Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25 Part I A Brief Summary of Different Views

I’ve read Jeffrey Gibbs’ book, Jerusalem and Parousia: Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse in Matthew’s Gospel (Concordia Academic Press, 2000). I’ve also been re-reading N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. They do not agree in all particulars (which I’ll describe below), yet I can’t help but give them both three cheers for not futurizing the entirety of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24-25. I feel a lot less lonely after seeing their arguments in print. (Gibbs' book is a particular encouragement, since he is a professor at Concordia Seminary - St. Louis.)

I plan to post about the text in Matthew 24-25, and interact with Gibbs’ argument in particular, in my next post. Here I post a sketch of what I understand to be the major modern approaches to Matthew 24-25. (Let me underscore the "I understand" in that sentence -- I do not claim to have a broad, or representative, understanding of all current approaches to the passage. The list below represents only my idiosyncratic theological exposure.)

[1] Mt 24-25 as a failed prophecy.

Albert Schweitzer held that these chapters predict the final judgment/end of the world within one generation of the time of the discourse. Since the end of the world/final judgment did not occur within a generation, it is a failed prophecy. (I do not of course agree with this view, but I think every orthodox reader of Mt 24-25 has to feel the weight of the argument: Jesus said that events of which he spoke would occur within a generation of when he spoke. So how can what he said be true if he's talking about the final judgment? And if he's not talking about the final judgment, then what is it that he is talking about?)

I should also probably add at this point that I fully and unequivocally believe in the future resurrection of the body and in the final judgment. I just don't think that the final judgment is what Jesus is focusing on in much of this passage. (In the next post, in interacting mainly with Gibbs' views, I'll pick up on the question of just how much of Mt 24-25 relates to the final judgment.)

[2] Mt 24-25 as a prophecy that predicts events that have not yet occurred.

This is, of course, the pop/evangelical view. It holds that these chapters predict the final judgment/end of the world within one generation of a yet future point in time. (One permutation on the riff is that the generational clock may have already started ticking sometime within the last generation. So the events the chapters foretell may be about ready to happen.)

[3] Mt 24-25 as partially fulfilled, partially to be fulfilled in the future.

This is Gibbs’ argument who, following Marcellus Kik (whom he cites) argues that there is a shift or, as Gibbs puts it, a “pivot” in chapter 24 (verse 36 in particular). For Gibbs, Mt 24.3-35 predicts judgment on Jerusalem within one generation of the point in time of Jesus’ discourse. But Mt 24.36-25.46 discusses the final judgment/end of the world.

[4] Mt 24-25 as entirely fulfilled.

This is N. T. Wright’s view in JVG. He argues that the entire passage relates to the destruction of Jerusalem. To be sure, he focuses mainly on a parallel discussion in Mark. So it may be unfair to impute too much to him on Mt 25.31-46.

[5] Mt 24-25 as entirely fulfilled save for the on-going in-gathering.

I guess this is pretty much the view that I’ll argue for. I take the events in the chapters to be fulfilled in their entirety, and for the in-gathering in Mt 24.31 and Mt 25.32 to have begun at that time. This ingathering, however, continues past the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. This is the only thing in these chapters that continues on into the future, up to the present day and beyond.

Let me hasten to add that I’m pretty open to Gibbs’ view, which holds quite a bit in common with Wright’s and what I’ll argue for, not least in not futurizing the whole of the chapters. I wouldn’t have to give up a lot to embrace Gibbs’ view and, indeed, I pretty much held it for some time.

My argument against it isn’t that Gibbs’ view is obviously inconsistent with the text, but that the view that I’ll argue for, which shares a lot with Wright’s view (although I came to it years before reading Wright), seems better to fit the data.

As I mentioned, Wright mainly focuses on Mark 13 (as, apparently, do most scholars). This is the opening that Gibbs takes to argue that there is, as it were, a question asked and answered in Matthew that is not asked (and therefore is not answered) in the other two synoptic Gospels.

I’ll write about that in the next post. Right now I just want to note that, even though Wright does not devote a lot of attention specifically to Matthew 24, he does argue that all of the questions in Matthew regard the same event:

“Matthew 24.3, therefore, is most naturally read, in its first-century Jewish context, not as a question about (what scholars have come to call, in technical language) the ‘parousia’, but as a question about Jesus ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ in the sense of his actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city. The king, as David had become king, in the city that was at present still rejecting him. They were longing for their own version of the great event for which all Israel had been on tiptoe. Matthew is not, in other words, out on a limb from Mark and Luke at this point. The question at the start of all three versions, seen from within the story the disciples have in their minds, must be read to mean: When will you come in your kingdom? When will the evil age, symbolized by the present Jerusalem regime, be over?” (JVG, p. 346, emphasis added, citations omitted).

As I see it, the challenge to Wright’s view from Gibbs’ viewpoint stems precisely from the seamlessness of the discourse. Once we push past Mt 24.34, there is no obvious stopping point until you’ve glided all the way over to Mt 25.31-46. But Mt 25.31-46 seem obviously to be about Jesus coming in final judgment. So if we do not stop "presentizing" the text at Mt 24.34, then where is the shift from the present to the final judgment by the time we reach Mt 25.31? Or is there another possibility?

I’ll pick up the last thought when I interact with Gibbs’ argument in my next post. (Actually, it's taking me longer to respond to Gibbs' view. I expect to interact with it in Part IV.)


Blogger gyoung said...

Gibbs has nothing on you. I remember you making this argument circa 1993.

Looking forward to the next post.

Gary in Lincoln

February 20, 2008 7:26 PM  
Blogger gyoung said...


What is your view of Rev 20.7-10? Some suggest this is an Amill proof text.

Gary in Lincoln

February 20, 2008 7:31 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hey Gary! Great to hear from you.

It's been a long time since I spent much time on Rev 20. I'll try to post on it after posting on Gibbs' book.

Now that I think of it, the way that I've always "seen" the scene in my mind is like the final battle scene at the Gates of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. The faithful are encircled, it "looks" like doom for them, but in reality it's doom for those attacking them. (Not of course that I believe that unbelievers will litearlly gather in a circle around all the believers.)

The thing is, though, if you knew that Frodo was going to succeed in throwing the ring into the fire, just how much of a threat -- a real threat -- would the encircling foes represent to you?

Or would it be, "Yeah, you think you're coming in for the kill, but you don't know that you're securing your own doom."

So I've never been entirely convinced that, objectively speaking, Christians should or would regard the events of Rev 20.7-10 as like a huge reversal of fortunes for the church when that actually happens.

A lot depends on whether Christians at that time are self-conscious about whether it's the Rev 20.7-10 time period. If they are, then it's not much of a threat (you know Frodo is about to throw the ring into the fire, so you don't care about the forces arrayed against you).

But if you don't know that it's the time, then you might think the church is about to be decimated.

But that's all subjective perception. Objectively, there is no substantial threat to God's city, even after Satan is released.

More generally, the church age (the "millenium") comes to an end when God has in-gathered the fullness of the church. At that point, Satan is released, deceives the remaining unbelievers into attacking the church, which triggers his and their definitive end.

Of interest -- note the Elijih imagery in the fire coming out of heaven to devour the nations arrayed against God's city in v.10.

Something to chew on as well, is the anti-Abrahamic enumeration of the nations, in that the number of the deceived among the nations are as the "sand of the seashore."

February 21, 2008 8:01 AM  

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