rather, the sign is the fulfilment of his prophecy of doom on Jerusalem, which basically shows that he was who he said he was – the Messiah receiving the kingdom in Daniel 7 – and that those who doubted him were wrong.
This basically explains Caiphas’s accusation of blasphemy and his tearing of his clothes when he questions Jesus:
“And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:60-65).
Caiphas was mad at Jesus because the implication of Jesus’s reply was that Caiphas was speaking to the one prophesied by Daniel centuries before, the Messiah who would ascend to the Throne Room, be given the Kingdom, and sit down as the Right Hand of God’s power.
And to back up his claim, Jesus is saying that the sign that he is that Messiah, is that he will fulfil his won prophecy and put out the lights of Jerusalem, and the Old Covenant with it. Which he did, using the armies of Rome as his axe in AD 70.
And so back to Lewis. Far from the statement that “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done” being the most embarrassing verse in the Bible, read correctly – in the light of Old Testament prophetical language – it is actually one of the clearest evidences that Jesus really was who he said he was.