Chapter 26: The Place of Apocalyptic in The Teaching of Jesus and of The Early Church

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 26: The Place of Apocalyptic in The Teaching of Jesus and of The Early Church

A recurring theme in the New Testament is the expectation of the imminent end of the present world age and of an approaching judgement, accompanied at times by a graphic and material depiction of the events that are to herald and accompany the end. The expectation was not fulfilled and many earnest Christians throughout the centuries have echoed the words of the ‘mockers’ in II Pet. 3:4 ‘Where is the promise of his coming ? for, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’

It cannot be contested that the primitive church as a whole, and even the apostles, held firmly to a mistaken view of the nearness of the End. James’ message (5:8) that ‘the coming of the Lord is at hand’ is repeated by Peter (I Pet. 4:17) ‘The time is come for judgement to begin at the house of God’, and Paul tells both the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4:15-17) and the Corinthians (I Cor. 15: 51-52) that some of them will still be alive when the end comes. The teaching of I John (2:18) is that ‘it is the last hour’ and of Revelation (22:10) that ‘the time is at hand’.

The Teaching of Jesus

Even Jesus himself, according to the Synoptic Gospels, had taught during his early ministry of his early return in glory and in judgement. In Mark 8: 38-9:1 we read:

‘For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said unto them ‘Verily I say unto you, there be some here of them that stand by, which shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power.’

Again, towards the close of the little apocalypse of Mark 13, with its detailed description of the signs of the end, Jesus says (13:30), ‘This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished’. When the high priest asks him at his trial if he is the Christ, Jesus replies (Mk. 14: 62),

‘I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’

These passages from Mark can be paralleled by others from Matthew e.g. 10:23 ‘Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come’, and from Luke, e.g. 22: 34-36. In the face of such evidence it must either be accepted that Jesus is rightly recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as having taught of his early return in glory and the accompanying judgement and that he was mistaken, or it must be shown that his teaching was from the earliest days misinterpreted and transformed. There are strong reasons for rejecting the former alternative, and accepting the challenge of the latter. A close study of the gospels shows that the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching imply no such early end of the world, but are in fact inconsistent with it, and that the ‘apocalyptic’sayings bear many signs of editorial distortion both on the part of the final gospel authors and of the earlier traditions.

It is clear that the teaching of Jesus was eschatological in the sense that life is to be lived in expectation of the judgement and the coming of the kingdom, and his acceptance of the titles Son of man and Messiah implied a claim that the Kingdom of God had already come or was about to begin. All these terms, Son of man, Messiah, Kingdom of God, had for his hearers a connection with the apocalyptic expectation of the time, based largely on the teaching of a number of current apocalyptic books, such as the Books of Daniel and Enoch, and exemplified in the teaching of John the Baptist that one mightier than he was about to come,

‘Whose fan is his hand, throughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.’ (Lk. 3:17).

The general tenor of Jesus’ own teaching, however, indicates that he used these symbols, in interpretation of his own mission, in a sense quite different from that given to those of his contemporaries. This is brought out very well in the consistent picture of the teaching of Jesus given by the source Q. While, according to Q, Jesus claimed to be Son of God (Mt. 11:27, Lk.10:22) and to bring the Kingdom proclaimed beforehand by John (Mt. 9:27, Lk. 7:28), the Kingdom, whether thought of as present (e.g. Mt. 13, 31-33, Lk. 8:18-21, Mt. 23:13, Lk. 9:52) or as future (e.g. in the Lord’s Prayer) is primarily spiritual, although in the latter case Jesus seems sometimes to have used material and traditional metaphors, e.g. of a Messianic banquet (Mt. 8:11-12, Lk. 13:28-29). When he speaks of the coming of the Son of man, he emphasises its suddenness (Mt. 24:43-44, Lk. 12:39-40) and universality (Mt. 24:28,39, Lk.17:24,30), but refuses to name a place (Mt. 24:28 Lk. 17:37)or time Mt. 24:44, Lk. 12:40)for it.The general truth of the Q version of Jesus’ teaching is confirmed by a significant number of passages from other strata of the gospels,(E.g. for the spiritual conception of the kingdom Mk. 4:26-29, Mt. 5:3, 13:44-45, Lk. 17:20-21; for the suddenness of the coming of the Son of man Mk. 13:34-35; for the refusal to name a time Mk. 13:32-33.) and although there are many problems that admit of no certain solution, e.g. the difficulty of reconciling passages where the kingdom is spoken of as present with those where it is spoken of as future, there is at least sufficient evidence for reconstructing the main lines of Jesus’ authentic eschatological teaching.

When the passages in the gospels which give to Jesus a materially apocalyptic outlook are compared with these others, their secondary nature becomes apparent. In many cases the processes of alteration and distortion can be traced fairly easily, although in other cases we can only guess at the original context of the words or how they came to be put into Jesus’ mouth. In the passage already quoted from Mark 8: 38-9:1 we have two genuine sayings of Jesus, one of the judgement that will accompany his second coming, one of the coming of the kingdom with power in the lifetime of his hearers. The original meaning of the second of these sayings may have had reference to the coming of the Spirit (cf. the possible original meaning of the saying in Mk. 13:30) or, as some scholars think, to the Transfiguration which follows almost at once in the Marcan narrative; it is only the editorial juxtaposition of the two sayings, falsifying their original contexts, which turns the whole passage into a prophecy of the return of the Son of man within a generation.

‘The Little Apocalypse’ of Mark 13 illustrates the results of such editorial manipulation on a larger scale. There is no reason to doubt that many genuine sayings of Jesus are embedded in this chapter, and that they include a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, prophecies of persecution, of false Christs, and of the suddenness of the return of the Son of man; but the genuine sayings of Jesus have been so transformed and robbed of their original contexts in the process of forming a long and confused series of prophecies of the End, many of whose elements are derived from other sources, that the final result is very different in spirit from the original teaching of Jesus. Lk. 21:34-36, with which Luke closes his parallel apocalyptic discourse, is so reminiscent in its vocabulary of Paul’s epistles as to suggest that here also words have been put into Jesus’ mouth that in fact represent the belief of early Christians. A similar explanation may account for Mt. 10: 23, though in this verse some scholars see a genuine word of Jesus whose original meaning had reference only to a proposed ‘follow up’ by Jesus of his disciples’ mission, and for the present form of Mk. 14:62.

The apocalyptic element in the teaching of Jesus, if such a view of the gospel evidence is accepted, is reduced to small proportions. He spoke of the end of the world and of a final judgement, but refused to name a time for them, and he at times employed in connection with the kingdom that will be at last established, metaphors of the Messianic banquet and of thrones of judgement (Mt. 19:28, Lk. 22:29-30). At the same time he spoke of the kingdom, already present and growing and being entered, in such a spiritual sense as to illuminate the dominant significance which he attached to these terms. He charged with a new spiritual significance the existing conceptions of Messiah and Son of man, of the end of the world, and of God’s Kingdom.

Why The Disciples Misunderstood The Teaching of Jesus

That his apostles, however, should have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching to the extent of expecting his return in their own generation is not surprising. It is clear from Mark’s account of the Confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi that even in recognising Jesus’ Messiahship he misunderstood its true nature. When Jesus spoke of his forthcoming death, and Peter began to rebuke him (Mk. 8:32), it was because Peter, like James and John (Mk.10: 35-37) shared in the common belief that the Messiah would come once, and initiate the New Age which was to see God’s rule fully established. When one misunderstanding -- that the Messiah would not die -- had been removed, it was replaced by another, that his departure was only for a short while and that the establishment of the kingdom was to be on the lines expected by the apocalyptists. It is significant that Luke represents the apostles even after the resurrection as asking ‘Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel’? (Acts 1:7), and although the interpretation of the Kingdom of God as a present reality is not absent from the New Testament outside the gospels (e.g. Col.1:13), James (2:5) and the author of Hebrews (12:28) use the term only, and Paul (e.g. I Cor. 15:50, Gal. 5:21) mainly of the kingdom that was shortly to appear.

The Development of Apocalyptic Ideas

Two influences especially confirmed the early Christians in their error, their study of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic writings, and the rise of Christian prophecy. The use of scriptural proof texts necessarily involved references to ‘the last days’ (Joel 2:28, cited Acts 2:17) and the nearness of the judgement (Deut. 18:19, cited Acts 3:23), and to cosmic catastrophes connected with the end (Joel 3:30-31, cited Acts 2:19-20). The very confusions and inconsistencies of much of Christian apocalyptic reflect not only the differences between the teaching of Jesus and that of Jewish apocalyptic, but also the wide variations in the apocalyptic conceptions that existed within contemporary Judaism. While Jewish apocalypses are only rarely quoted directly in the New Testament (yet cf. Jude 14-15), the reading and interpretation of them, in the light of Jesus’ Messiahship, exercised a widespread influence in still further adapting Christian teaching on the End to current Jewish conceptions. To such an influence are due the introduction of the figure of Antichrist (I Jn. 2:18 cf. II Thess. 2:3-8), and probably of Daniel’s ‘abomination of desolation’ (Mk. 13:14), the accumulation of signs and portents before the end (Mk. 13, Mt. 24, Lk. 21) and some of the accompaniments of the end itself (e.g. the trump of I Thess. 4:16 and Mt. 24:31). The process of distortion was accelerated by the activity of Christian prophets. The gift of speaking ‘in the Spirit of God’ (I Cor. 12:3) was one which greatly enriched Christian life and was of great service for edification (I Cor. 14:4); at the same time, because of its recognised authority and its freedom of utterance, it was peculiarly fitted to spread in the Church a confusion of ideas about the coming End; the individual prophet, like the seer of the Book of Revelation, sometimes spoke from a mind charged at once with the teaching of Jesus and with confused memories of apocalyptic writings and utterances; his words, in turn, were received as authoritative and passed on.


Two examples will show the working of such influences in the New Testament. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians in A.D. 50, reminds them of the teaching he has given them about the End (I Thess. 5:2, II Thess. 2:5). In his first epistle (I Thess. 4:15-5:3) he refers explicitly to ‘the word of the Lord’ that the coming of the Lord will be in the lifetime of at least some of them, a clear indication that the misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching goes back to those who had themselves heard him. He reminds them that they already know that the day of the Lord will come ‘as a thief in the night’ and that it will be accompanied by sudden destruction on those not expecting it; here his teaching echoes genuine sayings of Jesus. The end itself is pictured in terms drawn from Jewish apocalyptic; the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel (cf. The apocalypse of Moses 22), and with the trump of God (cf. 4 Ezra 6:23); those that are alive and the risen dead are to be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (cf. Dan. 7:13-14), ‘and so shall we ever be with the Lord’.

In his second epistle (II Thess. 2:3-12) and unexpected coming of the end, which show not only the influence of old Jewish apocalyptic ideas, but also the development of new and perhaps specifically Christian ideas under the stress of contemporary events. The conception of the ‘man of sin’, who is to set himself forth as God to sit in the temple of God and finally to be destroyed by the breath of the Lord Jesus, owes much ultimately to Jewish apocalyptic, notably to Dan. 7, 8 and 11, but the Christians have adapted the conception to their own expectations and have developed a whole series of accompanying ideas, e.g. ‘he that restraineth’ (2:7). We can only guess at some of the reasons which led to this particular formulation of an apocalyptic scheme; the attitude of Christians to the policy of individual Roman emperors may well be counted among them, especially if those scholars are right who see in Caligula’s attempt in A.D. 40 to introduce his statue into the Temple an event which gave to Christian as well as other Jews a new and contemporary interpretation of Daniel 11:31.

The Abomination of Desolation

A similar mixture of apocalyptic elements drawn from different sources is to be found in ‘the little Apocalypse’ of Mk. 13. One of the sections of this apocalypse (14-20) deals with the sudden appearance of ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Dan. 11:31) and an accompanying tribulation in Judaea. In its present form this passage has been linked up rather awkwardly in a general series of events presaging the end of the world, but it may well once have been an independent oracle on the approaching doom of Jerusalem like that oracle which, Eusebius (H.E. III 5,3.) tells us, ‘was vouchsafed by way of revelation to approved men’ of the Church at Jerusalem before the Jewish war of A.D. 67, and which commanded them to depart from the city before the war, and to take up residence in Pella, a small town on the other side of the Jordan.

Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple implied that Jerusalem would also be destroyed, but the form of the Marcan oracle suggests that on the basis of this simple prediction was developed, in the light of Old Testament prophecy, and first-century prophetic experience, a much fuller and more ‘apocalyptic’ oracle. This in turn could eventually be put mistakenly but in good faith, into the mouth of Jesus, and its meaning further changed by being made significant for the approach of the end of the world.

The Millennium

The Book of Revelation must be read and understood in the light of two generations of such development, and of the special impetus given to apocalyptic by the actual fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. That the same kinds of influence remained at work is shown by the continued popularity in some Christian circles of the Millenarian view of the Messianic kingdom. Some of the Jewish apocalypses current in the first century A.D. described a temporary reign of the Messiah on earth before the final judgement (4 Ezra 7: 28 ff., 2 Baruch 40:3). It is possible that Paul refers to such a view (in I Cor.15: 23-26), although there is no trace of it in the synoptic apocalypses, and in the Book of Revelation (20:1-10) there is explicit mention of a thousand-year reign of the saints with Christ on earth. A curious passage from Papias (c. A.D. 120) has been preserved in the writings of Irenaeus,(Adversus Haereses 5:33[A.D. 185]) in which it is said that the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, recalled some of his words. John asserted that the Lord had taught about the times to come that the earth would be miraculously fertile, and that amongst other wonders

‘vines shall grow, each having 10,000 shoots, and on each shoot 10,000 branches, and on each branch again l0,000 twigs, and on each twig 10,000 clusters, and on each cluster 10,000 grapes, and each grape when pressed shall yield 25 measures of wine. . .’

It is clear from the fantastic nature of this description and from a comparison of this with a similar passage in Baruch 24 that Jesus is here mistakenly credited with teaching derived from Jewish apocalyptic sources. Fortunately the appearance and growing authority of the gospels, although they often seriously misrepresented the teaching of Jesus, prevented the further growth of such accretions.

The Fourth Gospel

Side by side with this interest in the apocalyptic interpretation -- and misinterpretation -- of Jesus’ teaching there seems to have persisted a truer and more spiritual comprehension of his words. For a time this understanding of the nature of the kingdom was in part accommodated to the apocalyptic conception, and in Paul’s teaching there is an unresolved inconsistency between his apocalyptic view of the coming kingdom and such passages as Romans 14:17.

For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

It is noticeable, however, that in his epistles written after A.D. 55 Paul makes only fleeting allusions to the nearness of the End (e.g. Rom. 13:11-12), and his thought seems to have outgrown his earlier eschatological beliefs.

In the Johannine writings a stage is reached where the apocalyptic conception has largely, but not altogether disappeared and the spiritual aspect of the teaching of Jesus is once more dominant. While in his first epistle (2:18) John speaks of the coming of many antichrists as a sign that it is the last hour, and of the coming of the day of judgement (4:17) and there are vestigial traces in the gospel of Jesus’ prophecies of the destruction of the Temple (2: 19, 4:21) of his heavenly kingdom (13:36, 14:2-3), of his second coming (5:28-29, 21:22), and of the judgement of the last day (6: 39, 12:48), in the gospel at least these sayings are given a new significance. The kingdom is a spiritual one (18:36) and entrance into means the possession of eternal life that comes from belief (6: 47); for a future judgement and resurrection are in effect substituted the judgement that attaches to present disbelief (3:18) and the life that springs from present belief and will continue in spite of physical death (11:25). It is the supreme achievement of the author of the fourth gospel to have pierced through the confused and distorted tradition of the words of Jesus which was available to him to a truer understanding of the essential nature of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed.