In a previous article, I touched on N.T. Wright’s perspective concerning the return of Jesus. To make my point, I compared Wright’s perspective concerning many of the most prominent passages that speak of the return of Jesus to the Islamic perspective concerning the return of Jesus. In the case of Islamic apocalyptic narrative, Jesus returns to abolish Christianity and kill Jews. In Wright’s interpretation concerning “the coming of the son of man,” Jesus “comes” to destroy Jerusalem and essentially dissolve national Israel. Not surprisingly, this stirred up a small hornet’s nest of young N.T. Wright fan boys who took great umbrage with my comments.
I’d like to expand upon why Wright’s perspective concerning the various passages that speak of the return of Jesus are so fundamentally misapplied, quite wrongly to 70 A.D. rather than to the future, where they belong, and why this is such a gross perversion of biblical hope (Acts 26:6,7; Titus 2:13).
In the following statement found in his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright states the following, “The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return.”
Wright then continues:
I have argued this position at length and in detail in my various books about Jesus and don’t have space to substantiate it here. Let me just say two things, quite baldly. First, when Jesus speaks of “the son of man coming on the clouds,” he is talking not about the second coming but, in line with the Daniel 7 text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering. The “coming” is an upward, not a downward, movement.
So Wright begins with the initial passage that speaks of “the son of man coming on the clouds” in Daniel 7 and claims that this has nothing to do with His return, but is rather concerned with His vindication first in His resurrection and ascension, and then in the destruction of Jerusalem and judgment upon national Israel. Thus later, when Jesus says in His Olivet Discourse, “and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30), Wright claims that He was not literally speaking of His second coming, but was speaking spiritually concering the destruction of Jerusalem. Wright states, “[T]he texts that speak of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’ refer to a.d. 70”
What is the problem with Wright’s view here? First, we must acknowledge here that Wright, for all of his brilliance, is an infamously horrible exegete. Anyone who has read his “commentaries” will know that when a verse or passage does not align with his particular perspective, he simply skips over it as if it doesn’t exist. One absolutely cannot agree with Wright’s view here unless they are willing t do just that. For if we simply read the fuller context of Jesus’ sermon, as well as (just a few) of the various Old Testament references that Jesus is harkening to, we will see that He was absolutely clear in identifying the very specific timing of the “coming of the son of man on the clouds.” In just the verse prior to the one that Wright cites, Jesus says:
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)
Let us take note of the phrase, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days.” The son of man comes on the clouds, immediately after the tribulation. What tribulation? The tribulation that Jesus just mentioned of course only a few verses prior:
“For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will.” (Matthew 24:21)
Here we see that Jesus was clearly citing Daniel 12:1, where an angel says the following:
“Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:1-2)
Did you catch that? The angel quite clearly ties in this time of unparalleled tribulation with the physical resurrection of the dead. Throughout the passage is the phrase, “at that time,” “at that time.” The entire passage is speaking of the same general time period. According to Wright’s schema however, the tribulation spoken of here would be 70 A.D, whereas the resurrection of the dead would be at least 2000 years later. Yet the text allows for no such gap in time. It is all within the same general timeframe. This of course is carried on in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse.
Continuing on, what is so fascinating is that even as Jesus plays off the words of the angel, so also does the angel play off of the prophecy of Isaiah 26. In that passage, the people of Israel are lamenting the fact that despite their great tribulation and suffering, they could not bring about world redemption. Instead of accomplishing deliverance for the earth, they gave birth to wind. Some commentators suggest that the meaning is that after the great suffering of labor pains, Israel basically breaks wind. The prophets are frequently far more “earthy” than we might feel comfortable with in their prophetic poetry. The passage follows:
As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth, she writhes and cries out in her labor pains, thus were we before You, O LORD. We were pregnant, we writhed in labor, we gave birth, as it seems, only to wind. We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth, nor were inhabitants of the world born. (Isaiah 26:17-18)
No sooner however does Israel finish its lament, that the Lord responds with this wonderful reassurance:
Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. (Isaiah 26:19)
Compare the words of Isaiah with the words of the angel in Daniel:
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy.
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake these to everlasting life.
So what does this all have to do with Jesus’ sermon and the timing of the coming of the son of man? Once one recognizes the interplay among the prophets and their awareness of one another, a beautiful and a clear vision of our “Blessed Hope” emerges. When “the son of man comes on the clouds,” it takes place immediately after the great tribulation experienced by Israel, (specifically in Judah), but it also specifically coincides with the resurrection of the dead! Not only that, but it also coincides with “deliverance for the earth.” Needless to say, the resurrection of the dead did not happen in 70 A.D.
What other wonderful events coincide with the coming of the son of man? How many are aware that the coming of the son of man passages are fundamentally connected to the corporate repentance of all the tribes of Israel?
Many are familiar with the prophecy of Zechariah who spoke of, “the spirit of grace,” being poured out on “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” resulting in their weeping specifically concerning the one “they (and we all) have pierced”:
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (Zech. 12:10)
No doubt, this is precisely one of the passages that Paul the Apostle had in mind when he spoke of “all Israel being saved” when Christ returns (Romans 11:26).
And so it is that in the Book of Revelation, John the Apostle clearly connects the coming of the son of man with Zechariah 12 and the salvation of all the tribes of Israel:
BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen. (Rev. 1:7)
The point is that when the son of man comes on the clouds, instead of it being the end of the Jewish world as Wright claims, the spirit of repentance (and thus) grace is poured out on the Jewish people! The inhabitants of Jerusalem are both saved and delivered from their enemies! Beyond this, those who lie in the dust are awakened unto the resurrection! And as we have said, on top of it all, the earth experiences deliverance! This is the day that all of creation has longed for, that we all long for.
It is no wonder that Paul breaks out into jubilant rejoicing as he speaks of this day:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)
In conclusion then, N.T. Wright claims in several of his books that all of the various passages which speak of the coming of the son of man are in fact speaking of the destruction (without repentance) of national corporate Israel. The reason I so adamantly call this view a disgusting perversion is because it is so deeply contrary to the vision of hope, not only for ethnic national Israel, but for the whole world that is portrayed by the Biblical prophets, the Apostles and Jesus Himself. For this reason, and so much more, N.T. Wright, ironically the author of “Surprised by Hope” fundamentally perverts genuine biblical hope, taking passages that speak of the ultimate deliverance of Israel and the destruction of her enemies, and applies them one of Israel’s greatest catastrophes in history, as well as one of the greatest victories of the pagan Romans. He has completely turned these passages on their heads. To put this in context, Wright’s position is not at all unlike looking to the Holocaust as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies of deliverance and hope for the Jewish people. Thoughtful students of the Scriptures should shun such subversive, twisted and truly hurtful perspectives.