I was talking to someone this week about my post on First and Second Thessalonians, and my hypothesis that the “letter seeming to be from us,” which Paul mentions and rejects in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, is actually the book of 1 Thessalonians, which claims to be written by the same authors – Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. I suspect that the genuine Paul wrote First Thessalonians, but not Second; in part, because First Thessalonians seems to accord with Paul’s consistent expectation that the Lord was returning very soon, within his own lifetime (see 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, for example). Somehow, this observation turned the conversation in the direction of Jesus’ own teaching on what would happen in the end times.
I thought I would bring up a few of the relevant passages on this latter topic, because they were some of the most puzzling and frustrating for me in a lot of ways, when I was trying so hard to fit together everything the bible had to say on eschatology, in a non-contradictory body of propositions.
When you look at what Jesus had to say on the end times, he seemed to think that a new Kingdom was coming with great signs and wonders, that it would mean the end of this age and the dawn of an entirely different era, and that it would all happen soon, within the lifetime of many who were listening to him. Let me provide a few examples of what I mean.
In the well known Olivet Discourse, which is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), Jesus gives what is probably his most in depth (although by no means his only) teaching on the end times. Matthew’s account is the most detailed, so I’ll start there.
The discourse starts with the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus responds with a sweeping prediction of the times that are coming: wars and rumors of war, false christs and false prophets, the gospel going out to all nations, the “abomination of desolations,” the famous “one will be taken, the other left,” warnings, used by some Christians as an indication of a secret rapture.
As the passage continues, Jesus hones in on the coming of the Son of Man. I’ll quote a paragraph.
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. 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. 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. (Matthew 24:29-31)
Clearly, this will be a game-changer. It won’t go unnoticed. So when did Jesus expect it to happen? Well, he didn’t know the exact “day or hour,” (Matthew 24:36) but he knew it would be soon, within the lifetime of those listening. Listen to what he says:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-35)
The problem, of course, is that it didn’t happen in that generation. This problem gave me no end of trouble in the past. I spent long hours trying to come up with a suitable explanation.
One explanation I considered was that maybe Jesus isn’t saying “this generation” about the generation he was addressing – maybe he just meant some future generation that starts to see all those signs he was speaking of. But that doesn’t really fit with how Jesus was so intent on warning the generation he was speaking to, including his disciples, and telling them to be ready and expectant. Nor does it seem like the most natural understanding of the phrase in context. But the real problem is that the most intuitive understanding, that Jesus is saying that everything involving the coming of the Son of Man and the end of the age would take place within the lifetime of his hearers, is clearly in accord with his other recorded teachings. Let me list a few for you to read.
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:27-28)
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 8:38-9:1; see also Luke 9:26-27)
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’…Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 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. (Matthew 10:5-7, 21-23)
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”(Luke 21:20-36)
I quoted all these passages to give a general sense of what Jesus’ teaching was like. Just like his forerunner, John the Baptist (e.g. Matthew 3:1-2), Jesus began his public ministry teaching that the Kingdom was at hand (e.g. Matthew 4:17). He also had a lot to say about what to expect when the Kingdom came. Jerusalem would be trampled down by Gentiles (which happened in AD 70, as Luke’s account, especially seems to be referring to); there would be wars, false christs, signs and wonders in heaven, the Son of Man coming in glory to reward everyone according to his work – and all of this would happen before this generation passed away. What generation? The one that suffered through the destruction of Jerusalem, as Luke’s account makes clear. The one that Jesus was talking to, as Matthew 16:27-28, Mark 8:38-9:1, and Luke 9:26-27 make clear (“there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”). Something big was coming. And it was coming in that generation.
I was never comfortable with what I had to do with that teaching. I had to separate it out into different times – AD 70, the future second coming, etc. I had to break it up into spiritual fulfillments and literal fulfillments, partial and complete, already and not yet. But the one glaring problem was that Jesus never separated it out like that. On the contrary, he said, that all those things would happen in the same generation (e.g. Luke 21:32). But AD 70 and AD 2015 simply aren’t the same generation. Jesus’ teaching, that the end of the age was coming with signs and wonders that couldn’t be missed, and that it was coming in his generation, simply didn’t pan out. I can’t even tell you how confusing that was to me.
However, Paul’s teaching in First Thessalonians seems to fit the same expectation. He expected some of his own generation to be alive for the end of it all (“we who are alive and remain…”, 1 Thessalonians 4:17). So that background is part of what makes the difference between 1 and 2 Thessalonians seem so irreconcilable to me. The Paul of 1 Thessalonians expects an imminent, age-ending return in his own generation. The Paul of 2 Thessalonians, writing later, says, “No, wait, it’s not really imminent…”. It just makes so much more sense when you let the expectation of Jesus and the Paul of 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, etc. be as it appears. You just have to admit that it didn’t quite happen the way they expected.
Yes, this was the kind of problem I used to lose sleep over.