Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Mt 24.29-31

Mt 24.29-31 is often taken to speak of the end of the world. But that cannot really be true, because Jesus says that “all these things” will happen within a generation of when he spoke (Mt 24.34, see also 23.36). So either Jesus was talking about the end of the world and just got it wrong (Albert Schweitzer’s view), or Jesus was not there talking about the end of the world, at least in the sense of speaking about the end of the present physical earth.

But if Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the present physical world, what is he talking about? It seems to me that Matthew 24-25 speaks mainly to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So all that stuff happened a long time ago, within a generation of when Jesus spoke. And, to be sure, lots of items in the passage fit pretty nicely with that. Worried about the Great Tribulation (Mt 24.21)? Jesus says that it’s a tribulation that a person can avoid simply by fleeing to the mountains around Judea (Mt 24.16) and by keeping out of Jerusalem (Lk 21.21). (It’s still a great tribulation, however, in the destruction that it placed upon Jerusalem.) Think there’s a rapture? In Mt 24 it’s the ones who are “taken” who are judged, not those who remain. After all, the parallel is to those who are “taken” and judged in the flood (vv.37-41).

Mt 24.29-31 sounds pretty big – like the end of the world. So what can Jesus be talking about here?

Let me outline the sweep of the passage: Judgment comes upon Israel for rejecting her Lord and messiah. After judgment (or, perhaps, because of judgment), the demonic powers in the heavenlies are shaken so that they no longer have a strangle hold on Israel (v. 29). As a result, Israel now recognizes and receives Jesus as her ascended Lord (v. 30), and the Gospel goes forth with even more power to the Gentiles, gathering people from all over the world into the Church.

As for the specific argument, let me start with a little brush clearing, then turn to the actual passage.

First, note that none of the stuff that Jesus talks about in these verses is any bigger than what Peter said happened on Pentecost (Acts 2.16, 19-20). I accept vv. 19-20 actually happened on Pentecost, at least I’m willing to hypothesize it (Acts 2.16) to test the implications of the view, so I don’t have any trouble hypothesizing that like events could be predicted in Mt 24 without it also being the end of the world there. And, in point of fact, the OT prophets regularly described “political” and imperial changes in these sorts of terms (Is 13.1, 10, Is 34.3-4, Jer 4.1, 11-12, 19- 28, Ez 32.2,7-8. These picture gathering judgment – against Babylon, Edom, OT Israel, Egypt).

Secondly, I might add that I do not believe that these prophetic passages are “merely” poetic. Rather, for these prophets, visible political events result from invisible spiritual forces. Ezekiel easily moves from talking about the prince of Tyre to seeming to speak about Satan (Ez 28.1-19, esp. vv. 13-16). So, too, Rome and Israel’s political leadership are not the ultimate problem in the Gospels. The big fight on Jesus’ hands are against demonic forces first and foremost. Paul suggests that these forces ultimately guide the political leadership to put Jesus to death (1 Co 2.6,8, see also Lk 4.13).

So the events in Mt 24.29-31 are not unprecedented. But what do they mean? I haven’t an exhaustive collection of commentary on the passage, but the commentators who also understand these events as already occurring, nonetheless don’t seem to me to get the argument quite right. While some commentators recognize the description of the ascension in v. 30 (see Dn 7.13, Mt 26.64, Acts 2.34), the ones that I’ve read nonetheless argue that the “coming” (erchomai) of the son of man in v.30 is Jesus coming in judgment upon Jerusalem.

But there’s a real problem with thinking that the coming of Jesus in v. 30 is Jesus coming in judgment: The obvious problem with that view is that Jesus distinctly states that the events he describes in vv. 29-31 come “after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29, Mk 13.24). So he’s coming, as it were, a day late if he’s talking about his coming in judgment on Jerusalem.

Instead, I would argue that the events described in this passage are all very “positive” things: Jesus is describing the “shaking” of demonic power in the heavenlies as a result of the completion of Christ’s judgment on Jerusalem, widespread conversion on the part of Jews to the view that Jesus is in fact their Messiah, and the world-wide spread of the Gospel, resulting from the efforts of an Israel now reconstituted around Christ (as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem) and fulfilling her mission to bring blessing to the Gentiles.

First, consider the broader setting of the discourse. Mt 24 develops from a sustained discourse that began in Mt 21.23 (which in turn seems to be prompted by Jesus’ disruptive actions in the temple, Mt 21.12-17). From that point onward, through the remainder of chapter 12, through chapters 22 and 23, Jesus responds to and indicts the Jewish leadership. This culminates in Mt 23 as Jesus argues that, not only are the scribes and Pharisees not helping fulfill the mission conferred on Israel, they have become a barrier to its fulfillment (Mt 23.13, 15, 34).

Now let’s consider each verse in turn.

v. 29

First, I take the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars to indicate the shaking of “the powers of heaven.” I take these references to be a Hebraic way of speaking of an “earth-shattering” event in which something very significant changes. In this case, it is the “shaking” of heavenly powers. Paul speaks of demonic powers in the heavenlies in Eph 6.10-13, so I take Jesus’ remark here to mean that demonic powers that have blinded the eyes of Jews (and Gentiles) are shaken, allowing a greater spread of the Gospel (see also, Lk 10.18, Heb 12.25-29).

v. 30

As a result of the shaking of the powers in heaven, and the tribulation, “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven will appear” (which is a better translation). All this means is that in these events – the tribulation upon Jerusalem and what that means spiritually – Israel will understand – they will “see” – that they crucified their Lord and messiah. They will mourn and recognize that Jesus is the ascended messiah, and receive him as such (Mt 26.64, Acts 2.33-37).

A person might object that the Jews did not convert en masse after the destruction of Jerusalem. But I suspect that we believe this only because we know that there were non-Christian Jews throughout the ages. But what actually happened around the time of the early church? After all, the possibility that lots of Jews did convert to Christianity early on is entirely consistent with the possibility that some Jews did not convert.

Consider, first, a claim made by Richard John Neuhaus in the February 2005 issue of “First Things” (Please note that I am completely dependent on the accuracy of the sources he cites):

“Scholars generally agree that in the first century there were approximately six million Jews in the Roman Empire . . . That was about one tenth of the entire population. About one million were in Palestine, including today’s State of Israel, while those in the diaspora were very much part of the establishment in cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. . . . Some scholars have noted that, by the fourth or fifth century, there were only a few hundred thousand, at most a million, people who identified themselves as Jews. What happened to the millions of others? The most likely answer, it is suggested, is that they became Christians.”

This would certainly be consistent with the typical pattern in the OT: Israel sins and is judged by God. The judgment results in Israel’s mourning her sin, and repenting of that sin. In response, God forgives her. Jesus seems to anticipate the same sequence her. God disciplines Israel in the Tribulation, in response, she recognizes her sin and repents.

Commentators often take Ro 11 to indicate that there is a (still) future conversion of Jews expected. But note the “nows” in Ro 11.30-31: Gentiles have “now” been shown mercy because Israel is “now” disobedient, but because Gentiles are “now” shown mercy, Israel will also “now” be shown mercy. So Paul seems to anticipate that mercy will be shown to Israel proximately. That is consistent with the typical OT pattern as well as with the evidence that Neuhaus identifies.

So it appears possible that Israel by and large did see Jesus as the ascended messiah, and received him as such.

v. 31

As Paul writes, “to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Ro 1.16). In verse 31 Jesus describes the great, continuing work of gathering his church. Angels are God’s messengers, whether spiritual or human. The trumpet announces God’s presence and work (Ex 19.16-17, Is 27.12-13). God gathers his elect from the whole world (Zech 2, Rev 21.2-3, 22.5, Heb 12.22-23). The picture here could be taken as a sort of de-Babelization as God regathers that which he dispersed (Gn 11.8).

After v. 31, Jesus then moves to talk about the proximity of the event, and the need to be prepared. But these verses in themselves are the good news about the coming judgment: Israel repents, and in her repentance she blesses the nations (which is her Abrahamic calling, after all).
As a final note, just to be clear, let me note that I believe in the bodily resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous in a judgment at the end of this age (Rev 20.11-15 (Rev 21-22). Acts 24.14-15, Dn 12.2, Is 26.19, Jn 5.24-29, Jn 11.24, 2 Co 4.14, 5.10, 1 Co 15.12-58 (esp. vv. 12, 25-26, 35, 42-44, 51-57 w/ Rev 20.14), Ro 8.18-25). It’s just that I don’t think that Jesus is at all talking about that event in Mt 24-25.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


I've been busy, busy, busy. I'll try to post a comment on Mt 24.29-31 within a few days. It's been half written for a week, but I haven't had time to finish it.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane

It seems as though Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane are often (usually?) taken to be prayers that illustrate Jesus' human weakness: he doesn't want to undergo the trial of the cross, so he asks God the father to remove the cup of judgment.

If I'm correct in how I understand the usual interpretation, then it seems to me that the view has several problems. First, it requires that Jesus ask something contrary to the Father's will (because, in this reading, God the Father says "no" to Jesus request to be spared the cross). But that's a problem, because Jesus claims that "I always do the things that are pleasing to him [the Father]" (Jn 8.29, see also 14.10, 14.24, 8.28 & etc.).

Secondly, when Peter wishes mercy on Jesus after Jesus tells the disciples of his forthcoming death in Jerusalem (Mt 16.22 Gk), Jesus rebukes Petersaying, "Get behind me, Satan!" (v.23) But on the usual reading of Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane, Jesus is asking the Father exactly for the mercy that Peter had wished for Jesus -- to be spared the cross -- and for which Peter earned the stinging rebuke from Jesus.

Third, and relatedly, Heb 12.2 suggests that going to the cross was a settled expectation on Jesus' part. That's why he came, after all.

Now, to be sure, it's not a far stretch to imagine that Jesus is asking the Father, if possible, to accomplish redemption some other way than in killing and cursing him. (I can easily me imagine weeping and asking God to spare me from that trial if I were in Jesus' place.) I suspect it's the ease of imagining that which makes the usual view (if it is the usual view) so, well, usual. Still, for the reasons above, I'm not entirely satisfied with it.

But here's an alternative hypothesis to the usual reading of Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane: When he prays "My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will," (Mt 26.39) Jesus is not praying to be spared the cross, but is praying for resurrection -- i.e., that the cup pass away; that he not drink of God's wrath forever. (But even then Jesus leaves it to the Father's will, "yet not as I will, but as you will" (id.). Jesus is willing to suffer eternal judgment to save the lost, if it is the Father's will (compare Ro 9.3).

This hypothesis is strengthened by the way Jesus phrases his second prayer, "My father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, your will be done" (Mt 26.42). Note here, the "pass away" cannot at all refer to the cup being taken away without Jesus drinking of the cup at all. Jesus specifically stipulates that the "passing away" would occur only after he drinks it. Well, since Jesus cannot both drink of the cup and not drink the of the cup, then the "passing away" in v. 39 can quite conceivably be a request for the same thing -- that the cup of judgment "pass away" only after Jesus drinks of it.

If this hypothesis is correct, then God the Father answers Jesus prayer in v. 39 in the affirmative: Yes, Son, the cup of judgment will pass after you drink it; I will resurrect you from the dead; you will not be left under judgment eternally.

But if that is the case, then what is Jesus requesting in his second (and third) prayer? It is a confession rather than a petition: "My father, since this [cup] cannot pass away unless I drink it, your will be done" (v. 42).

The prayer doesn't make sense, however, if its content is the same as that of the first prayer: "If I cannot be resurrected unless I drink the cup of judgment, then your will be done." Well, of course Jesus cannot be brought to life again if he does not die in the first place."

Rather, it might be argued that Jesus is referring to the cup of judgment in general: "Father, since this [cup of judgment] cannot pass away [from humanity] unless I drink it, your will be done." This, then, is a prayer of mission and confidence.

In this reading, Jesus is not praying in Gethsemane to escape the cross, he instead asks for resurrection after the cross -- for salvation from the judgment of the cross -- and expresses his willingness to undergo the trial set before him, even if the Father does not save him from eternal judgment.