May 6, 2007

Christ Coming in Glory

Mark 13:24–37

Did Jesus expect to return within the lifetime of His disciples? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the book of Mark to examine Christ’s prediction that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).


This morning, we will return to the gospel of Saint Mark, to the 13th chapter. I will be reading Mark 13:24–37. I will ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.

“Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning— lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”

These are the words that came originally from the lips of Jesus, to whom all authority on heaven and earth was given by the Father. He who has ears to hear these words, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, we ask that You send help in the person of the Holy Spirit, who will help our minds grasp and understand these things that have been spoken by our Lord. We pray that we may not distort the promises He has given to His church, but that we may receive them as they were intended originally. For we ask these things in the name of Christ Himself. Amen.

All These Things

I introduced our study of Mark 13 by saying it contained some matters of critical importance in church history, particularly in recent times with respect to the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture and Jesus. In the Old Testament, when a prophet gave a prediction of future things, and what he predicted did not take place as he foretold, he would then be regarded as a false prophet. The irony of this chapter is that it contains some of the most incredible future prophecies ever given by Jesus with respect to the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and of Jerusalem itself, as well as the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world, which no normal prognosticator could on his finest day have guessed would be so shortly forthcoming.

Despite the uncanny accuracy of Jesus’ future prophecy, because He included within the context of that prophecy a pronouncement of His coming in glory and power, and all these things of which He spoke were included within a timeframe of one generation, those who dismiss the deity of Christ, His omniscience, His infallibility in His teaching, and the infallibility of Scripture point to this chapter and the timeframes within as exhibit A for rejecting the authority not only of Jesus but the entire Bible.

In my first two sermons at the beginning of chapter 13, I showed how many biblical scholars have indicated that the things Jesus said in response to His disciples’ inquiry, “When will these things take place?” came to pass in the first century. Jesus talked about signs of His coming, the signs of the time, of tribulation, wars, rumors of wars, famines, and so on, and all those things came to pass between the time Jesus uttered this prophecy and its partial fulfillment with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70.

Within forty years, almost everything Jesus predicted took place within the timeframe He said it would take place. But the glaring absence was His coming in glory. As a result, biblical scholars have said that the early church had to adjust its theology and future hope to allow for an interim of thousands of years between Jesus’ announcement on the Mount of Olives and its final fulfillment.

Literal Interpretation

I mentioned previously that there have been several attempts to get around the difficulty in this text. One way is to argue that when Jesus said “all these things will take place within the generation,” we must exclude His coming in power and glory. The problem, as the finest New Testament and orthodox scholars indicate, is that it requires a torturous approach to biblical interpretation because the text seems unambiguously to include Jesus’ prophecy of His return in power and glory within that phrase, “all these things.”

In further attempts to get around the difficulty, interpreters have tried to divide the language of the text between things that are to be taken literally and things that are to be taken figuratively. There is a difficulty in that distinction. When somebody asks me, “Do you take the Bible literally,” my response to that is always the same. I never say, “Yes.” I never say, “No.” When someone says, “Do you take the Bible literally,” my standard response is not, “Yes,” but, “Of course.” What other way is there to take it?

The Bible is a literary document. It is a written document, and the rules of literary interpretation apply to it as a written document. In the sixteenth century, Luther advocated the biblical method of interpretation by seeking what he called the sensus literalis, the literary sense of the Bible. That means that the literal sense is the sense in which it was written. So, poetry is interpreted as poetry. Metaphor is metaphor. Simile is simile. Historical narrative is historical narrative. That is what it means to take the Bible literally.

However, in today’s phraseology, literal interpretation for many people has come to mean that you interpret Scripture not in any figurative or metaphorical way, but that all things should be taken in a kind of crude, wooden, literalistic fashion.

When you get into this text, you see a mixture of writing. There is some writing that is highly graphic, following the standard literary structure of apocalyptic literature, like the literature found in the books of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, where these brilliant images are given and used in a symbolic manner.

There is no dispute among biblical scholars that Mark 13 contains a significant amount of symbolic language. The problem is that it also contains straightforward, normal, indicative language that we would call literal in the modern sense.

Figurative Return or Figurative Timeframe?

Here is the solution. If we want to save this passage, the integrity of Scripture, and the integrity of Jesus, we must do basically one of two things. There are other options that I will mention later, but fundamentally it comes down to two options.

First, we could interpret Jesus’ language about His coming figuratively and interpret the timeframe references literally. Second, we could see the timeframes as figurative and then have a literal expectation of what happens astronomically when Jesus comes back, such as what He mentions in verses 24–27 and all the other images in the other Gospels’ versions of the Olivet Discourse. So, either the language of the return is figurative or the timeframe references are figurative.

The major way in which orthodox, evangelical Christians have treated this text is by looking at the timeframe references as being figurative, that when Jesus says, “This generation will not pass away before all of these things come to pass,” Jesus was using the term “generation” in a figurative manner. He was not giving a timeframe. He was not saying, “All these things will be fulfilled in the next forty years or so,” whereas to the Jewish mind, the concept of one generation means a period of approximately forty years.

The way this has been treated figuratively is that when Jesus said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled,” He meant that this type of person, this type of unbelieving character we deal with every day in the preaching of the gospel, will still be around until the time this prophecy is fulfilled.

That is a very common approach to the text to save it from criticism. In all candor, I believe that kind of treatment pours gasoline on the fire ignited by critical scholars. It gives them fodder for considering orthodox Christians as naïve or obscurantist because that solution tortures the text.

A response I hear regularly from Christians is: “Jesus wasn’t saying it was going to take place in a timeframe of forty years because He goes on to say, ‘Of the day and the hour knows no man, not the angels, not even the Son of Man.’ So, He certainly can’t be held accountable for giving a timeframe for His return when He explicitly says that even He doesn’t know the day and the hour.” So, the problem is wiped away.

If I say to you, forgive the analogy, that sometime in the next forty years the Pittsburgh Steelers will win another Super Bowl—which may be wishful thinking—and then I say, “I don’t know for sure which year, day, or week it will be, only that it will be within the broad framework of forty years,” do you think my qualification at the end would therefore negate what I said at the beginning, that it will be sometime in the next forty years? Of course not.

If you look at the plain sense of this Scripture, Jesus said: “I can tell you it’s going to be within this generation. I don’t know the day. I don’t know the hour. But you need to be ready at all times because I’m coming sometime within this generation. I’m coming in clouds of glory.”

The End of the Age

If we put together all the information from the Olivet Discourse, another aspect to consider is that Jesus mentions His coming at the end of the age. Inevitably, when people read that text, they assume He was referring to the end of human history, the end of the human age. But in Scripture, the Bible mentions the end of the age of the Jews and the beginning of the age of the Gentiles.

In Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, there is the added detail that Jerusalem will be trodden underfoot until the age of the Gentiles is fulfilled. In Romans 11, Paul talks about the fullness of the Gentiles coming before the final consummation of the kingdom of God.

The age of the Gentiles stands in bold relief to the age of the Jews, which runs up until the beginning of the New Testament era. In 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul speaks to his contemporaries about living during the time of the end of the ages. To what age is he referring? Not the age of the end of human history, but of the end of the Jewish era.

In AD 70, we know for sure that after the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, Christianity was no longer viewed as a subset of Judaism. After AD 70, the Christian church emerged as the covenant community of the people of God that fulfilled the Scriptures. That time was of critical redemptive-historical significance for all Christian history.

Apocalyptic Prophecies

What do we make of the cataclysmic language regarding Jesus’ coming? This language was characteristically used by the prophets in the Old Testament in a symbolic way to warn the people of the judgment of God.

Let me read a passage to you from Isaiah 13:6–10:

Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand!
It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore all hands will be limp,
Every man’s heart will melt,
And they will be afraid.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another;
Their faces will be like flames.

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.

That kind of language is common. You can find it in Jeremiah. You can find it in the prophecies of the destruction of Tyre and Sidon, where when God’s judgment was announced, it was described in terms of graphic, astronomical, cosmic upheaval.

There is a biblical precedent for the use of figurative language with respect to the coming judgment of God upon the nations. We need to be consistent interpreters regarding how the Bible uses language. As a result, we can say either the timeframe reference is figurative or the description of the coming is figurative.

A Prophecy of Judgment

If you are not satisfied with what I have said, let me give you something else quickly. Another possible alternative is that in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gave a prediction of something that happens in a proximate sense now and the ultimate sense later. We see that in the Old Testament, where prophetic predictions take place in one sense in the immediate generation, but in their fullest sense later in history. But even if we do that, we must say there is some sense at least that Jesus did come at the end of this period. It describes a judgment coming, in which Jesus warned His contemporaries about the impending judgment of God upon the house of Israel for having rejected the Messiah.

In the year AD 70, contemporary historians of the day reported viewings of astronomical perturbations, particularly of a comet that streamed across the sky, which was a sign of the coming judgment. The comet was described as a star shaped like a sword.

The most surprising, almost bizarre record we have from history is found in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus. Let me read this to you, for what it is worth. I am reading from a Jewish historian who gives us the eyewitness view of the destruction of Jerusalem in great detail. However, he was not writing sacred Scripture. I do not plead any case for the infallibility of Josephus, but this is his historical record. Take it for what it is worth. Josephus wrote:

Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable of a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before the sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running around among the clouds, and surrounding the cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner court of the temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”

Josephus, the Jewish historian, testified that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, multitudes of people saw in the skies chariots and armored soldiers moving around the clouds.

Stop for a second and think of 2 Kings 6. When Elisha was at Dothan, his servant saw all the Syrian troops surrounding them and panicked. Elisha prayed that his servant would have his eyes opened. And what did the servant see when his eyes were opened? “Behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).

Throughout the Old Testament, the vision of chariots in the sky invariably meant a visible appearance of God coming in wrath and judgment, involving a departure of His glory, even as the glory of God was seen by the prophet in the Old Testament leaving the city of Jerusalem by the East Gate. All those descriptive images focus on a judgment coming from God upon His people. What Josephus recorded lines up with this Old Testament imagery, and it is possible that some people in AD 70 experienced this kind of vision of the Lord’s armies carrying out judgment upon Jerusalem.

I personally believe that Jesus was not talking about His final coming at the end of the age in the Olivet Discourse, which I believe has not yet happened. Rather, I think He was talking about His coming in power and judgment upon His own people, which occurred in AD 70. If that is the case, then His Word is vindicated, and He is vindicated as a true prophet and not a false one.

There are other ways that we can approach this text, and I am certainly not the last word on this question. But one thing we know for sure about Jesus’ future prophecy is that He promised to be with His people when He spreads His table before them.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.