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Did Jesus Expect to Return Right Away?

It is fashionable in scholarly circles to suppose that the earliest Christians expected Jesus’ return to be imminent. Some even think that Jesus shared that expectation, based on the following passage:

     From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
     Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
     “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
     What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
     “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
     I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Matthew 16:21-28 (NIV)

I had a professor in seminary who said that the lay reader’s tone of voice can completely change the meaning of the scriptures. I think we are dealing with that problem here. Our interpretation depends on the tone of voice we impart to the last sentence in this passage.

Maybe Jesus is getting carried away with His eschatology, being overcome with exuberance, clapping his hands with glee and saying, “Gee, guys, some of you might even still be alive when this happens!” I’m exaggerating to make a point, because I don’t think Jesus meant it that way. He told a number of parables about people who went away, leaving subordinates in charge, and returning to discover who had done well and who had not, and rewarding them accordingly. He even told a parable about a man who went to a far country to become king, and then returned after a long time during which he left his servants unsupervised:

     While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’”
Luke 19:11-13 (NIV)

A while back, a chain of doughnut shops in the United States advertised on television that each shop makes their own doughnuts several times during the day so that they are always fresh. The commercial showed a fatigued store employee walking out the front door of his house, saying, “Time to make the doughnuts!” He immediately came back in the door, saying, “I made the doughnuts.” Then he left again right away, saying “Time to make the doughnuts!” He repeated this a few times until he opened the door to leave, only to meet himself returning!

The doughnut man might have had his comings and goings mixed up, but I don’t think Jesus did, because it is foreign to His character. The gospel writers depict Jesus as having a firm course of action in mind that involved placing Himself in mortal jeopardy, most certainly leading to His death. They show Him resolutely sticking to it, despite the consequences. It isn’t likely that He’d suddenly forget a distinction He so carefully makes when He describes His plans.

It is clear that when Jesus speaks of “coming into His Kingdom,” He means “going away to a far country to be made King,” not returning to this world. “Coming into His Kingdom” means leaving this world to come into heaven, not leaving heaven to come back to this world. For Jesus, His cross is His crown, His resurrection reveals His glory, and His ascension is His coronation. He goes to heaven, to a far country indeed, to become king of the universe.

In the first passage, the topic of the conversation is Jesus’ death, not His return. The purpose of the conversation is to prepare His disciples for very traumatic events that are about to occur, not to dazzle them with far-off future events. If we read the last sentence of that passage with a different tone of voice, it all becomes clear:

While Jesus is preparing His disciples for the tragic events that are about to unfold, He looks at each one in turn and finally fixes His gaze on Judas. Looking at Judas, Jesus says with a sigh, “Well, some of you will not taste death until all this has come to pass.”