Where does the brunt of New Testament eschatology actually land? When did the disciples see the son of man coming in his kingdom? Did they see him at all?
In attempting to answer these question we first looked at a number of problematic Jesus-sayings. These sayings associated the day of judgement, the coming of the son of man, and the establishment of the kingdom with the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries. These “this generation” sayings, along with a cacophony of early Christian voices, were sufficient to subvert the comfortable traditional eschatological models that lob early Christian expectations into the unknowable and indefinite future.
Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mark 13:30).
Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11).
The Lord is near (Philippians 4:5).
The Lord’s coming is near (James 5:8).
The end of all things is near (1 Peter 4:7).
Children, it is the last hour (1 John 2:18).
In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay (Hebrews 10:37).
The time is near (Revelation 1:3).
Transfiguration preterist model
Next we critiqued two common preterist eschatological models.
The first solved the problem of “this generation” by locating the fulfillment of Mark 9:1/Matthew 16:28 with the Transfiguration.
Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:28).
This solution broke down for two primary reasons.
Firstly, early Christian texts equate “seeing” the son of man with experiencing the day of his judgement (Mark 13:26, 14:62, Luke 17:22-23, 21:27, Revelation 1:7, Didache 16). We could therefore not reduce seeing “the son of man coming in his kingdom” to a vision of things to come.
Secondly, and alluded to above, a plethora of other sayings related the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries with events that could not possibly be the Transfiguration. Rather, it appears that these texts must refer to the concrete coming of the son of man in his kingdom over the earth (Matthew 10:23, 16:27, 23:36, 24:34, etc.). Thus even if it could be shown that Mark 9:1/Matthew 16:28 referred to the Transfiguration and not to the eschaton, the preterist still has mountains to move.
Roman war preterist model
The next preterist model maintained that the coming of the son of man in his kingdom was a figurative reference to the war with Rome in AD 70, God’s concrete judgement on unbelieving Israel.
This model suffered from some of the same issues. While it correctly understands the coming of the son of man as a symbolic event representing (in part) the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christians also associated this apocalyptic event with universal judgement (Matthew 13:36-43, 25:34-46, Revelation 14:14-20, 2 Thess 1:5-12, etc.). This judgement of the nations by the sceptered son of man clearly did not take place immediately after the fall of Jerusalem. And needless to say, the evangelists make no distinction between an impending παρουσία for Jerusalem and a remote παρουσία for the world.
A different model
Despite the bankruptcy of these two preterist models, both are to be commended for taking seriously the truncated time-frame of Jesus. By all accounts, Jesus and his followers believed major apocalyptic events would take place before the close of the 1st century. The earliest Christians as represented by Paul, Mark, and Matthew, more or less faithfully replicated their master’s eschatological predictions: God would judge Israel and shortly thereafter establish his kingdom over the rebellious nations of the world. All of this would happen in accordance with Hebrew prophetic tradition wherein God first judges his own people and then restores and exalts them by judging their enemies (cf. Zechariah 13-14, Amos 9, Romans 2:9-10). Naturally then, when Israel’s king returned from heaven to rule his people, to raise up David’s fallen booth, he would judge Israel’s shepherds and then subdue the enemies of his elect (cf. 1 Samuel 8:20, Ezekiel 34, Isaiah 11). Being that these were the two central duties of the Davidic king, the early Christians encapsulated their fulfillment in the singular image of the son of man coming in his kingdom.
Where do these expectations leave us? If neither the Transfiguration nor the Roman war can account for the New Testament’s claims about the immediate future, were the earliest Christians mistaken about what was to come?
In regards to timing, they probably were mistaken. God did not judge and annex the nations of the known world immediately after he judged Israel in AD 70. The kingdom of the Lord did not suddenly supplant the kingdoms of the world like a flash of lightning.
Yet starting with the collapse of second temple Judaism, God did begin to place the enemies of the churches under Christ’s feet. For the early Christians, Jerusalem’s fall signaled and confirmed God’s intention to transform the Greco-Roman world for the sake of his people. Christ truly had inherited authority over the nations. Truly he was now enthroned in heaven.
During the next two centuries, the son of man continued to plant his churches throughout the idolatrous empire. These small communities of mercy and justice served not merely as signs of what God was about to do with the whole inhabited world, but as the very means by which Christ would commandeer the nations. Those peoples, tribes, and nations that accepted the message of Christ would inherit “life of the new age” (ζωή αἰώνιος), a kingdom over the nations (Matthew 25:34, 46). Those peoples, tribes, and nations that rejected Christ and his messengers, on the other hand, would inherit “fire in the new age” (πῦρ αἰώνιος), the penalty of destruction (Matthew 25:41, 46). The whole pagan order governed by “the Devil and his angels” would be burned away, leaving only the churches in its place.
In my view then, history modified but did not debunk early Christian eschatology. The coming of the son of man in his kingdom proved to be not a singular moment, as was expected, but a slow process by which God transformed the social, theological, and political landscape of the ancient Mediterranean for the sake of his holy ones. If nothing else, the early Christians were correct to presume that this process would begin with God’s judgement of his people, Israel, the first enemy of the church (Galatians 4:21-31).
In the face of persecution, the churches endured, and after about two centuries inherited authority over the nations. Constantine was crowned emperor and the whole pagan system was undone, giving way to Christendom. Though no doubt a flawed system, through the church’s ascendancy over the once pagan nations God rescued his people “from the hands of their enemies so that they could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness for all of their days” (Luke 1:74-74, cf. Revelation 5:10).