First, we saw the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple and, in Luke, explicit reference also to the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet it became clear that the nucleus of Jesus’ prophecy is concerned, not with the outward events of war and destruction, but with the demise of the Temple in salvation-historical terms, as it becomes a “deserted house.” It ceases to be the locus of God’s presence and the locus of atonement for Israel, indeed, for the world. The time of sacrifices, as regulated by the Law of Moses, is over.
We have seen that the early Church was aware of this profound watershed in history long before the outward demise of the Temple, and we have seen that amid all the difficult debates over which Jewish customs needed to be retained and imposed on Gentiles too, there was evidently no dissent over this point: with the Cross of Christ, the era of sacrifices was over.
Moreover, we have seen that the nucleus of Jesus’ eschatological message includes the proclamation of an age of the nations, during which the Gospel must be brought to the whole world and to all people: only then can history attain its goal.
In the meantime, Israel retains its own mission. Israel is in the hands of God, who will save it “as a whole” at the proper time, when the number of the Gentiles is complete. The fact that the historical duration of this period cannot be calculated is self-evident and should not surprise us. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the evangelization of the Gentiles was now the disciples’ particular task — thanks above all to the special commission given to Paul as a duty and a grace.
From this perspective, it can be understood that this “time of the Gentiles” is not yet the full Messianic age in terms of the great salvation promises, but it remains the time of present history and suffering; yet in a new way it is also a time of hope: “The night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:12).
It seems obvious to me that several of Jesus’ parables — such as the parable of the net with good and bad fish (Matthew 13 47-50), the parable of the darnel in the field (Matthew 13:24-30) — speak of this time of the Church; from the perspective of a purely imminent eschatology, they would make no sense. Read the parables of Matthew 13 here.
As a subsidiary theme, we also came across the instruction to the Christians to flee from Jerusalem at the time of an as yet unspecified profanation of the Temple. The historicity of this flight to Pella in Transjordan cannot be seriously doubted. While for our purposes this may seem a peripheral detail, it has a theological significance that should not be underestimated: their refusal to take part in the military defense of the Temple, through which the sacred place itself became a fortress and an arena for cruel military actions, corresponds exactly to the approach taken by Jeremiah at the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jeremiah 7:1-15; 38:14-28, for example).
Joachim Gnilka emphasizes the link between this approach and the heart of Jesus’ teaching:
“It is most unlikely that the Christian believers in Jerusalem took any part in the war. It was Palestinian Christianity that transmitted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. So they must have known Jesus’ commandments regarding love of ‘.. enemies and renunciation of violence. We also know that they did not take part in the revolt at the time of Emperor Hadrian”
(Nazarener, p. 69).
A further key element of Jesus’ eschatological discourse is the warning against false Messiahs and apocalyptic enthusiasm. Linked with this is the instruction to practice sobriety and vigilance, which Jesus developed further in a series of parables, especially in the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and in his sayings about the watchful doorkeeper (Mark 13:33-36). In this last passage we see clearly what is meant by “vigilance”: not neglecting the present, speculating on the future, or forgetting the task in hand, but quite the reverse — it means doing what is right here and now, as is incumbent upon us in the sight of God.
Matthew and Luke recount the parable of the servant who noted his master’s delay in returning and, thinking him absent, made himself master, beat the servants and maids, and gave himself over to fine living. On the other hand, the good servant remains a servant, knowing that he will be called to account. He gives to all their due and is praised by the master for so doing: acting with justice is true vigilance (cf. Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:41-46). To be vigilant is to know that one is under God’s watchful eye and to act accordingly.
In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul explained in stark and vivid terms what Christian vigilance involves: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are walking in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living” (3:10-12).
A further important element of Jesus’ eschatological discourse is the reference to the persecution that lies in store for his followers. Here, too, the time of the Gentiles is presupposed, for the Lord says that his disciples will be brought not only before courts and synagogues, but also before governors and kings (Mark 13:9): the proclamation of the Gospel will always be marked by the sign of the Cross — this is what each generation of Jesus’ disciples must learn anew. The Cross is and remains the sign of the Son of Man: ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering.
Let us now turn to the strictly apocalyptic section of Jesus’ eschatological discourse: to the prophecy of the end of the world, the second coming of the Son of Man, and the Last Judgment (Mark 13:24-27).
What is striking here is that this text is largely composed of Old Testament passages, especially from the Book of Daniel, but also from Ezekiel, Isaiah, and other scriptural texts. For their part, these passages are interconnected old images are reinterpreted in situations of hardship and developed further; within the Book of Daniel itself one can observe such a process of rereading certain passages as history unfolds. Jesus places himself within this process of relecture, and hence it is understandable that, for their part, the community of believers — as we saw earlier — reread Jesus’ words in the light of their new circumstances, naturally in such a way that the fundamental message remained intact. Yet the fact that Jesus spoke of the future, not in his own words, but by proclaiming the words of ancient prophecy in a new way is highly significant.
First, we must of course note the element that is genuinely new: the coming Son of Man, of whom Daniel had spoken (7:13-14), without being able to give him personal features, is now identical with the Son of Man addressing the disciples. The old apocalyptic text is given a personalist dimension: at its heart we now find the person of Jesus himself, who combines into one the lived present and the mysterious future. The real “event” is the person in whom, despite the passage of time, the present truly remains. In this person the future is already here. When all is said and done, the future will not place us in any other situation than the one to which our encounter with Jesus has already brought us.
In this way, the focusing of the cosmic images onto a person, who is now present and known to us, renders the cosmic context a secondary consideration. Even the question of time loses its importance: the person “is” in the midst of physically measurable things; he has his own “time”; he “remains.”
This relativization of the cosmic, or, rather, its focusing onto the personal, is seen very clearly in the closing words of the apocalyptic section: “Heaven and earth will pass but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). The word — which seems almost nothing in comparison to the mighty power of the immeasurable material cosmos, like a fleeting breath against the silent grandeur of the universe — the word is more real and more lasting than the entire material world. The word is the true, dependable reality: the solid ground on which we can stand, which holds firm even when the sun goes dark and the firmament disintegrates. The cosmic elements pass away; the word of Jesus is the true “firmament” beneath which we can stand and remain.
This personalistic focus, this transformation of the apocalyptic visions — which still corresponds to the inner meaning of the Old Testament images — is the original element in Jesus’ teaching about the end of the world: this is what it is all about.
From this standpoint, we can understand the significance of Jesus choosing not to offer a description of the end of the world, but rather to proclaim it using words already found in the Old Testament. Speaking about things to come using words from the past strips these discourses of any temporal frame of reference. What we have here is not a newly formulated account of the future, such as one might expect from a clairvoyant, but a realignment of our perspective on the future within the previously given word of God, manifesting both the perennial validity and the open potentialities of that word. It becomes clear that the word of God from the past illumines the essential meaning of the future. Yet it does not offer us a description of that future: rather it shows us, just for today, the right path for now and for tomorrow.
Jesus’ apocalyptic words have nothing to do with clairvoyance. Indeed, they are intended to deter us from mere superficial curiosity about observable phenomena (cf. Luke 17:20) and to lead us toward the essential: toward life built upon the word of God that Jesus gives us; toward an encounter with him, the living Word; toward responsibility before the Judge of the living and the dead.