Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 4)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 4)

    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

The first four areas of study were addressed in the previous articles (Parts 2, 3); here we will be examining the final two areas (#5-6, in italics above).

5. A(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers

One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ eschatology is whether, or to what extent, he affirms the traditional idea of the restored Israelite kingdom, which is central to much Jewish eschatological thought, from the (later) Prophets, down to Jesus’ own time. Not surprisingly, this idea gradually disappeared from early Christian writings, as the Church took on a more universal, non-Jewish (Gentile) coloring. Even where the idea of a concrete “Millennial Kingdom” was preserved, it typically was detached from its nationalistic roots. Only relatively recently has the distinctly Israelite/Jewish background of early Christian eschatology been re-affirmed, largely through two quite different avenues: (1) Dispensationalist interpretation of Bible prophecy, and (2) Critical scholarship which, in the past 50+ years especially, has emphasized both the Jewish background of the New Testament and the Jewishness of the historical Jesus. Greater awareness in Western society of Jewish customs and traditions in general, including from the time of Jesus (through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc) has also contributed in this regard.

There can be little doubt of the nationalistic, ethno-religious dimension to Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought. According to at least one major line of tradition (centered primarily on the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic Ruler), the end-time deliverance of God’s people, connected with the great Judgment, will involve (and/or be preceded by) the defeat of the nations and the re-establishment of the Israelite Kingdom. This eschatological scenario brings together a number of separate, but related traditions:

    • The return of Israelites from being dispersed among the nations
    • The re-establishment of Jerusalem as the religious center, with a renewed (and/or new) Temple
    • The inclusion of Gentiles, who will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to worship the one true God and pay homage to Israel
    • In more elaborate, developed versions, a period of this Kingdom rule (on earth) precedes the final Resurrection and Judgment in Heaven. At any rate, these represent two distinct eschatological ideals (restored Kingdom on earth, rule in Heaven) which were combined various ways by both Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

It is not necessary to document here all of the relevant passages which reflect this basic expectation (of a restored Kingdom). An essential formulation is found in Micah 4:1-4 (note the overall context of chaps. 4-5), par. Isa 2:2-4; it was an important theme in (Deutero-)Isaiah, including key passages such as 49:5-6ff; 56:1-8; 60:1-16ff; and 66:18-24. Among the many passages in the later Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., I might point out Tobit 13:11-17; 14:4-7; 2 Macc 1:27ff; Jubilees 1:15-18; Testament of Benjamin 9:2ff. Especially noteworthy is the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.), which provides the classic portrait of the militant Davidic Ruler who will subdue the nations, deliver God’s people, and rule over the kingdom (of God) on earth. The Messianic expectation of many Jews at the time of Jesus would certainly have included the basic idea that the kingdom of Israel would be restored and God’s people delivered from the wicked (nations), and should be recognized in such statements as Mark 15:43 par; Luke 1:32-33; 2:25b, 38. Indeed, it is stated precisely in Acts 1:6, indicating that Jesus’ disciples expected that he would fulfill this traditional role as the Anointed One (Davidic Ruler). A number of other references in the Gospel Tradition suggest a similar expectation—Mark 11:9-10 par; Luke 19:11; John 6:15. The circumstances of Jesus’ death, as recorded in the Gospels, make no sense unless the Roman authorities were concerned about the possibility that he might be identified as a Messianic figure (“King of the Jews”) who would attempt to liberate Judea from Roman rule.

The question remains: to what extent did Jesus confirm this particular view of the Kingdom as a restoration of the Israelite kingdom, or as a concrete kingdom/government established on earth? Many who heard the proclamation that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15 par), echoed variously throughout Jesus’ ministry (cf. Part 1), doubtless would have understood it in such a light. Even Jesus’ disciples appear to have had it in mind (Acts 1:6, to be discussed). A number of critical scholars accept the proposition that Jesus expected to inaugurate a Messianic kingdom on earth. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, especially those who follow a Dispensationalist mode of interpretation, such a kingdom, it is believed, will still be established at some point in the future. It must be said, however, that there is little clear evidence in the sayings of Jesus which supports the idea of a Kingdom to be established on earth. Most of the Kingdom-sayings and teachings are ambiguous in this regard. As far as I am able to determine, the emphasis appears to be twofold: (1) the coming Judgment, and (2) heavenly/eternal reward for the righteous (believers/followers of Jesus). The scene of this Judgment, which, in its most ancient context, would have referred simply to the afterlife, appears to be in the Heavenly court (cf. the sayings surveyed in Parts 2 and 3).

There are several sayings which do allow for the possibility of an earthly, Messianic kingdom, ruled by Jesus and his disciples, but even these are not entirely clear.

Mark 10:35-40ff par.

In this tradition, two of Jesus’ disciples (the brothers Jacob [James] and John) make the following request:

“Give to us that, one out of your giving [i.e. right] (hand), and one out of (your) left (hand), we might sit (with you) in your splendor” (v. 37)

At the historical level, it is most unlikely that Jesus’ disciples would have had any real understanding of his impending resurrection and exaltation to heaven; rather, they were presumably referring to the idea of a kingdom on earth which would be ruled by Jesus (as Messiah). This is perhaps confirmed by the Matthean parallel (20:21), which reads “in your kingdom” instead of “in your splendor”. His response is significant in the way that he directs them away from the motif of Messianic splendor, and toward the idea of his suffering and death—something which would not have been expected in regard to the Messiah at his coming (vv. 38-39). It is clearly expressed that the disciples, like Peter in the Transfiguration scene (9:6 par, cf. also 8:32-33), did not understand the implications of what they were saying. The following section (vv. 41-45) draws out this contrast even further—one should not be seeking for honor and rule, but to give sacrificial service to others, following Jesus’ own example. At the same time, Jesus does not deny the essential thought underlying their request—to sit alongside of him in the glory of his rule—but he has redefined it in terms of reward for faithful discipleship. It is interesting to compare the similar way Jesus responds to the disciples in Acts 1:6ff.

Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30

In close proximity to Matthew’s version of the above traditions (20:20-28), is another saying related to the ruling position of Jesus and his disciples. It is possible, in the Matthean narrative at least, that the request in v. 21 is in response to the earlier declaration by Jesus in 19:28:

“Amen, I relate to you, that you, the (one)s following me, in the (time of) coming to be again [i.e. rebirth/resurrection], when the Son of Man sits upon the ruling-seat of his splendor, you also will sit (as one)s upon twelve ruling-seats, judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The basic idea suggests a concrete kingdom, such as the traditional restored/Messianic kingdom on earth. However, the context of the saying clearly sets it in the time of paliggenesi/a (“coming to be again”). This word came to be used as a technical term (in Greek philosophy, etc) for the rebirth of the world at the end of the current Age, or, in particular, the rebirth of souls in the future Age. The latter would have been understood in terms of resurrection for Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D., with the end of the current Age being associated specifically with God’s coming Judgment. The word paliggenesi/a thus is eschatological, related to the end-time Judgment and the resurrection. Interestingly, Josephus does use the word in a figurative sense to convey the idea of the restoration (from exile) of Israel as a people (Antiquities 11.66). The only other occurrence in the New Testament (Titus 3:5) is also figurative, symbolic of the believer’s spiritual “rebirth” in Christ, where the setting is the Baptism ritual. It is, however, likely that the Baptismal use of the term draws upon the earlier cosmic sense of the world’s rebirth, such as took place after the great Flood (which prefigures the end-time Judgment)—cf. Philo Life of Moses II.65; 1 Clement 9:4; and note the association between baptism and the flood in 1 Pet 3:20-21.

The context of the Synoptic saying in vv. 29-30, as formulated in Matthew’s version, emphasizes heavenly/divine (eternal) Life in the Age to Come (cp. Mk 10:30; Lk 18:30). If the request in 20:21 is in response to this statement, then the disciples (or their mother, in Matthew’s version) may well have misunderstood the thrust of the saying. Certainly the focus, as in 20:22ff, is on true discipleship—following Jesus to the end, regardless of the cost.

Luke records a similar saying, though in a very different context, as part of the Last Supper scene (Lk 22:28-30). The overall narrative in 22:24-30 seems to draw upon both traditions cited above (Matt 19:28 [Q?] and the Synoptic Mk 10:35-45 par). Whatever the original historical setting, the inclusion of these sayings by Jesus in the context of the Last Supper—his impending death and the betrayal by Judas—results in a most powerful association, contrasting false discipleship (Judas and the dispute in v. 24) with the true. The disciples who remain (after Judas’ departure, cp. John 13:27-31a) are regarded as Jesus’ true followers; the words which follow in vv. 28-30 must be understood in this light (the italicized portions parallel Matt 19:28, above):

“But you are the (one)s having remained through(out) with me in my testing; and I will set through for you, even as my Father set through for me, a kingdom, (so) that you may eat and drink upon my table in my kingdom, and you will sit upon ruling-seats judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

This indicates a promise of fellowship (eating and drinking), similar to that of the Passover meal of the Last Supper, but also reflects the formal relation of vassalage—the faithful vassal is allowed to eat at the suzerain’s own table, and is given a subordinate kingdom, ruling under the authority of the suzerain. The disciples receive this ruling authority from Jesus, just as Jesus received it from God the Father. The image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom draws upon the tradition of the Eschatological/Messianic meal or banquet, indicated already in Old Testament passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14 (cf. also 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4; 3 Enoch 48:10; Sayings of the Fathers [Pirqe ‘Abot] 3:20, etc; Fitzmyer, p. 1026). Jesus uses this tradition a number of times in his parables (to be discussed in the next study).

How should we understand this declaration that Jesus’ faithful disciples will judge the twelve tribes of Israel? We must consider both the scenario which is being depicted, as well as the relationship between the disciples and the (twelve) tribes of Israel. There are several possibilities:

    • It is the scene of the Judgment (of all nations/peoples), and the disciples have the privilege of sitting as judges over the people of Israel. We find the idea of believers participating in the Judgment several times in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 2:26-27; 20:4), but nowhere else in the Gospel does Jesus mention his disciples serving in this role.
    • The (twelve) disciples have a special place of honor and rule in heaven. Here the meaning of kri/nw is broader than a judicial role, extending to other aspects of ruling power and authority. In the book of Revelation it is extended still further, being granted not only to the apostles, but to other/all faithful believers (2:26-27; 3:21; 20:4 [?]). The limitation to the “tribes of Israel” may simply reflect the scope of Jesus’ own ministry; eventually, the image would become universal, with believers coming from all the nations.
    • The reference is to a Messianic kingdom on earth. The nations will have been defeated and made to submit to the authority of God’s Anointed One, but will still exist on earth similar to the way they do now (or in Jesus’ time). As such, an earthly kingdom over many different groups of people would require a governing structure. The (twelve) disciples govern (kri/nw again meaning “rule” as much as “judge”) Israel. Many commentators feel that this indeed is what (the historical) Jesus had in mind. The problem is, it is extremely difficult to find any other clear examples which refer to an earthly (Messianic) kingdom governed by disciples/believers, either in the Gospels or in the remainder of the New Testament (Rev 20:4-6 being a possible exception, cf. also 5:10).
    • It is largely symbolic, with the twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes, particularly in the sense of a restored/reconstituted Israel—the people of God who accept Jesus as God’s Anointed One. In my view this is perhaps the best explanation, as it would seem to confirm the obvious association between the Twelve and Israel (almost certainly intended by Jesus in the selection of the Twelve). The symbolism is unmistakable in the book of Acts (1:6 through chapter 2, and further), though it must be admitted that the theme of the “restoration of Israel” is not as explicit in Jesus’ sayings and parables.
    • It is symbolic of eternal/heavenly reward, the emphasis being not so much on the function of judging/ruling the twelve tribes, but on their sharing the honor and power which belongs to the exalted Jesus. This would seem to be the main point in several of the parallel references in the book of Revelation (esp. 2:26-28; 3:21).

With regard to the last interpretation, a special point of interest—occurring in both the Lukan version of the saying (22:28-30) and the verses in the book of Revelation cited above—is the chain of relation, which is both hierarchical and reciprocal:

God the Father
|
Jesus (the Son)
|
Disciples/Believers

Jesus receives a kingdom from the Father, and, in turn, gives a kingdom to his faithful followers. As noted above, this reflects the ancient and traditional concept of vassalage, whereby there is a distinctive socio-relational component (dynamics of friendship and loyalty) to governmental structures. The same structure occurs frequently throughout the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, where the reciprocal aspect comes more clearly into view: (1) the Disciples give honor and power back to Jesus, i.e. recognizing his kingly rule, and (2) Jesus gives the kingdom/kingship back to the Father (on this point, see esp. 1 Cor 15:24). From the standpoint of early Christology, it is after his death and resurrection that Jesus receives his Kingdom from the Father, expressed especially through the idea of Jesus being at the “right hand” of the Father in heaven (but cf. also the beginning of the parable in Lk 19:12, to be discussed).

If the image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom were to be taken literally, in a concrete sense (i.e. ordinary physical food and drink), then it would confirm the idea of an earthly kingdom. While this generally conforms to certain strands of Old Testament tradition (i.e. the coming Age as a time of peace/prosperity on earth), and may well reflect popular expectation (Lk 14:15), it is rather difficult to sustain when one considers the sayings and parables of Jesus carefully. The illustration in Matt 8:11-12 appears to be proverbial, but otherwise reflects the setting of the Judgment (brought out more clearly in the Lukan parallel, 13:28-29); cf. also Matt 22:2ff. Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper (Mk 14:25 par) is somewhat ambiguous, though the narrative context assumes his impending death and resurrection. The Matthean version emphasizes a meal that is to be shared with his disciples, indicating a heavenly setting (“…when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom”). Luke records two such parallel statements, in addition to the reference in v. 30:

“I should (certainly) not eat it [i.e. the Passover meal] (again) until (the time in) which it should be fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (v. 16)
“I should (certainly) not drink from the produce of the vine from now on, until (the time at) which the kingdom of God should come” (v. 18)

I take the first reference to mean that the Passover meal will be fulfilled in the Kingdom—almost certainly in the sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but with a possible allusion to the idea of the eschatological/Messianic banquet (cf. above). The expression “…when the kingdom of God should come” is best understood in relation to the coming Judgment, and the heavenly/eternal reward which follows; however, the wording does at least leave open the possibility of referring to a Messianic kingdom on earth.

6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

There are relatively few other sayings which reflect an eschatological meaning or understanding. The parables will be examined in the next study.

Mark 10:29-30 par.

There are several interesting variations in this Synoptic tradition, located at the conclusion of the episode with the “Rich Young Ruler” (10:17-22ff par). The saying clearly refers to reward for those who have followed Jesus faithfully, in an eschatological context (“the coming Age”); but there is some confusion as to the exact nature of the reward, and the extent to which it is earthly, heavenly or ‘spiritual’:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or offspring or fields for my sake, and for the sake of the good message, (that,) if (so,) he should not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and offspring and land—with pers(ecution)s, and in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

Mark’s version emphasizes the suffering of the disciple in the present age (“…with persecutions”). Luke’s version (18:29-30), on the other hand, seems to give a more positive balance of heavenly/eternal and earthly reward:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house {etc….} for the sake of the kingdom of God, who should not (indeed) receive many (more) in this time, and, in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

It is by no means clear what disciples will receive (from God, some MSS use the verb a)polamba/nw, “receive from“) in the present time. Perhaps it refers to special blessing which attends their fellowship with Jesus, along the lines of Lk 10:23-24 par; Mk 4:11 par, etc. In either case, the reward in “this time” (the present) is clearly distinguished from the eternal reward in “the coming Age”.

Matthew’s version (19:29) removes the specific mention of reward in the present time:

“And every one wh(o has) left houses {etc….} for the sake of my name, will receive a hundredfold and will receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

However, this has been prefaced by the saying indicating a specific reward for the twelve disciples/apostles (v. 28, discussed above). The emphasis on “eternal life” in v. 29 increases the likelihood that the reward in v. 28 is also heavenly/eternal (and not related to a Messianic kingdom on earth).

Mark 12:18-27 par

This Synoptic tradition records a discussion between Jesus and certain Sadducees on a point related to the resurrection, meant to test him (v. 18). Jesus dismisses the elaborate scenario they set forth (vv. 19-23), making the important point (v. 25) that, upon the resurrection, the righteous will live/exist like the heavenly beings (Messengers/’Angels’). They will not marry, nor, one may assume, be engaged in other sorts of physical pursuits as would take place during their life on earth. According to traditional (Jewish) eschatology, the resurrection would occur at the end-time, prior to (or after) the Judgment. Originally, resurrection was thought to be limited to the righteous, but, eventually, the idea developed that all human beings—righteous and wicked both—would be raised and enter into the Judgment. This idea is expressed by Jesus elsewhere, in John 5:21-29.

Matthew 9:37-38 / Luke 10:2

Here the saying more properly relates to the actual ministry of Jesus and his disciples—preaching the good news, etc. However, the thrust of this preaching had to do with the coming of the Kingdom, and there is almost certainly an eschatological allusion implicit in the harvest imagery used here. This is traditional, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (e.g. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12). It was used as a clear eschatological image by John the Baptist (Matt 3:12 par), and also by Jesus in his parables (Mk 4:29; Matt 13:30, 39).

Matthew 11:12 / Luke 16:16

In this saying, which is formulated quite differently in Matthew and Luke, one detects something of a distinctive eschatological orientation. Luke has it in a detached context; it reads:

“The Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] (were) until Yohanan; from then (on) the kingdom of God is (announc)ed as good news, and every (one) forces (his way) into it.” (16:16)

In Matthew, the sense is quite different, the eschatological context—the proclamation of the impending coming of the kingdom of God, following John the Baptist’s ministry—is coupled with the motif of suffering and persecution, as in the Synoptic Mk 9:11-13 par. Note the Matthean formulation:

“And from the days of Yohanan the Dunker until now, the kingdom of the Heavens is treated with force, and forceful [i.e. violent] (person)s grab (hold of) it.” (11:12)

Luke 12:49-51ff par

These sayings on discipleship (cp. Matt 10:34-37) also have an eschatological tone. This can be seen by the parallels with John the Baptist’s declaration (Luke 3:16-17 par), as well as the themes of persecution and social division in other teaching by Jesus in an eschatological context (Mk 13:9-13 par; Matt 10:16-23; Lk 12:4-12). The verses which follow (vv. 54-56 par) also serve as a kind of eschatological warning.

Matthew 23:37-39 / Luke 13:34-35

Matthew’s version of this foreboding declaration comes at the climax of the great Woes-section in chap. 23, especially vv. 29-36 which prophesy the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. In the Eschatological Discourse (to be discussed), the fate of Jerusalem is tied closely to the coming Judgment and end of the current Age.

Luke 19:41-44; 23:28-31

These sayings follow the same theme as 13:34-35; they will be discussed in more detail in the study of Luke’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Several other sayings should be mentioned:

    • Luke 10:18—The declaration “I observed the Satan falling as a (lighting) flash out of heaven” remains somewhat mysterious. It may well have eschatological significance—i.e., Satan’s control over the earth in the current Age has come to an end.
    • Luke 12:2-3—There would seem to be an eschatological aspect to the warning in this saying; compare the different emphasis (and wording) in the Matthean parallel, 10:26-27.
    • Matthew 28:20—In the closing words of the Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples “I am with you all the days, until the completion (all) together of the Age”, i.e. the end of the current Age. The reference to the disciples’ mission into “all the nations” (v. 19), along with the expression “all the days”, seems to modify the sense of imminence which pervades much of the eschatology in the Gospels. This will be discussed in a separate article.

Finally, though it does not actually count as a saying of Jesus, we should note the request by the “good thief” on the cross in Luke’s version of the Passion narrative (Luke 23:42). It involves a significant textual variant:

“Remember me, when you should come into [ei)$] your kingdom.”
This is the reading of Ë75 B L al
“Remember me, when you should come in [e)n] your kingdom.”
The reading of a A C2 R W Y 0124 0135 f1,13, etc

The first follows the basic early Christian proclamation that Jesus received his kingdom/kingship from God after his death and resurrection (exaltation to the “right hand” of the Father). The second reading could be understood in the sense of Jesus’ return at the end-time Judgment—coming in/with the Kingdom. The reading of Codex Bezae (D) would seem to confirm this meaning: “…in the day of your coming”. The first reading (of Ë75, B, etc) better reflects Jesus’ response, promising that the “good thief” will be with him in heaven (Paradise, i.e. the ‘garden of God’).

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