Monday, February 25, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25 Part IV. A Few Quibbles with Gibbs’ argument

I think Gibbs presents a good argument regarding how to read Matthew 24 & 25. So this post should not be taken in the spirit of "how wrong he is." I think the most important move is the one that Gibbs takes – that Matthew 24 is not all about the final judgment. It is, first, a continuation of Jesus’ discussion of the temple in relation to his, and Israel’s, vocation.

Nonetheless, there are several aspects of the text that seem to me to tip against Gibbs’ (and Kik’s) argument that Jesus shifts at verse 36 from discussing the destruction of Jerusalem within one generation to discussing the final judgment. As a result, I’m inclined to read both chapters 24 & 25 as talking about events that start within that generation. (Although as I discuss below, I take the ingathering Jesus speaks of in v. 31 to start at that time, but to extend beyond the destruction of the temple.)

I’ll argue four points: [1] The burden of proof, as it were, lies on the case for reading the “pivot” in Mt 24. The reader does not expect a dramatic break in Jesus discourse. So, unless there is clear evidence otherwise, context and naturalness invite reading all of Matthew 24 & 25 as speaking of one event.

[2] Parallel passages in the other synoptic Gospels suggest that language that Gibbs takes as referring to the “final judgment” actually applies to 70 A.D.

[3] Jesus says in Matthew that his “coming” in judgment on the temple will be unexpected. So the post-v. 36 “surprise” language cannot be taken to refer only to the final judgment.

[4] The “ingathering” referred to in Mt 25.31 refers to the same “ingathering” that Jesus mentions in Mt 24.31. The subsequent verses in Mt 25.31-46, refer to what the respectively “gathered” people do. This explains what Christians are to be doing while they wait for 70 A.D.

Let’s take each of these arguments in turn.

[1] Naturalness and context. I don’t want to make too much of this relative to the other arguments, because, in a sense, it depends on the other arguments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is natural to read a single discourse as though it relates to the same subject. To be sure, this sort of “presumption” is only that, a presumption. Nonetheless, I would argue that the burden of proof is on Gibbs and Kik, given that they argue that there is a sudden shift in Jesus’ discourse from talking about an event that will occur a few decades in the future to talking about something that will occur thousands of years in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, the temple discourse consumes a huge part of the Gospel of Matthew. It begins in Mt 21 and continues through Mt 25. It begins in Mt 21 with a pointed “cleansing” of the temple, and Jesus invoking Jeremiah 7 to teach that the temple is now a faux-sanctuary for an apostate Israel. The leaders of Israel then appear one after another as Jesus interacts with them in the temple, and as he confounds each of them. Jesus concludes this part of his discourse in Mt 23 as he began it – by predicting destruction for the temple, and for Israel more generally.

In response to all of this, official Israel gathers to put Jesus to death in Mt 26 (vv. 3-5). So Mt 21-25 explains to us why official Israel wants to put Jesus to death. And it’s not because Jesus taught that there would be a final judgment. It’s because, like the prophets before him, he taught that the destruction of the temple was God’s will for an apostate Israel.

So it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to understand that what Jesus has in view from the beginning of Mt 21 through the end of Mt 25 is 70 A.D. This is Jesus’ final plea and warning to official Israel.

In this sense, it doesn’t seem to me to be natural for Jesus to change the subject suddenly in v. 36 and inject a lengthy discussion of the final judgment that will occur thousands of years later. This is a topic that is not in dispute in relation to the temple discourse, which is the culminating focus of the Gospel starting in Matthew 21.

To be sure, Gibbs argues that the questions in Mt 24.3 provide that evidence for the pivot, “what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” But this is an assumption. There is no reason to read this as anything other than “when are you coming in judgment on Jerusalem, and when will the temple age end?”

I think there is little reason to resist allowing the “end of the age” language to apply to the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and Israel. Since Abraham’s time, the land of Israel was the locus of Israel’s hope. Since the time of Moses and the tabernacle, and Solomon and the Temple, these were the locus of God’s presence in Israel, the evidence that God dwelled with them. This was Israel’s hope, indeed, the world’s hope as well. Their fulfillment and intensification in Christ are redemptive events of the very first magnitude.

Hence, Luke writes of the destruction of the temple as “your redemption drawing near”; as the very “kingdom of God” being “near” (vv. 28, 31). This, along with Jesus’ resurrection and the Pentecost, is evidence that Jesus is the long-awaited Davidic king; that Jesus is the ascended king at God’s right hand. This is the turn in Israel’s history, and the world’s. Jesus’ discourse in and actions toward the temple after entering Jerusalem is the culmination of his earthly ministry to Israel. This is the provocation that impels his crucifixion.

So I don’t think there’s anything that a reader needs to apologize for if he resists the claim that the “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” necessarily refers to the final judgment and cannot refer to what Jesus has been talking about and enacting for the last three chapters. If all we had is the Old Testament, what Jesus is telling us is God’s will in Mt 21-23 is absolutely earth-shattering.

[2] The parallel passages in Mark and Luke do not include the disciples’ “second” question in Matthew (the one ostensibly about the final judgment), nonetheless they in fact record answers to the “second” question in Matthew. This suggests that the disciples do not really ask two separate questions, but only one.

Let’s start with Mark. He records the disciples’ questions as “when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” (Mk 13.4). So there is no express “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” question in Mark. Their question responds to Jesus prediction of the temple’s destruction (13.2).

Despite the absence of an purported “final-judgment” question for Jesus in Mark, nonetheless, Mark reports similar language to what we find in Matthew, all now applied in the context of 70 A.D.:

“Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that it is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heave, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. Therefore, be on the alert – for you do not know when the mater of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning – in case he should come suddenly and fin you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’” (Mk 13.29-37).

Luke even more clearly pulls together the “come suddenly” language with the events of 70 A.D.

In 21.36, Luke records Jesus saying, “keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

But sandwiched in between “this generation” in Lk 21.32 and “these things that are about to take place” in Lk 21.36 is an admonition regarding the “suddenness” of the coming judgment on Israel:

“Be on guard, that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth [land]” (vv. 34-35).

This fits easily with the Jesus’ “be ready” warnings in Matthew. In Matthew, the evil slave “eats and drinks with drunkards” (Mt 24.49). The foolish virgins became drowsy rather than remained “alert.”

So I find reasonable what Gibbs rejects as unreasonable – that Jesus is saying that the time is near, meaning that the judgment on Jerusalem expected within the next generation – but that its actual arrival will come suddenly.

Think about it. If I were to tell you that a catastrophic event were to occur sometime within the next forty years, years and decades could go by where nothing happens. It is entirely reasonable to think that ordinary people might get used to nothing happening, might grow “drowsy” and think that there’s a “delay,” and would not be prepared for the catastrophe when it finally came. I see very little tension between Jesus’ comments that the time is “near,” and his warnings against growing drowsy when it seems to “delay.” So, too, I see little tension in saying that the day is near, but also saying that the exact day and hour of the event is unknown.

(A secular example: Winston Churchill wrote of the "gathering storm" of WWII. He thought that war would break out sometime within a ten-year window. Nonetheless, the precise beginning of the war, Germany's invasion of Poland, occurred quickly and unexpectedly. There is no inconsistency between expecting a catastrophic event and yet being surprised at the speed and unexpectedness of its start.)

[3] Matthew writes of the “coming” of Jesus in judgment on the temple as being quick and unanticipated. So the post-v. 36 language of a sudden return after a delay does not betoken a change or pivot in Jesus’ discourse.

In Mt 24.27, Jesus says, “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.”

This verse comes in the middle of Jesus’ discussion of the temple’s destruction. I take the image Jesus uses here to suggest that his coming in judgment will be unanticipated and fast, just like lightning. Despite its location in the discourse (pre-v. 36), Gibbs says that this verse is talking about the final judgment. Gibbs apparently takes the Greek word, parousia, as a technical term for the final judgment. Although the word means “presence,” as is used in and out of the Bible to refer to someone’s “presence” without referring to judgment, let alone a final, definitive judgment.

So in Matthew itself, as well as in the similar passages in the other synoptics, Jesus warns his disciples to pay attention and not be fooled into normalcy by the length of time it takes before the judgment on the temple. When the day arrives, Jesus says he will come with lightning speed.

So I do not think that we can read the post-Mt 24.36 parables dealing with drowsiness and delay as though they cannot apply to the coming judgment on the temple. But the ostensible temporal shift in the language is the strongest argument for the pivot approach to Mt 24 & 25.

While I would not rule out that approach as entirely unreasonable, I would have to say that the evidence is not sufficient to endorse it when the chapters’ language is entirely consistent with understanding Jesus merely to continue his discussion of the coming judgment of the temple.

[4] For me, the stronger argument in favor of the “pivot” theory of Mt 24-25 is what to do with Mt 25.31-46. Here, clearly, are elements dealing with the final judgment – some people inherit the kingdom (25.34) while others are sent away (25.41).

So a couple of observations.

First, while I wouldn’t absolutely insist on it, I think that the coming of the Son of Man in glory with his angels, his enthronement, and the gathering of the nations before him, echoes Mt 24.30-31.

The reference to the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is, I think, a clear reference to Jesus’ ascension and enthronement (Mt 26.64, Acts 2.34-35, Dan 7.13). To be sure, Jesus ascends and is enthroned soon after his resurrection. But v. 64 does not say that Jesus ascends at that point, it says that Israel (the “tribes of the land”) will see the ascended Jesus after the tribulation. I take this to mean that they will accept Jesus as their ascended Lord as a result of their experience. This follows the pattern of judgment in the OT. God judges Israel, they repent and return. So, here: God judges Israel for her faithlessness, Israel repents and returns to God. (I unpack this argument a little more here.)

So v. 31 is the world-wide evangelism that occurs after 70 A.D. (Recall the passages in Luke about redemption and the kingdom coming with Jerusalem’s destruction.) Christians are gathered into the church. This is one point in these chapters that does have an open-ended time period. The gathering of the elect continues on throughout history, up to the present day.

Now let’s return to Mt 25.31-46. Here we have the ascended/enthroned Jesus coming with his angels, gathering the nations before him, and separating them into sheep and goats. This does not strike me as necessarily something other than what we see in Mt 24.30-31. So this has reference to what occurs around 70 A.D.

The “separation” isn’t the separation of the Day of Judgment, but is the separation that occurs in history as the Gospel spreads throughout the earth. Many receive it and many reject it. Those who receive it feed the hungry, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. As a result of receiving the Gospel, they are invited into the kingdom at the end of history. Those who reject the Gospel do not show mercy to the needy, and are not invited into the kingdom.

The passage does not stand apart from the other passages dealing with being faithful disciples before the judgment on the temple. The immediately preceding parable talks about what servants do with the talents a master gives them before his trip (25.14-30). This, too, is connected with the final disposition of these servants (v. 30). The same with the virgins (25.12).

Verses 31-46 simply unpack what it is that the wise disciples are supposed to be doing while they wait for the temple’s destruction. They’re supposed to be doing what every other wise disciple in history is called to do: feed the hungry, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. They’re not supposed to be holding their breath for forty years, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re to be busy with the work of the kingdom.

So while there are implications for the post-70 A.D. church (just as Mt 24.29-31 have implications for the post-70 A.D. church), we cannot thereby force our agenda on Jesus’ remarks here. The focus of Mt 25.31-46 is on faithful discipleship. While the pre-70 A.D. disciples would live in exceptionable times, that did not mean that they were therefore excepted from faithful discipleship. The passages fills out what faithful servants do with the “talents” Jesus gives to them; it fills out what makes the wise virgins actually wise. “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes” (24.46).


So, anyway, I do not see a great need to read Mt 24-25 as being about anything than Jesus interacting with his disciples about the temple, concluding a discourse that began in Matthew 21 and, indeed, is basically what his entire ministry is about: Jesus is the Davidic king who comes to build the true temple, and who thereby brings the presence of God back to his people. But official Israel is caught up in sin, having turned their back on their Abrahamic vocation to the Gentiles. As with the OT pattern, God will shake up his people in judgment. In response, they will return to him with hearts circumcised anew.


Blogger Wayne said...

I haven't had the time to read all of these, but I've tagged them for sure.

February 29, 2008 8:09 PM  

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