Ember Saturday of the Third Week in Advent: Luke 21:29-36.
29 Then He spoke to them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. 31 So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. 34 “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. 35 For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy[a] to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
At least since Schweitzer, we have been faced with the question of whether Jesus knew what he was talking about in passages like this. I was recently reading C.S. Lewis’ essay The World’s Last Night. In it, Lewis tries to grasp the thistle thus:
the question is whether the expectation of a catastrophic and Divinely ordered end of the present universe is true or false. If such an end is really going to occur, and if (as is the case) the Jews had been trained by their religion to expect it, then it is very natural that they should produce apocalyptic literature. “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 grow side by side.
Alas, too many Christians read these verses like Lewis and Schweitzer, as though they concerned the “end of the present universe” and Jesus’ Second Coming.
N.T. Wright is the cure for all this. He has rightly reminded us that “No one in 2nd Temple Judaism was expecting an end to the space-time universe”. And he has also clarified that the coming of the Son of Man which Jesus speaks of here is not The Second Coming at the end of the world, but His coming to the Father and His enthronement, inaugurating the new age that all orthodox Jews were expecting.
Jesus’ metaphor is clear: the changes in trees are obvious signals about coming changes of seasons, and everyone knows how to read them. So, too, are the signs of the end of the Present Age and the approach of the Age to Come, and everyone knows what they are.
It is remarkable that Christians have so badly misread Revelation, with its peek behind the veil at what is happening in heaven in the 1st century. It is exactly parallel to Zechariah in the Old Testament, showing what is happening in heaven during the restoration of Israel after the captivity.