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"Chapter 3. The Problem of the Parousia"


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One of the more difficult problems about Jesus' knowledge of the future stems from the many passages about His return at the end, the parousia. It is argued that some texts imply He expected the parousia early in His public life, without dying; that some imply a parousia immediately after His death or within the lifetime of His hearers; or a delayed parousia with apocalyptic signs, perhaps indefinitely delayed. We will examine each group.

1. Parousia early In His public life, without death

The illustrious Albert Schweitzer was about the only one to favor this view. He was strongly impressed by the words of Jesus in Mt 10:23, "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." Schweitzer tried to identify this passage with Mk 6:7-13, in which Jesus sent His disciples on a trial mission throughout Galilee. If his contention were true, Mt 10:23 would seem to make parousia imminent, even before His death.

Two observations. First, Schweitzer must have thought Jesus was some sort of a silly deluded visionary. For he did not think Jesus knew Himself as divine, yet Jesus would think He was to appear in heavenly glory, and soon. For what reason would Jesus think that? The fact that He had worked miracles would not warrant such a belief-Moses and other prophets had done such things. So Jesus would have had no sound reason for such a hope, and thus would have been a deluded visionary. Second, as already implied, almost no one today thinks the two passages refer to the same situation.

To what does Mt 10:23 actually refer? One view holds that Jesus was speaking of the time of persecution to come after His death. He said the disciples would not run out of places to flee to before He would return. The coming is best understood within the common Scriptural concept of visitation, God intervening to help, to save, to punish.1 The intervention of Jesus, His coming, probably refers to the wars of 66-70 A.D. and the fall of Jerusalem, which put an end to the Jewish persecutions before the disciples ran out of places in which to preach. In the city's destruction, Jesus "visited Jerusalem," as we gather from chapter 24 of Matthew.2 Further, in view of the fact that Scripture often utilizes multiple fulfillments of prophecies (and Mt 24 is a specially good instance),3 this saying may also have another fulfillment- at the end-time. During that final persecution there still will be places to flee to when the last visitation of the Son of Man is taking place in the parousia.

2. Parousia Soon after Christ's Death

At the last supper Jesus says: "And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself" (Jn 14:2). Brown comments: "This [a parousia right after His death] seems to be the import of Jn 14:3 where Jesus says that he is departing but will return to take his disciples along with him. A comparison with 1 Th 4:16-17 suggests that Christians would have understood this return in terms of the Parousia."4

We find the reasoning quite unconvincing. First, the Gospel text contains no specific indication of when Jesus would come for His disciples. Nothing in Jn 14:3 points to a time soon after His death. Second, if we were to use 1 Thess 4:16-17 as a confirmation, we would have another puzzle, for that Epistle was written in 51 A.D., which is not at all right after the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, we do not admit that 1 Thess 4:15-17 indicates Paul expected the parousia in his own lifetime. It reads: "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord." The point is that Paul says twice, "we who are alive." Yet there are several reasons for rejecting the view that Paul expected the parousia soon. First, this type of language is merely a way of making things vivid. Many classroom teachers, (including myself) often speak in the first person, saying I or we, with no notion of giving any information about themselves: it is just a way of making things concrete. Similarly, Paul in 1 Cor 4:6 explicitly says he is using the names Paul and Apollos merely for such a purpose. So the use of the first person, or Paul, proves nothing.

Secondly, if one wants to say Paul did expect the parousia soon, he must deny that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, for it was written precisely to quiet the vain notions of the Thessalonians on this score. To do so, in chapter 2, Paul says the end will not come unless first the antichrist appears and the great apostasy takes place. But no apostasy was in sight then: instead, the Church was growing rapidly. Form critics do not mind denying the authenticity of 2 Thess, for they prefer inconclusive internal evidence to external witnesses. But we note that the ancient testimony for Pauline authorship of 2 Thess is just as good as it is for 1 Thess. So we find the claim that Paul expected the end soon to be quite groundless (see specifically 2 Thess 2:2-3).

Hence, we need not strain our interpretation at all if we tale Jn 14:3 to refer to the meeting with Jesus at the parousia at the end, whenever that might be, and add that all meet Him right after their deaths as well.

During His trial, Jesus said to the high priest: "You will see the Son of Man...coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mk 14:62). Although this pronouncement refers to the parousia, there is nothing in it to indicate when it will happen. The high priest will see it, he is not told when.

At the Last Supper Jesus said: "I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mk 14:25). Actually, the kingdom was established with power, i.e., by miraculous displays, after the death of Jesus.5 True, its formal expansion had to wait until Pentecost. Yet since the "kingdom [was] present in Jesus in some mysterious manner during his public ministry,"6 surely it was present all the more in Him in His risen appearances, for then He had won the victory over sin and death. If then, as is most likely, He also drank some wine when He ate with the disciples after the resurrection, he would be really drinking it in the new phase of the kingdom.

While on the Cross, Jesus promised the good thief: "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:42-43). Could that mean Jesus expected resurrection on the very day of His death ("today")? By no means. He had predicted resurrection on the third day. The promise simply means what it says, i.e., the thief was to be with Jesus in paradise, that is, in heaven immediately upon dying.

3. Parousia in the Lifetime of His Hearers

We analyzed Mk 9:1, which N. Perrin and others think refers to an early parousia in the lifetime of Jesus' hearers, in the Appendix.7 There are a number of other texts that deserve consideration here.

At the end of the long discourse in which Jesus answered questions from the disciples about the signs that would come before the fall of Jerusalem and before the parousia, we find this saying: "This generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Mt 24:34; cf. Mk 13:30; Lk 21:32). As we already saw above8 Matthew seems to be writing in a multiple fulfillment pattern in chapter 24, so that details may in general refer to both events. Mark and Luke seem to be cast in a similar pattern, though they each explicitly mention only one question by the disciples, that about the fall of Jerusalem. We think this saying refers most easily and clearly to the fall of Jerusalem. Yet if we wanted to take "this generation" to refer not to the whole of mankind, but just to the Christian generation or regime, since there is to be no new dispensation to replace the Christian regime (cf. Gal 1:8-9), the second fulfillment of the saying would consist in the fact that the Christian regime will not pass away before the parousia.

Early in St. John's Gospel we kind Jesus speaks to Nathanael. Jesus had impressed him by saying: "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathaniel replied: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Then Jesus spoke the line that concerns us here: "Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (Jn 1:51).

Could this refer to the parousia, and mean that it would come in Nathanael's lifetime? No, for two reasons: (1) Nathanael was almost certainly dead before the Fourth Gospel was written. But since John wrote near 90-100 A.D., the prediction, if it meant the parousia would come in the lifetime of Nathanael, would have been shown false; in which case would John have mentioned it? No, it must have implied something else. (2) There is an abrupt shift from the singular you in v. 50 to the plural you in v. 51, suggesting this saying was actually given not just to Nathanael, but to a group or crowd.

What positively did the verse mean? Before answering, we must recall that this is John's Gospel, one which seems to be of a very different genre from that of the Synoptics. John may just be creating a special "theological construct" here. F. J. Moloney suggests9 that John was using a then current rabbinic understanding of the dream of Jacob (Gen 28:11-12), which spoke of the angels of God as standing for Moses and Aaron on Sinai. The sense would then be that Jesus, the Son of Man, would be the new means by which God communicates with man.

And of course there could have been a special vision to Nathanael and/or others, which is not recorded in Scripture.

In the final episode of the last chapter of John (21:15-23), after Jesus had asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" and had given him charge of His lambs and sheep, Jesus foretold Peter's death. Immediately thereafter, "Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved.... When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, 'Lord, what about this man?' Jesus said to him, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!' The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, 'if it is my will' that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"'

R. Brown comments: "The obvious import of the saying (v.22) is that Jesus will return during the Disciple's lifetime, and this is how Christians interpreted it (21 :23). But since the Beloved Disciple was dying or dead, the Johannine author of Chap. 21 employs casuistry to show that Jesus' promise was not absolute. "10

We grant that this saying of Jesus, being enigmatic, as many of His saying were, could have been misunderstood. However, is it really "obvious" that Jesus' words actually foretold the parousia as coming during John's lifetime? Not at all. If it were as obvious as Brown thinks, would John have recorded the unfulfilled prophecy, especially since John so plainly attributes to Jesus divinity, consciousness of His own divinity, and its concomitant boundless knowledge? Or is it "obvious" that the explanation given in the Gospel is mere "Casuistry?" By no means. Jesus often used enigmatic forms of speech, e.g., He told the crowds to call no man father or teacher (Mt 23:8-10). Father Brown does not object to such titles publicly. Again, the mysterious words of Mt 19:12, "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sale of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." Only Origen, it is said, interpreted these words literally and proceeded with self-castration. And there are more examples (e.g., Mt 19:17; 19:24; 20:16; 13:12). In speaking enigmatically, Jesus was following in the tradition of the ancient prophets. Let us picture the situation realistically. Jesus had just predicted Peter's martyrdom. Peter notices John. (Peter is frequently depicted in the Gospels as impulsive.) So he asks: "What about him?" No one likes to be manipulated-Jesus refused to be put "on the spot." A kindly sympathetic but enigmatic reply is given. In effect Jesus says: If I would want him to remain, that is none of your business. Considering the evidence in this light, could a jury be found to enter a verdict of ignorance and error against Jesus?

4. The Parousia Indefinitely Delayed

In our examination of Matthew 24 we tried to point out how it utilizes a multiple fulfillment pattern so that certain signs apply both to the fall of Jerusalem and to the parousia.11 Do these signs signalize a definite time, Of at least do they enable a person to be certain about it when it is close? It seems not, for two reasons. First, Jesus often said His return would be like that of the "thief in the night," that is, quite unforeseen (Mt 24:43-44; Lk 12:40; cf. 1 Th 5:2-4), or like the unexpected return of the master (Mt 25:13-30; Mk 13:33-37; Lk 19:12-26; Mt 24:50; Lk 12:46), and again that, as in the days before the deluge, they were marrying and giving in marriage (business as usual) and they did not know until the flood was upon them, so it will before the parousia (Mt 24:37-39; Lk 17:26-27). A few, like Noe, might read the signs; but most men will not. Secondly, for the most part, the signs given in the Gospels are rather vague and hard to interpret precisely because of apocalyptic coloring.

More importantly, it is even charged that Jesus Himself did not know the day, since in Mk 13:32 He said: "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

Many commentators take this text at what seems face value and insist Jesus was ignorant on the matter. E. Haenchen proposes that only later did the Church become opposed to admitting ignorance in Jesus; earlier it accepted that inferiority in line with the mentality of 1 Cor 15:28 according to which at the end "the Son Himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him."12 B. Rigaux holds that Jesus taught that He did not know the time, but hoped it would be soon.13 R. Brown, after reviewing the different possible times for the parousia proposed by the exegetes, adds:

Since it is not reasonable to suppose that he knew about the Parousia but for some mysterious reason expressed himself obscurely, one is almost forced to take at face value the admission of Mk. 13:32 that Jesus did not know.... Is it totally inconceivable that, since Jesus did not know when the Parousia would occur, he tended to think and say that it would occur soon?14

Brown must think Jesus a bit moronic! Since Jesus did not know, therefore, He tended to think and say the parousia would be soon. Any sane person refrains from making conclusions based on ignorance as the major premise. With such ratiocination it becomes easier to categorize the logic of Brown's initial judgment: "It is not reasonable to suppose that he [Jesus] knew about the Parousia."

Our commentators seem to have forgotten that there are two ways of writing about Jesus in the New Testament: (1) to note things associated with His divinity, (2) to note the things associated with His humanity. Since He had both a true humanity and a true divinity, both forms of speech were proper. Thus in three speeches in Acts (2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12) Peter speaks almost exclusively within the human category. Paul in 1 Cor 15:28 speaks of the Son as becoming "subject" to the Father. And John, along with evident emphasis on the divinity of Jesus, has Him say (Jn 14:28), "The Father is greater than 1," speaking within the human category, of course. Therefore, it is not at all strange if Jesus, whose Spirit moved the evangelists, expresses Himself in the same way at times. Accordingly Mk 13:32 would mean: As far as human means of knowledge are concerned, I do not have that information. Pope St. Gregory the Great summed up the conclusions of the patristic thinking in these words: " [Jesus] knew the day and hour of judgment in the nature of humanity, but yet not from the nature of humanity."15

To obviate possible criticism a concluding observation is in place. We do not claim to have proved that Mk 13:32 conveys Gregory's conclusion. In this text, as with other texts we merely wish to show that one can plausibly offer an interpretation that m no way implies ignorance or error on the part of Jesus.


1 Cf. Xavier Leon-Dufour and others, Vocabulaire de Theologie Biblique, Cerf, Paris, 1962, col. 1120-21. F. Zorell, Lexicon Hebraicum et Aramaicum Veteris Testamenti, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum Roma, 1961, 662-63.
2 Cf. Mt. 24; Lk. 19:44.
3 See pp 54-56 above.
4 JGM 71-72.
5 See Appendix, pp 196-97 below.
6 JBC 11, 783.
7 See Appendix, Pt. 2.
8 See pp 54-56 above.
9 F.J. Moloney, "The Johannine Son of God" in Biblical Theology Bulletin 6.2-3 (June-October 1976) 178-180. On the rabbinic view see Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 68.12 (tr. H. Freedman) Soncino, London, 1939, II.625. Cf. also O. Cullmann, The Johannine Circle (tr. J. Bowden) Westminster, Philadelphia, 1976, 44.
10 JGM 74.
11 See pp 54-56 above.
12 E. Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu, Topelmann, Berlin, 1966, 452.
13 B. Rigaux, "La Seconde venue de Jesus" in La Venue du Messie in Recherches bibliques 6. Desclee de Brouwer, Paris, 1962, 190.
14 JGM 77-78.
15 See pp 122-24 below.

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