Friday, July 9, 2010

Exegetical Eschatology: The Unexpected "First Going"

In "The Coming(s) of the Son of Man" and "Parousia and the Definite Article" we identified some of the presuppositions we tend to read into the texts which speak of Christ's "coming." We discovered that there are several "comings" of Jesus, and that the Greek word for "coming" does not demand a single coming.

Related to assumptions made concerning Christ's "second coming," there is another assumption often made when we read mention of His "coming" prior to His death, namely that they expected a "first going" to begin with! After all, if prior to the crucifixion the disciples didn't really understand that He was going to "go" in the first place, then when they spoke of His "coming" it could not have been His final return at the end of time that they had in mind.

As we will see, not only does this assumption lack any warrant as was the case with the previous assumptions we've examined, but it goes contrary to the biblical evidence which strongly suggests they had no idea Jesus was going anywhere.


1 Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 And He said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down." 3 As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:1-3, NASB; see also Mark 13:1-4 and Luke 21:5-7)

When Jesus foretold that the temple would be destroyed, His disciples were perplexed and, in addition to asking when this would take place, they asked Him what would be the sign of His "coming." For a number of reasons, many assume from the outset that the "coming" about which they asked was His final return, His so-called "second coming." After all, it is asked alongside a question about "the end of the age," and in the discourse that follows Jesus predicts a number of amazing and terrifying events, including some with seemingly devastating physical consequences to the planet.

As to what "the end of the age" means and what exactly each of Jesus' predictions actually referred to, those are not the subjects of this article. Rather, I want to examine the overlooked but obvious assumption underlying the assumption that the "coming" about which they asked was Christ's "second coming." If that was the event they had in mind when they asked their question, then they must have expected Him to die and "go" first. Did they really?


9 As they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man rose from the dead. 10 They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant. 11 They asked Him, saying, "Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" 12 And He said to them, "Elijah does first come and restore all things. And yet how is it written of the Son of Man that He will suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I say to you that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him." (Mark 9:9-13, NASB)

After Christ's transfiguration, He told His disciples not to publicize the event until after He rose from the dead. Look, however, at how we're told they handled His words: they couldn't figure out what in the world He had meant! The meaning of the words "rising from the dead" are pretty obvious; it's not as though they didn't understand the concept of resurrection. What they couldn't grasp was how Jesus, alive and well before them at that moment, could rise from the dead since He was quite clearly alive. They simply had no idea that He was going to die and "go" anywhere.


30 From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. 31 For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later." 32 But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. (Mark 9:30-32, NASB)

Later in the same chapter, Jesus more explicitly tells His disciples He's going to die and that He would rise again three days later. Nevertheless, they still don't get it. Again, the dictionary definitions of the words Jesus used were not difficult for them, and yet they couldn't understand what He had just said, did not grasp that He had again indicated He was going to die. The corresponding passage in Luke confirms what we just saw in Mark, but it goes a step further.

44 "Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men." 45 But they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this statement. (Luke 9:44-45, NASB)

It was not just that Jesus' disciples didn't understand His statement that He would die. That fact was concealed from them, and they couldn't perceive it. The biblical evidence that Christ's disciples didn't expect His death, that indeed they were prevented from understanding, doesn't end there.


31 Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, 33 and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again." 34 But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said. (Luke 18:31-34, NASB)

Again we see Jesus explicitly telling His disciples that He was to be killed and that He would rise from the dead. Not only that, but we see that what He told them was really not anything new. Rather, His death and resurrection had been foretold through the prophets; the disciples really ought to have already understood. Yet, we see that they do not, and again we're told that the meaning of His words was concealed from them. Indeed, there's no indication that Christ's words ever sunk in until after His resurrection.


19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22, NASB)

John tells us that when Jesus told the Jews He would raise up the temple after it was destroyed, He was speaking of His body, thereby predicting His death and resurrection. But John also tells us that it was only after the resurrection that they remembered what He had said. That they were unaware He was to die and rise again until after the resurrection is confirmed by the account of the empty tomb.

3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; 5 and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again." 8 And they remembered His words. (Luke 24:3-8, NASB)

The women who first appeared at Christ's tomb were perplexed by His missing body. But the angel implies that they should not have expected Jesus' body to remain, asking why the women were looking for the body there. He reminds them that before Christ was crucified, He had told them He would die and rise again, and it was only then that the women remembered what He had said. Lest we think the twelve (now eleven) had expected the death and resurrection prior to the crucifixion, take a look at their reaction when the women relate what they had seen.


9 and [the women] returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. 11 But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:9-12, NASB)

When the women returned from the empty tomb to tell the eleven remaining disciples who had been closest to the Lord, the account seemed ludicrous, and they refused to believe it. We see, then, that even among the men who had walked and talked more closely with Christ than anyone else, none of them had expected the death and resurrection He had told them would happen. And when Peter went to check out the women's claim, he left the tomb still amazed, despite what should have been so obvious to him only days earlier.


So we see that the gospels strongly suggest that the disciples had no idea that Jesus was to die and rise again—that is, that there was going to be a "first going"—and it was not until after He rose from the dead that they remembered that He had told them to expect it. Is there any evidence that perhaps they had properly understood Him and did, in fact, expect Him to go?

21 From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. 22 Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." 23 But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." (Matthew 16:21-23, NASB)

Here, in response to Jesus' insistence that He would die and rise again, Peter rebuked Him, assuring Him it wouldn't happen. Now, Christ rebuked Peter in turn, going so far as to liken Peter to Satan. One would think this would have caused Jesus' words to sink in, and that Peter and the other disciples would cease to doubt that what Christ had said was to take place. Yet, all the evidence we've looked at already demonstrates that no, the disciples remained unconvinced, and had no expectation of His impending death.

22 And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; 23 and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day." And they were deeply grieved. (Matthew 17:22-23, NASB)

Later, the Lord's assurance that He would be killed is said to have caused the disciples to be "deeply grieved." This, it would seem, appears to suggest that the disciples did believe Him, and began to expect that He would, in fact, die and rise again. After all, for what reason would they be grieved in response to Jesus' words? The problem again, however, is that the many passages we've looked at confirm that no, they did not truly expect Jesus to die. If the disciples grieved believing He would die, it was very short-lived and forgotten about quickly, only to be remembered after Christ's resurrection.


Going back to the question the disciples asked Jesus after He predicted the destruction of the temple, one might be tempted to ask, So what? Sure, one might be compelled to accept that no, the disciples had no expectation of a "first going" and thus could not have expected a "second coming" when they asked their question. Yet, although they didn't expect Jesus to return again at the end of time having first died and risen from the grave, the Lord certainly knew He would one day, and thus when He foretold His "coming" we're justified in understanding His "coming" to refer to the "second coming."

While this admittedly is a possibility, one ought to ask oneself a couple of questions. First, if the disciples asked about a "coming" of sorts in connection with the destruction of the temple, and not the "second coming" of Christ about which we read elsewhere, isn't it at least likely that the "coming" which Jesus foretold in response to their question is the same "coming" about which the disciples had asked? Second, if the "coming" Jesus foretold was, in fact, a different "coming" than the one about which they asked, isn't it reasonable to expect that He would have corrected them somehow, or clarified that the "coming" of which He was speaking was different from the "coming" they expected?

I think the correct answer to both questions is: Yes. The default position should be that because the disciples asked about a "coming" which could not be the "second coming," when Jesus speaks of "the Son of Man coming on a cloud" in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 He is therefore speaking of the same "coming" He was asked about, one connected to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and not the "second coming." We mustn't without very convincing evidence conclude that whereas the disciples asked about one "coming," Jesus responded talking about a different "coming."

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