Friday, March 27
Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.
In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It contains only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.
Matthew 23:23-38: The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).
The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.
Hence, these leaders deserve the “woe” that those prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).
The gulf between external observance and internal corruption, which is the very essence of hypocrisy, is the chief and unifying complaint that the Lord voices against these Jewish leaders.
In addressing these hypocrites as “serpents, offspring of vipers,” the Lord takes up the early censure by John the Baptist near the Gospel’s beginning (3:7).
Saturday, March 28
Zechariah 6: This chapter contains both a vision and an oracle. In the vision (verses 1-8) the prophet sees four chariots drawn by horses, which are also four “winds” or “spirits,” as it were (verse 5). He saw them earlier (1:7-11). Like the “four winds” of common parlance, these horses go in four directions: the black northbound, the white westbound, the dappled southbound, and the red eastbound. They represent God’s providential “patrol,” as it were, of the whole universe. God is keeping an eye on things, Zechariah is reminded, even things that don’t seem to be going very well.
Although Babylon lies east of Jerusalem, one journeys there by leaving Jerusalem in a northerly direction and then following the contour of the Fertile Crescent. (If one journeyed straight east, he would simply have to pass through the Arabian Desert, an area best avoided.) Consequently, there is a special significance in the northbound horses in this vision, for they go to Babylon, where, God assures His prophet, He has everything under control (verse 8). This vision is related, then, to the woman in the basket in the previous chapter. The “Spirit” that guides world history, including geopolitical history, is the same Spirit proclaimed to Zerubbabel in 4:6.
The oracle in this chapter (verses 9-15), like the vision of the two olive trees in 4:11-14, pertains to the Lord’s two “sons of oil,” Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest and the governor, the religious and civil authority. Both are anointed by God and must work in common endeavor for the Lord (verse 13). The “branch” in verse 12, as in 3:8, refers to Zerubbabel, whose Akkadian name means “the branch of Babylon.” He is both a foreshadowing and a forefather (Matthew 1:12-13) of the One who combines in Himself the twin dignities of King and Priest.
Philippians 1:19-30: In his earlier epistles, it appears, Paul expected still to be alive on this earth when the Lord returned (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15,17). Now however, for what appears to be the first time in his letters, he refers to the possibility of his death (verse 20). Things look pretty dangerous at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32).
The doctrine most clearly taught in these verses is that of an immediate “afterlife” of the believer with Christ, and this is the source of Paul’s own comfort and strength as he faces the possible prospect of death at Ephesus. We may contrast this perspective with that of Paul’s earliest epistle, First Thessalonians (4:13-18), where the source of Christian comfort is not an immediate afterlife but rather the final resurrection.
This is not to say that in Philippians Paul is no longer concerned with the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. On the contrary, he explicitly speaks of it (1:6; 2:16; 3:20). There is no sense in which we can say that Paul, in Philippians, discards the doctrine of the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
Here in Philippians, however, the expression “with Christ”—syn Christo (verse 23)— refers to an immediate afterlife, whereas in 1 Thessalonians 4:14,17 it had referred to the time of the final resurrection. The emphasis is on union with Christ in the here and now (verse 21; 3:7-12). The believer is already united with Christ, a truth that Paul would also stress in his next epistle, Galatians (2:20; 3:27; 4:19).
Paul’s hope for an immediate afterlife with Christ, therefore, is based on the experience of his union with Christ already in this world.
Because Christ is already his life, death will be for Paul an advantage, a step forward, a kerdos. “For Paul to live is Christ, and this is a life which by death will be set in full communion with the One who lives in him,” writes one commentator (in TDNT 9.547). There are similar sentiments throughout early Christian literature, especially in the context of martyrdom (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 5.3; 6.1-2; 7.2). In Christ Paul is possessed of a life that he cannot lose by death (cf. Romans 6:11; Colossians 3:3; John 11:23-26; Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 3.2; Magnesians 1.2).
Unlike the Platonic tradition, Paul does not call death a “release” or “escape,” but a “gain.”
When he wrote Philippians, then, Paul had come to the persuasion that an immediate afterlife with Christ follows the death of those who have died in Christ.
It is important, however, that we do not misinterpret this observation. Individual union with Christ after death never becomes the goal of Paul’s ultimate striving. Jesus dies to save the whole man, not just man’s soul. Until the body itself is raised in Christ, the Christian hope remains unfulfilled. Paul never wavers in this affirmation, not even in the present epistle (3:10,11,21; cf. Romans 8:11,23; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Death in Christ, then, is not our goal; it is only a step towards that goal, a “gain.”
Sunday, March 29
Zechariah 7: This chapter has two parts. In the first (verses 1-7) , the prophet addresses a specific question about fasting. Since the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, the Jews had adopted special fasting seasons during the year to commemorate their national disaster. Now that the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, nearly seventy years later, should they keep those fast seasons any longer? Certain villagers in the Holy Land want to know, and the prophet answers them with a specific oracle from the Lord.
The second part of this chapter (verses 8-14) is probably situated here because it refers to the earlier prophets (verse 12), whom Zechariah had just mentioned (verse 7). The prophet reminds his contemporaries that their recent defeat and scattering had been foretold by the former prophets as a result of the sins of the nation. The specific precepts that Zechariah cites (verse 9-10) seem to indicate the social prophets of two centuries earlier: Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.
Philippians 2:12-18: Paul now returns to the theme of Christian obedience, the very theme that had prompted him to quote the hymn recorded in 5:5-11. He wants the Philippians (“Therefore”) to be obedient according to the model of Christ Himself (verse 12).
However, having just recalled that hymn about salvation, Paul’s mind is full of this latter theme as well. In just two verses (12-13), then, he goes from speaking about obedience to speaking about salvation.
In verses 12-18 we discern a ringing resemblance to the farewell discourse of Moses in Deuteronomy 31—32. In that passage, where Moses reprimanded the Chosen People for their disobedience, we note an emphasis on “rebellion” (erethismon in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 31:27), an idea very close to Paul’s warnings against “partisanship” (eritheia; cf. 1:17; 2:3).
Moses feared for what those Israelites would do in his absence (for he was about to die), if they had been so consistently disobedient while he was present. Paul, by contrast, does not worry about the Philippians will do in his absence (verse 12). Moses, likewise, had called the Israelites “wicked children . . . a crooked and perverse generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5), whereas Paul calls the Philippians “blameless and harmless children of God . . . in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (verse 15).
Monday, March 30
Zechariah 8: Now, seventy years after God’s departure from Jerusalem had left it completely vulnerable to the attack of the Babylonians, God is about to return and make it once again His holy city. Indeed, the chapter following this one will describe His return as Israel’s anointed King seated on the foal of an ass.
Jerusalem will once again be a “city of faith” (verse 3: ‘ir ha’emeth) where God will dwell. Both sexes and all ages will dwell there securely (verses 4-5). The Lord will once again gather the scattered (verse 7) and dwell in their midst (verse 8). All of this is promised in the rebuilding of the temple (verses 9-13). The reason things have changed, says Zechariah, is that God has relented from His wrath (verses 11,14), and the prophet goes on to insist on the maintenance of those social virtues (verses 16-17) of which he had spoken in the previous chapter (7:9-10). The special seasons of fasting, about which Zechariah had been consulted earlier (7:1-7), will be turned into times of joy (verses 18-19). Jerusalem will once again become a place of pilgrimage (verses 20-22), even for the gentiles (verse 23). The whole world will be converted to the God of the Jews (cf. John 4:22).
These prophecies, only imperfectly realized with respect to Jerusalem’s second temple, are properly interpreted in their Christian fulfillment in the message of the Gospel. The salvation truly accomplished in Jerusalem is that fulfilled in the dramatic events of the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.
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.
Jesus our Lord, describing the last days prior to the second appearance of the Son of Man, spoke of “false messiahs and false prophets” as signs of that time (Matthew 24:24). In fact, as historians are prompt to mention, false messiahs and false prophets were the signs of Jesus’ own time as well (cf. Acts 535-39; 21:38; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271-285).
Virtually all periods of subsequent history, likewise, provided further examples of false messiahs and false prophets, so that just about any age could feel justified in calling itself the “last days,” and in most ages some folks have done so.
Our own time is hardly an exception. False prophecy, after all, includes any ideology that attempts to interpret the future on the basis of a flawed understanding of history. Likewise, false messianism includes any movement that attempts to hasten or bring about a future based on false prophecy. Now, a simple regard for the major wars and great social disruptions of the previous century makes it abundantly evident that those dreadful trials, some of which have but recently come to an end, were mostly spawned by the false prophetic movements and false messianisms that had managed to find a sufficient political agency.
It is arguable that no age surpasses the twentieth century in the social and moral harm done by false messiahs and false prophets. No other time in history produced so much political oppression, or so much destruction by war, or so many deaths by starvation, or such massive displacements of people—an abundance of stark tragedy produced by false interpretations of history that had coalesced into stubborn political movements and institutions.
These include, for example, dialectical materialism, a political philosophy so corrosive of everything human that only with difficulty can we see it as the product of human thought. This attempt to read the future became messianic when it was adopted to form the political program of large nations, particularly Russia and China. In its name, millions were imprisoned, millions starved to death.
Such too was nationalist socialism in its several forms. Germany’s proposed “thousand year Reich,” a demonic parody of the millennium of the saints, embodied a philosophy of political totalitarianism that was both prophetic and messianic. The mind is numbed with the thought of the human and social harm inflicted by such an ideology.
Arguably the most persistent form of false prophecy in all of history, on the other hand, is scarcely new. It comes from a man whose followers since the early seventh century have referred to him simply as El Rasul, “the Prophet.” Almost immediately that man’s prophecies assumed a militant political shape that set out to conquer much of the earth at sword point. His false prophecies are still very much with us, and in the faction that currently rules ancient Persia that movement has recently taken on a more manifestly messianic character that is outright astonishing. No great gift of prophecy is needed, I think, nor heightened sense of alarm required, to foresee and fear serious trouble from this source in the not-too-distant future.
Now what does Jesus our Lord say with respect to false messiahs and false prophets? Don’t listen to them, He says. Pay them no mind. Do not follow them. They will surely show wonders, as did the sorcerers of Pharaoh, and even the elect, He warns us, will feel the allure of their message. The word of false prophets and the programs of false messiahs will certainly be attractive, because they will address man’s spiritual and social aspirations.
That is to say, false prophets and false messiahs will mimic the Gospel itself. False prophecy will present a form of “good news” about what lies ahead in human history, and false messianism will endeavor to bring it about. This explains why desperate men will take these things seriously. This is why they can coalesce into mass gatherings and alter the contours of political geography.
It is essential that we bear in mind that all of these things were prophesied by the unique Interpreter of history, the Prophet whom we take seriously: “See, I have told you beforehand” (Matthew 24:25).
Tuesday, March 31
Zechariah 10: Israel’s worst enemies, over the years, had been the kings who failed properly to shepherd the people, along with the false prophets who abetted them (verse 2-3). These were the men chiefly responsible for the scattering of God’s flock at the time of Jerusalem’s downfall. This distinction between Israel and its rulers will be important over the next two chapters. Whereas the Lord will punish the latter, He Himself will undertake to provide for the former. From them will emanate the cornerstone, the tent peg, the bow of battle — all metaphors associated with the covenanted Davidic kingship (verse 4).
This is a prophecy, of course, of Israel’s true King to come, identified with God Himself. This is the King whose entrance into Jerusalem was celebrated yesterday. He will restore the scattered (verses 8-11). In particular He will deliver them from their enemies, symbolized by the two powers traditionally governing the two ends of the Fertile Crescent, Assyria and Egypt (verse 11). In contrast to the wandering with which the chapter began (verse 2), God’s people will “walk in His name” (verse 12).
Matthew 24:29-35: That 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, that 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 made 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, does 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.
Wednesday, April 1
Zechariah 12: The prophecies in this chapter begin with the great catastrophe of which the epicenter is Jerusalem. Jerusalem becomes the instrument of the divine wrath (verse 2). It is at Jerusalem that the Lord defeats His enemies (verses 3-6; Psalms 45 ; 47 ; 76 ; Isaiah 17:12-14; Joel 2:1-20). In deed, this is the very week when He defeats them. It is at Jerusalem that the House of David has its definitive triumph over its truest enemies (verse 7), being made like unto God (verse 8).
At the same time, there will be weeping in the Holy City, lamentation as though for an Only Son, who has been pierced with a spear on the Cross (verse 10). It is in His defeat that the House of David claims its defining victory over sin and death. This is the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:37 and remembered again in Revelation 1:7.
Commenting on this chapter of Zechariah in the third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote: “For the people of the Hebrews shall see Him in human form, as He appeared to them when He came by the holy Virgin in the flesh and as they crucified Him. And He will show them the prints of the nails in His hands and His feet, and His side pierced by the spear, and His head crowned with thorns, and His honorable Cross.” This chapter thus continues the theme of the Lord’s Passion and Death.
Matthew 24:36-51: 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 will be saved, others lost. Holy Scripture gives no evidence of any other conclusion.
Matthew’s third metaphor for the last days is drawn from common social experience—namely, the vigilance necessary to prevent the entrance of a burglar into the home (verses 43-44). This image of impeding thievery appears often in the New Testament, not always as a quotation from Jesus. In his very first epistle, nonetheless, St. Paul explicitly presumes that his readers are already familiar with it (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Matthew and Luke (12:39-40) are nearly identical in their preservation of this wording of this parable. The warning to the Church at Sardis is very similar in its wording (Revelation 3:3). Second Peter 3:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2 both add “in the night” after “thief.” The metaphor appears again in Revelation 16:15.
This image of the household in danger introduces the parable distinguishing the wise, good, and loyal servant from the lazy, dissolute, and wicked one (verses 45-51). This is the first of three consecutive stories in Matthew, in which the passage of time is integral to the testing of God’s servants. The next two are the parables of the ten virgins (25:1-13) and the talents give to three servants (25:14-30). Although Matthew encapsulates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a consistent set of images, it would be wrong to interpret too literally the word “immediately” in verse 29. These next three parables, in fact, suggest that the end of the world may still be some way off.
Nonetheless, the Lord’s return in judgment must be constantly looked for, and the anticipation of it becomes a formal principle of Christian morality. Hence, this parable distinguishing the loyal and unfaithful servant is the first of four parables about the final judgment. All four end in punishment for those who are unfaithful (verse 51; 25:12,30,41,46).
In this first parable Jesus describes as “faithful and wise” (verse 45). In the present context “faithful” (pistos) probably bears the meaning of “loyal” rather than “believing.” Several times St. Paul uses this very adjective to describe the ideal pastor, missionary, or Christian leader (1 Corinthians 4:1-12; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7; Titus 1:9). In the present text, we observe that the vocation of this servant is to feed the others in the household (verse 46).
He is also called phronimos, often translated as “prudent” or “wise,” but perhaps better rendered here as “thoughtful” or “reflective.” It is the same adjective used to describe five of the maidens in the next parable (25:2,4,8,9). Matthew also uses it to describe the man who builds his house on a rock foundation (7:24). It is the characteristic that Christians are to share with snakes! (10:16)
The wicked servant, on the other hand, assures himself that he still has opportunity to neglect his stewardship. He is coaxed into this disposition precisely because there appears to be a delay in the return of his master. “My master is delaying His coming,” he says to himself (verse 48). That is to say, the sense of a postponement is an essential part of the story. The failure of the servant has to do with his inability to deal with the prolonged passage of time. What he lacks is perseverance. The Son of Man will come when the slackers do not expect him (verses 44,50).
Whereas in Luke (12:46) the punishment of the unfaithful servant places him among “unbelievers,” in Matthew he shares the lot of the “hypocrites” (verse 57). Matthew thus sounds again the repeated condemnation of the hypocrites in the previous chapter (23:13,14,15,23,25,27,28).
Also unlike Luke, Matthew here refers to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as an element of the final condemnation. This expression is fairly often found in Matthew as a concluding statement of judgment (8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13).
Thursday, April 2
Matthew 25:14-30 : In the third story, about the three stewards who receive “talents” from their Master, once again the passage of time is integral to their testing. “After a long time,” says our Lord, “the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say.
The point of comparison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).
Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.
A “talent” was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of “talent,” meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.
The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.
This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.
The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.
Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called “blessed” (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a “ruler” (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).
The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.
The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”
Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).
St. Gregory the Great does see an allegorical meaning in the one steward’s hiding his talent “in the earth.” He writes, “To hide one’s talent in the earth is to occupy our God-given intelligence in purely earthly matters, not to seek spiritual profit, never to lift our heart above earthly considerations. For there are some who received the gift of understanding, but who nonetheless understand only the flesh.”
The rejection of the reprobate comes as the conclusion of each of the parables in this series (24:50-51; 25:12,30,41-45). Each parable could have ended with the approval of those who were faithful, but in no case is this what we find. Each parable ends on a note of harshness, in a series that reinforces the sense of seriousness with respect to the divine judgment. One cannot read this section of Matthew carefully and feel disposed to adopt a frivolous attitude about the return of the Son of Man.
Alas, some early Christians, as we know from the Thessalonian epistles, made the imminent expectation of the parousia an excuse for laziness.
Friday, April 3
Matthew 25:31-46: The story of the Last Judgment, which closes Matthew’s fifth great discourse and comes immediately before the account of the Lord’s Passion, was chosen by the Orthodox Church to be read immediately before the start of Lent each year. This custom places the Last Judgment as the context for repentance.
This parable makes it very clear, if we needed further clarity, that “a man is justified by works, not be faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:24,26).
It is imperative to observe that the last activity ascribed to Christ in the Nicene Creed is that “He will come again in glory to judge.” This is Matthew’s fourth straight parable about the parousia of the Son of Man for the purpose of judgment. He had introduced this theme of final judgment much earlier, among the parables of the Kingdom (13:41), and in the coming trial before the Sanhedrin in the next chapter the Lord will speak very solemnly on this subject by way of warning to Israel’s official leaders: “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” (26:64).
Let us also observe that the Son of Man does not return to earth alone. He is accompanied by the angels, who have a distinct function in the coming trial (verse 31; 13:41,49; 16:27; cf. Zechariah 14:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
The Son of Man will sit in judgment over “all the nations”–panta ta ethne (verse 32; 24:14; 28:19). Israel is numbered among these nations. As in any trial, a verdict will be given, leading to a division, the latter symbolized by the sheep and the goats.
The Son of Man is identified as the King (verses 34;40), an image that goes back to the beginning of Matthew’s narrative (1:1,20; 2:2,13-14) and will appear again at the Lord’s trial and crucifixion (27:11,29,37,42).
The elect are addressed as the “blessed of My Father” (verse 24). The inherited Kingdom has been planned and prepared since the beginning of Creation; it had been in the divine mind all along.
Then comes the criterion of the judgment, in which we recognize the components of Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37)
Especially to be noted in this parable is Jesus’ association with all mankind, especially the poor, the destitute, and the neglected. To serve the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned is to serve Jesus, who identifies Himself with them. This is the basis for all Christian service to suffering humanity. This is not a negligible aspect of the Gospel; it pertains to the very subject matter of the final judgment.
The dominant idea of this parable, in fact, is the divine judgment. God really does judge. He really does discriminate. He will not confuse a just man and an unjust man. He discerns the difference, and that difference means a great deal to Him. He does not take difference lightly. He assigns eternal destinies to men on the basis of that difference.
This is what we see in the present parable: Sheep and goats are spread asunder, just as wise and unwise maidens are separated one from another, and wheat is distinguished from chaff. In this world the generous and the mean have existed side by side, but at the judgment it will be so no more.
How can we know where we stand with respect to that judgment? In a sense, we cannot know. In a sense, it is not important that we know. We might become complacent. God will not have a Christian feel so secure that he neglects his duties in this world.
In the present parable the just are not preoccupied with themselves. They are preoccupied with the needs of the poor. Their lives are spent addressing those needs. They have neither the leisure nor the inclination to think about themselves, even about their “eternal security.” They are too busy doing God’s will with respect to their fellow men.
Thus, at the final judgment, they arrive unaware that they have ever served Christ at all. They imagined all along that they were taking care of the poor, simply because the poor needed to be cared for. At the judgment, then, the righteous are even surprised that they have been serving Christ all along. Their thoughts have been solely for the crying needs of their fellow men. They have had neither time nor opportunity to think about themselves.
As for the unrighteous, they are condemned to “eternal fire” (verses 41,46), this image apparently identical to the “fires of Gehenna” in 5:22. This fire also appeared in the parables of the Kingdom (13:30,40,42,50). This fire was not intended for human beings but was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this respect, heaven and hell are very different, because heaven was “prepared for you from the foundation of the earth? (verse 34). It was never God’s intention that men should be damned. He predestined no soul to hell. Men choose that fate for themselves when they join themselves to “the devil and his angels.”
The condemnation of the unjust—“Depart from Me”—is the direct antithesis of the invitation offered to everyone through the Gospel: “Come to Me” (11:28).
Each of the four parables of the last judgment (24:45—25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).
Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that God’s punishment is an afterthought, as I have already suggested. It was not part of His original plan, so to speak. Punishment was not part of God’s original plan for mankind.
The same adjective, aionion (“eternal” or “everlasting”), is used to describe both heaven and hell. This parallel points to the confusion of those who deny the eternity of hell. One cannot logically deny the eternity of hell without denying the eternity of heaven.