In Mark 13, Jesus prophesied that a lot was going to happen after He left the earth. He claimed that people would pretend to be Him; that there would be rumors of war and actual wars in which kingdoms and even families would rise up to fight each other; that there would be earthquakes and famines and political persecution against Christians—even martyrdom; that the sun and moon and stars would fail and that spiritual powers would be shaken.
Now these are difficult prophetic words for anyone to take in; yet none of these predictions were what bothered a Christian friend of mine. What did bother them, however, was Jesus’ prediction of the timing of His return: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:30-31).
Now that is a tough word indeed. So tough that C.S. Lewis called it, “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” (Lewis, C.S. “The World’s Last Night.” The Essential C.S. Lewis. Edited by Lyle W. Dorsett. New York, Scribner, 2017, p. 385). What should we make of it? After all, if we take it literally then we are forced to ask the question, “Was Jesus wrong?” And if Jesus was wrong, does that make Him a false prophet? And if He was a false prophet then isn’t Christianity wrong?
We have to admit, the Bible gives our opponents some ammunition right here; for how can God-in-flesh be wrong about His return date? How can Jesus be wrong about the coming kingdom, which was His favorite theme to talk about? The hard word to take in is that Jesus said He’d be back about two thousand years ago.
People interject all kinds of theories to make Jesus’ word appear more valid. Some claim that a scribe put this prophetic word in Jesus’ mouth when he was copying the gospel. Others create a sort of supernatural math as to how long a generation is from a supernatural perspective. Still others subscribe to the strange idea that Jesus already came back in 70 AD. The theories go on and on.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard not to agree with Lewis: This prophetic word seems a bit embarrassing. But in the end there’s really no need to jump to such a radical statement. In fact, all we really need to do to be at peace with Jesus’ prophetic word is to understand the genre of prophecy more fully, which is what we’ll focus on over the next few days in this series. For as it ends up, from a Biblical perspective, prophecy is a bit more flexible and fluctuating than we often think.