[December 4, 2011] During Advent we prepare for the advent (coming) of our Lord Jesus, both in His humble nativity and in “power and great glory.” Today let us hear Jesus speak on the second of these, and on hearing, let us listen, and in listening let us “remember” our Lord Jesus.
We will take the passage that begins after Jesus describes the destruction of Jerusalem with the words, “And immediately after the tribulation of those days …” Like Isaiah and the prophets before Him, His words have an immediate application but then have a trajectory that points far into the future. Isaiah could mingle at times Assyria and Babylon as if the distinction did not matter, and describe the coming judgment of Babylon and the redemption of the northern and southern tribes in ways that were not fulfilled but which his future scribes did not consider false prophecies. The Jews hear these prophecies as still awaiting fulfillment—in the days of the Messiah. Likewise here, the destruction of Jerusalem of which Jesus speaks took place already, and yet the coming of the Son of Man did not. Matthew did not have the advantage of hindsight when he set these words down (the scribes of the book of Isaiah did). Yet we see the same phenomenon as we see in the prophets. The immediate event (the siege of Jerusalem in the war of 66-70 CE) foreshadows the shape of the end of things. Human history, whether for Jews, Gentiles or the church of God will end in judgment, after which redemption will come.
Jesus’ words are drawn from the teaching section of Matthew’s “book” on the Judgment of the Kingdom (Matthew 21—26). After the “book” on the church in the light of the Kingdom (13:54—20:34), Matthew places the book on the Kingdom’s judgment. Not only does the judgment bring a conclusion to the days of the Israel and the church, but the matter of judgment prepares us to understand the ordeal of the Lord’s passion. As the King of the Kingdom of the heavens (which encompassed His being the King of Israel), He took the judgment of Israel and the nations upon Himself. In 21 Jesus entered the City of David as the Son of David with the right to the throne of David. The stewards of the vineyard not only refused to recognize Him but willingly and actively cooperated with the Romans to kill Him. They were guilty before this; the coming of the King only sealed their guilt. Jesus pronounces the verdict in 23 and the judgment in 24.
We misunderstand this if we read this as a rejection of Judaism. Jesus rejected Judaism no more than the prophets before Him. The stewards of the vineyard are not Israel but the shepherds of Israel, the chief priests and the teaching establishment. The vineyard of Israel was taken from them; and the “nation” was reconstituted without the Temple under Rabbinic Judaism in the early second century—that it might produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God, the “fruit in their seasons” that the King is seeking from His vineyard. That they still do not recognize who the King is perhaps has more to say about the judgment of the church, which has made Him unrecognizable, than about the judgment of Israel.
In chapters 24—25 Jesus outlines the judgment of Israel and its final redemption when the Son of Man comes in glory (in 24:4-31), the judgment of the church when the Son of Man gathers His people to Himself (in 24:32—25:30), and the judgment of the nations when the Son of Man sits on His throne (in 25:31-46).
The Redemption of Israel (Matthew 24:29-31)
In verses 29-31 Jesus says that “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” accompanied by great celestial portents and all the tribes of the Land (the Land of Israel) will mourn. This refers to the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10-14 which likewise foretells Jerusalem being under siege by the Gentiles.
“And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of supplications; and they will look upon Me, whom they have pierced, and they will wail over Him with wailing as for an only son and cry bitterly over Him with bitter crying as for a firstborn son. In that day there will be great wailing in Jerusalem, like the wailing of Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddon. And the Land will wail, every family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; all the families that remain, every family by itself, and their wives by themselves.”
The prophet continues: “In that day there will be an opened fountain for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity” (13:1). Christians can interpret this in no other way than that the Jews will at last recognize Jesus as their Messiah.
Then “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Jesus goes on to say that the Son of Man “will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His chosen together from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other end.” This does not refer to the gathering of the church but of the twelve tribes of Israel, if the prophets are to be believed. Repeatedly the prophets say that even the northern kingdom of Israel, exiled in the days of Assyria, would be gathered and restored, as well as the Diaspora as we now know it. Jesus is not speaking of the “rapture of the saints” here but of gathering of Israelites to the Land of Israel in fulfillment of the words of the prophets.
I am sure that this is what Jesus means. What it will “look like,” historically that is, I cannot imagine any more than I can imagine what “the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” would look like. Something like what we see pictured in the literature of the Seven Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses, and in the great art of the past, is a literal depiction of Jesus’ words. It would be childish, however, to imagine this event happening just like that. We simply do not know what it will “look like.”
The coming of the Son of Man is described as the “manifestation of Jesus Christ.” Who Jesus is is revealed to those who believe into Him. His manifestation is similar to this but also different. He will be manifested to Israel when they see the “sign of the Son of Man appear in heaven” (we have no idea what this sign will be) and believe. He will be manifested to the church when we appear before Him in judgment. When He is manifested to the nations, He who is called the “Word of God” and has a sharp two edged sword proceeding out of His mouth will destroy His enemies with the breath of His mouth (the pronunciation of the vowels that gives life to the written word). All this language is metaphorical of course. What is obvious is that whatever appears outwardly the manifestation of Jesus Christ will cause an inward realization of who He is, a realization so powerful that it will bring judgment to such an extent that it will unravel the world. This is not to say that nothing will appear outwardly. This would be false, for one of the things that will be happen, though apparently not to everyone all at once, is the bodily resurrection of the dead and the transfiguration of the bodies of some of those still living. Jesus will be manifested as who He is, that is, in His divinized humanity, and we will be changed—dramatically. This will be the beginning—it will not happen all at once—of the transformation of the entire creation, though those who believe already have a foretaste and—in their spirits—a first installment of it.
The Day Is Certainly Coming (24:32-35)
The words concerning the fig tree are meant for us. The fig tree is a symbol of Israel in the Land. We have already seen Jesus use this image in 21:18-20 when He cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit for Him, even though it was not the season of figs (Mark 11:13). To what Jesus is referring to when He speaks of its branches becoming tender and putting forth leaves is hard to say, unless we associate it with what the preceding verses (30-31). Many people see it being fulfilled in the present state of Israel. That may be but it is not guaranteed; perhaps the future will tell. The more pertinent question is what “all these things” refer to in verse 33, for knowing that would tell us that “it” is “at the doors.” Perhaps “all these things” refers to the events of verses 15-21 (the “abomination of desolation”) or to the events of verses 29-31 (the coming of the Son of Man). “This generation” in verse 34 can have several meanings: it can refer to the generation listening to Jesus speak; it can refer to the generation who “sees all these things”; or it can refer to generation in the sense of the “age,” a social collective that shares the same mentality—another way of referring to the “world” as the collective soulical gestalt. At the world of the New Testament, believers expected Jesus to come in glory within their own lifetimes, and when the catastrophe came upon the Temple in 70 CE they probably expected it then. (That it did not happen is reason to believe the synoptic gospels were all written before this event took place, though Mark’s gospel still required more work before it was finally published.)
What is clear is that Jesus insists that “My words shall by no means pass away.” According to Jesus, what He says is absolutely certain, meaning that we should not treat it as speculative or subject to debate.
Be Watching and Be Ready for No One Knows When (24:36-44)
Nevertheless, as certain as these words are, not even Jesus knew the day or the hour. As unprepared as the people were in the days of Noah, so will the world be unprepared for the judgment when the Son of Man comes. The world is in denial of climate change and what must be done, and in denial of the end of economic growth (even if we can squeeze out a little more). When you or your neighbor buys a big car, you are no different than the people before the flood. You are acting as if the present crisis does not exist and you are not contributing to it. When we believe that plenty more oil can yet be extracted from the earth, or that clean coal or natural gas is an alternative to oil we delude ourselves, imagining that business can go on as usual. It cannot. When we believe politics or technology will somehow save us, we also delude ourselves. Jesus predicts that society as a whole will all be caught completely off guard.
However, Noah and his family were not caught off guard. They were prepared for the coming destruction. When the waters came down and “took all away” (airō: “to take away”) Noah and his family were “taken” out of the flood. He was like the watchful and waiting believer is now. “At that time two men will be in the field; one is taken (paralambanō: “to take to oneself, receive”) and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken (paralambanō) and one is left.” When Jesus speaks of the two men and the two women, people at work, the one who will be taken is the one who is prepared, the one who is “watching” in the following verse. Apparently, they are the precious goods stolen from the world’s householder—the ruler of the world, namely Satan—by the Thief who is our Lord.
This seems to be the natural interpretation of the parable of the householder in line with the current of thought. However, the parable has the householder watching for the thief, and Jesus tells us to “also be ready,” that is, like the householder who did not allow his house to be broken into. According to this, the householder would be the believer and the thief would not be our Lord but someone whom we have to guard against. The house then would be our life (or something like that) and the precious goods that we must guard would be something we are laying up for ourselves—some sort of spiritual capital—in preparation for the day when the Lord comes to receive us to Himself. Both the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the “talents” speak to this. In the first parable, some virgins had a reserve of oil and some did not; in the second parable, each was expected to have generated a profit from the “talents” they were given. According to this interpretation, we are to “watch” and thus protect our goods from robbery so that we can be “ready” when the Son of Man comes.
The implication is that a believer can have his or her house raided (because they were not “watching”), in which case he or she would not be “ready” when their Lord comes. Presumably, if they are not ready, they will not be “taken” (paralambanō) when the Lord comes for them, and may well be “taken away” (airō) in the judgment (the equivalent of Noah’s flood).
Baptism is like the waters of the flood that saved Noah from the world that was under God’s judgment (as in 1 Peter 3:21), in which case the Noah’s ark represents the church. The waters of baptism separate us from the world. By baptism, we judge the world and cross over to the other side. But water baptism—and the confession of our faith—is not enough to save us from the enacted judgment that comes and will come upon the world. It would require that we judge ourselves. The baptism that begins in water must end in the spilling of one’s blood (1 John 5:6) or the fire of the cross (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38). Only the one who loves not their soul will overcome and be ready for that day. The water of baptism that divides us from the world must lead to the salvation of our soul through the denial of our soul. The outward division must come to divide us inwardly from our soul (the delusory constructed soul) that the soul may be saved on the day that our Lord comes for us.
(I am not saying that one who truly believes into Jesus can lose their eternal salvation. I am speaking of the separation and judgment of believers—the joys of eternal life may be guaranteed, but we will need to pass through fire before we can get to them!)
The One Who Is Set Over the Household (24:45-51)
In the following parable, we have another household. This time the parable is not about the householder (oikodespotēs) or the house (oikia) but about the household (oiketeia) and the slave who is left in charge to make sure that the members of the household are properly fed. If he is irresponsible and beats his fellow slaves and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master will “cut him asunder and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. In that place there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” What is the meaning of this parable?
Immediately we think of the household as the church and the slave as the pastor who feeds the flock. The problem with this interpretation is that it is anachronistic. The churches that the apostles founded did not have this kind of structure. No church in the New Testament had a pastor set over it. Nevertheless, the parable may refer to those particularly gifted individuals in the church: apostles, prophets, teachers and shepherds, and evangelists, and perhaps elders and deacons as well. Perhaps. It would be peculiar though, since Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is at pains to emphasize that in the church no one is over anyone else (see chapters 18 or 23). The believers are all to shepherd one another as the sheep. The church, not the elders of the church, is the only court of appeal above two or three believers (18:15-17), and not even the Twelve are set in charge of anyone (even if one day they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel). So this interpretation might cause us to pause.
Perhaps every believer is the slave “set over the household to give them food at the proper time.” The members of the household are our fellow believers. We are each called upon to minister to one another. This would agree with the reasoning of Jesus in chapter 18. The failure in this regard would also be similar, namely expulsion from the coming Kingdom for an indefinite period of time (maybe for the duration of the Kingdom, though not for eternity).
Or, since we are in the same semantic field as the previous parable about the householder and the house, there may be a connection in their meanings. In the previous parable, we are the householder who must watch our house (our life) that it is not broken into and its goods (our “reserve oil,” or spiritual “profit,” or laid up treasure) stolen. If we are the slave put in charge of feeding the household, what might this mean? Are the constituents of the household the members of ourselves (as Paul speaks in Romans 6:12-23, calling our members slaves: see verse 19)? I think this also is possible. By not properly governing and nurturing our “members” we ensure that we will not be ready when our Master comes, on a day and at an hour which we do know. The corollary of this is that we take care of our members, that is, our interior well being.
Regardless of our interpretation, if we take care of each other or our own interior, we will be blessed when the Master comes. If on the other hand we are careless and decide to not only waste our time but beat up on one another or on our own interior members, and to eat and drink with the drunken, living like the most careless ones of the world, then our Lord will greet us, His own, as our Judge and He will cut us asunder and appoint our portion with the hypocrites.
To be cut asunder probably refers to our being cut off from the Kingdom in the age to come, that is, being left out of the wedding feast of the Lamb. We will not be able to participate in the Lord’s glory until we are changed. This is also the portion of the hypocrites and the same as the “outer darkness” at the conclusion of the parable of the king’s wedding feast (see 22:13) and the parable of the talents (see 25:30) where “there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” of regret.
Between now and the “inheritance of eternal life” (that is, its enjoyment) there is the period of the Kingdom when Christ will reign while God puts all His enemies under His feet. The Kingdom is a transitional period that begins with the Lord’s coming in power and great glory and ends with the judgment of all the dead. After this, the glorification of the creation (the participation of the creation in the glory of God, that is, its divinization) will continue without hindrance until time is enfolded back into eternity.