The end of the age
The ‘end of the age’ is not a remote prospect for Jesus. In effect, it is a reference to the Roman invasion of Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem, the ending of temple-based worship, the scattering of the Jews (Matt.13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20). The disciples’ question ‘when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?’ is prompted by Jesus’ prediction that the temple would soon be reduced to rubble (Mk.13:2-4). Jesus had earlier told the disciples that some of them would not ‘taste death’ before they saw the ‘Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:28) or that ‘the kingdom of God has come with power’ (Mk.9:1; cf. Lk.9:27).
The numerous parables of watchfulness have the same frame of reference. The coming of the master or bridegroom has to do with the judgment and salvation of Israel. The time of the coming is uncertain – not even Jesus knows how long they will have to wait (Mk.13:32), though he is certain that it will happen within a generation (Mk.13:30). Jesus has the same time frame in view when he instructs his followers to make disciples of all nations, assuring them that he will be with them ‘always, to the close of the age’ (Matt.28:19-20). His statement here that all authority has been given to him is also an allusion to Daniel 7:14.
The law of Moses remains operative for Jesus and for Jewish Christianity until ‘heaven and earth pass away’ and ‘all is accomplished’ (Matt.5:18; cf. Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; Matt.24:35). In the later chapters of Isaiah, however, the creation of new heavens and a new earth (Is.66:22) is made the symbol of a far-reaching restoration of Israel and renewal of the worship of God, following judgment on a rebellious people (65:2; cf. 66:24). Salvation will be extended to the Gentiles (51:4-6), and all flesh will come to worship before the Lord (66:23). It is this watershed in salvation-history that Jesus has in mind, not the disintegration of the time-space continuum.
From the perspective of the Gentile mission there is the same awareness that ‘the form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor.7:31), that ‘the night is far gone, the day is at hand’ (Rom.13:12). The theological problem of the delay of the parousia in the New Testament is really the historical and very urgent problem of the delay of judgment on the enemies of God’s people, which would bring an end to their suffering. The question is raised explicitly when the threat of persecution is most acute (cf. James 5:7-11; 2 Pet.3:1-10).