Chapters Twenty-four and twenty-five in the book of Matthew are designated as Apocalyptic literature — describing or prophesying the end of the world.
I have to confess it is not my favourite genre nor something I have done a great amount of in-depth study on. Today, while briefly reading and re-reading a few articles on the subject, which include some wild and wonderful interpretations, I came to the conclusion that actually no-one really understands it! The differing opinions are wide and varied. As always it is a mistake to assume one’s interpretation is the correct one. No-one is really sure what the author of Matthew meant. Certainly, it is a literary device not to be taken, well, literally.
Today’s lectionary reading is Matthew 24:30-35. This includes the oft quoted line “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. Matthew is usually dated as being written about 70 CE — although some discussion of an earlier Aramaic version has been mooted.
Therefore, to read it literally makes no sense — many of the generation alive with Jesus would already have died by the time it was penned. Even if understood that Matthew, as an old Man, was writing it as a comfort to new, young, early believers — a generation undergoing persecution — they too died without seeing the fulfillment of this verse.
Yet, countless generations have used those words to claim they are the generation who will see Jesus return. Lists of people who have predicted a bodily second coming of Jesus with the end of the known world can be found. Here are just three quick examples:
It was prophesied that it would happen in 500 CE. (Irenaenus, Hippolytus of Rome and Julius Africanus).
Beautus of Liebana, a Spanish monk, prophesied the end of the world in 793.
I could include many other historical predictions, there was almost one or more documented for every century. In the nineteenth century the prophecies increased and have continued to do so to present day. Of course, it maybe that more were just documented.
Interestingly, in 2010 Pew research focused a question on the second coming of Christ. Their data show that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will return to earth before 2050.
When broken down further the results showed that —
58% of white evangelical Christians believe Christ will return in this period.
59% of those with no college experience believe Christ will return in this period.
Whereas only 19% of graduates share the same belief.
52% of those who believe Christ will return by 2050 live in the south.
(I’ve included the link at the bottom where more details can be found)
So, what do I think? I think it is a pointless exercise to try and predict dates. I think it is much more profitable to focus on how I am living my life in the time I am given on earth. Much of apocalyptic literature is urging the readers to consider their lifestyles.
In the same reading in Matthew the author of the gospel uses the illustration of the fig tree — “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” I find this a helpful phrase. Perhaps, because it brings me back to a Celtic understanding of seasons and times of life.
Right now, as I look out of my window, I see a beautiful vista of Autumnal colours. Yet, the leaves are already dropping. Friday was a very hot day with an overnight storm which caused a severe drop in temperature. On Saturday as we walked, Andy and I remarked how many leaves had fallen, how different the trees looked than the previous day. The season is changing. For us, in the Western hemisphere, in Upstate New York winter is drawing near.
I don’t even need to look at a calendar to know the date of the approaching new season. The signs in nature reveal it. Life too has seasons — I once heard it said that as one got older the winter of life is approaching. I think to see winter as the last season of life is a wrong way of thinking about it.
Winter is a beginning, a time of hiddenness, a time of much growth. Spring is a time of visibility, tender shoots, freshness and growth while Summer is colour, ripening, beauty and vibrance.
If winter is the beginning of the cycle of life, then Autumn becomes the end. Autumn has its own particular beauty, a time of fruitfulness, harvest and shedding seeds to bring forth the life of the next generation.
Each season is rich and full. Each season can, and should, be enjoyed for the rewards it brings.
So, I don’t know when, or even if, Jesus will return in bodily form. I don’t actually want to concern myself with that. I want to focus on how I am living my life now, in the season I find myself in.
The lectionary also includes the passage in Colossians (3:12-17) that hints about how to live life — forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, wisdom, thankfulness and gratitude.
As I live every day afforded to me these the important things to focus on.