Friday, May 30
Matthew 22:34-46: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, meet again among themselves (verse 34). One of their number, likely representing the rest, approaches Jesus to test Him (verse 35).
Matthew’s version of this story differs considerably in tone from the parallel text in Mark 12:28, where the questioner appears well disposed toward Jesus. The corresponding text in Luke 10:25 comes much earlier in the narrative, in a quite different setting, where it introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Matthew, however, the question put to Jesus is integral to the series of skirmishes between Jesus and His enemies (21:15—22:46), which precedes the Lord’s lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the next chapter (which is also proper to Matthew). The present scene also takes up the theme of biblical interpretation, which was inaugurated in the previous story (verses 23-33).
Some manuscripts call the questioner in this story a “lawyer” (nomikos). Inasmuch as this word is not found elsewhere in Matthew and is missing in the better manuscripts of this passage, it is possible that an early copyist borrowed the term from the parallel account in Luke 10:25.
The rabbinic tradition counted up to 613 Commandments in the Torah, 248 of them positive (“you shall”) and 365 of them negative (“you shall not”)—one for each day of the year. The were not considered all to be of the same weight. The prohibition against idolatry, for instance, clearly carried more weight than laws about the maintenance of a man’s sideburns.
Jesus answers the questioner by reciting part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day (Deuteronomy 6:5). As Matthew cites the text, he slightly alters (“mind,” or dianoia, instead of “strength,” or dynamis) the LXX reading. We notice that Mark’s text includes the whole Shema.
Jesus cites only two positive commandments, not the prohibitions. Love is the fundamental commandment on which all the others rest.
As the Sadducees had failed to notice the implications of Exodus 3:14-15, so the Pharisees had somehow missed the true meaning of (and relationship between) Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Not really loving God, they have also not loved their neighbor, whom they were currently plotting to kill. They were not rendering unto God the things that are God’s (verse 21).
Matthew’s version of the second commandment is more strongly expressed than in Mark. It is “like unto” the first.
We should also read the account of these two commandments as addressing a practical pastoral question posed in the church for which Matthew wrote. In that Jewish Christian congregation it was of great importance to know how the Lord wanted the Law to be observed. All the Law, says Jesus’ answer, hangs on (krematai) these two commandments. Since this was the Lord’s own perspective on the matter, it is not surprising that His answer is essentially what we find in the various writers of the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
Since Matthew (unlike Mark and Luke) places these two verses of the Torah in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, we suspect that on this point (“which is the greatest commandment”) such a dispute continued between the Pharisees and Matthew’s Christians.
The Apostle John reverses the order of these two commandments, not in an absolute sense, but in the sense that the second commandment is the easier to check on. He writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
The inquirer had asked only about the Torah, but Jesus says that these two commandments dominate not only the Torah but also the prophets (verse 40).
While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence (verses 41-46), He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
Saturday, May 31
Matthew 23:1-10: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter’s construction as a whole and its setting in the last week of Jesus’ life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.
The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees (verses 1-10). It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.
This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.
This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!
In what respect are they not to be imitated? First, they lay heavy burdens on men’s backs. In context these are the burdens of legalism, a weight that makes the service of God onerous and unbearable (verse 4). This is a form of religious oppression. These “heavy burdens,” which contrast with the “light burden” of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.
It is worth mentioning, in this context, that legalism tends to return to the Christian Church from time to time, though no longer associated with the Mosaic Law. We are seldom short of Christians who like to oppress their brethren with an endless recitation of rules and rubrics. This sort of mentality renders the service of God a dreadful burden. It constitutes a scandal in the strict sense of turning men from the love and service of God.
The real motive of the Pharisees, however, was nothing but unsubtle self-aggrandizement (verses 5-7). A phylactery is a small leather box containing passages from Holy Scripture. These were worn strapped to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers, a rather literal interpretation of Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and 11:13-22. The rabbis referred to these as tefillin. The fringes are the tassels that adorn the prayer shawl, in accord with Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12.
By implication Matthew encourages Christians to avoid this sort of preoccupation, and he explicitly rejects the use of certain honorific titles (verses 8-10). With respect to the title of “Rabbi” (“my lord”), it is worth noting that in Matthew’s Gospel only Judas addresses Jesus by this title (26:25,49).
For Christians, who are to serve one another humbly as members of the same family, these displays are negative examples.
Matthew then begins a series of “Woes” against the scribes and Pharisees (verse 13).
Sunday, June 1
Acts 5:1-11: The story of the generosity of Barnabas, with which the previous chapter close (4:36-37), is now contrasted with the stinginess and duplicity of Ananias and Sapphira
The sin of this couple, though doubtless motivated by selfishness, was characterized by a level of malice well beyond that motive. Their sin had to do with the “heart,” a word that appears in both verses 3 and 4. Their lie was directed at the Holy Spirit (verses 3 and 9).
The verb nosphizein, “to hold back,” is found in only two places in Holy Scripture: here and in Joshua 7:1, a circumstance that should prompt us to read this account in Acts against the background of Achan’s punishment (cf. Joshua 7:6-26; 22:20; First Chronicles 2:7). In each case, men keep for themselves what belongs to God.
What happened to this Jerusalem couple inspired a “great fear” (phobos megas) in the congregation and elsewhere (verses 5 and 11), as well it should, for they had “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29). Sins directly against the Holy Spirit are a particularly grievous kind of offense, against which we are warned in the sternest terms (cf. Mark 3:29).
Monday, June 2
1 Samuel 17: The Philistines, who arrive in the Holy Land about the same time as the Israelites, arrived from the Greek coastlands and islands. Indeed, the Egyptians called them “the sea peoples.” Thus, they were Europeans, whose ways were quite alien to the Semites whom they invaded. Indeed, the Philistines were very much the same people described in Homer and other ancient Greek literature. We are correct, therefore, in regarding them as the first Western invaders of the Middle East. Thus, there is a special irony in the fact that the very name of these invaders, “Philistines,” is the root word that eventually gave its name to the region they invaded, “Palestine.”
Two things are notable about this text.
First, we observe the attention given to single-handed combat, a feature that this story has in common with so many battle scenes in Homer. Because so much of ancient warfare was hand-to-hand, stories of individual heroism tended to dominate ancient epic accounts of battle. Although thousands of men fought on both sides of the Trojan War, for instance, the interest of the poet was largely directed to just a few outstanding warriors on each side, whose battles he describes in dramatic detail. In this respect the present chapter of 1 Samuel almost reads like a page of Homer.
Second, in that classical literature the significance of such battles was indicated to the reader through the dialogue in which the battles were set. Thus, for instance, the significance of the fight between Hector and Patroclus is to be found in the brief speeches that each man gives in preparation for the encounter. The same is to be said for the final fight between Achilles and Hector. We find much the same thing here in 1 Samuel. The significance—in this case, the theological significance—of the fight between David and Goliath is to be found in the seventeen speeches in this chapter, most particularly in David’s remarks to Goliath. In these speeches it becomes obvious that the real victor in this encounter is the God for whom David fights.
Tuesday, June 3
Matthew 24:1-14: There are few parts of the Gospels so problematic as the discourse of Jesus contained in this chapter. The corresponding text in Mark 13, which is clearly the major source for Matthew 24, is the longest private instruction of our Lord recorded in Mark.
In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.
With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.
This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).
The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”
This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.
When the disciples approached Jesus with their question, He was looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives (verse 3), an especially appropriate place to discuss the “last things” (cf. Zechariah 14:4). The question posed by the disciples seems to combine the Temple’s destruction with the end of the world. Only Matthew speaks of “the end of the world” here. This expression will, in due course, be the last words in his Gospel (28:20).
Mark specifies that the question was answered to the first four Apostles that had been called.
Wednesday, June 4
Matthew 24:15-28: This section of Matthew, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.
In verse 15 the bdelygma tou eremoseos–literally “the Abomination of Desolation”–is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64). The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.
We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”
Matthew repeats Mark’s parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both Mark and Matthew had in mind.
Luke (21:20), on the other hand, appears to use this term to describe the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem in A.D. 70 All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. For Luke this dominical prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).
This diversity among the gospels should tell us of a certain fluidity of understanding of prophetic discourses of this sort. It should warn us of the exegetical perils of trying to pin down this kind of prophecy with scientific precision. As we see in the present instance, even the infallible gospel writers recognized this fluid quality of eschatological prophecy. The very images of the prophecy render it open to more than one interpretation.
After all, the function of such prophecy is not to convey information, but to encourage vigilance.
The first particular of the exhortation is flight to the mountains (verse 16), which is exactly what the Maccabees did during the crisis of 167 B.C. Their flight, we recall, was not a surrender. It provided, rather, the opportunity to organize and consolidate their resistance to the enemy. Likewise, all Christian flight is intended as a means of carrying on the battle. Sometimes, in order to be victorious, there is a need for a strategic withdrawal for the purpose of achieving later advantage.
As when a house is on fire, the necessary thing is immediate flight, so the person on the roof must descend by the exterior stairs and not go into the house to retrieve anything (verse 17). He must not, like Mrs. Lot, look back. The Great Tribulation requires leaving behind a great deal. It is a time for decision, not dilly-dally. Such a requirement was illustrated in the vocations of the Apostles, who immediately left everything at the summons of Jesus.
The same abnegation is enjoined on those working in the fields. They must not come back to retrieve their possessions, particularly the cloak that they left beside the field while they worked (verse 18). They must not turn around (opiso). For obvious reasons the flight will be especially hard on pregnant and nursing mothers, who are among the most vulnerable members of any society (verse 19).
If the flight comes in winter, it will naturally be harder, both because of the loss of one’s cloak and because of the more severe weather, including the rising of the waters during rainy season (verse 20).
Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, “And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.” During the Maccabean persecution, many Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath, a day on which they were reluctant to fight back (1 Maccabees 2:29-41). In addition, a flight on the Sabbath day, if one kept the Sabbath day strictly, would not extend very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.
This period is what Matthew calls the Great Tribulation, thlipsis megale (verse 21; cf. verse 29). It is history’s ultimate trial. The description of this period seems to be drawn from the Greek text of Daniel 12:1, which introduces the victory and the resurrection of God’s righteous ones.
That Great Tribulation will be shortened, says our Lord, for the sake of the elect (verse 22). As everywhere in the New Testament, this reference is to the Christians, who have become God’s Chosen People.
What is the Great Tribulation? In principle it is all the time prior to the return of the Lord (verse 30). Some periods of history, however, seem more especially to embody the characteristics of the Tribulation. The church at Thessaloniki in Macedonia experienced this thlipsis almost immediately after its founding. In the first chapter of the earliest piece of Christian literature, for example, St. Paul wrote, “And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction (en thlipsi), with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
The same was true for the church at Smyrna in Asia Minor, to whom St. John wrote, “I know your works, tribulation (thlipsin), and poverty (but you are rich); and the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation (thlipsin) ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:9-10. The word is found 45 times in the New Testament.
What is required is vigilance, prayer (verse 20), abnegation, and resolute decision. Some periods of history make these requirements especially stringent.
Thursday, June 5
Matthew 24:29-35: The coming destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Jesus, is seen by Matthew to be both a symbol and a first stage, as it were, of the final times of the world (as in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:20), when Jesus will return in glory to judge. The sounding of the trumpet and the dispatching of the gathering angels (verse 31) were standard images of the world’s last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New Testament’s earliest book (First Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of Matthew’s next chapter (25:31-46).
These verses, a very precise prophecy about a specific and definitive event, give the lie to any attempt to make Jesus a calm, benign, harmless teacher of general religious theory. This is a prophecy of His return to earth at the end of time, and the Christian Church has always read it that way.
We may consider first the end of time, indicated by the inability of the astral bodies any longer to govern day and night: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (verse 29). This is a destruction of the fourth day of Creation: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:14-18).
The blotting out of the sun and moon also puts the reader in mind of the ninth plague of Egypt and the terror that accompanied that event.
The sun’s failure to give light was also spoken of in the Book of Isaiah, as characteristic of the Day of the Lord: “For the stars of heaven and their constellations/ Will not give their light;/ The sun will be darkened in its going forth,/ And the moon will not cause its light to shine” (13:10;cf 24:23; 34:4). Other prophets spoke of covering that would prevent the heavenly bodies from giving their light (Ezekiel 37:2; Joel 2:10; 3:15), but the description here in Matthew seems more cataclysmic. One thinks of Joel 2:31 (“The sun shall be turned into darkness,/ And the moon into blood,/ Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”) and how it was quoted in the first apostolic sermon (Acts 2:20).
In the Book of Revelation this image is associated with the sixth seal and the wrath of the Lamb (6:12-17).
In Matthew, unlike the Old Testament prophecies, this imagery is connected to the coming of the Son of Man. That is to say, in Matthew the darkening of the astral bodies is not only cosmological but also Christological. It represents not only the destruction of Creation but the end of history. It symbolizes the end of time.
In verse 30 the “sign” of the Son of Man precedes His appearance in the heavens. This sign should probably be understood as an ensign or banner. It appears with a trumpet blast, suggesting the approach of an army. It also directly answers the question of the apostles that had begun this whole discourse: ““Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (verse 3). That is to say, Jesus is still addressing that initial inquiry—How are we to know about the end of the world and the return of Christ?
The question of the Lord’s return in judgment was, from the beginning, an integral component of the Gospel itself. It was part of the call to repentance, as we see in the second apostolic sermon: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:19-21).
So integral to the Good News was this second, judgmental coming of Christ that Paul was unable to omit it even from his sermon on the Areopagus, where he managed to omit even the message of the Cross: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). It was simply part of the call to repentance and could not be left out.
This doctrine of Christ’s return is clear likewise from the epistolary literature, beginning with the first chapter of the earliest epistle: “For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). When Paul expands on this theme in the fourth chapter of that epistle, we observe that his point of emphasis—what most needed elucidation—was not the Lord’s return, which was taken for granted, but the resurrection of the dead in Christ (4:16-17).
His return will be a time of universal judgment, which is why “all the nations of the earth will mourn” (cf. Zechariah 12:10-12). All the nations of the world, as we shall see in Matthew 25, will be judged by the identical standard. Now allowance will be made for regional or cultural differences of ethics. On the contrary, it is the cultures themselves which will be judged. Hence it will make no difference whether this or that is “culturally acceptable.” This is why “all the tribes of the earth will mourn.” The Son of Man alone will determine the criteria of the final judgment.
It is no exaggeration to say that this claim of Jesus was the point on which the spiritual leaders of Israel condemned Him. This is indicated in the description of His trial before the Sanhedrin: “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’
They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (26:63-66).
In fact, this is the most monumental and definitive personal claim ever to be made by a human being—the claim to be the final arbiter of history, the ultimate adjudicator of the individual lives of all men, and the judge of all the nations.
It is the angels, we note in verse 31, who gather all men for judgment (cf. 13:49-50; 25:31).
As in all the Lord’s eschatological discourse up till now, the “subtext” is the Book of Daniel, to which explicit reference was in verse 15. More specifically now, Matthew has in mind another scene from Daniel: “I was watching in the night visions,/ And behold, One like the Son of Man,/ Coming with the clouds of heaven!/ He came to the Ancient of Days,/ And they brought Him near before Him./ Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,/ That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him./His dominion is an everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:13-14). Matthew will return to this Danielic scene in the closing verses of his Gospel: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (28:18).
These prophecies are now followed by an extended exhortation to vigilance (24:32—25:30). This exhortation begins with three illustrations, the first drawn from nature (verses 32-36), the second from biblical history (verses 37-44), and the third from common social expectations (verses 45-51).
The first is the example of a fig tree, from which, Jesus says, we should “learn the parable” (mathete ten parabolen–verse 32). This lesson is of whole cloth with the constant pattern of Jesus to invoke the plants, animals, and other “natural” things in order to appreciate the mysteries of the Kingdom (cf. 6:26-30). In the present case Jesus goes to something in nature in order to understand something in history; as the nearness of summer can be perceived in the qualities of the fig tree, so the nearness of the Messiah’s coming can be perceived through certain historical indicators (verse 33). The Lord has already told us ahead of time what these indicators are (verse 25).
These signs were already visible in the geopolitics, but especially the Jewish politics, of His own day. Consequently, He says, the generation that would witness its consummation was already alive: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (verse 34). The generation that would see “all these things”–panta tavta–was already walking the earth.
What were “all these things”? Surely they included the details of the Lord’s immediate prophecy: the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the rise of false messiahs and false prophets, the planetary disruptions, all preceding the coming of the Son of Man to judge the world.
In what sense, then, did “this generation” see “all these things”? After all, “this generation” had largely died off by the time that Matthew wrote. Yet Matthew includes this saying of Jesus.
In fact this was a puzzle for the first Christians no less than for us. Indeed, it was probably a greater puzzle for them than for us. We know that many Christians apparently presumed that they would be alive to witness the return of Christ. Notice how Paul described the Lord’s return in his first epistle: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep” (First Thessalonians 4:15 emphasis added). It is “we,” says Paul, who will witness the event. He goes on to speak with considerable assurance on the matter: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17, emphasis added).
As Paul’s epistles are studied chronologically, it is interesting to observe how the Apostle becomes less certain on this point. By the time of Second Timothy it is gone all together, as Paul prepares for his imminent death.
When Christ did not return within the limits of “this generation,” as the earliest Christians seemed to have understood this expression, they were obliged to re-think the question of the imminence of that return. Such a rethinking continues to the present day, it may be said; the Church continues to ponder the signs of history under the guidance of the Lord’s prophetic word.
The great temptation, when a prophecy has not been completely understood, is to become skeptical of the prophecy itself. This also happened during New Testament times, and the phenomenon became yet another sign of the final times. Thus, St. Peter exhorted believers to “be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:2-4).
In fact, the indications of imminence that we find in verses 32-34 of this chapter of Matthew are but one side of a balance. The other side is verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only.” These are the two sides of the balance: imminent signs and utter secrecy. What Christ gives us by way of prophecy must not deteriorate into some sort of historical tabulation. Eschatological prophecy must not become a divine bus schedule, as it were, by which we can see if things are going as planned.
Jesus is emphatic on this point: God has not shared His plan. The explicit and detailed nature of the Lord’s prophecy, and even the imminence of its fulfillment, do not remove the secret nature of its content. Its fulfillment is still concealed in the mind of God; it has not been shared with the angels, nor has it been disclosed even to Jesus. It remains the unrevealed mystery.
What Jesus does know, however, He shares with us, and this is the practical point to which we cling: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (verse 35). In this verse we have the pivot joining the two sides of the balance. His words are more reliable than heaven and earth.
In saying this, Jesus affirms about history what He had earlier said about the Torah: “For Amen, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (5:18).
The sense of immediacy in verses 33-34 will be further qualified in what remains of this exhortation to vigilance. Three times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will speak of a “delay” with respect to His return (verse 48; 25:5,19). These sayings, which are proper to Matthew, surely reflect the passage of one generation of Christians to the next.
Friday, June 6
Matthew 24:36-42: The second illustration, in the extended exhortation to vigilance, is the example of Noah at the time of the flood. All the signs of impending danger were present, but only Noah was able to read them. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (11:7).
But Noah not only lived in righteousness; he also proclaimed righteousness. The Apostle Peter referred to him as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and late in the first century Clement of Rome wrote that “Noah preached repentance, and those who heeded him were saved” (7.6).
This picture of Noah as a righteous preacher of repentance came to the early Christians from Jewish lore about that famous builder of the ark. Flavius Josephus wrote of Noah’s relationship to his contemporaries in this way: “Noah was most uncomfortable with their actions, and, not at all happy with their conduct, he persuaded them to improve their dispositions and their actions. Seeing, nonetheless, that they did not obey him but remained slaves to their own wicked desires, he feared that they would slay him, together with his wife and children, as well as the spouses of the latter, so he departed out of that land” (Antiquities 13.1).
Unable to convert his contemporaries, Noah then followed the divine leading to build an ark for the delivery of his family. He knew that God intended to flood the earth and destroy its wicked. This is what things will be like, says our Lord, at the end of the world.
The similarity between “days of Noah” and the “advent” (parousia–verses 3,27,37,39) of the Son of Man consists in the suddenness of the crisis. Not until it is actually upon them do men realize what is happening. It is literally a kataklysmos (verses 38,39), from the verb klyzo, “to wash over,” “to wash away.” The people in Noah’s time, like those at the beginning of The Plague, by Albert Camus, were living what they thought were normal lives, not expecting the catastrophe about to befall them. This is how it will be when the Son of Man returns.
Among those people living normal lives will be believers. They will be living with the unbelievers, working in the fields, grinding at the mill (verses 40-41). Yet, God will distinguish between the believer and the unbeliever. He will take the one and leave the other.
This distinction, or judgment, already introduced in the parables of the tares and wheat (13:24-30,38-42) and the good and bad fish (13:47-50), is not taken up thematically. It will appear in the parables of the good and bad servant (verses 45-51), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), and the sheep and goats (25:31-46). God’s judgment means that some men be saved, others lost. Holy Scripture gives no evidence of any other conclusion.