Excerpts R. T. France's
|R. T. FRANCE ON THE OLIVET DISCOURSE AND ITS APPLICATION TO THE DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM|
1. The Disciples’ Double Question (24:3)
3 Now as Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives his disciples came to him and asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your visitation and the end of the age?”
The prediction of the destruction of the temple now needs to be clarified. Here again a public pronouncement is followed by a request for elucidation by the disciples in private—the same phrase katʾ idian, “privately,” has been used to mark this pattern previously in 17:19 (and cf. 13:10, 36; 15:15; 19:10). The Mount of Olives, besides being symbolically significant in the light of Ezek 11:23 (see on v. 1), gave a panoramic view over the temple whose destruction has just been pronounced.10 Mark 13:3 restricts the questioning group (and therefore the audience for the discourse) to the four fishermen, but Matthew remains consistent with his pattern which makes the disciple group as a whole the audience of each of the major discourses. For the question about when predicted events will take place cf. Dan 12:6–7 (cf. Dan 8:13); the noun synteleia in the disciples’ question echoes the repeated use of that word in LXX Dan 12:6–7.
The two-fold focus of the question is indicated by the two interrogative markers, “When?” and “What sign?” as well as by the terms used, “these things” (which in context refers to the destruction of the temple just predicted) and “your parousia and the end of the age.” Note the difference from the wording of the question in Mark, which also has two parts (“When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished”) but in which the same subject “these things” makes the two parts parallel rather than distinct. In Mark the disciples ask only about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction about the temple, not about the parousia and the end of the age. It appears therefore that Matthew has deliberately expanded the question (using some of the same terms but now in a new way) to make it clear that the discourse that follows is not concerned only with the destruction of the temple. In so doing he has introduced the term parousia, which he alone uses among the gospel writers but which was already established in Christian usage by the time he wrote (note its repeated use in Paul’s two letters to Thessalonica), and which he will repeat three times in this chapter (24:27, 37, 39), in order to highlight the climactic event which will be the theme of the second part of the discourse. From what Matthew has told us so far we have no indication that Jesus has yet talked in such terms about his future coming (see comments on 10:23; 16:28; 19:28), so that it is hard to say why the disciples should have raised the issue in this form, or why they should have thought it appropriate to link this separate question with that about the temple. Perhaps we may assume an undefined sense that so cataclysmic an event as the destruction of the temple must usher in the end of the present world order. If so, Jesus’ answer will cause them to rethink their assumption: whatever the ideological linkage, the two events are not to be chronologically connected. Matthew’s wording of the question allows this distinction to be made.
For “the end of the age” see above on 13:39, and p. 531, n. 3. This term, unlike “your parousia,” conveys a sense already familiar within this gospel (13:39, 40, 49; and cf. 28:20) and one which reflects a conventional Jewish “two-age” eschatology.
2. Jesus Answers the Question about the Destruction of the Temple (24:4–35)
4 Jesus replied to them: “Be careful that no one deceives you; 5 for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many people. 6 You are sure to hear of wars and talk about wars;2 do not let yourselves become alarmed, because such things must happen, but it is not yet the end. 7 For one nation will fight against another, and one kingdom against another, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All this is just the beginning of the labor pains.
9 “Then they will hand you over to be ill-treated and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations because of my name. 10 And then many will be caused to stumble, and will betray one another and hate one another; 11 and many false prophets will arise and deceive many people. 12 And because of the increasing lawlessness the love of most people will become cold. 13 But it is the person who remains faithful to the end who will be saved. 14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed all over the world as a witness to all the nations; and then the end will come.
15 “So when you see the devastating pollution which Daniel the prophet spoke about set up10 in the holy place (let the reader understand this), 16 then let those who are in Judea escape into the hills, 17 let the person who is on the roof not come down to take things out of their house, 18 and the person who is out on the farm not go back to get their cloak. 19 Woe to those who are pregnant or nursing babies in those days. 20 But pray that you may not have to escape in the winter or on the sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress such as has not happened from the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be again. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, nobody at all would have been saved; but because of the chosen people those days will be cut short.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah’ or ‘Here,’ don’t believe them. 24 For false Messiahs and false prophets will appear, who will perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even the chosen people. 25 Look, I have forewarned you. 26 So if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ don’t go out there, or if they say ‘Look, he is in the store rooms,’ don’t believe it. 27 For as lightning flashes across the sky from east to west, so will the visitation13 of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the carcass is, there the vultures will congregate.
29 “But immediately after the distress of those days
‘the sun will be darkened
30 And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory.17 31 And he will send out his angels with a great trumpet blast, and they will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32 “Learn a lesson from the fig tree: when its shoots become tender and it produces leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 in the same way you too, when you see all these things, can know that it21 is near, on the threshold. 34 I tell you truly that this generation will certainly not pass away before all these things happen. 35 Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Throughout this part of the discourse there is variation between second-person exhortation (vv. 4, 6b, 20, 23, 25–26, 32–33), second-person warnings about what the disciples are to expect (vv. 9, 15), and third-person description of future events (most of the rest); in vv. 16–18 the imperatives are expressed in the third person, as if Jesus is issuing instructions to a wider group than only the disciples. This variation, which is equally noticeable in Mark 13, perhaps derives from the composite origin of this discourse as a collection of distinct sayings of Jesus, but if so the variation has been deliberately maintained in the finished text. It leaves room for uncertainty at several points as to how wide the perspective is intended to be, particularly in the section concerning the siege of Jerusalem, where warning to the disciples shades into concern for the population at large. Jesus answers the disciples’ question primarily by focusing on what they are to experience in the troubled times before the temple is destroyed, but he does so against the back-drop of a more wide-ranging description of coming events, so that they can set their own experiences within a fuller understanding of how God’s purpose for his people is to be played out.
The first part of the question posed by the disciples was “When will these things happen?,” and the answer is accordingly structured around a series of time-indicators which lead up to the climax of the destruction of the temple within the current generation. This is in sharp contrast to the new section which will begin in 24:36, and which will answer the second half of the disciples’ question: in that section there are no specific time-indicators, and indeed the starting-point for the whole section is that the day and hour of the parousia cannot be predicted, and that it will come without any “sign” or prior warning, so that one must always be ready for it. Thus one event (the destruction of the temple) falls within defined and predictable history and those who know what to look for can see it coming, while the other (the parousia) cannot be tied down to a time-frame, and even Jesus does not know when it will be and so will offer no “sign.”
The time-indicators of this section may be set out as follows.
There is, then, a clear sequence running through this whole section from the initial question to its answer in vv. 29–31, followed by a summary of the main points of the whole prediction; and that summary makes explicit what is already clearly implied by the temporal markers throughout the section, that there are no long periods of history dividing these events from one another, but all form part of a coherent historical development which will reach its climax within the living generation. Note in particular that the climactic events of vv. 29–31 are to follow “immediately after” the siege described in vv. 15–28; there is no room here for an indefinite period of delay such as must be assumed by those who take vv. 29–31 to refer to the parousia (unless of course they argue that Jesus, or Matthew, mistakenly predicted that the parousia would take place at the time of the destruction of the temple).
The main, perhaps the only, reason why this simple chronological structure has not been generally recognized is the unquestioned assumption that the language used in vv. 29–31 must refer not to the destruction of the temple but to the parousia and related events. When we come to the commentary on that section I shall explain why the words should not be taken in that traditional sense. Once that exegesis is granted, the whole section falls into a clear and carefully marked chronological sequence.
Interspersed with the answer to the question “When?” is a series of warnings against misreading the significance of historical events, and so succumbing to premature eschatological excitement. This part of the discourse, therefore, does not simply answer the disciples’ chronological question, but also gives pastoral guidance for puzzled disciples in unsettling times: they are to keep their heads when all around them are panicking or falling prey to opportunists. Verses 6–8 focus on this theme: catastrophic world events are not in themselves signs of “the end.” The preceding warning in vv. 4–5 suggests that this “end” was in some way linked with the messianic claimants, and the same theme will emerge more fully in vv. 22–26 with specific reference to the period of the siege of Jerusalem. When events begin to look threatening there will be a tendency to imagine that this is the beginning of the eschatological climax, the “messianic” age, and people will take advantage of that notion to press their own claims. For Christian readers, of course, the Messiah has already come, but in these future years there will remain the prospect of Jesus’ own messianic return in his parousia, and the association of this theme with that of the destruction of the temple in the disciples’ question indicates how easily that connection could be made. But the message of this first part of the discourse (and indeed in a different way of the second part) is that it is a false connection. The temple will fall, but that does not mean the parousia must follow. That is why the parousia will be explicitly mentioned in v. 27, not to associate it with the fall of the temple but precisely to differentiate it from the chaotic events of the siege of Jerusalem which these impostors will use as the basis for their messianic claims. When the parousia occurs it will not be a matter of such dubious claims and speculation, but will be obvious to everyone (vv. 27–28). The disciples are therefore specifically warned against associating the parousia with the events predicted in vv. 15–31, and in vv. 36ff that theme will be resumed as Jesus speaks of a parousia which will come when no one expects it and which, like the lightning, will catch people unawares; then there will be no mistaking it, and no need for speculation.
Against the background of this general understanding of vv. 4–35, we shall proceed to see how its component parts contribute to the whole, and to do so we shall, for convenience, divide the text into the sub-sections noted in the chronological outline above.
a. The End Is Not Yet (24:4–8)
It is remarkable how often occurrences such as those mentioned in these verses are appealed to by those who are trying to work out a pattern for eschatological events, whereas in fact they are mentioned here precisely in order to discourage such speculation and to assert that the events described are not part of an eschatological scenario, but rather routine events within world history which must not be given more weight than they deserve. Each generation has its share of political and natural disasters, and each is tempted to think that its own experiences are somehow worse and of more ultimate significance than the sufferings of other generations, but “it is not yet the end;” at the most, such events can be seen as “the beginning of labor pains,” but the period from the first labor pains to childbirth may be short or long.
4–5 The first “false alarm” is in the form of messianic claimants. A Christian reader, prompted by the specific mention of the parousia in v. 3, might think that those who will come “in Jesus’ name” claiming to be Messiah are claiming actually to be Jesus, returning at the end of the age. But the declaration “I am the Messiah” would not be the most natural way to make that claim; it sounds more like a would-be liberator presenting himself to the Jewish people for the first time. He would be coming “in Jesus’ name” not because he is impersonating Jesus but because he is claiming the role and title which properly belong to Jesus. And there were plenty of such claimants in the unsettled years leading up to the Jewish revolt and the eventual destruction of the temple. See for instance Josephus, Ant. 18.85–87 (a Samaritan); 20.97–99 (Theudas), 102 (the sons of Judas of Galilee), 169–172 (“the Egyptian”), 160–161, 167–168, 188 (various unnamed “impostors”). Josephus does not say that any of these people actually claimed the title “Messiah” (though Bar Kochba certainly did in the early second century), but that some presented themselves as “prophets” (Ant. 20.97, 169; War 6.285–287) or “kings” (Ant. 17.274, 278, 285; War 2.433–434) and claimed to be divinely sent and empowered (War 2.258–259), which suggests messianic aspirations. If Jesus spoke these words before his arrest in Jerusalem, they would most naturally have been understood to predict such future Jewish pretenders. The subject will be resumed in vv. 23–28, where the setting is explicitly at the time of the Jewish revolt and the siege of Jerusalem.
For the ability of such claimants to “deceive many people” cf. Acts 5:36 for the 400 followers of Theudas (Josephus, Ant. 20.97, speaks of “the majority of the crowd” or “the huge crowd”) and Acts 21:38 for the 4,000 sicarii who followed the Egyptian (Josephus, War 2.261, says they were 30,000). Given the “zealot” ideology which derived from the revolt of Judas (see on 22:15–22) and which eventually resulted in the revolt of ad 66, the popularity of such “messianic” figures is not surprising.
6 “Wars and talk about wars” are naturally linked with messianic pretenders in the Jewish context. The period from the 30s to the 60s was relatively peaceful in the Roman empire as a whole, but in the east there were wars with Parthia in and after ad 36, and a more local war between Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas in which the Romans became involved in ad 36–37. Later the Roman Empire itself would be torn by civil war in the “year of the four emperors,” ad 68/9. In Judea the stirrings of revolt mentioned in the comments on vv. 4–5 made war an increasingly likely prospect even before the crucial revolt actually erupted in ad 66, and the suppression of nationalist leaders like Theudas and the Egyptian involved serious military operations. For an inhabitant of Palestine they were unsettling times.
But history is full of such troubled periods; the disciples must not get things out of perspective, or be panicked into imagining that “the end” is imminent. It is not spelled out here what that “end” (telos) is, but the same term will occur in v. 14, where it leads into a description of the coming siege of Jerusalem. It seems probable therefore that the word has the same reference here, and that v. 14 is a deliberate pick-up from this pronouncement: “it is not yet the end … but then the end will come.” The question which Jesus is here answering was about when the temple would be destroyed, and that is the “end” most naturally understood here. It is coming soon, and v. 34 will spell out how soon, but that does not mean that it is imminent as soon as war is on the horizon.
7–8 The basis of the “wars and talk about wars” in v. 6 is spelled out in terms of political rivalry, using language reminiscent of Isa 19:2 (and thus reinforcing the point that such events tend to recur throughout history). But in addition to these human disturbances natural disasters will continue to occur through this interim period just as they do in all periods of history. Such historical records as we have for the first century mention earthquakes in Asia Minor in ad 61and in Italy in ad 62, in Jerusalem in ad 67, and another serious earthquake at an unspecified earlier date in Palestine. A widespread famine around ad 46 is mentioned in Acts 11:28 and Josephus, Ant. 3.320; 20.51–53, 101. Other more localized occurrences which did not get into historical records may also be assumed (note the mention of local earthquakes in 27:51 and Acts 16:26).
Such natural occurrences, like wars, are part of normal experience, not signs of the end. As part of the world’s woes they are no more than the “beginning of labor pains”: there is worse to come, and it may be protracted. “Labor pains” in itself implies “not yet” (the pains precede the birth, sometimes for a long period), and with the addition of “the beginning” the phrase clearly echoes the message of v. 6, that “it is not yet the end.” In the OT labor pains are a metaphor for the suffering of nations and cities (Isa 13:8; Jer 6:24; 22:23; Mic 4:9–10) apparently within history rather than eschatologically, while in Isa 26:17–18 the context seems more eschatological. In later rabbinic literature the phrase “the labor pain (always singular) of the Messiah” comes to be used almost as a technical term for the period of suffering preceding the Messiah’s coming, but this usage is not attested as early as the NT period. The wide range of metaphorical senses for such birth imagery in the NT (see John 16:21; Acts 2:24; Rom 8:22; Gal 4:19; 1 Thes 5:3) indicates a live metaphor which had as yet no recognized specific reference. It gains its sense from the context, and the context here is of the suffering of Jerusalem which will be more fully described in vv. 15–22.
b. Standing Firm in Difficult Times (24:9–14)
The “then” at the beginning of vv. 9 and 10 links the contents of these verses with the same interim period which has been the subject of vv. 4–8, but the spotlight now moves away from world affairs and their impact on the morale of Jesus’ disciples to the more specific experience of the disciple community in those troubled times.
The relationship of these verses to those which occupy the parallel position in Mark 13:9–13 (and in a modified form in Luke 21:12–19) is interesting. The most direct parallel to those verses of Mark has already appeared in Matt 10:17–22. Here, rather than simply repeat that material, Matthew has apparently inserted further traditional sayings of Jesus about persecution and its effects, including two key clauses from that earlier collection (24:9b, 13, echoing the two clauses of 10:22); this new collection better suits the climactic note of this discourse as it looks beyond the temporary mission of the Twelve in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime to a time when his disciples will have gone among “all the nations.” Perhaps Matthew agreed with those modern commentators who feel that the more personal focus of Mark 13:9–13 as a whole seems out of place in a so-called “eschatological discourse.”
The warning of unpopularity for Jesus’ sake remains essentially the same, but the persecution which in ch. 10 was predicted for Jesus’ disciples in their regular mission is now focused more particularly in the testing days ahead. The basis of their unpopularity is still the “name” of Jesus (10:18, 22; 24:9), a concept which is now the more readily understood since Jesus has declared himself (and therefore also his followers) against the temple and thus has set up what will become one of the main causes of popular resentment against Christians. We find here the same exhortation as in 10:22, “it is the person who remains faithful to the end who will be saved,” (v. 13) but this time the issue underlying that clause is more fully developed: the persecution will be such as to threaten the faith of many even within the disciple community. Some will apostatize completely and will betray their fellow-disciples (v. 10); some will succumb to false teaching which destroys their faith (v. 11); and some will simply “cool off” and so become useless for the kingdom of God (v. 12). All these outcomes mark the end of effective discipleship. In the spelling out of these dangers we can probably hear the echo of the experiences of Matthew’s own Christian community as it has faced up to persecution in the years since Jesus first issued the warning. Against all these threats, the only safeguard is to stand firm against all opposition. That is the only way of ultimate salvation (v. 13), but it is also the way in which the message of God’s kingship will continue to be proclaimed against all odds, so that the pericope ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note (v. 14). This last saying takes up the one aspect of Mark 13:9–13 which Matthew did not see fit to include in 10:17–22, the preaching of the good news to all nations (Mark 13:10), since it points to a time more clearly in the future than the exclusive mission to Israel which was the subject of ch. 10.
9 For the connotations of “hand over” see on 17:22. The word is used for the fate of John the Baptist, of Jesus himself, and of his followers, as 10:17–22 has already explained. That passage has also spelled out something of the “suffering” to be expected, including judicial processes and flogging as well as martyrdom. The universal hatred there predicted was primarily in a Jewish context, though 10:18 did speak also of being brought before governors and kings and of a consequent witness to the Gentiles. Here the persecutors (“they”) are not identified in the first clause, and one naturally links it with the Jewish persecution of 10:17, but in the second clause “all the nations” are also involved in the hatred and persecution of the followers of Jesus, just as “the whole world” is to hear their message (v. 14). The stakes are becoming higher as the Jesus movement begins to be influential beyond its native territory.
10 For Matthew’s use of the metaphor of “stumbling” see on 5:29–30. This saying is one of those where it seems to have its most serious sense, of a fall which is not just a temporary setback but involves the abandonment of God’s way and the loss of salvation (as in 5:29–30; 13:21; 18:6–9), since a disciple who betrays fellow-disciples has turned decisively away from the community of faith. The mutual love and concern which should be the distinguishing mark of true disciples (as the discourse of ch. 18 has made clear) has turned to hatred and repudiation.
11 See above on 7:15 for the problem of false prophets in the early church. The unsettled times ahead will provide them with an opportunity to play on people’s fears and hopes, as may be seen from Josephus’ record of the enthusiastic response to those nationalist leaders who claimed prophetic status (see above on vv. 4–5). Here, as in 7:15, the focus appears to be on impostors within the disciple community rather than the messianic claimants predicted in vv. 4–5. The result of their teaching is described here (as with the false Messiahs of v. 5) as deceit or leading people astray (ironically the same charge which later rabbinic polemic made against Jesus himself; cf. already 27:63–64), but the language about “savage wolves” in 7:15 (cf. Acts 20:29–30) suggests something more far-reaching than simply intellectual error.
12 Lawlessness in Matthew refers not only to criminal activity, but to a lifestyle which is outside the law of God; even the morally scrupulous scribes and Pharisees have been accused of lawlessness (23:28). The growth of such an attitude and lifestyle both within and outside the disciple community will have a devastating effect. If “love” (for God and for other people) is the key principle of living as the people of God (22:37–40), and so the opposite to “lawlessness,” the “cooling” of love marks the end of effective discipleship. A love which is cold is like a fire which has gone out; cf. the devastating effects of the loss of the first love in Rev 2:4–5. Note the four-fold repetition of “many” in vv. 10–12; these verses describe a time of general decline, when it will be a minority of disciples who remain faithful (see p. 896, n. 6).39 Cf. 7:13–14 for the “few” who find the way of life.
13 In response to both the outward threats of vv. 4–8 and the destabilizing tendencies within the disciple community (vv. 9–12) the only remedy is deliberate, sustained faithfulness to the values and demands of God’s kingdom. This verse repeats the exhortation of 10:22b; see comments there. We noted there that “the phrase eis telos, ‘to the end,’ can hardly have … a specific reference, but simply means persevering for as long as may be necessary” and that “the thought loosely echoes Dan 12:12–13, a beatitude on those who remain faithful and will receive their reward ‘at the end of the days’.” Here, however, it comes between two references to “the end” in vv. 6 and 14 which clearly have a more specific reference. If, as the context here suggests, that “end” is the destruction of the temple which is the subject of the disciples’ question (see on v. 6), it would be possible to read eis telos here in the same sense: whoever stands firm throughout the historical process which will culminate in the destruction of the temple will be saved. But it is not easy to see what sort of “salvation” fits that scenario, and it is more likely that the adverbial phrase eis telos (not eis to telos) functions independently of the articular noun to telos, and has the same sense here that it had in 10:22b; in that case the call is for faithfulness “for as long as it takes,” and the promise is of the ultimate spiritual security (see on 10:22) of those who have stood firm in their discipleship. It is that promise, rather than physical safety at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, which best matches the dangers to faith spelled out in vv. 9–12.
14 This saying comes unexpectedly here, not only because it provides a note of hope and triumph in an otherwise threatening context, but also because, like 26:13, it already envisages a world-wide proclamation of the good news (in contrast with the restrictions of 10:5–6 and 15:24) which will not be formally launched until after Jesus’ resurrection in 28:19. But Jesus has already spoken in 8:11–12 of an influx of Gentiles into the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew has prepared for the idea by the story of the Magi, the healing of the centurion’s servant, and the ministry outside Israel which was recounted in 15:21–39. The previous sayings about persecution also included the concept of testimony to “governors and kings” and to “the nations” in 10:18. But now those sporadic hints are taken up into what appears to be a deliberate program of world-wide evangelization (for the phrase “good news of the kingdom” see on 4:23). The church’s response to persecution and spiritual apathy must be to declare Jesus’ message as a witness to all the nations.44
But this universal proclamation is not only an end in itself, but is also a sign of the coming of “the end;” the implication seems to be that the “end” will not come until the proclamation has already reached “all over the world.” Those who interpret the “end” here as the parousia and the final judgment have sometimes taken this saying as a spur to evangelism in our day: in the early twentieth century there was an influential missionary slogan, “Evangelize to a finish to bring back the King!” The phrase “all the nations” has also been pressed into a program to bring the gospel to every known nation and tribe in the modern world (including those unknown to the Eurasian world of Jesus’ day) so as to hasten the parousia. But that is to take this text quite out of context. In particular, this passage does not speak of worldwide evangelization as the cause of the “end,” but as a necessary preliminary. And we have argued at v. 6 that the “end” (telos) in view here is not the “end (synteleia) of the age” but the destruction of the temple, which happened long ago.
In what sense, then, would the good news of God’s kingdom be heard “all over the world” before that event occurred? The “world” here is hē oikoumenē, the “inhabited world,” the world of people, which at that time meant primarily the area surrounding the Mediterranean and the lesser known areas to the east, around which stretched mysterious regions (comprising much of our “old world”) beyond the fringes of civilization. More narrowly it was sometimes used for the area covered by the Roman empire (as in Luke 2:1). The same phrase holē hē oikoumenē is used to describe the extent of the famine in Acts 11:28 and the extent of Artemis-worship in Acts 19:27. Such uses suggest caution in interpreting it too literally, even in terms of the then known world. The point is that the gospel will go far outside Judea, as indeed it certainly did in the decades following Jesus’ resurrection, so that Col 1:6 can speak of the gospel already “bearing fruit in the whole world” (cf. also Col 1:23) and Rom 16:26 of the gospel having already been “made known to all the nations” (cf. Rom 10:18); Paul can speak of the area from Jerusalem to the Adriatic as already fully evangelized in the mid-fifties with the result that he has no more scope for mission there and is already planning to go on to Spain (Rom 15:18–24). Unless one insists on a woodenly literal meaning for the phrase, the good news of God’s kingdom was indeed being proclaimed “all over the world” before the temple was destroyed. The additional phrase “to all the nations (Gentiles)” draws attention here as in Mark 13:10 to the extension of the Christian mission outside Judaism, but does not demand a literal reading so that, for instance, the British must be included, let alone Americans and Australians!
If the “end” referred to is the destruction of the temple, the connection between that “end” and the universal proclamation of the gospel may be more than merely temporal. The physical temple in Jerusalem is to be replaced by “something greater than the temple;” see comments at 12:6 on what that “something greater” may be. If, as we there considered, Matthew shares the NT concept of the “new temple” consisting of the community of those who follow Jesus, it is appropriate that the proclamation to all nations, and thus the gathering of the members of that new and more extensive community, should take place before the old temple is removed. The “new temple” that will replace it will be already under construction through the universal mission of the church. It will then follow appropriately that after the Jerusalem temple is destroyed God’s chosen people will be gathered in from all over the world (which has already received the good news) to become the people of this new temple (v. 31).
c. The Beginning of the End for Jerusalem (24:15–28)
The “So” (oun) which begins this paragraph ties it closely to the preceding statement, “Then the end will come.” After the various preliminary events and experiences of vv. 4–14, which are “not yet the end,” here we begin the sequence of events which do in fact bring the “end” (the destruction of the temple, see on v. 6), and thus the answer to the first part of the disciples’ question. The “end” itself will not be announced until vv. 29–31, but since those verses describe what will happen “immediately after” the events of vv. 15–28, the latter may appropriately be described as the beginning of the end. These verses thus speak of the unparalleled period of distress leading up to and during the siege of Jerusalem which will culminate in the destruction of the temple. The focus is now clearly limited to Judea.
The Jewish revolt began in ad 66, and during 67–68 the Roman commander Vespasian conquered most of Palestine. The Roman civil war in 68–69 led to a suspension of military operations in the East, but during that period Jerusalem was torn apart by its own civil war, as different Jewish parties battled for control, with the temple (the inner courts controlled by the Zealots under Eleazar and the outer court by John of Gischala) at the centre of the fighting. When eventually the Roman attack was resumed in 69, Jerusalem was already in a weakened and demoralized state. The rest of Judea was quickly reduced (apart from the strongholds of Herodium and Masada), and when Vespasian returned to Rome to take up his new office as emperor his son Titus put Jerusalem under siege for five terrible months until the temple and much of the city were destroyed in the fall of ad 70.
The depiction of these events in vv. 15–28 is in the allusive language of OT prophecy and apocalyptic, so that it is not necessary, and probably not possible, to identify specific aspects of the final events, as we know them from Josephus’ account, with the terms used. This is, after all, presented to us as prediction, not as historical narration. The sequence begins with a predicted horror (the “devastating pollution,” see comments below) which will be clear enough to provide the cue for “those in Judea” to escape, but thereafter the language about flight and distress is too general to invite specific identification, and the claims of “false Messiahs and false prophets” could be made at any time during this troubled period.
All this, says Jesus, will be so terrible for those involved that it may look like the end of everything. But it is not. “Those days” will be cut short, so that God’s people can survive. By contrast, the parousia of the Son of Man, when it comes, will be on a different scale altogether, as universal and unmistakable as a flash of lightning (vv. 27–28). The siege will mark “the end (telos)” for Jerusalem, but it will not be the time of the parousia and the “end (synteleia) of the age.” For, as vv. 29–31 will go on to explain, the end of the old order will be the cue for the establishment of the universal reign of the Son of Man and the gathering of a new people of God from the ends of the earth. The Son of Man willc. reign in heaven, but his future return to earth will be at a time no one can prec. dict; only when it happens will they know.
15 The most obvious sign that “the end” is near in Jerusalem is cryptically described in familiar scriptural language. The “devastating pollution” is explicitly identified as a motif from Daniel, though the phrase is sufficiently distinctive to be recognized even without explicit attribution, as Mark clearly believed. In Daniel the phrase stands for the horrifying sacrilege which was to be perpetrated by the “king of the north” when he abolished the regular sacrificial ritual of the Jerusalem temple (Dan 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The reference is clearly to the events of 167 bc, when Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and prohibited Jewish sacrificial worship, setting up an altar for pagan sacrifices (including the slaughter of pigs) on top of the altar of burnt offering (Josephus, Ant. 12.253); it stood in the temple for three years until Judas Maccabeus regained control of Jerusalem and purified the temple and restored its true worship. 1 Macc 1:54 describes this pagan altar by the same phrase bdelygma erēmōseōs; for the reconsecration of the temple see 1 Macc 4:41–58.
The specific desecration referred to in Daniel was now long in the past, and Jesus is speaking of something still to come. That is why discernment is needed: hence the editorial aside,50 “let the reader understand this”—which itself recalls the comment in Dan 12:10 that only the wise will understand the secrets revealed to Daniel. The reader52 is presumably to identify something which is in recognizable continuity with the devastating pollution set up by Antiochus, but just what form it will take is left to the imagination. The wording suggests some sort of offensive pollution “set up in the holy place,” which should mean the temple, and the context requires that it be of such a nature and at such a time as to allow those who see it to escape before it is too late. The neuter participle “set up” (see p. 897, n. 10) is apparently a deliberate change from Mark’s masculine, and so denotes an object or occurrence rather than a person.55 Those who believe that this whole section is a “prediction” written up in the light of what actually happened have attempted without much agreement to suggest a suitable identification (see below); those who regard it as genuine prediction may feel that any such specific identification is neither possible nor necessary, and that all that the text asserts is that some act of sacrilege will alert Judeans that disaster is about to fall.
Our limited knowledge of events in first-century Palestine has prompted three main proposals of historical events which might have been recognized as the “devastating pollution” by those who had heard of Jesus’ prediction. (a) In ad 40 the emperor Gaius gave orders for a statue of himself to be set up in the temple at Jerusalem; fortunately the order had still not been carried out when Gaius was assassinated in ad 41, thus averting what would have been a bloody uprising. (b) Probably during the winter of ad 67/8 the Zealots took over the temple as their headquarters and Josephus speaks with horror of the way they “invaded the sanctuary with polluted feet” and mocked the temple ritual, while the sanctuary was defiled with blood as factional fighting broke out (Josephus, War 4.150–157, 196–207). (c) When the Roman troops eventually broke into the temple the presence of their (idolatrous) standards in the sacred precincts would inevitably remind Jews of Antiochus; Josephus even mentions Roman soldiers offering sacrifices to their standards in the temple courts (War 6.316). Luke’s parallel to this verse (Luke 21:20, “Jerusalem surrounded by armies”) apparently understands the “devastating pollution” in this sense. None of these three events quite fits what this verse says: the Gaius event was too early (and in fact never happened) and the Roman presence in the sanctuary too late to provide a signal for escape before the end came, while the Zealot occupation, which took place at the right time, was perhaps not quite the type of pagan defilement envisaged by Daniel. It seems wiser not to claim a specific tie-up with recorded history, but to recognize that desecration of the temple was an ever-present threat once the Roman invasion had been provoked.
It may be remarked in passing that if, as many claim, Matthew was writing after the event, it is strange that he could not produce a clearer and more convincing account of this preliminary sign. What had he to gain by writing so cryptically, and by failing to achieve a satisfying tie-up with what would then have been quite recent history? It makes better sense of the enigmatic nature of the sign to believe that Matthew was not only recording what Jesus said some decades before the event, but was also himself writing at a time when events were yet to unfold to the climax of the war with Rome.
16–18 Verse 15 has spoken of what “you” will see, but now Jesus issues instructions not to the disciples directly, but in the third person “to whom it may concern.” The scope is broad, addressing not merely those associated with the temple, nor even the whole population of Jerusalem, but more generally “those in Judea.” No towns or villages will be safe as the Roman forces restore control, and people must seek the time-honored refuge of “the hills,”60 just as the Maccabees had done when the first “devastating pollution” was set up (1 Macc 2:28, using the same phrase eis ta orē) to be joined by other patriots in “the wilderness” (1 Macc 2:29–31). The reference to “Judea” suggests that the period envisaged is before the final siege of Jerusalem, when the wider province was being brought under Roman control, but when escape was still possible (as it would not be for those in Jerusalem itself after the siege began). The urgency of flight is underlined by the vivid images of the person who hears the news while resting on the roof of the house and dare not go inside (the roof was reached by an outside staircase) to pack a travel bag, and the field worker whose outer garment, removed for work, must be left behind. Luke 17:31 uses the same imagery with regard to the parousia; it is perhaps standard language for an emergency.
19–20 The plight of refugees is always wretched, but for some of those caught up in the Judean emergency it will be even worse. This “woe” is not, like those of 11:21; 18:7b; 26:24 and those against the scribes and Pharisees in ch. 23, one of condemnation, but of sympathy for those who will suffer (see 18:7a for another non-condemnatory “woe;” and cf. the “woes” of Rev 8:13; 12:12). The problems of pregnant women and nursing mothers in such a situation are easily envisaged. Bad weather will only make things worse: it can be very cold in the Judean hills in winter, and heavy rain and flooding can make traveling conditions difficult or even impossible. But what is the problem about escaping on the sabbath (a problem which only Matthew notices)? Was Jesus thinking of the faithful Jew (and more conservative Jewish Christian) who would not want to break the developed scribal rules which by now allowed only a “sabbath day’s journey” of less than one mile? Or has Matthew himself added this comment for the benefit of his own Christian community which, following the “lax” attitude which Jesus himself displayed in 12:1–14, has ceased to observe the sabbath strictly, but by escaping on that day would draw the hostile attention of non-Christian Jews who still observed it? Or is all that too subtly ideological, and is the point simply that the lack of facilities to buy food and other practical difficulties arising from the stricter observance of the sabbath by other Jews could be expected to be a problem for the refugees?65
21–22 Josephus’ lurid description of the horrors of the siege (War 5.424–438, 512–518, 567–572; 6.193–213) shows that, while v. 21 uses the hyperbolic language of apocalyptic (cf. Dan 12:1; Joel 2:2; 1QM 1:11–12; Test. Mos. 8:1; Rev 16:18), it is an assessment which would have been agreed by those involved in the events. In passing, we should note that “nor ever will be again” confirms that this passage is about a historical event, not about the end of the world! The horror was in fact “cut short” by the Roman capture of the city after five months, bringing physical relief to those who had survived the famine in the city. But even this “natural” process of conquest is attributed to the purpose of God (the passive verb without expressed agent often indicates divine agency; in Mark 13:20 it is explicit) to enable his “chosen people” to survive. These same “chosen people” will reappear in vv. 24 and 31, where they are the people who belong to the Son of Man; the boast of Israel to be God’s chosen people (Exod 19:5–6; Lev 20:26, etc.) is now being applied not to the nation as a whole but to those from among Israel and also from the ends of the earth (v. 31) who constitute the new messianic community (cf. 8:11–12). See further above on 22:14. These true people of God will not be spared the experience of the siege but will be enabled to survive through it both physically (v. 22) and spiritually (v. 24). And it is because of their presence among the people of Jerusalem that the siege will not be more protracted and disastrous.70
23–26 The catastrophic situation in Jerusalem during those last days before its capture will provide a fertile breeding-ground for the sort of messianic claimants already predicted in vv. 5 and 11 as part of the more general upheaval of the period before the siege. Anyone who offered new hope of divine intervention would be eagerly listened to, and the more so if they were able to offer “signs and wonders” to support their claim. And such miraculous proofs were, according to Josephus, offered by several of the nationalist leaders he mentions: he mentions specifically the parting the Jordan (Ant. 20.97), the collapse of the city walls (Ant. 20.170), the uncovering of Moses’ sacred vessels (Ant. 18.85), as well as more generally “conspicuous wonders and signs” (Ant. 20.168) and God-given “signs of freedom” (War 2.259). These “sign prophets” drew on the bibilical tradition of authenticating signs (see above on 12:38), and NT writers do in fact expect such “signs and wonders” to accompany the true work of God (Acts 2:43; 4:16, 30; 5:12; etc.), even though it is also recognized that divine miracles can be counterfeited (Acts 8:9–11; 2 Thes 2:9; Rev 13:13–14; 16:14; cf. Deut 13:1–3). Even the “chosen people” may not be immune to such deceit, though the addition of “if possible” suggests that they, unlike the rest of the people in the city, have the spiritual resources to resist it. They have been forewarned (v. 25), and their memory of Jesus’ miracles ought to enable them to see the difference. For the wilderness as a plausible place to look for a God-sent deliverer see above on 3:1 and cf. 11:7–9 for going out into the wilderness to find a prophet. The store rooms76 are a less obvious place to look, but as the most secret part of the building (see on 6:6) they might suit the ideology of a “hidden Messiah” (John 7:27).
27 This verse is a sort of “aside” which draws a sharp distinction between the events during the siege and the still future parousia. The real parousia, when it comes, will not be like the claims of impostors during the siege. The “for” which introduces this saying indicates how it fits into this context: “don’t believe them, because ….” In contrast with a so-called Messiah who has to be sought out in an obscure place and who needs authenticating signs to convince people of his claim, the parousia of the Son of Man will be as unmissable as a flash of lightning which blazes across the whole sky. This warning was perhaps prompted by the disciples’ question in v. 3 which, while differentiating the parousia and the end of the age from “these things” (the destruction of the temple), has nevertheless suggested some association between the two events, probably supposing that the one cannot occur without the other. Not so, says Jesus. The time of the siege and capture of the city will be characterized by claims and counter-claims of those who pretend to a messianic role, but the parousia of the Son of Man will need no such claims or proofs: everyone will see and recognize it (as he will go on to spell out in vv. 36–44). He is thus setting the parousia and the end of the age decisively apart from the coming destruction of the temple. The one may be seen coming and prepared for (that is what vv. 15ff have been about), but the other will carry no prior warning. So the disciples’ request for a “sign” for his parousia was misguided; unlike the offer of “signs” by the messianic pretenders, the Son of Man will give no warning sign of his parousia. There is no sign that lightning is coming, but when it comes no one can escape the sudden illumination.
So the mention of the parousia in this context is intended precisely to distinguish it from the events currently being considered; it will be only after a marked change of subject in v. 36 that the parousia will itself become the focus of the discourse.
28 This proverbial saying about vultures (see p. 897, n. 14) recalls Job 39:30: “Where the dead are, there it [the vulture] is.” It may be understood either (a) from the point of view of the vultures or (b) from that of the observer. (a) Vultures are able to discover a carcass from far away because of their keen sight (Job 39:29), and once they have seen it they take action. This could be a parable of the keen-eyed disciple who reads the significance of events and acts on it, perhaps reflecting the “when you see … then escape” of vv. 15–16. (b) Anyone who sees a gathering of vultures knows that there must be a carcass. This could be applied in two quite different ways, depending on whether it is a reflection on the whole preceding paragraph (when you see all the horrors of the siege you may be sure that Jerusalem is doomed) or merely on the preceding verse (the parousia of the Son of Man will be as obvious as the presence of the carcass). The placing of the saying after v. 27 supports the last option, as does the fact that Luke uses it in a context referring to the parousia (Luke 17:37), but the saying remains enigmatic. Its gruesome subject-matter suits this ominous context, but to allegorize it as depicting the “corpse” of Jerusalem surrounded by the “eagles” (military standards) of the Roman army is to look for too literal a reference in proverbial language.83
d. The End of the Temple and the Triumph of the Son of Man (24:29–31)
It is with v. 29 that the traditional interpretation becomes most uncomfortable. If it is agreed that vv. 15–28 relate to the siege of Jerusalem (apart from the aside about its difference from the parousia in v. 27) and if it is assumed that vv. 29–31 describe the “parousia and the end of the age” (even though they use none of those terms), the opening phrase “But immediately after the distress of those days” constitutes a formidable problem unless one is prepared to argue that Jesus (and Matthew) really did expect the parousia to take place in the late first century ad, and that he was mistaken. As a result many interpreters resort to imprecise talk about “prophetic perspective” which merges far distant events into a single time-frame, while others argue that either “immediately after” or “those days” do not mean what they appear to mean; for such proposals see below on v. 29.
This commentary takes the temporal connection at its face-value. In response to the disciples’ question when the temple would be destroyed Jesus has first mentioned intervening events which do not constitute reliable “signs” (vv. 4–14) and has then spoken of the real sign that the “end” is near, the appearance of the devastating pollution. This has led into a description of the horrors of the Roman war and the siege of Jerusalem, repeatedly characterized as “those days” (vv. 19, 22, 22), but apparently without as yet reaching the actual climax of the destruction of the temple. That climax is still awaited at the end of v. 28, and the words which follow provide it: “immediately after the distress of ‘those days’ ….” The specific time-scale provided in v. 34 will confirm that all this is to happen before the present generation has passed away. Thus by the time we get to v. 35 the disciples’ first question “When will these things happen?” has been carefully and specifically answered, and it will be time to move on to their second question, “What will be the sign of your parousia and the end of the age?,” of which a parenthetical preview has already been given in v. 27.
If this analysis is right vv. 29–31 are to be understood as Jesus’ way of speaking, in the colorful language of OT prophecy, of the climactic event of the destruction of the temple and of his own authority as the vindicated Son of Man which provides the necessary counterpart to the loss of what has been hitherto the earthly focus of God’s rule among his people. Most of the wording of vv. 29–31 is made up of OT allusions, and I shall argue in what follows that if these are understood against the background of their meaning in their OT contexts they provide a striking and (for those who are at home in OT imagery) a theologically rich account of the far-reaching developments in the divine economy which are to be focused in the historical event of the destruction of the temple. The problem is that modern Christian readers are generally not very comfortably at home in OT prophetic imagery, and are instead heirs to a long tradition of Christian exegesis which takes it for granted that such cosmic language and in particular the imagery of Dan 7:13–14 can only be understood of the parousia and the end of the world. But Jesus was speaking before that tradition developed, and his words must be understood within their own context, where it was the OT that provided the natural template for interpreting such imagery.86
29 Two verbal echoes tie the opening phrase closely with vv. 15–28: “distress” echoes the term used for the experience of God’s people during the siege in v. 21, and “those days” picks up the language of vv. 19 and 22 (twice). “Immediately after” makes the link even tighter. Matthew does not share Mark’s famously frequent use of “immediately” as a story-telling device, but when he does use it to link events or stages in a story it always carries its normal sense; here it is deliberately introduced, and when combined with “after” it can only mean that there is no delay separating the two events. Attempts to evade the force of Matthew’s language have usually therefore focused on “those days,” notably Carson’s proposal (see p. 916, n. 70) that while v. 21 refers to the siege of Jerusalem, the phrase “those days” which follows in v. 22 (and which has just been used to refer to the siege in v. 19) refers instead to a much longer period, the whole “inter-advent” age, of which the siege is only one limited example (“one particularly violent display of judgment,” Carson, 495), and that v. 29 is then picking up “those days” in its v. 22 sense rather than its v. 19 sense. Others, while not wishing to introduce a gratuitous break between vv. 21 and 22, are still drawn to the suggestion that somehow a larger perspective has now been introduced and that “those days” here means something other than the days of the Roman war. Such an evasion of the natural meaning of Matthew’s words is surely a counsel of despair: it is supposed that “immediately after the distress of those days” simply cannot be allowed to mean what it says, since the sun and moon do still shine, heaven has not collapsed, and the Son of Man has not come on the clouds of heaven. In view of this instinctive reaction, it is important that we consider what such “cosmic” language might originally have been understood to mean in such a context and whether the quasi-literal sense which is so commonly assumed would really have been the natural way to read it.
The words of v. 29 which follow the opening temporal phrase, while not a simple verbatim quotation, are so closely modeled on two OT passages that they are appropriately set out in the translation above as a poetic allusion. The first two lines are taken from Isa 13:10: the words are almost all the same as those of the LXX, though the first clause has been recast (“it will be darkened as the sun rises” becomes “the sun will be darkened”). That same text also speaks of the “stars of heaven” not giving their light, which links up with the thought of the second allusion, but the latter is in fact verbally closer to Isa 34:4. In this case the echo is less exact, but the LXX Isaiah text speaks both of the stars falling from heaven and of heaven itself “rolled up like a scroll,” while the probable Hebrew text also adds the idea of the host of heaven “rotting away.”89 These two Isaiah texts are the most obvious sources for Jesus’ words here, but there are other examples in the OT prophets of similar imagery drawn from cosmic disorder and darkness: see Ezek 32:7–8; Amos 8:9; Joel 2:10, 30–31; 3:15. In most of these passages the immediate context is of God’s threatened judgment on cities and nations, both pagan and Israelite; in the case of Joel the judgment is already actual in the form of the locust swarms which cut off the light of the sun, though this experience is used also as a model for a more universal judgment to come. In Isa 13:10 the reference is to the coming destruction of Babylon and in Isa 34:4 to a threatened judgment on “all nations,” which is then narrowed down specifically to Edom. Language about cosmic collapse, then, is used by the OT prophets to symbolize God’s acts of judgment within history, with the emphasis on catastrophic political reversals.
When Jesus borrows Isaiah’s imagery it is reasonable to understand it in a similar sense. If such language was appropriate to describe the end of Babylon or Edom under the judgment of God, why should it not equally describe God’s judgment on Jerusalem’s temple and the power structure which it symbolized? It is certainly shocking that Isaiah’s patriotic denunciation of Babylon and Edom could be turned against Jerusalem, and God’s own city reduced to the level of a pagan power, but we shall see that this reversal of roles is at the heart of the message of these verses, as it has been already of such key pronouncements as 8:11–12. It should be noted also that the same sort of cosmic language is used of judgments not on pagan nations but on the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel in Amos 8:9 and Joel 2:10 respectively. The language is extravagant and vivid, but that does not mean that its use by Jesus must be divorced from historical events any more than it was in Isaiah. It is natural that such language should also be able to be extended (as it is already especially in Joel) to speak of more eschatological judgment, but that is no reason to deny its primary reference to historical events where the context requires. On that understanding, therefore, v. 29 is now at last providing in symbolic language the answer to the disciples’ first question. This is the act of historic judgment which Jesus has already predicted in more prosaic terms in v. 2. But the use of this prophetic imagery enables the reader to understand that what is to be destroyed is not just a magnificent building, but a center of power comparable to ancient Babylon. And when such a power structure collapses, another is needed to take its place: this will be supplied in vv. 30–31 with its vision of the enthronement of the Son of Man and the gathering of his chosen people from all over the world.
30 The concluding clause of this verse, with its clear echo of Dan 7:13, is parallel to the prediction which follows the cosmic imagery at this point in both Mark and Luke. But before that Matthew adds two further clauses, concerning the visibility of “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven” and the mourning of the tribes (the latter introducing a further OT allusion, to Zech 12:10–14). We shall return to these Matthean additions when we have considered the meaning of the allusion to Daniel.
See on 10:23 for the importance of allusions to Dan 7:13–14 in Matthew and the range of application of such language. This saying belongs to the group of three Matthean allusions (16:28; 24:30; 26:64) which are shared with Mark (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62), and which have certain significant features in common: all of them speak of a “coming of the Son of Man” which is visible, which is associated with power, and which is to take place within the lifetime of those to whom he is speaking (in this case “this generation” in v. 34). We have seen at 10:23 how the imagery of Daniel’s vision requires that these passages be interpreted not of a “coming” to earth at the parousia but of a “coming” to God in heaven to be given the universal dominion declared in Dan 7:14. These are enthronement texts. In 26:64 that exegesis is now widely recognized (see comments there), not least because that pronouncement speaks explicitly of what is to be true “from now on,” not at some separate time in the future. And yet the present passage, which uses very similar language to allude to the same OT text, is persistently given a different reference by commentators, even though v. 34 will make its contemporary application quite as explicit as that of 26:64. The basis for this inconsistency of approach seems to be the influence of the term parousia occurring in this context, though it must be stressed that it is not used in this verse, which speaks of “coming” (erchomenos) not parousia. But we have seen that in v. 27 the point of mentioning the parousia is actually to dissociate it from the events surrounding the destruction of the temple, and we shall see that the recurrence of parousia in vv. 37 and 39 is with reference not to the “coming” described here but to a different “day and hour” introduced in v. 36, whose timing, unlike that of the destruction of the temple, cannot be known. If then this verse is interpreted in terms of what it actually says, rather than by merging it into a parousia context from which the text in fact explicitly differentiates it, there is no reason why we should not understand the “coming of the Son of Man” here in the same way as in the related texts in 16:28 and 26:64 (and, as we have suggested earlier, also in 10:23, to which there is no Marcan parallel), and in the imagery of Daniel’s vision, of a “coming” to God to receive sovereign power. The time of the temple’s destruction will also be the time when it will become clear that the Son of Man, rejected by the leaders of his people, has been vindicated and enthroned at the right hand of God, and that it is he who is now to exercise the universal kingship which is his destiny. That is how Daniel’s vision is to be fulfilled.
As in v. 29, this is a shocking reversal of roles. The “one like a son of man” who is the subject of Daniel’s vision is a symbol for Israel, the people of God, in their eventual vindication and triumph over the pagan empires who have hitherto oppressed them. But in Jesus’ use of the phrase “the Son of Man” that corporate symbolism has become focused in an individual to whom the kingship is now to be given. He too will be vindicated over his enemies, but those enemies have now become the leaders of the very people he has come to represent. When Israel’s leaders reject and execute Jesus the Son of Man, they put themselves outside the ongoing purpose of God, and the true people of God will be found not in them but in the individual “Son of Man” they have repudiated, and derivatively in the community of those who have accepted the good news of God’s kingship as it has come to them in the rejected and vindicated Messiah. It is this reconstituted people of God whose ingathering will be described in v. 31.
The witnesses of the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” will be “all the tribes of the land,” who will greet his vindication not with acclamation but with mourning. The allusion is to Zech 12:10–14: “they will look on the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him.” There the mourners are identified as “the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v. 10), who are then listed by families (the families of David, Nathan, Levi, Shimei and others, vv. 12–14). That is why the phrase pasai hai phylae tēs gēs must here refer to all the tribes of the land (i.e., as in Zech 12, a specifically Jewish mourning) not “of the earth.” This is required also by the use of phylē, which in the NT (as normally in the LXX)97 is used specifically of the OT tribes (Matt 19:28; Luke 2:36; Acts 13:21; Rom 11:1; Heb 7:13–14; etc.). There are problems in both the text and the interpretation of the Zechariah passage, but it appears to speak of the Israelite families mourning over one of their own whom “they have pierced,” suggesting a blend of genuine sorrow and remorse. And in the overall pattern of Zech 9–14 this “one they have pierced” is usually interpreted as a rejected messianic figure, who appears also as the rejected shepherd in Zech 11:4–14 and the shepherd killed by the sword in Zech 13:7–9. In this gospel both those latter passages will be applied to Jesus’ death in Jerusalem (see on 26:31; 27:9–10), and the present allusion should therefore probably be taken in the same way. Jesus’ words here suggest then, in the light of their OT background, that the people of Jerusalem will recognize what they have done to their Messiah, but their mourning will be prompted by seeing his eventual vindication and triumph, when it will be too late to avert the consequences of having rejected him.
Matthew’s other addition to the Son of Man saying of Mark 13:26 is the puzzling introductory clause “And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven”, which, because of its obscurity, I have left to the last for comment in the hope that the sense of the rest of the saying may cast light on it. Some interpreters take the “of” to be epexegetic: “the sign which is the Son of Man in heaven;” in that case there is no separate “sign” in view, but the Son of Man himself. But if it is taken to speak of an actual sign belonging to or about the Son of Man, the sense will depend on whether “in heaven” is taken to specify the location in which the “sign” will be seen or as linked more closely with the immediately preceding words—“the sign of the-Son-of-Man-in-heaven,” i.e. the sign of the heavenly authority of the Son of Man. Some take it in the former sense, and speak of a symbol visible in the sky, but there is little in the context to indicate what sort of “sign” might be expected. Some patristic writers supposed that the prediction was of a vision of a cross in the sky such as Constantine is reputed to have seen (Eusebius, Vit. Const. 1.28), but there is nothing in the context to suggest that and surely it would require some indication of what sort of “sign” to look for. If, however, “in heaven” is taken with “the Son of Man,” the following clauses perhaps suggest an answer. The tribes are to see the vindication and enthronement of the Son of Man in heaven, but how are they to “see” it, i.e. to know that it is true? Not perhaps by a celestial phenomenon, but by what is happening on earth as the temple is destroyed and the reign of the “Son-of-Man-in-heaven” begins to take effect in the gathering of his chosen people. In that case the “sign” is not a preliminary warning of an event still to come, but the visible manifestation of a heavenly reality already established, that the Son of Man is in heaven sitting at the right hand of Power (26:64).
The disciples had asked for a “sign” of the parousia and the end of the age, but Jesus will give no such sign because the parousia will be sudden and unexpected (vv. 27, 36–44). He has urged them too not to interpret current events as signs of the end for Jerusalem (vv. 4–14), and while he has himself given them one cryptic sign of when that event is to be expected (v. 15) he has warned them that visible “signs and wonders” are rather the province of false prophets (v. 24). It would be consonant with that generally negative approach to the sort of “signs” the disciples (and earlier the Jewish leaders, 12:38; 16:1) wanted that the “sign” here offered is not a prior notification but simply the visible evidence of what has already been achieved.
31 The sequel to the enthronement of the Son of Man as king is the gathering together of the subjects of his kingdom, his “chosen people” (see on 22:14 and cf. 24:22, 24). They will come not only from Judea but from all over the world. As in vv. 29–30 the language continues to be drawn from OT prophecy. The gathering of God’s people from the ends of the earth is a recurrent OT theme (see on 8:11–12), but the passages most closely echoed here are Deut 30:4, which speaks of God “gathering” his people who were scattered “from the end of heaven to the end of heaven,”105 and LXX Zech 2:10 (English versions 2:6) where God says to his scattered people that “I will gather you from the four winds of heaven.” The “great trumpet blast” echoes another such regathering prophecy in Isa 27:13. These were, of course, in their original context, prophecies of the regathering of scattered Israel, but again Jesus’ discourse takes passages about the OT people of God and applies them to the “chosen people” of the Son of Man. We saw the same pattern in the OT allusions in 8:11–12, where those who would come “from east and west” would no longer be the scattered tribes of Israel but those whose faith in Jesus enabled them, like the Gentile centurion, to become members of God’s international kingdom.
The agents of this gathering will be “his angels;” see on 13:41 and 16:27 for the idea that God’s angels also serve the Son of Man in his heavenly glory (and cf. 26:53). In human terms the ingathering of the chosen people may be expected to be through the work of human “messengers,” and it would be possible to take angeloi here in that sense, which it carries in 11:10. But in all other uses in Matthew (including 16:28 which is also based on the vision of Dan 7) it denotes heavenly beings, and in this context of the heavenly authority of the Son of Man it probably refers to the spiritual power underlying human evangelization. The “great trumpet blast” which Matthew alone includes at this point also suits a more supernatural dimension to this ingathering.
Verses 29–31, as interpreted here on the basis of the OT imagery from which they are composed, thus speak of the predicted destruction of the temple from a dual perspective. On the one hand it is a climactic act of judgment, comparable to God’s earlier judgment on pagan cities and nations, but now incurred by the failure of his own people Israel. But on the other hand it is the symbol also of a new beginning, the heavenly enthronement of the Son of Man, on whom, as Daniel 7:14 had declared, will be conferred universal and everlasting sovereignty. These verses thus look forward to the new situation which will already have become reality when the risen Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (28:18) It is on the basis of that authority that he will then send his disciples to gather a new community out of all nations (28:19), and it is as a result of that ingathering that a new and far more inclusive “chosen people” will be formed to take on the mission of God’s people which had hitherto been focused in Jerusalem and its temple. As in Daniel’s vision, the loss of one power structure opens the way for another and greater one, and one which has a universality which a temple-focused system could never have achieved.
e. Summary of the Answer to the Disciples’ First Question (24:32–35)
Jesus’ answer to the question “When will these things happen?” is rounded off with three final comments:
(i)As surely as summer follows spring you may be sure that the preliminary events I have mentioned will lead directly to the “end” (vv. 32–33);
(ii)It will all be over before this generation is finished (v. 34);
(iii)You can rely on my prediction (v. 35).
None of these sayings add further substance to the answer; they simply draw out more clearly the implications of the sometimes cryptic language of the preceding sayings, and in particular the tight time-scale within which they are contained. They thus rule out decisively any suggestion that the preceding verses (apart from the anticipatory comment in v. 27) are concerned with some more ultimate “end” than the destruction of the temple which the disciples had asked about.
32–33 When a fig tree featured in the story at 21:18–20 I argued that in that context it was meant to evoke OT symbolism concerning the people of God. But there is no need to find any similar symbolism here. This is simply a proverbial-type saying which draws a simile from observation of the natural world; the fig tree is used because it is the most prominent deciduous tree in Palestine, and one whose summer fruiting was eagerly awaited.112 The appearance of its new shoots is a clear harbinger of summer, and once they appear the observer may know for sure how long it will be before the fruit is ready. In the same way the occurrence of the preliminary events (the “devastating pollution” and the Roman advance and siege) will inform Jesus’ disciples clearly that the process which will end in the temple’s destruction is under way and the end is “near, on the threshold;” note the verbal echo of v. 15 in the phrase “when you see.” Some versions (e.g. NRSV, NJB) and commentators translate “he is near,” but there is nothing in the Greek to suggest a personal subject; such a translation is suggested not by the wording of this passage but by the prior assumption that its subject is the parousia. In context it is surely more likely that “it” here is “the end” spoken of in vv. 6 and 14 (as indeed REB explicitly translates it here), whose imminence will be further underlined in v. 34.
34 Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question “When?” does not offer a specific date, but it does conclude with a definite time within which “these things” (v. 3) will take place, and that time-scale is introduced with all the solemnity of an amen-saying (see on 5:18), compounded by the emphatic negative construction which I have rather woodenly represented by “certainly not.” “Generation,” as elsewhere in Matthew, is a temporal term (note especially its use in 1:17). “This generation” has been used frequently in this gospel for Jesus’ contemporaries, especially in a context of God’s impending judgment: see 11:16; 12:39, 41–42, 45; 16:4; 17:17 and especially 23:36 where God’s judgment on “this generation” leads up to Jesus’ first prediction of the devastation of the temple in 23:38. It may safely be concluded that if it had not been for the embarrassment caused by supposing that Jesus was here talking about his parousia no one would have thought of suggesting any other meaning for “this generation,” such as “the Jewish race” or “human beings in general” or “all the generations of Judaism that reject him” or even “this kind” (meaning scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees).118 Such broad senses, even if they were lexically possible, would offer no help in response to the disciples’ question “When?” Now that we have seen that the reference is to the destruction of the temple, which did as a matter of fact take place some 40 years later while many of Jesus’ contemporaries must have been still alive, all such contrived renderings may be laid to rest. This verse refers to the same time-scale as 16:28 (which was also concerned with the fulfillment of Dan 7:13–14): “some of those standing here will certainly not taste death before …” (cf. also 10:23, with the same Daniel reference: “you will not go through all the towns of Israel before …”).
35 The first section of the discourse concludes with a ringing formula of assurance, reminiscent of OT language about the reliability of the word of God. For the formula “until heaven and earth pass away” see above on 5:18: such language is used to affirm the permanence of God’s covenant faithfulness (Isa 51:6; 54:10; Jer 31:35–36; 33:20–21, 25–26), while the impermanence of vegetation is contrasted with the permanence of God’s word (Isa 40:8). Here an even stronger formula asserts the permanent validity of the word of Jesus himself. To suggest, as some have done, that Jesus here (and presumably also in 5:18?) predicts an actual dissolution of heaven and earth as part of his vision of eschatological events is to read this proverbial language too literalistically; as in the prophetic passages just listed, the first clause functions rhetorically as a foil to the positive declaration in the second, which, with a further emphatic negative as in v. 34, underlines the total reliability of what Jesus has just said about the destruction of the temple. Even if (unthinkably) heaven and earth were to pass away, Jesus’ words will remain secure. Note the rhetorical effect of the three-fold repetition in vv. 34–35 of the verb “pass away.”
3. Jesus Answers the Question about the Parousia and the End of the Age (24:36–25:46)
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, not the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For just like the days of Noah, so will the visitation of the Son of Man be. 38 For as in the days before the flood people were feeding4 and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah got into the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so will the visitation of the Son of Man be. 40 Then there will be two men on the farm: one is taken and one left; 41 there will be two women grinding grain with a hand-mill: one is taken and one left. 42 So keep awake, since you don’t know on what day6 your lord is coming. 43 But know this: if the master of the house had known at what time of night the burglar was coming he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be broken into.9 44 So you too must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at a time you don’t expect.
45 “Well then, who is the trustworthy, sensible slave who is appointed by his master to take charge of his household and give them their rations at the proper time? 46 Happy is that slave if his master on his return finds him doing his job. 47 I tell you truly that he will put him in charge of all that he possesses. 48 But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is away a long time,’ 49 and begins to hit his fellow-slaves and to eat and drink with drunkards, 50 that slave’s master will come on a day when he doesn’t expect him and at an hour he doesn’t know about, 51 and he will cut him in two and will consign him to the fate of the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
25.1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten girls13 who took their torches and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were silly and five were sensible: 3 the silly ones took their torches but didn’t take any oil with them, 4 while the sensible ones took oil in jars along with their torches. 5 As the bridegroom was a long time coming, the girls all nodded off and were soon fast asleep. 6 But in the middle of the night there was a shout, ‘Here comes the bridegroom; go out to meet3. him.’ 7 Then all those girls woke up and got their torches ready. 8 But the silly ones said to the sensible ones, ‘Give us some of your oil: our torches are going out.’ 9 The sensible ones replied, ‘No way; there would never be enough for us and you. Instead, go to the oil-sellers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were going off to buy oil the bridegroom arrived. Then those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. 11 Later the other girls arrived, and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘I tell you truly, I don’t know you.’ 13 So keep awake, because you don’t know the day or the hour.
14 “It’s like when a man who was going away from home called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 To one of them he gave five talents, to another two, and to another just one, depending on each one’s ability; then he went away. 16 The slave who had been given five talents went straight off and traded with them; and he made another five. 17 In the same way the slave who was given two made another two. 18 But the one who was given only one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. 19 A long time later the master of those slaves came back and settled accounts with them. 20 And the slave who was given the five talents came to him and presented him with five talents more; ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you left me with five talents: look, I’ve made another five talents.’ 21 ‘Well done, you good, trustworthy slave,’ said his master. ‘You’ve been trustworthy over a few things; I’ll put you in charge of many things. Come in and share your master’s happiness.’ 22 The slave who was given the two talents also came to him and said, ‘Master, you left me with two talents: look, I’ve made another two talents.’ 23 ‘Well done, you good, trustworthy slave,’ said his master. ‘You’ve been trustworthy over a few things; I’ll put you in charge of many things. Come in and share your master’s happiness.’ 24 But then the slave who had received one talent also came to him and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you didn’t sow and collecting from places where you didn’t scatter. 25 So I was afraid and went and buried your talent in the ground; here, you have your own back.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked, cowardly slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and collect from places where I didn’t scatter?22 27 Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and then I would have got my own back with interest when I came back. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 (For to everyone who has, more will be given and they will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.) 30 And take the useless slave and throw him out into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will take his seat on his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be gathered in front of him, and he will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 he will place the sheep on his right side and the goats on his left. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed: inherit the kingship which has been prepared for you since the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a foreigner and you made me your guest, 36 naked and you gave me clothes, I was ill and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous ones will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a foreigner and make you our guest, or naked and give you clothes? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and come to you?’ 40 And the king will respond, ‘I tell you truly, in so far as you did these things for one of these my smallest brothers and sisters, you did them for me.’ 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Go away from me, you who have been cursed, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a foreigner and you did not make me your guest, naked and you gave me no clothes, I was ill and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or ill or in prison and not look after you?’ 45 Then he will reply, ‘I tell you truly, in so far as you did not do these things for one of these smallest ones, you did not do them for me.’ 46 Then these people will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous ones to eternal life.”
In the introductory comments on 24:3–25:46 (see above pp. 890–894) I have explained why I think it important to keep this very long second part of the discourse together as a single section. After Jesus has answered the first part of the disciples’ question, “When will these things [the destruction of the temple] happen?,” he now turns to the second part of the question, “What will be the sign of your parousia and the end of the age?,” and that question provides the agenda for the whole of the rest of the discourse, which culminates in a majestic depiction of the final judgment in 25:31–46. The unexpected and unpredictable arrival of the parousia is described in a collection of shorter sayings in 24:36–44, and this programmatic section is then underlined by a series of three parables (24:45–51; 25:1–13; 25:14–30) which all focus on the theme of awaiting the imminent arrival of an authority figure, and the need to have made appropriate provision so as not to be caught unprepared and punished. The final pericope of the discourse (25:31–46) takes up the same theme, not now in the form of a parable (see below, p. 960) but in a judgment scene which explains the basis of the final verdict, when the division between the saved and the lost will be irrevocable. Here too the element of surprise dominates. Throughout this whole long section Jesus deliberately refuses to give the disciples the “sign” they have asked for. The timing of the parousia and the final judgment cannot be calculated and foreseen. Readiness for those climactic events can only be achieved by living all the time in such a way that their unannounced arrival need not be a disaster but rather a time of praise and reward for a life well lived and opportunities well taken. Each parable in turn adds further substance to the reader’s understanding of what it means to be ready.
The first part of the disciples’ question has received a specific answer in vv. 1–35; we now know, in broad terms, “when” that event is to take place—before this generation is over. But no such answer can be offered to the second part, because the events of which it speaks are not part of predictable history. And so there can be no “sign” of Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age. That would be the easy way out, but what God requires of his people is not a last-minute turning over of a new leaf prompted by a warning “sign,” but a life of constant readiness.
Several features in the wording of v. 36, and of the following passage, make it clear that a new subject is taken up at this point:
1. “But about …” (peri de) occurred similarly in 22:31 to mark a change of subject, when Jesus turned from the specific question which had been asked to deal with the basic theology which prompted it. Paul uses the same phrase several times in 1 Corinthians (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12) to move from one of the issues raised by his correspondents to another (cf. also 1 Thes 4:9; 5:1; Acts 21:25). In each case peri de is the rhetorical formula for a new beginning. The analogy with 1 Corinthians indicates that here the phrase marks the transition from the first of the two questions asked in v. 3 to the second.
2. “That day and hour” is the first mention in this discourse of a singular “day” or “hour,” in clear contrast to the plural “those days” which has been used in vv. 19, 22, 29 for the period of the Roman war. The singular “day” (or, in some MSS, “hour”; see p. 932, n. 6) will recur in 24:42, the “hour” in 24:44, and both “day” and “hour” in 24:50 and 25:13; in each case the term is now singular. This shift in terminology marks the change of subject. The demonstrative “that day” serves to remind the reader of the “day” of the parousia which was the subject of the second part of the disciples’ question. See also below on v. 36 for the idiom “that day” as a recognized term for the day of judgment.
3. Whereas vv. 4–35 have spoken of an event whose time can be predicted (v. 34) and for whose coming signs can be given (so especially v. 15), from here on Jesus speaks of an event whose time is both unknown and unknowable, and which will therefore come without prior warning. If even Jesus himself, who has just given a solemn and confident prediction of the time when “all these things” are going to happen, confesses himself ignorant of “that day and hour,” it is surely obvious that the subject has changed.
4. The event predicted in vv. 4–35 has been described as the “coming of the Son of Man,” using the participle erchomenos which echoes the vision of Dan 7:13–14. The only mention of the parousia in that section was to say that it will not be like the events of those days (v. 27). But now the term parousia (which does not occur in the Greek translations of Dan 7:13–14) comes into play in vv. 37, 39. Since this was the term used in the second part of the disciples’ question, it is clear that it is that second issue which is now being addressed.
5. Negatively it should be noted that whereas vv. 4–35 were linked by repeated uses of temporal connections (“then,” “in those days,” “immediately after,” “it is near”) there is no such temporal introduction to this paragraph. Its contents stand apart from the historical sequence hitherto described.
This long second section of the discourse is then in the proper sense of the word “eschatological,” unlike the first part which dealt with events within history. Apart from the opening declaration in v. 36 it is almost entirely independent of Mark. Matthew, following the same anthological principle as in the other discourses, has collected here a range of material, some of which has parallels in Luke’s eschatological sections in Luke 17:26–35 and 12:39–46, which speaks not now of striking events within history, but of the future and final visitation of the Son of Man, and of the fate of those who are and are not ready for his appearance. And it concludes, appropriately, with a judgment scene which relates not specifically to Jerusalem or to the Jewish people but to “all the nations,” gathered before the enthroned Son of Man in his heavenly glory.
Included within this sequence of parables are a number of references to the long time which may elapse before the parousia takes place: see on 24:48; 25:5; 25:19. Probably already by the time Matthew wrote there were those who were surprised and disappointed that it had not yet happened (cf. 2 Thes 2:1–3; 2 Peter 3:3–10), and the wording of these three parables (and indeed the element of extended absence which is built into their story lines) recognizes that problem. But alongside the recognition of delay is the warning of imminence: an unknown time may be near as well as distant. To reckon on an assumption of delay and so to postpone readiness is to court disaster. It is how God’s people are living now that will be the key to their fate at the end. This message is as relevant to readers two millennia on as it was to Matthew’s readers a generation or two after Jesus spoke these words. Delay and imminence are not in conflict: they are the two sides of the same coin which is a time which no one knows or can know.
The comments on this long section will be subdivided, using the very obvious subsections (general statement, three parables, and concluding judgment scene) noted in the first paragraph above.
a. The Unknown Time of the Parousia (24:36–44)
This short section sets out three connected aspects of the parousia: (a) the time of the parousia is unknown (v. 36); (b) therefore it will catch people unawares (vv. 37–41); (c) therefore disciples must always be ready (vv. 42–44). Vivid illustrations from histor y and from ordinary life underline the second and third points: point (b) is illustrated by the sudden irruption of the Genesis flood into normal life and by the banal occupations of people who will suddenly find themselves divided; point (c) is illustrated by the householder who is unprepared for the coming of the burglar. All three points rule out the sort of warning “sign” which the disciples had asked for, and their request is thus firmly refused.
But this section does not spell out in what way a disciple should aim to “be ready” (v. 44), and the call to “keep awake” (v. 42) may seem to suggest that life must be lived in a constant state of red alert which probably already for readers in Matthew’s day, and certainly for those two thousand years later, seems hardly realistic: normal life must surely go on. It will be the function of the following parables to explore this question, and their cumulative effect will be to suggest that “being ready” is to be understood more ethically than intellectually. It demands a continuously acceptable lifestyle, not an attempt to calculate the timing of the parousia so as to “prepare” specifically for that event. The final scene in 25:31–46 will reveal that the criteria of judgment relate not to conscious alertness but to a life lived, even unknowingly, as Jesus would have it lived. This suggests that we should be cautious of reading too much into the picture-language of “keeping awake,” which depends on the following illustration of the householder and the burglar, but which is in striking contrast to the fact that all ten girls, not just the silly ones, will go to sleep while waiting in 25:5. When the passage is taken as a whole it becomes clear that parable and metaphor should not be interpreted too prosaically.
36 The preceding pages have explained what is the subject-matter of this surprising declaration. “That day” refers back to the day of Jesus’ parousia which was the subject of the second half of the disciples’ question (v. 3). The phrase is appropriate also in that it reflects the frequent OT references to the “day” of Yahweh. This gospel has already spoken of “the day of judgment” in 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36, and the phrase “that day” clearly has the same reference in 7:22, without the identity of the “day” needing to be spelled out (see comments there). In 7:22 it is Jesus himself (not God, as in the OT) who appears as the judge “on that day,” and that theme will be developed also in the rest of this discourse until it reaches its climax in 25:31–34 where it is the Son of Man who sits on “his” glorious throne as “the king” and judges all the nations (cf. also 13:41; 16:27–28; 19:28).
But for now that role of the Son of Man remains unspoken, and instead we have the remarkable paradox that “the Son,” who is to play the central role in that “day,” is himself ignorant of when it will be. That God should keep his angels in ignorance of so crucial an event is remarkable enough (see also 1 Peter 1:12 for divine secrets apparently hidden from angels), but “the Son” is uniquely close to his Father, as we have seen in 11:27, and the same title will appear in 28:19 as part of the trinitarian formula for the God to whom disciples’ allegiance is pledged. In view of that usage, and especially of the way it is developed in 11:27, it is clear that “the Son” (an abbreviation which appears only alongside “the Father”) is short for “the Son of God;” the fixed phrase “the Son of Man” is never so abbreviated.
The structure of this saying places “the Son” on a level above the angels, second only to the Father. But this high christology (for which see further on 11:27) is combined with a frank admission of ignorance. This saying has accordingly been one of the main evidences used for a “kenotic” christology, which accepts the full divinity of the Son but argues that for the period of his incarnation certain divine attributes (in this case omniscience) were voluntarily put aside. Such arguments, however, belong to a much later period of Christian dogmatic development. For Matthew perhaps the paradox was not so much a matter of doctrinal embarrassment (as it became for later copyists, see p. 931, n. 1) but rather of wonder at the relationship between Father and Son which is implied here and in 11:27, one which combines a uniquely close relationship with a recognition of priority or subordination, a paradox neatly summed up in the Johannine declarations “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “The Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28) For a similar recognition of the priority of the Father cf. 20:23.
For the idea that only God knows the time of the eschatological consummation cf. Ps. Sol. 17:21; 2 Bar. 21:8 (and probably Zech 14:7). It is picked up also in Acts 1:7.
37–39 If the time of the parousia is unknown, it follows that people will be caught unawares. The previous mention of the parousia in v. 27 has used the image of lightning to portray both its unmistakable nature and also its suddenness. It is a universal event, not a hole-and-corner occurrence (in the wilderness or the store-rooms, v. 26) which most of the world would be able to ignore. Everyone will be affected by it. In all these ways the sudden and universal onset of the flood as described in Gen 7:6–24 provides a powerful analogy; people were caught unawares, no one could evade it, and only those who had made advance preparation escaped—a point which will be picked up especially in the parables of 25:1–30. The description of normal life in v. 38 underlines the lack of any prior warning: things were carrying on just as they had always done (as the “scoffers” observe in 2 Peter 3:4). But the time of normal banality is potentially also the time of danger.
40–41 The sense of everyday banality continues. What could be more normal and unthreatening than working on the farm or grinding grain? Yet in those routine situations there will be a sudden crisis which will result in one “taken” while the other is left behind. But where are the unlucky (or lucky?) ones “taken” and for what purpose? The verb is paralambanō rather than a simple lambanō, and if the compound is more than just a stylistic variation it might be understood to mean “take to oneself” (as in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17). If the passive verbs are understood as “divine passives” that would mean that God has taken selected people to himself, leaving the rest to continue their life on earth. Some have therefore suggested that this passage speaks of a “rapture” of the faithful to heaven before judgment falls on the earth. This is not the place to investigate the complex dispensational scheme which underlies this nineteenth-century theory, but it should be noted that in so far as this passage forms a basis for that theology it rests on an uncertain foundation. We are not told where or why they are “taken”, and the similar sayings in vv. 17–18 about people caught out in the course of daily life by the Roman advance presupposed a situation of threat rather than of rescue; to be “taken” in such cicumstances would be a negative experience, and Matthew will use paralambanō in a similarly threatening context in 27:27. The verb in itself does not determine the purpose of the “taking,” and it could as well be for judgment (as in Jer 6:11) as for refuge. In the light of the preceding verses, when the flood “swept away” the unprepared, that is probably the more likely sense here.
The different fates of two apparently similar people (as also the different fates of Noah and his contemporaries) raise the issue of “readiness:” what is it that will determine who is and is not “taken”? The example of Noah suggests that it is not purely arbitrary, and the rest of the discourse will explore the basis of the division between the saved and the lost, which reaches its climax in the separation of good and bad in the judgment scene in 25:31–46. For the moment saved and lost live and work together (as in the parable of the weeds, 13:30), but when “that day” comes the separation will be made and will be final.
42 This is the only call to “keep awake” in Matthew’s version of the discourse (except for its inappropriate insertion at 25:13; see comments there), as compared with its insistent repetition in Mark 13:33–37 (together with the related charge to avoid sleep in the verb agrypneō). The following parables, with their message about being prepared in advance and living a continuously good life, suggest that Matthew had a less frenetic approach to “readiness” than Mark (and Paul; see 1 Thes 5:1–7), and the acceptance in 25:5 that it is alright to sleep suggests a different perspective. But the call to be ready at any time is nonetheless appropriately symbolized by staying awake, as the simile in the next verse will show.
The event for which they must be ready is described as the day when “your lord comes.” The language anticipates the following parable (vv. 46, 50) where the kyrios is the returning master of the slaves; so also in 25:19. Indeed in the parallel at Mark 13:35 this kyrios is explicitly the “master of the house” (referring back to a different mini-parable in Mark 13:34 which Matthew does not include). But the Christian reader will naturally identify the “Lord” as Jesus, and so will think of the “day” (cf. v. 36) of the parousia of the Son of Man, even though the term parousia will not be used again. In its place here is the ordinary verb erchomai, “come,” but not now with the accompanying terms “the Son of Man” and “on the clouds of heaven” which in v. 30 indicated a primary allusion to the enthronement scene in Dan 7:13–14. In v. 44 the same verb will be used with the Son of Man as subject and clearly also with reference to the parousia as here, and it may be that in these uses of erchomai we have an allusive hint that the parousia may be viewed as a further and final fulfillment of that enthronement vision. That would tally with the use of Dan 7:13–14 language in 19:28 and 25:31–34 with reference to the “new age” and the final judgment (see comments on 10:23): the heavenly authority of the Son of Man which is to be demonstrated through the events of the Roman war according to v. 30 will be finally consummated in his parousia at the end of the age. But that may be to read too much into so everyday a word as erchomai here, especially when the following parable gives it a sense quite appropriate to the story line without demanding also an OT allusion.
43 Jesus’ metaphor of the coming of a burglar as a model for the unexpected time of the parousia made a strong impression on the early church: cf. Luke 12:39; 1 Thes 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15; Gos. Thom. 21,103. Here it takes the form of a mini-parable about a householder and his loss. Surprise is the essence of burglary, and he was caught napping. That is how it is bound to be at the parousia, because everyone, like the householder, is ignorant of “the day and the hour”. In this imagery, as in the “keep awake” of v. 42, the call seems to be for a constant alert, since no amount of calculation can anticipate the surprise; but the following parables will suggest a different perspective on how one may be ready.
44 The message of vv. 36–43 is now summed up in a clear call to be ready for the parousia at any time. The burglar illustrates not only that the time of the parousia is unknown, but more specifically that it will be “a time you don’t expect.” So the moral of v. 43 is directly applied to the disciples (“you too,” like the householder), but not now in terms of staying awake as in v. 42 but of “being ready.” The following parables will begin to unpack what “readiness” for the parousia and the judgment means, but perhaps the preceding verses already give the reader a clue. Noah and his family may not have been able to predict the exact date of the flood (and are unlikely to have lain awake waiting for it), but when it came they were ready, while the rest of the world was caught out. In the same way disciples can have no more idea than anyone else just when the parousia will occur, but they have been forewarned that it will come, and so they, unlike others, can be prepared to survive the crisis. Jesus will now go on to spell out how.