Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25, Part III: Picking up Gibbs on Mt 24

In Mt 24.1-3, after all the events and discussion of Mt 21 through Mt 23, disrupting the temple work and not-so-implicitly predicting its destruction within a generation. Jesus becomes painfully literal in response to his disciples. The physical temple itself will be destroyed (v. 2).

Matthew tells us that in response to Jesus’ statement, “the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24.3)

Gibbs argues that there are two different questions being asked here. The first is “when will the temple be destroyed.” (“When will these things happen.”) The second is “what will be the sign of your coming at the final judgment.” (“The sign of your coming, and of the end of the age.”)

This second question is, arguably, unasked in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke. In Mark: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled” (Mk 13.4). And Luke: “Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Lk 21.7).

So Gibbs (and Kik), not implausibly, argue that Jesus answers two questions in Mt 24-25 – one regarding the destruction of the temple, and one regarding the final judgment – while the other two synoptic Gospels report only the asking and answering of one question, regarding the destruction of the temple. This, the argument goes, accounts for why Jesus’ discourse in Matthew goes far longer than the parallel discourses recorded in Mark and Luke. This, too, would then account for why most of the material from Mt 24.36 through Mt 25.46 is not recorded in Mark and Luke: That passage answers the second question the disciples ask in Matthew, a question that is not asked and, therefore, is not answered in Mark and Luke.

For Gibbs and Kik, the point at which Jesus moves from answering the first question to answering the second question is at 24.36.

Before we discuss why, I should underscore a central reason why Gibbs, contrary to most evangelical opinion in the U.S. (at least in the pew and in the popular pulpit; I don’t know whether this is also true about the professoriate at evangelical seminaries), wants to argue that the first thirty-five verses in Matthew 24 relate to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. rather than to Jesus’ final judgment.

We saw above that in Mt 23.36, Jesus specifically states that the judgment he’s predicting will come upon “this generation.” So, too, in Mt 24.34, Jesus reiterates, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

Gibbs takes Jesus at his word at these points. As a result, he concludes, most reasonably to my mind, that the events up through 24.34 (including 35, which adds the “this is most certainly true” exclamation mark to v. 34) had to occur within roughly 40 years of the time that Jesus said them. Placing Jesus’ death in the early 30’s A.D., allows Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. just to make it within the typically understood forty-year period of a biblical generation. (I should underscore that I don’t think that God was pushing it here – rather, it is a last bit of evidence regarding just how patient God was toward Jerusalem that he waited almost the full generation before judging her.)

There is, of course, some initial puzzles for the modern reader with this view, particularly regarding the apocalyptic-seeming language in 24.29-30. I’ve discussed some of that here. Gibbs does a good job of discussing that passage (although I might give a tweak here or there as I detail below). In any event, I don’t think the language here is really a problem. Along with others, N.T. Wright is at his comprehensive best in discussing the use of these prophetic categories, particularly in light of their extensive use in the Old Testament. (There, too, they are not taken as signs of the end of the physical creation, but rather are vivid descriptions of what modern Americans would call "earth-shattering" events.)

Further, this is why it’s important to see that Mt 21-Mt 25 is a single, united discourse. From the get go in Mt 21, the focus of Jesus attention as the Davidic king – the one who builds and reforms the temple – is the temple itself as it is intimately intertwined with all of official Israel. It really pushes credulity to think that the disciples ask Jesus, “So when will the temple be destroyed,” and, Jesus, ignoring their question and the actual, coming destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., instead launches into a discussion of the final judgment in verse 4 of Matthew 24.

Given this, though, why does Gibbs thinks that Jesus shifts from discussing the destruction of Jerusalem to discussing the final judgment starting in 24.36?

First, he argues that Matthew records the disciples asking two basic questions, rather than the one essential question reported in the other synoptic gospels. So Jesus has to take up the second question at some point. If not at verse 36 then where?

The affirmative evidence for the “pivot” in verse 36 is that the language and tone shift in verse 36.

On the one hand, the Christian who listens to Jesus will know the time of the temple’s destruction in his pre-verse 36 discourse. “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that it is near, right at the door” (24.32-33).

Jesus is warning the disciples precisely so that they can avoid being surprised by the events. They will escape the judgment by fleeing from Judea into the mountains; they will know better than to try to clear out their houses or to try to retrieve their cloaks (vv. 15-18).

Jesus tells the disciples these things specifically so that they “know” (v. 33 Gk) when “it is near, at the door.”

In contrast, for the event discussed in v. 36ff, “But of that day and hour no one knows” (v. 36), “be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (v. 42), “the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think he will” (v. 44).

This theme continues through the remainder of the passage. “the master of that slaved will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know” (v. 50). “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (25.13).

So, too, the period before Jerusalem’s fall seems to be a period of frenetic activity for the disciples. Tribulation and persecution (24.9), apostasy (vv. 10, 12), false prophets (v. 11), and the preaching of the gospel. There is hardly enough time to squeeze all of these events into one generation before judgment comes to Jerusalem

In contrast, the coming in v. 36 and after comes without warning after a long, sleepy “delay” (25.5). The master returns only “after a long time” (v. 19). The picture here is one of quiet normalcy suddenly brought to an end, not one of frenetic activity, tribulation, and persecution before the end.

Further, the described outcomes are results of the final judgment. The door is shut for “the wedding feast” (25.10, cf., Rev 19.9). The slave who was unprepared is thrown into “the outer darkness; in that place [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Finally, there’s Mt 25.31-46 in which “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,” sitting on “his glorious throne,” and separating the gathered nations before him in eschatological judgment (vv. 32-33, 34, 41, 46).

What could be clearer? If 25.35-46 relates to the final judgment, and we move backwards up through chapter 25 and then through chapter 24, where else but Mt 24.36 could Jesus have taken up the second question? There is no similarly obvious dividing point between 24.36 and the end of chapter 25.

So that’s the basic argument. And, actually, I do not at all think that it’s a poor argument. Even sitting here typing it, I felt the pull of its attraction. So I don’t think that there’s anything at all terrible in endorsing it.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with it that incline me more to Wright’s view, that the whole discourse is about Jerusalem and the temple. I’ll turn to that argument in the next post.


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