Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 2)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 2)

In the previous article, I examined in detail the declaration by Jesus (Mark 1:15; par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7; Luke 10:9ff) which introduces his public ministry in the core Synoptic Tradition. The eschatological background and connotation of the language was discussed. Indeed, the eschatology of Jesus cannot be separated from his teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. This will be mentioned at several points during our survey of the remaining sayings of Jesus; for more detail on the expression/concept “Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, cf. my earlier article, and Part 5 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I have decided to group together the sayings of Jesus, which have an eschatological aspect, or emphasis, under several themes. At the same time, I find it useful to continue the method applied in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, distinguishing between: (a) the core Synoptic tradition, representing primarily by the Gospel of Mark, (b) the [“Q”] material shared by Matthew and Luke, and (c) sayings or details which are unique to Matthew and Luke.

As we shall see, most of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Tradition is grouped together, or otherwise contained, in the great “discourse” set in Jerusalem shortly before his death (Mark 13 par). This portion of the study will be limited to those sayings and statements which appear elsewhere in the narratives. The sayings cover the following areas:

    1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
    2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
    3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
    4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
    5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
    6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist

As the Synoptic Gospels essentially begin with the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist, it is useful here to look again at several important traditions related to the Baptist. In the previous article, we examined briefly the eschatological background and context of John’s preaching, which, according to Mark 1:15 par, was generally shared by Jesus at the start of his ministry. More significant for the Gospel tradition are the two Scripture passages associated with John and his ministry—Isa 40:3 and Malachi 3:1ff. The age and authenticity of the association with these passages is confirmed by several factors:

    • Multiple attestation in several lines of tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Luke 1:16-17, 76; John 1:23)
    • The similar use of Isa 40:3 by the Qumran Community (1st century B.C.)
    • The (Messianic) language/terminology influenced by Mal 3:1ff (cf. below), which largely disappeared from subsequent Christian usage
    • The inconsistencies of application to both John and Jesus, only partly harmonized in the Gospels as we have them
    • The lack of reference/interest in John, and the related Messianic associations, in early Christianity by the time most of the New Testament books were written (c. 50-90 A.D.).

The prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff had an eschatological emphasis essentially from the beginning. As I have discussed elsewhere, in its original context, the “Messenger” almost certainly referred to a heavenly/divine Messenger (i.e. an Angel), who represented YHWH himself when he comes to judge his people. At some point in the composition of the book, this was given a specific interpretation, or application (4:5-6): the prophet Elijah would be the one preceding the Lord’s appearance on the great day of Judgment. He would bring about the repentance of the people, restoring the faith and religion of Israel. This belief and (eschatological) expectation came to be established in Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 48:10, and Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) and certainly informs the Baptist traditions in the Gospels. Even though John specifically denies being Elijah in Jn 1:21, 25, early Christians came to view him in this light. Jesus himself makes this association in the Gospel tradition, in Mark 9:11-13 par, which is worth examining briefly.

Mark 9:11-13 par

This exchange between Jesus and his disciples follows the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:1-10 par), though it may reflect a separate tradition which has been joined to that scene, through thematic “catchword-bonding”—i.e. the common motifs of Elijah and the prediction of Jesus’ suffering/death. There does seem to be an abrupt shift in the discussion toward eschatology, as the disciples ask Jesus:

“(Why is it) that the writers [i.e. scribes, experts on the Writings] relate that it is necessary (for) Eliyyah to come first?” (v. 11)

This certainly reflects the tradition from Mal 4:5-6 (cf. above), that Elijah would appear shortly before the great day of Judgment. The use of the verb dei= (“be necessary” [lit. binding], i.e. required) emphasizes a very specific detail of the eschatological expectation—before the day of Judgment comes, Elijah must first appear, preparing God’s people for that moment, in fulfillment of Mal 4:5-6. Jesus would seem to confirm this belief:

“(Yes) Elijah, coming first, (does) set all things down from (what they were before)…” (v. 12a)

I have given an excessively literal translation of the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi, but the basic idea is that of restoring a previous condition—i.e. the kingdom of Israel, the religious devotion of the people, etc. The verb has eschatological significance, as is clear from its use in Acts 1:6 (to be discussed). What is interesting here (as in Acts 1:6ff) is how Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from this eschatological expectation to the situation in the present moment, namely his upcoming suffering and death:

“…and (yet) how (then) has it been written about the Son of Man, that he would suffer many (thing)s and (be) made out as nothing?” (v. 12b)

Jesus is using the equivalent of a me/nde/ construction, establishing a contrast—i.e. “[me/n] (on the one hand)…”, “but [de/, here kai/] (on the other hand)…” To paraphrase, he is telling his disciples:

“Yes, it is true that Elijah comes first and restores all things, but then how is it that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be reduced to nothing?”

Jesus’ explanation is actually a shattering of traditional eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, presented as something of a conundrum. The significance of this has specifically to do with the identification of John the Baptist as “Elijah”. The traditional understanding of Mal 4:5-6 involved Elijah (as the Messenger) bringing the people to repentance and restoring Israel to faithfulness and true religion (Mal 3:2-4). If this is so, and if John is Elijah, then how could Jesus, God’s Son and Anointed (cf. the Transfiguration scene, esp. Mk 9:7 par) have to endure suffering and death at this time? Clearly, Israel as a whole has not yet been restored in the manner prophesied by Mal 3:2-4. Jesus’ concluding words turn the tables even more strikingly on the identification of John as Elijah:

“But I relate to you that, indeed, Eliyyah has come, and they did to him as (many thing)s as they wished, even as it has been written about him!” (v. 13)

This must be understood as a radical re-interpretation of the traditional expectation. Yes, John is “Elijah”—in fact, he suffered abuse from the political and religious rulers, much as Elijah himself did! It is a uniquely Christian reworking of Messianic thought which emphasizes the suffering and death of God’s Anointed (Jesus). That this understanding goes back to the words and teachings of Jesus himself cannot be doubted (on objective grounds). His suffering and death are injected right into the middle of the traditional Messianic/eschatological beliefs of the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes surrounding Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel Tradition, as will be discussed.

Matthew 11:14 (and 17:11-12)

Jesus also identifies John as “Elijah” in Matthew 11:14, but in a very different context, and without the unique interpretation in Mark 9:11-13 par. It is a Matthean detail, incorporated within material otherwise shared by Luke (i.e. “Q”, Matt 11:1-19 / Lk 7:18-35):

“…and, if you are willing to receive (it), this [i.e. John] is Eliyyah, the (one) about to come.”

In contrast with Mark 9:11-13, here Jesus makes an unqualified identification of John with the eschatological figure of Elijah, called “the one (who is) about to come” (cf. my discussion on the background this phrase). This also affirms an imminent expectation of the end (“about to come”), in line with the thinking of many Jews (and nearly all early Christians) of the period. Matthew’s version of the Mark 9:11ff tradition also seems to tone down the radical interpretation given by Jesus, presenting it in more conventional terms (note the words in italics):

“Eliyyah (indeed) comes, and will restore [a)pokatasth/sei] all (thing)s; but I relate to you that Eliyyah already came, and they did not know (this) about him, but did with him as (many thing)s as they wished. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer under them.” (Matt 17:11-12)

Interestingly, Luke has omitted, or does not include, the Mark 9:11-13 tradition, and has nothing corresponding to Matt 11:14. However, the author of the Gospel clearly knew (and, we may assume, accepted) the tradition identifying John as “Elijah”, in light of Mal 4:5-6 (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76).

2. The coming of the Kingdom

Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the coming of the Kingdom is clear enough from the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, occurring at the beginning of his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition (but not in Luke). There are a number of other sayings which emphasize this aspect as well. I note here the more significant of these.

Mark 9:1 par

In between the confession by Peter (Mk 8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:1-10), there is a short block of sayings by Jesus, which may be outlined as follows:

    • The need for the disciples to “take up his cross” (8:34)
    • Saving/Losing one’s life, i.e. for the sake of Jesus (8:35-37)
    • The Son of Man saying, rel. to the Judgment and faithfulness in following Jesus (8:38)
    • The saying about the coming of the Kingdom of God (9:1)

There is a clear thematic progression, moving from the motif of faithfulness in following Jesus to the eschatological theme of the Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom. The eschatological context of 9:1, which some commentators may be reluctant to admit, seems to be unmistakable in light the Son of Man saying in 8:38 (to be discussed in the next part of this study). Note the parallel:

“…when he [i.e. the Son Man] should come in the splendor of his Father with the holy Messengers” (8:38)
“…the kingdom of God having come in power” (9:1)

Here is the saying in 9:1 (with the Synoptic parallels):

“Amen, I relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power.”
Matthew’s version (16:28) is identical except for the closing words:
“…until they should see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Luke’s wording (9:27) differs slightly, but is otherwise identical to Mark, except for the omission of the final words “in power”.

While it is possible that Luke’s version downplays the eschatological context, Matthew’s version unquestionably enhances it, relating it to the Son of Man sayings in Mk 13:26f and 14:62 par (to be discussed). It is understandable why many commentators, especially those with a strong traditional-conservative leaning, would be uncomfortable with the eschatology expressed in Mk 9:1 par, since Jesus appears to say that some of his disciples would still be alive when the Kingdom of God comes (at the end-time). This has led to interpretations which view the saying in a somewhat different context than that indicated by both the wording and the association with the Son of Man saying in 8:38. These alternate interpretations include:

    • Witnessing the resurrection and/or ascension
    • A vision of Jesus’ in glory (such as the Transfiguration) which presages his subsequent (end-time) appearance in glory
    • The manifestation (“coming”) of the Kingdom through the early Christian (apostolic) mission, accompanied by miracles and the work of the Spirit

The narrative context suggests at least a thematic connection between the saying in 9:1 and the Transfiguration scene which follows, but this association is highly questionable in terms of Jesus’ intended meaning. The last option is probable, at least in terms of the understanding of the writer and overall presentation of Luke-Acts. However, the problem with all of these interpretations is they really do not square with Jesus’ own emphasis that some of the disciples standing with him would not die (“would certainly not taste death”) until they saw the Kingdom come in power/glory. For the events mentioned above as possible solutions, nearly all of the disciples would still be alive, and provide nothing remarkable in confirmation of Jesus’ prediction. On the other hand, the idea that some of the disciples would still be alive at the (end-time) coming of the Kingdom would certainly be worthy of note, establishing a general time-frame for the realization of this event (i.e. by the end of the 1st century A.D.). This is important, since in coincides with the general belief, held, it would seem, by nearly all of the earliest Christians, that end of the current Age (marked by the return of Jesus and the Judgment) would occur very soon. Only after the first generation of believers had begun to die off in significant numbers, did this eschatological expectation start to alter. This can be seen at several points in the later strands of the New Testament, most notably with the tradition involving the “Beloved Disciple” in John 21:20-23.

The obvious doctrinal difficulties related to an imminent eschatology in the sayings of Jesus will be discussed in a separate, supplemental article.

Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20

An interesting (and much-discussed) saying of Jesus comes from the so-called “Q” material (i.e. traditions found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). It raises questions as to Jesus’ understanding of just how (and when) the Kingdom of God will come. The saying is incorporated within the Synoptic “Jesus and Beelzebul” episode (Mark 3:22-27 par). In response to accusations that he expels unclean spirits “in (the power) of Beelzebul”, Jesus makes the following statement:

“But if (it is) in the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then (truly) the kingdom of God (has already) arrived [e&fqasen] upon you.” (Matt 12:28)

Luke’s version (11:20, probably reflecting the original form of the saying) really only differs in the use of the expression “finger [da/ktulo$] of God” instead of “Spirit of God”. The verb fqa/nw has the fundamental meaning of arriving at a particular point or location, especially in the sense of reaching it first, or ahead of someone else. It is rare in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:31; 2 Cor 10:14; Phil 3:16; and 1 Thess 2:16; 4:15). The latter references in 1 Thessalonians are especially significant due to their eschatological emphasis. But how is Jesus’ statement here to be understood? Is the reference to the coming of the Kingdom eschatological? If so, then it would signify that the end-time is being inaugurated in the person and work of Jesus (i.e. his miracles). The use of fqa/nw could be taken to mean that the Kingdom is coming upon people, through the work of Jesus, before they realize it, and, perhaps, in a way that they would not have expected (cf. below on Luke 17:20-21). What is especially important is Jesus’ emphasis that his working of miracles is done directly through the presence and power of God (His “Spirit” or “finger”). This certainly would reflect God’s ruling power and authority (over both human beings and evil spirits). In Jesus’ ministry, the proclamation of the Kingdom is closely connected with his power to work healing miracles (Mk 1:15, 21ff, 32; 3:15-16 par; Matt 4:23ff; Luke 4:40-41, 43; 8:1-2; 9:1-2; 10:17-18, etc).

Luke 17:20-21
[cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas sayings 3, 113]

Another famous (and difficult) saying regarding the coming of the Kingdom is recorded in Luke 17:20-21. It is part of a block of eschatological teaching (17:22-37), largely identified as so-called “Q” material, but which Matthew incorporates at a different location, in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Matt 24). It begins with a question by certain Pharisees: “When (will) the kingdom of God come(?)”. As is often the case in the Gospel tradition, Jesus gives an ambiguous or unconventional answer to such eschatological questions (cf. on Mk 9:11-13 above). His answer is composed of three statements, two negative and one positive:

    • “the kingdom of God does not come with (a person) keeping (close) watch alongside”
    • “they will not (be able to) say ‘See! here (it is)!’ or ‘There (it is)!'”
    • “see—the kingdom of God is within [e)nto/$] you [pl.]”

The two negative statements seem to express the same basic idea, that the coming/presence of the Kingdom will not be readily visible through observation and sense-perception—at least not by the people at large. In some respects these statements are at odds with others which emphasize the visible signs of the Kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28 par, above). There seem to be two ‘groups’ of people referenced in the first two (negative) statements:

    • Persons giving careful study and consideration to the matter—examining the ‘signs of the times’, the Scriptural prophecies, engaging in learned speculation, etc (i.e. persons perhaps like the very Pharisees inquiring of Jesus)
    • A popular response to apparent signs or claims that the Kingdom is coming, or has come (cf. Luke 21:8 par)

The implication of these statements is that the Kingdom of God comes in a way and manner that the people at large—the learned and unlearned alike—do not (and cannot) realize. This informs the positive statement in verse 21b: “For, see!—the kingdom of God is within you”. The precise meaning of this saying has been much debated and remains controversial, the difficulty centering primarily on the rare preposition (or adverb) e)nto/$ (“within, inside”). The translation “within” or “inside” can be rather misleading, as it suggests an identification of the Kingdom with the Spirit dwelling in and among believers (cf. Rom 14:17; Luke 11:2 v.l.; John 3:5). However, here in vv. 20-21 Jesus is addressing certain inquisitive Pharisees (often his opponents in debate/dispute), rather than his disciples. Also, the use of e)nto/$ with the plural pronoun u(mw=n (“you [pl.]”) suggests something a bit different.

Unfortunately, e)nto/$ is quite rare, occurring in the New Testament only at Matt 23:26; however, the basic denotation is locative (and usually spatial)—something which is located, or takes place, within/inside certain limits or boundaries. To use it in the context of a group of people suggests a meaning akin to “in the midst of” (usually expressed as e)n me/sw|), but with a slightly different emphasis. The idea seems to that the Kingdom of God exists (or is/will be established) in the very midst of the people (esp. the learned Pharisees), without their being aware of it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, in the saying as we have it, is referring primarily to himself—i.e., many people, including these Pharisees, do not recognize that the Kingdom is present (has “come near”, Mk 1:15 par, etc) in the person and work of Jesus. It is also possible to understand the saying, and the use of e)nto/$, in a more figurative sense—e.g., that the Kingdom comes, or is present, within the limits of their own expectation (and/or their religious understanding), without their realizing it. This may seem overly subtle, but keep in mind that Jesus’ ministry began with a declaration (Mk 1:15 par) that draws upon traditional Jewish eschatological expectation (regarding the Kingdom), and he continued to make use of similar language and imagery throughout his ministry, often giving it an entirely new meaning. This will be discussed further as we continue in our study on Jesus’ sayings and parables.

One additional difficulty involves the force of the present verb of being (e)stin, “is”) which closes verse 21. There are two ways to understand this:

    • Taken literally, in a temporal sense (i.e. referring to the present), it would mean that the Kingdom has already come, and is present. This would agree with sayings such as Mk 1:15; Matt 12:28 pars. It also would provide confirmation for the idea that the Kingdom is present primarily in the person of Jesus.
    • It may simply reflect an indicative statement describing the nature and character of the Kingdom—i.e. this is what the Kingdom is like, etc—without necessarily referring to time (past-present-future). In other words, he may be saying that, when the Kingdom comes, it will be present in their very midst (without their recognizing it).
Matt 6:9-13 / Luke 11:2-4

Finally, mention should be made of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4). It is not customary for Christians to think of this famous prayer by Jesus from an eschatological viewpoint, but it is likely that this aspect was present in its original form as uttered by Jesus. We have already seen how the idea of the coming of the Kingdom (the wish and petition expressed in the first lines of the prayer) is fundamentally eschatological, both in its background, and as used by Jesus. Similarly, the requests that one not be led “into testing” (Matt 6:13a; Lk 11:4b), and for “rescue” from evil [or from the Evil One] (Matt 6:13b), probably carry an eschatological nuance. A prayer to God for the coming of the Kingdom and deliverance from evil would have been a fundamental component of Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation at the time of Jesus. I discuss the Prayer in detail in a prior series.

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