The “Coming of the Son of Man”: A Fifth Approach image

The “Coming of the Son of Man”: A Fifth Approach

So here's the problem we considered yesterday. Jesus seems to say in the gospels that the coming of the Son of Man would happen within a generation - but it didn't, and it still hasn't. Four main ways of thinking this through have been proposed by interpreters: either Jesus didn't think the coming of the Son of Man would happen within a generation, and it didn't (view 1); or he did, and it did (view 2); or he didn't, and it didn't, but it will one day (view 3); or he did, and it didn't, and he was wrong (view 4). Clear as mud?

Two researchers at Oxford, Casey Strine and Chris Hays, who say their approach is both confessional and critical, have convinced me that there is a fifth option, which has some things in common with several of the above, but in my view is clearly distinct. It’s not easy to summarise a paper that you heard read through at high speed, but bear with me: their big idea is that (a) Jesus prophesied that his return, and the end of the age, would happen within a generation; (b) this, obviously, did not happen; but (c) this is not a problem, because the purpose of biblical prophecy is often to call the prophet’s hearers to action in the present, rather than to explain exactly what will happen in the future. This, they argue, is true even if the prophecy is framed as a prediction of the future.
This sounds odd, of course, in the light of Deuteronomy 18, in which the simplest possible test is set for God-given prophetic ministry: if the prophet’s words come true, then he’s from God, but if not, then he’s not (Deut 18:15-22). Put like this, it would seem hard to conclude that Jesus predicted the parousia and it didn’t happen, and yet he spoke God’s words faithfully. But, Strine and Hays point out, it was Jeremiah, the Deuteronomic prophet par excellence, who said the following:

Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’” (Jer 18:5-11)

The implications of this passage, as central to Jeremiah’s ministry as it is, are significant. For Jeremiah, prophetic ministry does not necessarily tell you the future; it tells you what the future will be if you respond in a particular way. This, of course, is the model of prophecy exemplified by Jonah: destruction is promised, but forgiveness follows repentance. Jeremiah 18, for Strine and Hays, shows that the purpose of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry should be understood primarily as “activation, not prognostication”, as a means of engendering the right response from Israel in the present, rather than gazing into the crystal ball for the future. And given the well-known similarities between the ministries of Jesus and Jeremiah - the persecution, the judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple sermons, the parables, the weeping over the coming destruction, the Jews’ desire to kill him because of prophesying disaster - we should not be surprised if Jesus’ prophecies of imminent destruction and cataclysm worked in the same way.
This, they happily concede, is the minority hermeneutic when it comes to predictive prophecy. But, they argue, a prophet who predicts disaster or blessing in the future, to provoke repentance or ethical living in the present, is simply doing his job - predictive prophecy was clearly understood (in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos and Jonah) as being conditional upon human response. Understood this way, Jesus predicted his return within a generation, but this prediction was intended to bring about repentance, and ethical living, within God’s people. If these did not follow, the parousia would be delayed.
For an important parallel, Hays and Strine consider the way Jeremiah’s prophecy about seventy years of exile was interpreted and appropriated by subsequent prophets in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 29, a chapter more usually mined for prooftexts about personal blessing (11-13) or seeking the good of the city you live in (4-7), centres on a promise that the exile would last seventy years, after which the people would be gathered from the nations, return to the land and have their fortunes restored:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer 29:11-14)

Now, from Ezra’s perspective, the return under Zerubbabel is a fulfilment of this promise (Ezra 1:1-4). But from Daniel’s perspective, the exile has been extended sevenfold, in keeping with the warning of Leviticus 26:18, such that instead of seventy years, Israel will now be exiled for seventy weeks of years, or 490 (Daniel 9:24-27). Disobedience amongst God’s people meant that, just as Jeremiah had said, the good that God intended to do the nation has been reconsidered. A partial fulfilment occurs with the return under Zerubbabel, but the full inheritance of Jeremiah 29 - restored fortunes, an ingathering from all the nations, and so on - has been delayed because of Israel’s sin.
So, they ask: might not the same be true of Jesus’ prophecies of the parousia? There are partial fulfilments signalled clearly by the gospel writers (the resurrection and ascension in Matt 26:64, Pentecost in Acts 2:14-21, perhaps the transfiguration in Mark 9:1-8, and so on). But the full inheritance of the promise, the bodily return of Jesus to the earth to inaugurate the kingdom in all its fulness, is conditional upon obedient, ethical living among God’s people. Might this be the best way of making sense of Jesus’ prediction?
This, after all, is the way the delay of the parousia is handled in the one New Testament text that addresses the problem most directly: 2 Peter 3:1-13. Amidst the well-known remarks about the flood, God’s desire for all to repent and a day being like a thousand years, we read this:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Pet 3:11-12)

There it is. Lives of holiness and godliness - and presumably, if we read verses 11-12 in conjunction with verse 9, mission - are not just about “waiting for” the day of God, but also “hastening” it. And if Peter could write in those terms, such that the parousia could be accelerated or delayed on the basis of human action, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that Jesus, following the approach of Jeremiah and others, could have done the same thing.
I think that’s a very good argument. As far as I’m concerned, it represents a coherent and identifiably distinct fifth way of thinking about the “delay of the parousia”. I’m not saying I agree with it, mind you; personally, I still think Tom Wright’s view of the “coming of the Son of Man”, which I described yesterday, fits better with both Daniel 7 and its appropriation by the other synoptic writers (particularly the phrase “from now on” and the sitting language of Matt 26:64 and Luke 22:69). But from now on, I think both New Testament scholars and preachers need to approach this problem as if there are not four possible solutions, but five.
A bit like when Robbie returned to Take That.

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