When I saw in the church bulletin one Sunday that Dr Tan Kim Huat, Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean of Trinity Theological College was giving a talk on the Second Coming of Christ, I was interested but I was not able to attend the talk. Recently, I was very pleased to see in the church's bimonthly magazine a writeup of what Dr Tan said at the talk. I am assuming that the writeup by someone who attended the talk in my church magazine is a fair and accurate account of what was presented by Dr Tan at the talk.
A large part of the talk dealt with the Olivet Discourse, a discussion Jesus had with the disciples on the Mount of Olives that was recorded in Mark 13, Mt 24 and Lk 21.
Dr Tan seems to base the Olivet Discourse on Mark 13 and so it is to that Gospel that I shall primarily turn my attention to. If you would like to read for yourself what Mark 13 says, click on this link.
What Dr Tan attempts to do is to split up what Jesus says into two parts:
1. the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which recorded history tells us occurred in AD 70; and
2. the Second Coming of our Lord which obviously hasn't taken place in the last 2,000 years.
My argument is that in the minds of Jesus, his listeners, the Gospel writers and his disciples, the two events are so closely linked in time that one is believed to closely follow the other, ie, our Lord's Second Coming follows immediately the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. I will show that a reading of all three texts in the Synoptic Gospels on this passage will lead any reasonable reader to conclude that that is the position.
I will now examine Dr Tan's arguments and explain why they are totally flawed.
Before I begin, I should mention that the Olivet Discourse is not surprisingly left out in the Gospel of John. There is no mention of it there at all. John's Gospel, most scholars agree, was written no earlier than the late AD 90s. It is the last of our canonical Gospels and many of the verses that appear in the Synoptic Gospels that tell us that the Second Coming of our Lord is imminent are absent in that Gospel. Some scholars believe that the Gospel was written after the death of all the Apostles including John, the last surviving Apostle. The originals of these Gospels were anonymous and we ascribe the names of these Evangelists to the Gospels by church tradition. Naturally, after seeing that our Lord had still not returned after the passing of all his Apostles, the writer of John would be careful not to include texts which spoke of the imminence of Christ's Second Coming. If you are interested in reading more of this, you may want to read what I wrote some time ago when I discussed a moving passage in the Bible in The Passage that Makes Me Cry.
Instead of sticking to Mark's Gospel, Dr Tan curiously began by referring to the corresponding verse in Matthew's Gospel, ie Mt 24:3-4 which reads
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Why does Dr Tan suddenly jump to Matthew's Gospel? The answer is obvious. He wants to divide the Olivet Discourse into two main portions: one pertains only to the destruction of the Temple and the other to Jesus' Second Coming. That verse in Matthew is the only one that will afford him such an opportunity. The corresponding verses in Mark and Luke are different and they tell us that the writers do not view the destruction of the Temple and Christ's Second Coming as two events separated by a huge time scale of, as we know it, more than 2000 years. Let's read the corresponding verses in Mark and in Luke:
Mark tells it this way in Mk 13:3-4 -
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”Luke is no different. He says this in Lk 21:7 -
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”Notice that Dr Tan avoided using those verses in both Mark and Luke, because he can't argue that the disciples were asking two very different questions. If we are to use Scripture to interpret Scripture as any evangelical pastor will tell you to do, I would have to say that bearing in mind what has been said in Mark and in Luke, that passage in Matthew is best explained this way - the disciples obviously take the Second Coming and the destruction of the Temple to occur around the same time. They are asking for a sign that will herald these events ie the Temple destruction and the Second Coming. Any notion that these two events will be separated by a time scale that exceeds 2000 years is preposterous.
Now let's see how our Lord replies and let's see what Jesus thinks of the time scale between the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and his own Second Coming.
Having divided the Olivet Discourse into two events which are separated by a period that exceeds 2000 years, Dr Tan then proceeds to divide Mark 13:5-37 into four parts. Why four parts? This is how Dr Tan divides the passage. Verses 5 to 23 relate to the destruction of the Temple which took place in AD 70. Verses 24 to 27 relate to Christ's Second Coming which still hasn't taken place this year ie in 2013. Verses 28 to 31 go back to the destruction of the Temple and verses 32 to 37 jump to the Second Coming of Christ. Is this not a rather messy way of telling a simple story and is our Lord incapable of telling something truthfully and clearly without flitting from one time frame to another? I submit that this is the typical apologist's ludicrous answer to the obvious fact that Jesus and everyone else in the 1st century AD took the view that the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming of Christ were events that took place one after the other. And I don't mean after a space of more than 2000 years. Rather, one followed the other IMMEDIATELY. I didn't pluck that word from the air. I borrowed that same word "immediately" from one of the Gospels which I will come to in a while.
But first, let's use the same Gospel that the good professor used in his talk. The Gospel of Mark. Yes, I know. He used the Gospel of Matthew when he wanted to zoom in on the question the disciples asked but that was for a purpose that I have already shown above. Thereafter, he used the Gospel of Mark so I shall keep to the same Gospel before moving on to the other Gospels later.
According to Dr Tan, verse 24 suddenly breaks away from the story about the destruction of the Temple and launches into Christ's Second Coming and that story continues until verse 27 before Christ suddenly goes back to the Temple destruction in verse 28. So let's see what verses 24 to 27 say:
“But in those days, following that distress,“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
Let's look at verse 24 again more closely: "But in those days, following that distress". "Those days" must refer to what was referred to by Jesus before verse 24. Also, "that distress" must refer to something referred to earlier. You can't just pluck a portion of a passage out of its context and decide by fiat that it refers to a period more than 2000 years after the period the passage is referring to.
"That distress" in verse 24 must refer to something. A plain reading of Mark 13 will show any reader what it refers to. It refers to verse 19 which, according to Dr Tan, talks about the destruction of the Temple. Let's look at verse 19 from verse 18 onwards:
Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequalled from the beginning...Nowhere else do we see any mention of "distress". Hence, the event in verse 24 which is about the Second Coming (according to Dr Tan) will take place "following that distress" and this is the distress mentioned in verse 19 which is the destruction of the Temple. In other words, the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of stars which are a sign of the Second Coming will take place following the destruction of the Temple. Now comes the question - how long following? In other words, how long after the destruction of the Temple should the Second Coming be?
Now, here is where I think Dr Tan's argument falls flat. After our Lord talks in great detail about the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of stars and his Second Coming, he continues to say in verse 29 onwards:
Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.When our Lord says in verse 29 "When you see these things happening", "these things" must of course be the things he has just said ie the darkening of the sun and the moon and the falling of stars which herald his Second Coming. To now say that these verses from verse 29 onwards refer to the destruction of the Temple is artificial and it does violence to the integrity of the passage.
But do you know why some scholars including Dr Tan insist that these verses don't refer to the Second Coming of our Lord? The obvious reason is Jesus says in verse 30,"Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." These scholars are putting the cart before the horse. They know that if you read the passage as it is printed without incorporating the changes they want to add to the biblical text, you will reach the inescapable conclusion that Jesus is promising that his Second Coming will take place shortly after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. That would be opening the Preteristic can of worms because we know Jesus didn't return in the first century AD and we affirm in the Creed and the Liturgy that he will come again.
Of course some scholars have other tricks up their sleeves. Some of them will argue that "generation" does not mean "generation" but it means an age which can be, yes, 2000 years long. But Dr Tan didn't make that argument so I won't counter it here.
Dr Tan based most of his talk on Mark 13 I believe because the other two Gospels make it more difficult to artificially divide the corresponding passages into his "neat" 4 parts in Mark 13. If you would like to read for yourself here are Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Read for yourselves and you will see that the Second Coming is to follow the destruction of the Temple immediately.
In Matthew 24:21, mention is made of the "great distress" which was also referred to in Mark 13 and which Dr Tan pigeonholed as a reference to the destruction of the Temple. And in Matthew 24:29, we read this:
“Immediately after the distress of those days“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.There we have it. The word of God in St Matthew's Gospel tells us in no uncertain terms that IMMEDIATELY after the distress caused by the destruction of the Temple, the Second Coming of our Lord will take place.
Putting the whole thing in its historical context, Matthew's Gospel tells us that IMMEDIATELY after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Jesus' Second Coming will take place.
This is in line with what I wrote a long time ago concerning our Lord's Second Coming. If you would like to read that, please click here.