Jesus and the Future
by Andreas Kӧstenberger and Alexander Stewart
A few years ago, my family and I (Andreas) had the opportunity to visit several well-known churches in southern California on consecutive Sundays. We were intrigued to find that in virtually all those churches, pastors were preaching sermon series on the book of Revelation and the end times. As you might expect, while each of the sermons was preached with much passion and conviction, and based on the Bible, the preachers didn’t agree on the details of the various end-time scenarios they presented. What’s more, the churches we visited all held a high view of Scripture, and the sermons were expository in nature. Add to this the cacophony of voices that depict the end in conjunction with conjectures about blood moons, geopolitical changes, and calendrical calculations. At times the weight of hubris can be crushing, and many believers struggle with distinguishing between what the Bible does in fact teach on the end times and what is merely unfounded speculation.
Part of the problem is that the Bible is often approached like a collection of writings largely removed from the original historical, literary, and theological context. A sentence is pulled out of Daniel and joined with a phrase from the book of Revelation to explain what Jesus said in his end-time discourse, understood as fulfilled by developments in the Middle East or observations of lunar eclipses. Christians commonly believe that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired, and that Scripture interprets Scripture, but those beliefs don’t justify treating the Bible like a puzzle where pieces from different portions of the canon are taken out of context and creatively combined to unlock the mysteries of future events. Each biblical book needs first to be interpreted within its own historical context before attempting a synthesis of the biblical teaching as a whole. We rightly understand the Bible in its entirety only to the degree that we adequately account for each of its individual parts.
So, what happens when we narrow our focus of study to one portion of the Bible—the Gospels—and try to determine what Jesus taught about the future? Many of Jesus’ original hearers would have viewed him not only as a teacher but as a prophet; the Gospels indicate that Jesus spoke prophetically and predicted future events (Mark 6:4; 8:27–28; Luke 24:19–21; John 6:14; 7:40, 52). Not everything he taught concerns the distant future; he often prophesied concerning his immediate followers and the generation alive at the time. A careful study of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels reveals that he concentrated on four broad themes. Regarding the near future, Jesus prophesied that there would be persecution of his followers and a judgment of “this generation” with special focus on the Jewish religious leadership for rejecting him. Regarding the more distant future, Jesus taught that after a lengthy period, the Son of Man would come with power and there would be a future resurrection and final judgment with requisite eternal rewards and punishment.
Jesus repeatedly told his followers that they would be persecuted. This persecution commenced almost immediately, and believers have continued to face persecution and even martyrdom throughout history (Matthew 10:16–25; 24:9–14; Mark 13:9–13; and Luke 21:12–19. See also Matt 5:10–12; 13:21; 16:24–26; Mark 4:17; 8:34–38; 10:28–31; Luke 6:22–23; 8:13; 9:23–25; 12:4–7; 12:11–12). In many ways, Jesus was the direct opposite of a seeker-sensitive prosperity preacher; he regularly highlighted the difficulty and cost associated with following him. The sacrifice of his followers, however, would be vastly outweighed by the reward they would ultimately receive.
Judgment of the Present Generation
Jesus also spent a lot of time discussing the near-future judgment of the current generation through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This was fulfilled in the destruction of the city by Titus, the Roman general and later emperor, in the year 70. Many interpreters underestimate the pervasiveness of this theme, but such neglect of Jesus’ historical frame of reference causes serious misinterpretation because it leads interpreters to relate passages that Jesus applied to the near future to the more distant future. We cannot elaborate on this here, but the Gospels make clear that the growing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders culminated, on Jesus’ part, with a prophecy that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed within a generation and, on the part of the religious leaders, with the plot to have Jesus put on the cross (See esp. Matt 24:2, 34; Mark 13:2, 30; Luke 21:6, 32).
The Passing of a Lengthy Period and the Return of the Son of Man
Jesus taught that, after a long and unspecified period, he would come again visibly and physically in glory with the angels. Through a series of parables, Jesus prepared his followers for an interval between his departure and return (Luke 12:35–48). The master was gone for an extended period before returning (Matt 24:48–49); the bridegroom took much longer to return than expected (Matt 25:1–13); and the owner who had entrusted his servants with property came back “after a long time” (Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). Jesus made clear that he didn’t know the exact time at which he would return (Matt 24:36) but was careful to prepare his followers for the reality that there would be what might seem to be a lengthy delay.
After such a period, Jesus predicted boldly that he would return as the ruling and reigning Son of Man. The expression “Son of Man” is drawn from Daniel 7:13 and used in two distinct ways in the Gospels. The first relates to Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at God’s right hand (Matt 10:23; 26:63–66; Luke 22:69; see also Mark 14:62). The other, more common way relates to his future coming which would trigger the final events further discussed below (Matt 16:27–17:2; 24:30; 25:31–32; Mark 8:38–9:2; 13:26; Luke 9:26–29; 12:35–48; 17:20–37; 18:8; 21:27). This sense of “Son of Man” to refer to two separate events parallels the already/not yet aspect of the God’s kingdom: it has been inaugurated but not yet consummated. There is no indication of a protracted period between the coming of the Son of Man and the final resurrection and judgment.
End-time Events: Resurrection, Final Judgment, and Eternal Reward and Punishment
Along with the Pharisees and most other Jewish people at the time, Jesus taught that the final resurrection and judgment would lead to eternal salvation in God’s kingdom for his people and punishment for those outside. Jesus affirmed the reality of the future resurrection in his controversy with the Sadducees, one of the major branches of Judaism in his day (Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40). Contrary to the Sadducees who didn’t hold to a future resurrection (in contrast to the Pharisees), Jesus taught that there would be a future resurrection of the dead prior to the last day of reckoning. This resurrection would be followed by a final, universal judgment. Despite the assumption by some that Jesus preached only a message of love, he also had quite a bit to say about the reality of future accountability to God. Not everyone who said to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” would enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 7:19–23).
Jesus told many parables to illustrate this point. In the parable of the weeds, all lawbreakers would be thrown into a fiery furnace while the righteous would shine in the kingdom of their Father (Matt 13:36–43). The parable of the dragnet indicates that unbelievers will be separated from the righteous in the final judgment (Matt 13:47–50). The parable of the sheep and goats perhaps illustrates this point most vividly: sheep and goats will be separated, and the goats will be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:31–46). These references could be multiplied; Jesus taught extensively about the future judgment and the topics of eternal reward and eternal punishment as a key part of his message (Matt 5:22; 5:29–30; 6:20; 7:21–23; 8:11–12; 10:28–33; 12:36, 12:41–42; 13:36–43; 13:47–50; 18:7–9; 19:16–21; 19:28–30; 22:23–33; 24:50–51; 25:31–46; Mark 8:38–9:2; 14:62; 12:18–27; Luke 10:13–15; 11:29–32; 12:4–7; 12:8–9; 13:27–30; 16:22–26; 18:30; 22:16, 18; 22:28–30). There does not seem to be any indication of two different future judgments; one final judgment would lead to the eternal separation of humanity into the saved and the unsaved.
Matching Expectations with Reality
Depending on your expectations, the above survey of Jesus’ teaching may have produced a few surprises. First, Jesus spends far more time on the near future events of the year 70 than most people recognize. Since these events are in the past from our perspective, they may not seem important, but they were vital from Jesus’ perspective and that of his followers. One problem is that people today often try to find clues about the distant future from the things Jesus said concerning events in the imminent future from his vantage point. To be sure, there is a typological connection in which the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem foreshadow the future judgment, but the two events remain distinct.
Second, Jesus is quite sparse in his description of distant future events. He endorses the prevailing understanding in first-century Judaism (with the above-mentioned exception of the Sadducees) in which there would be a final resurrection followed by a final judgment. His most novel contribution in this regard is the audacious claim that he himself was the Son of Man whose future coming would trigger these final events and the equally momentous claim that he, along with God the Father, would preside over the final judgment. These were startling claims indeed that furnished part of the reason why the Jewish religious leaders opposed and ultimately rejected him.
Third, depending on your expectations, several elements are absent from Jesus’ teaching about the future, such as the rebuilding of the Temple following the destruction of the year 70. Several New Testament writings contain references to God’s people as the temple for the indwelling Holy Spirit (See 1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21–22; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 3:6). Jesus also didn’t expound on the anti-Christ, the rapture, the seven-year tribulation, the millennium, or the restoration of the Jewish nation as a political entity. The absence of teaching on these end-time figures and events, of course, does not require the conclusion that Jesus didn’t know about these or denied their future reality. It suggests, however, that he chose to put the emphasis elsewhere.
Jesus depicted distant future events in a rather simple and straightforward manner: After a protracted period (the length of which was unknown), he would return visibly and physically in glory with his angels to inaugurate the future resurrection and participate with the Father in the final judgment, which would lead to final salvation in God’s kingdom for his people and punishment for the rest. While Paul and Revelation add significantly to our understanding of the end times, it is helpful to start our quest for grasping the biblical teaching on this vital yet complex subject with a close study of Jesus’ teachings. In this way, our fascination with distant future events will be balanced with the sobering reality of persecution and the need for a life of quiet faithfulness and constant alertness as the end draws near.
At the time of writing, Alexander Stewart was Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands. Together with Apollo Makara, we have written Jesus and the Future: Understanding What He Taught about the End Times (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2017; reissued by Lexham Press).
 This concluding section is largely taken from Andreas Köstenberger, Alexander E. Stewart, and Apollo Makara, Jesus and the Future: Understanding What He Taught about the End Times (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2017), 170–71.