jesus’ apocalypse

Warning: Bible nerd alert.

Well it has been a while since I blogged. Good to get some thoughts down again.

This will also be my first time in a while writing on biblical studies, and it feels good to be back talking about a discipline I feel at home in…

So I have been writing a series of lectures on the Gospel of Matthew, and over the last two weeks have written on the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25, a section I have broadly referred to as Jesus’ Apocalypse. This section of Jesus’ teaching is thought by most people to be about the so-called ‘End Times’, with the vast majority of biblical commentators claiming at least most of the discourse is related to that event.

More specifically, Matthew 24:30 has been taken by most as referring to the Second Coming:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

However I have taken a different view. I think that this statement, and indeed the entirety of Matthew 24-25 are about the coming judgement of Israel in the form of Jerusalem’s destruction (which occurred in 70CE). I agree with N.T. Wright, who says that Matthew 24:30 (above) is a clear allusion to Daniel 7, in which:

…the events referred to are the defeat and collapse of the great empires that have opposed the people of God and the vindication of the true people of God, the saints of the most high. The phrase about “the son of man coming on the clouds” would not be read, by a first-century Jew pouring over Daniel, as referring to a human being “coming” downwards toward the earth riding on an actual cloud. It would be seen as predicting great events in and through which God would be vindicating his true people after their suffering. (Wright, 1999: 51)

While this is not the place to get into a full-blown discussion on this topic, I would point out that such a “preterist” interpretation is the only one to make good sense out of Jesus’ statement that, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” (the verse that C.S. Lewis called “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” with the [mis?]understanding that it was about the Second Coming).

Narratively speaking the thrust of the passage, from my perspective at least, flows from Matthew 23 where Jesus criticises the religious elite for their failure to uphold Israel’s covenant with God by their injustice and hypocrisy. Jesus goes on in his apocalypse to predict the fall of Jerusalem as a judgement for the (systemic?) injustice now embedded in that nation. This unjust system, paired with nationalistic hopes for liberation, will lead to the provoking of the Roman Empire, who will eventually come and put down any hint of rebellion against their regime.

Needless to say that Jesus’ apocalypse both proclaimed doom on the unjust system and its propagators, as well as encouraging an alternative lifestyle for individuals and communities hearing the message (the function of all ancient Jewish apocalypses was broadly something like this).

I won’t go on, because I don’t want to make this post too long. All I wanted to do was to get an unpopular idea off my chest, even if only to a small crowd. I would be happy to hear your thoughts on this, or even to take your questions or critiques, as I obviously have more to discuss regarding the entirety of the discourse.

MCA

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Posted on November 22, 2010, in New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Hey Matt, i am not here to argue but just to throw one of my opinions about CS Lewis’s so called ‘most embarrassing verse of the bible”.
    I believe Jesus was giving a prophecy with a “double fulfillment.” Some of what He was predicting was going to occur in that generation (like the roman destruction of Jerusalem as you said). Other aspects of Jesus’ prophecy, however, did not occur in A.D.70; e.g., Matthew 24:29-31. However, this view does not work with Jesus’ statement that “all these things” will take place in “this generation.”
    This means both your answer and S Lewis’s cannot be correct.
    I personally believe that the only possible answer is that when Jesus says ‘generation’ he is referring to the Jewish people as a race. Let me know what you think about my opinion.

  2. Kyle,

    I can see the logic in your opinion. However I would point out that the word for ‘generation’ (genea) tends to refer to people alive at the same time in history. This is also the case with the equivalent Hebrew word (dor), which the Septuagint translates as genea. neither word is used to refer to a race of people.

    My caution would be that teachers who try to push such solutions to C.S. Lewis’ dilemma are attempting to defend the Bible against a perceived attack, and so they force a translation of ‘genea’ that is not really historically accurate or warranted. We need to be honest and historically-oriented in our interpretation – Jesus seems to say pretty clearly that this generation (the people alive at this moment in history) will not pass away until all these events have occurred.

    I also have an issue with the idea that Jesus as referring at times in Matthew 24-25 to the destruction of Jerusalem and at other times to the eschaton. How are we meant to know which he is talking about in which part, because it is certainly not clear. There is no clear indication in the text that Jesus swaps like this, nor does the narrative as a whole given any such indication that the eschaton is in view at any point.

    I would also be interested to discuss 24:29-31 (the verse that you mentioned), as I take this to be stock standard apocalyptic language with similarities to other writings in Jewish history that refer to the fall of empires, not to the end of the world. Just a thought.

    Thanks for your input. Let me know what your thoughts are about my response.

    Matt

    • Yeah i know what you mean about generation and i admit i was trying to twist the word of God. But i had read the verse over and over and have come to a conclusion.
      “Jesus came out from THE TEMPLE and was going away when His disciples came up to point out THE TEMPLE BUILDINGS to Him.
      And He said to them, “Do you not see ALL THESE THINGS? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
      As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, WHEN will these things happen, and WHAT will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?“” (Matthew 24:1-3)
      I have capitalized what i deem to be important.

      So the disciple were asking 2 questions
      1. When these things will happen? i.e. when not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down
      and
      2. What will be the sign of your coming?
      but jesus answers them seperately
      He firstly talks about the temple…and verse 34 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
      Notice the use of these things yet again. and as you said about 40-45 years later the temple was destroyed and this prophecy fullfilled and they say 40-45 years is a generation too.
      Then he answers what will be the sign of your coming?
      Well as you know their is two parts to this. First off being his coming through the holy spirit which conincides with: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)
      That coincides witn the holy spirit at Pentecost.
      But the other sign of his coming is where he comes on the clouds to judge the earth
      “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”(Matthew 24:36)
      But that does not mean that we have no idea when that day comes. Jesus compares his return to the flood involving Noah. In that situation the righteous people knew what was coming and knew it was coming soon whereas the unrighteous who did not know God we caught by surprise. we have the advantage of prophecies to let us know how much longer we have but like Noah do not know the day or the hour when it shall pass.

      Thankyou For this Matt, i love getting into the scriptures this deeply. Let me know what you think.

  3. Matt I am with you here.

    One of the things we need to recognise is the ultimate faith the Israelites put in the Temple representing their nationality and existence. The destruction of the temple equals God departing from them… Yet the coming of the kingdom / Holy Spirit is God is within us…

    My Greek isn’t up to the type of analysis that is needed; I have a gut hunch that the fulfilment of this passage happened in the ascension of Christ. There they saw him with power and great glory.

  4. Kyle – all good questions. I would disagree with the separation of the disciples’ questions (“When these things will happen” and “the sign of your coming”). There is not really any reason in the course of the narrative/teaching block in Matthew 24 to permit such a separation.

    Indeed, i find it hard to believe that the disciples, who at that point in the story could not even fathom Jesus’ impending death (!) were asking about his Second coming…

    Moreover, the sign of Jesus’ coming refers obviously to Matthew 24:30 (as you have rightly said). But as I said in my post, I do not think this is a reference to the Second Coming, but to the judgement of Jerusalem. Indeed, Matthew 24:30 is a quote from Daniel 7, and in context this passage from Daniel refers to the judgement of empires, not to the Second Coming. All that language about ‘coming on the clouds’ is apocalyptic language – it is symbolic – and in the Jewish tradition refers to the collapse of empires.

    I also think it is mistake to appeal to Luke’s writings to verify the meaning of Matthew. They are separate narratives written by separate people, and we need to allow them to speak for themselves. There is no reason in Matthew’s narrative to see the coming on the clouds of heaven as a reference to the Holy Spirit – it is just not a major theme in Matthew’s Gospel.

    Because there is no obvious change of subject in Matthew 24 between verses 31 and 32, I’m not sure how it can be said that one section (vv.29-31) refers to the Second Coming, but the other (vv.32-35) refers to the fall of the Temple. In my view it all must refer to the same thing – either the Second Coming, or the fall of Jerusalem. If it is the former, then C.S. Lewis’ comment (above) still stands. I obviously think, though, that it is the latter option.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts Kyle, i hope this is a worthwhile exercise for us both.

    Matt

  5. I hope its okay to change the subject but Matt am i right in saying you dont believe that we are in the “last days”? I would also like to know your comments on the so-called rapture and the book of revelation

  6. Yeah not a problem.

    I don’t believe we are necessarily in the last days. We could be – who knows… but i don’t believe we are the generation being spoken about in Revelation, which in my view is not about events long into the future from John’s perspective, but about events in his own day and the very near future after him (events related to the Roman Empire). There is obviously more that could be said about this, but i won’t address it here.

    The rapture is an interesting piece of theology. It is supported by only two passages – Revelation 4:1 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Neither passage in my view gives any indication that we will be raptured.

    Revelation 4 is simply John recounting his visionary experience – it is not meant to be prescriptive for all Christians.

    1 Thessalonians 4 does indeed deal with the Second coming of Christ, his *parousia* (the Greek term). This term parousia was used in the ancient world of Roman Emperors when they made their way into a city (usually after a battle). The people would come out of the city and meet him on his way in. In this way I think that the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 is dealing with the coming of Christ to earth, and his people meet him in the air as he comes *toward* earth – that is, he is not coming to take us away, we are coming to escort him in!

    In short, no, I do not believe in the rapture as I am just not sure where that idea can be legitimately derived from Scripture. If it is not in the Bible in any meaningful or clear way, where did we get it from?

    Matt

  7. I think the idea of the rapture has a root in gnosticism and not Biblical theology. The Scriptures clearly point that God works with us and through us in times of trials and doesn’t just remove us from those struggles.

    Gnosticism on the other hand separates the physical and spiritual and is a form of escapism in the same way rapture theology does so.

  8. I would agree with you there Craig. The rapture seems more in line philosophically with the later Gnostic ideal of the ‘spiritual’ over-against the ‘material’, and thus it promotes escapism from this “evil” material world.

  9. As much as i personally dont agree with your opinion, i still find it interesting how you would interpret several bible verses eg.

    “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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

    ‘Caught up’ in latin means “Rapturo” or Rapture which is why we call this event the Rapture.

    “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (1 Corinthians 15:51)

    “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10)

    “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36)

    “… 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)

    How do you explain these verses?

    And know that today, many churches support your view and this was fore told:

    Isaiah 56:10-11 His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark…they are shepherds that cannot understand…

    Jeremiah 8:7 Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD.

    What do you think of these verses?

  10. Sorry about the last few comments, because all it comes down to is romans 10:9.

  11. Kyle,

    Before I reply to your queries, something strikes me as curious, and I must ask…

    Why, if you deem me to be one of Isaiah’s blind, ignorant watchmen, a mute dog and a uncomprehending sheep herder, do you bother conversing with me? What I am asking is, why do you seek my opinion if you think I am a heretic? Or worse yet, why seek my opinion if I am apparently opposed to the Lord’s truth, and will be judged ala Jeremiah 8:7?

    Two posts ago you asked me how I would deal with certain Bible verses. I would begin not by interpreting the verses, but by pointing out that no text, especially ancient texts, can inspire an interpretation that is self-evidently true. This, though, is what you assume – that your reading of the text is infallible, and anyone who disagrees is wrong.

    That is not to denigrate the ability to have an opinion, or to argue passionately for it. It is simply to say that you are making the biblical texts you quoted seem simple, or obvious in their meaning, but I would strongly suggest that such is not the case.

    I think my previous questions about the rapture were not communicated adequately, and this is probably my fault. I am not asking where we got the name ‘rapture’ from (i understand it is Latin, though of course the Bible was not written in Latin…). I am asking where we got the doctrine of the rapture from. If it is from the interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4 you have communicated above (by the way, I am quite aware of this line of argumentation, as I used to believe it myself as a teenager), then I think this interpretation is historically inaccurate – I have explained this in my last comment, though if I was not clear please let me know and I will do a more comprehensive job.

    The other verses you quoted:

    1 Corinthians 15:51-52 – this is from a passage about the Final Resurrection, not about a ‘rapture’. I am not sure what you mean to argue from this passage. I think you may be under the false assumption that I do not believe in any form of afterlife, or that I do not believe in the Resurrection. This would not be a true assessment of my beliefs.

    Revelation 3:10 – This is from the message to the church in Philadelphia in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It talks about a judgement of some kind, not of a ‘rapture’… Moreover in the next verse Jesus says he is coming soon… I personally would argue Jesus meant what he said. Either; 1) The judgement came soon after these words were spoken in the form of some world event (perhaps the fall of Rome, or even a smaller event), and thus Jesus was not lying when he said he would come soon, or; 2) Jesus was talking about the end of the world, in which case he lied about coming soon, and wrote this message to the church in Philadelphia knowing that by the time this event happened they would not even exist anymore and thus the message would be pointless to them…

    Luke 21:36 – This verse is clearly a reference to the fall of Jerusalem. The entire chapter beforehand explicitly mentions the coming destruction of Jerusalem (give it a read…). In 21:25-28 Luke records the same kind of language as in Matthew 24 – Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7, and this passage is not about the end of the world, but about the destruction of ungodly empires. Jesus, like all other human beings, uses literary devices to communicate his message – “the whole world” does not necessarily mean the whole planet (in the time of Jesus they did not even know about the whole planet yet…), just the same as when I say, “It was the best movie ever!” the truth is that it probably was not, I am just using a figure of speech. We need to learn to read the Bible as literature, and understand the different literary techniques (of which, unfortunately, most people are unaware).

    1 Thessalonians 1:10 – I’m not sure what you are getting at by quoting this verse. I believe in the second coming of Jesus… I just don’t think that is what Matthew 24-25 (or a lot of other passages) are referring to. This verse from 1 Thessalonians may talk about the second coming, I don’t have an issue with that, but it certainly is not a reference to the ‘rapture’ (the only way you could get this verse to talk about the rapture is if you believed in the rapture *before* coming to the Bible… that begs my original question – where do we get the idea of the rapture from?)

    The Isaiah passage you quoted in my view talks about the evil of Israel’s leaders at that time, not about people far off in the future.

    I also disagree with your statement about Romans 10:9 – why does it all come down to that? If indeed it did all come down to that verse, why would Paul bother writing the first 9 chapters of Romans, and then the other 6 chapters after this verse? Why would he bother talking about the groaning of creation in its desire to be restored (Romans 8?). If it was all about “souls getting saved” then why bother talking about the redemption of creation?

    And why, if Romans 10:9 is all it is about, would Jesus not have made this point in his ministry? Why say things like the greatest commandments are to love God with everything, and love your neighbour as yourself? Why stand up to evil social practices (as Jesus did) if in the end it doesn’t matter because all that matters is people believing in Jesus and going to heaven when they die? Why bother having a whole rest of the New Testament?

    Do you understand my point? All I’m saying is that yes Romans 10:9 may be important, but so is everything else Jesus and the New Testament authors talk about!

    Matt

  12. Again i apologize for the way i reacted. I was offended by your calling of my belief gnostic heresy and i lashed out. So for myreaction i apologize. I am asking for your opinion because you are a highly educated professional in theology and am hoping to see why you are so sytrong in your opinion.

    Revelation 7:13 “And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, what are these which are arrayed in white robes? And whence came they?” Revelation 7:14 “And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, these are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

    You see, these are believers in Jesus the Christ (the saved) who have been brought out (saved in) of great tribulation.

    Matthew 24:21 “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.”

    How does this go with your view? How can the elects’ days be shortened without a rapture?
    I have run out of time and will further comments tomorrow. Thankyou for your time Matt and i hope we both get something out of this. In case you have not realised i do not believe the actual rapture takes place in Rev 3 but rather much latter in chapter 10 & 11

    • Kyle…It was me who called the pre trib rapture as a form of gnosticism and I still stand by my stance on that.

      One great problem I have with the whole rapture issue is that it doesn’t embrace the cross. Those of the Tim La Haye variety tend to be fearful and worried looking for signs which Jesus told us not to do.

      They also tend to be judgemental and lose sight of the grace of Christ. Take a prophecy that is going around at the moment that says God is going to punish Australia with a great tidal wave because of its sexual immorality

      phhhtttttfffftttttt………

      God is not into punishing nations… no sin can ever be worse then the sin of killing Christ and thinking God was pleased with us for doing so….and Yet Christ took on the sin of the whole world…. Within the Thessalonian context of being caught up into the clouds is the sense of the Shekina glory of God such as told in the dedication of King Solomans temple and not so much going up into the air….

  13. Matt, thanks for the post I found it quite interesting. I have always assumed that Matthew 24-25 talked about both the destruction of the temple and the second coming (whether of not the disciples fully understood what it meant). Your argument is quite convincing and I would completely agree that Jesus is talking about their generation literally witnessing the coming destruction. I have a few queries though which hopefully you can help me with.

    Firstly, why does Jesus use the title Son of Man in verse 44 which was such an obvious allusion to himself. Why not talk about judgement coming from the Lord?

    Secondly, why does he use the phrase kingdom of heaven to describe pending judgment in 25: 1?

    Finally, the whole section of 25: 31-46 seems to allude quite specifically to the final judgement rather than a historical event. Particularly 25: 46? How does this fit in to your interpretation?

    I’m keen to hear what you think mate, cheers.

  14. Kyle – I apologise if you felt offended by the reference to your belief as Gnostic. Though do you understand that the dualism inherent in your beliefs is in fact derivative of Greek thought, not Hebrew thought, and that this kind of thinking was what characterised Gnosticism? You quoted Revelation 7, but how does that make sense if the saints being referred to do not die for thousands of years from the time of John? The Greek says they are *coming* out of the great tribulation – would not that mean that at that time they are being killed for their faith in the tribulation? I would argue that the tribulation is the living of an alternative kingdom of God life in the midst of the Roman Empire, which did not tolerate such alternatives.
    Your quote from Matthew 24 refers to, in my view, the fact that the judgement placed on Jerusalem in 70CE will be cut short, meaning it will not go on forever.
    Let me ask you a question now (something i have not really done). How do you deal with the fact that Jesus speaks constantly about the need to act in *this* world to alleviate poverty, do justice, kindness, stand against evil, be generous etc. etc. etc., but he hardly ever (even from the most afterlife-focused interpretation of the Gospels) talks about going to heaven or hell. Personally I would argue he almost never talks about these subjects. How does Jesus’ life and teachings fit into your worldview and theological system? f the rapture is so important, why does Jesus not focus on it more?

    Craig – I agree mate. I think God’s “judgement” is actually him allowing people and nations to walk into the consequences of their actions and ambitions. I think this is what happened in 70CE, and this is why Jesus constantly told Israel to repent – if they didn’t they would reap the fruit of their political trajectory.

    Rob – Great questions. Also I’m glad that this post could get you thinking about this stuff – I was certain that this would be a fairly neglected post, but it has turned out to be one of my most read in a while (funny that, I always get it wrong).
    I think Jesus keeps referring to himself as the Son of Man because it identifies him with that figure in Daniel 7. It alludes to his special relationship with God, and his messianic identity. He talks about judgement coming through him because this is what the Son of Man would do in Daniel 7.
    He uses the term kingdom of heaven (ie. kingdom of God) to describe pending judgement because in his ministry, death and Resurrection the kingdom of God is breaking into the world. This kingdom is the reign of God manifested in reality, in other words the will of God being done. Another way of saying it is it is God’s *empire* (basileia could equally mean ‘kingdom’ or ’empire’). Thus God’s kingdom will come into conflict with all other empires in the world, including the one that has been set up in Jerusalem which is apparently representing him… This is why the parable is told – the kingdom of heaven (with its impending judgement against other ‘kingdoms’) will come unexpectedly, so be ready! (Such a parable would only make sense to the original hearers if in fact it would happen soon and they needed to be ready)
    Lastly, I don’t believe 25:31-46 is about final judgement. I think this is an assumption we have made for so long that we don’t know any other way to read the text. Jesus begins by referring once again to Daniel 7 (“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him;” cf. 24:30), which, in my reading, is about judgement and the collapse of empires. I contend that the “this generation” which Jesus addressed in 24:34 is still being addressed here.
    I think that the ‘nations’ that Jesus refers to in 25:32 refers to Gentiles (the word ethne is used elsewhere for this purpose). Moreover, this reference to all nations is at least partially metaphoric, referring back to Isaiah 13 where God gathers the nations to bring judgement on Babylon. In the same way I would argue Jesus is claiming he will gather the nations (i.e. Gentiles – Rome) to bring judgement on Israel!
    It is difficult to do justice to the entirety of 25:31-46 here without making this comment really, really long, but hopefully you get my point.
    In any case Rob, we need to hang out together with the girls. i know Ashlee finds it impossible these days to find time that matches up with Helga…

    Matt

  15. I re-read Mathew 23-26 just the other day in light of all the rapture talk and came to the same conclusions as you. It was nice to stumble upon your blog and read a like minded writer.

    Yours certainly seems to be a far more consistent way of looking at the passage when considering “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible”.

    With the ‘Left Behind’ style end times theology so firmly entrenched in western Christianity, it’s little wonder some feel the need to vigorously defend the more traditional ‘rapture’ readings of Matt and Revelation. Suggesting a more historically contextualized view of any end times passage, calls for a vigorous re-examination of all the apocalyptic passages.

    Nice work, love your writing style.

  1. Pingback: ruptured rapture: christian gnosticism alive and well « life.remixed

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