Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The eschatological and “Kingdom” parables in Matthew and Luke are being examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

The first three of these were treated in Part 2; here we will study the remaining two.

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

Following the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24), Matthew records three additional eschatological parables:

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

Both of the parables in Matt 25:1-30 are Kingdom parables, as is specified in verse 1: “the kingdom of the heavens will be considered (to be) like…”. As in several of the parables we have already examined (Parts 1 and 2 of this study), the setting involves a man who has gone away and is expected to come (back). In the Bridesmaids-parable, this motif has been simplified to that of the bridegroom in a marriage/wedding-ceremony who is coming to fetch the bride and take her to his house. A rather different wedding scenario appears in Luke 12:35-38 (cf. below). There is some question whether, in the original context of the parable(s), the man/bridegroom represented Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). The setting here in Matt 25, following the Eschatological Discourse in chap. 24, naturally would have led early Christians to associate it with Jesus’ return. However, more properly the image refers to God’s end-time appearance for Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones among his people; this appearance was understood in terms of his heavenly/divine representative—Messenger of the Lord and/or Son of Man—identified with Jesus in the Gospel Tradition.

There is again a distinction between two groups, juxtaposed against one another, as in the parable of the Weeds and the Net (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The two groups are together in one body (community or collection of people), but reflect very different characteristics. In the Bridesmaids-parable, there are ten virgins (maidens)—five of whom are described as mindful/thoughtful (fro/nimo$), while the other five are “dull” (mwro/$). They are together in one place, attending the bride, a detail which has to be inferred from the context (the variant reading in v. 1 indicates that copyists may have misunderstood the setting of the parable). The bride, who belongs to the bridegroom (having been betrothed to him, by a binding agreement [covenant]), is similar in many respects to the field in the Weeds-parable which belongs to the Sower (the Son of Man). The bride/bridegroom imagery, based on ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) tradition, more specifically suggests the religious relationship between God and his people Israel. In addition to the general milieu of ancient love poetry and marital imagery, which may be interpreted in this light (cf. Song of Songs 4:8-5:1), it is found, e.g., in Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5. The theme of love between husband and wife, in terms of marital faithfulness and loyalty, was used in the Prophets as a way of expressing Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, violating the binding (marriage) agreement, or covenant. We see this most famously in Hosea 1-3, but also in a number of other places, such as Joel 1:8 and Jer 2:2. On the wedding feast (verse 10), cf. Rev 19:7-9 and the discussion on the Feast/Banquet parables in Part 2.

Typically the servants/workers as characters in Jesus’ parables are meant as instructive examples for his disciples—the disciple of Jesus will see himself (or herself) in the position of the faithful servant. The parable functions as an exhortation (and a warning) for the disciple to behave in the manner of the positive character, rather than the negative. The “lamps” carried by the maidens is a figurative expression of the disciple’s behavior and faithful devotion, as stated more generally in Matt 5:14-16, etc. The brief Lamp-parable in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 4:21-22) has an eschatological orientation, which is echoed here as well. There is a sense in which the light from the lamps is defined as the message of the Kingdom which has been given to the disciples.

Apart from the fundamental setting of the coming/return of the man (bridegroom), the eschatological aspect is emphasized by other details in the parable, such as the use of the noun u(pa/nthsi$ / a)pa/nthsi$ (vv. 1, 6). The related verbs u(panta/w and a)panta/w are virtually synonymous—both have the basic meaning of going away to come opposite (i.e. to meet, come face-to-face) with another person. Paul uses a)pa/nthsi$ specifically to refer to believers meeting Jesus in the air at his return (1 Thess 4:17). However, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the primary idea was that the people must be prepared to meet their God—i.e. the end-time Judgment. This eschatological judgment motif—involving the separation of the righteous and wicked, as of the true and false disciple (cf. the chap. 13 parables)—is vividly expressed by the climactic scene of the parable (vv. 11-12), which has similarities to the sayings/parables of Jesus in 7:21-23 and Luke 13:25-27.

The suddenness of the bridegroom’s appearance is emphasized in vv. 6, 10, in which he comes “in the middle of the night” when many, like the dull/foolish bridesmaids, might naturally be asleep. This reflects the imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment, held by early Christians (and other Jews of the time), though tempered, perhaps, by the motif of a ‘delay’ in v. 5: “But (while) the bridegroom (was) taking (his) time…”. This could provide support for the idea of a significant period of time (some years, at least) which could pass before the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). For more on the “delay of the Parousia”, see section 5 below.

There are certain parallels between the Bridesmaids-parable and the brief parable in Luke 12:35-38; despite differences in detail, the general outline and message are much the same: the servants (disciples) are to keep their lamps lit and remain watchful for their master’s return.

Matthew 25:14-30: Parable of the Talents (par Lk 19:11-27)

The Matthean Parable of the Talents is quite similar to the Lukan Parable of the Minas (19:11-27); many scholars consider them to be part of a shared tradition (“Q” material), though the significant differences make this less than certain. There are several ways of understanding the relationship between the two:

    • They reflect two different, but similar, parables of Jesus
    • It is the same parable, preserved in two different lines of tradition
    • It is the same parable (“Q”), modified by one or both of the Gospel writers

In favor of the latter is the fact a common core parable can be obtained by a simple removal or modification of several elements unique to each version:

    • Matthew:
      • Addition of the concluding line (v. 30), which is especially common as a refrain in the Matthean sayings/parables
    • Luke:
      • The narrative introduction in v. 11
      • The reference to the man as of noble origins, and the reason for his departure (“to receive a kingdom of himself”), v. 12
      • The verses/details related to this Lukan kingship motif—vv. 14-15a, 25, 27

Apart from these separable components, the differences between the two versions of the parable are minor—most notably, the difference in the amount of money involved (talents vs. minas). Curiously, Luke’s version specifies ten servants, though the parable itself, like Matthew’s version, only deals with three. Perhaps the reference to ten servants is meant to give the impression that the faithless servant (1 of 10), like Judas Iscariot (1 of 12), is relatively rare among the disciples of Jesus.

If we examine the parable in Matthew, we see that it is included together with the previous Bridesmaids-parable as another parable of the Kingdom (vv. 1, 14); Luke’s version makes this explicit (cf. below). We have the familiar motif of servants/workers and the landowner or household master who goes away. The money entrusted to the three servants resembles the lamps held by the bridesmaids—both symbolize the disciple’s faithful service to God and Jesus. Instead of two groups, there are three distinct characters, yet still reflecting two kinds of characteristics—those who deal faithfully with the money for their master, and those who do not (through fear and inaction). The end-time Judgment is expressed through several details in the parable:

    • The return of the master who settles the accounts (v. 19)
    • The reward given to the two faithful servants (vv. 20-23)—note the traditional reference to “entering” the divine/heavenly life (i.e. entering the Kingdom)
    • The judgment against the wicked/unfaithful servant (vv. 26ff)
    • The separation of the wicked—thrown into the “outer darkness” (v. 30)

As noted above, the Lukan version contains a kingship narrative line running through the parable:

    • The narrative introduction (v. 11), establishing the reason for Jesus’ uttering the parable (cf. Section 5 below)
    • The man is described as “well-born”—he goes away specifically “to receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12)
    • The parable is interrupted, it would seem, by the notice in v. 14, introducing the theme of the rebellious citizens who do not want the man to rule over them as king
    • When the man returns, he is said to have “received the kingdom”, i.e. authority to rule (v. 15a)
    • Again, at the end of the parable, we find another reference to the people who did not wish the man to rule—now they are characterized as “enemies” (v. 27).

It must be admitted that verses 14 and 27 seem out of place in the parable, which otherwise generally matches the version in Matthew. It has been suggested that two separate parables are blended together in Luke’s version: (1) a parable similar to Matt 25:14-30, and (2) a parable involving a king and his subjects. The two strands fit uneasily, making two very different statements: (1) exhortation to faithful discipleship, and (2) Jesus’ role/position as Messiah. Interestingly, the Lukan version, like Matthew’s, ends with a harsh declaration of Judgment (v. 27), though the two differ considerably in form and emphasis.

Both versions also include a motif suggesting a ‘delay’ in the coming of the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). Luke expresses this by way of the introduction in v. 11, and also with the detail that the man travels into a “far-off place” (v. 12). For Matthew, a similar idea is indicated in the parable when it is stated that master returns “after much time” (25:19). This will be discussed in Section 5 below.

Matthew 25:31-46: Parable of the Sheep and Goats

The last of the three parables in Matthew 25 has much the character of a vision-scene with symbolic/figurative elements, rather than a parable properly speaking. Indeed, it is not a Kingdom-parable, but a description of the Kingdom of God in heaven. It is, in fact, a scene of the great Judgment, set in the heavenly court. The eschatological key phrase is found in the opening words:

“And when the Son of Man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him…” (v. 31a)

This virtually restates the Synoptic saying in Mark 8:38 par, referring to the appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time Judgment, viewed as imminent. The corresponding saying in Matthew at this point highlights the theme of the Judgment:

“For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give forth to each (person) according to his deed(s)” (16:27)

For more on this end-time appearance of the Son of Man—a tradition deriving primarily from Daniel 7:13-14ff—cf. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 pars, and the recent study on the eschatological Sayings of Jesus. The opening verse of the parable emphasizes the exalted status and position of Jesus (at God’s right hand), as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. The depiction of the Judgment scene is altogether traditional, at least in its basic framework:

    • The judgment of the Nations (v. 32)—traditionally, the Messiah would play a prominent role in this process; in 1 Enoch, as in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, the Danielic Son of Man figure was identified as God’s Anointed One (Messiah), the two figure-types being blended together.
    • The separation of the righteous from the wicked (vv. 32ff)—this is stated generally (“he will mark them off from [each] other”), which could give the misleading impression that nations are being separated from another. Rather, it is the people (humankind) generally who are being separated.
    • The separation is expressed through the symbolic designation of “sheep” and “goats”; this simply reflects shepherding imagery, like the fishing imagery in the Net-parable (13:47-49), and one should not read too much into the sheep and goat as distinctive symbols.
    • The basis for the separation (righteous vs. wicked) is ethical (rather than theological), though with a uniquely Christian emphasis (cf. below).
    • The final Judgment (reward/punishment) likewise is stated in traditional language:
      “and these [i.e. the wicked] will go away into punishment of the Ages [i.e. eternal punishment], but the just/righteous (one)s into (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 46)

What is especially distinctive, and most memorable, about the parable is the basis for the judgment/separation, which is set forth in considerable detail (unlike the parables of the Weeds and Net, where is left unstated). It is described entirely in terms of how one has responded to people who are in need (of food, clothing, comfort, care/treatment of sickness, etc)—i.e. to the poor and unfortunate in society. This has caused some consternation for Christians accustomed to viewing salvation strictly, or primarily, in terms of faith in Jesus, i.e. acceptance of him as Messiah and Son of God. However, the emphasis in the parable here is not much different from that in the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the Beatitudes [5:3-12] and the Antitheses [5:21-47]), where traditional religious and ethical standards have been given a new, deeper interpretation. The true and faithful disciple of Jesus will follow this new ethic, and the declaration by Jesus in 5:20 is very much of a kind with the parable of the Sheep and Goats:

“For I relate to you that if your justice/righteousness does not go over (and above, even) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, you (certainly) will not go into the kingdom of the heavens!”

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

A final topic which must be addressed, related to the parables in Matthew and Luke, involves several key references which suggest a period of time which is to pass before the coming of final Judgment and the return of Jesus. This would seem to contrast with the language of imminence which otherwise is found in most/many of Jesus’ sayings (cf. the earlier study of the Sayings). The specific (and difficult, from our viewpoint) aspect of imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings/teaching will be discussed in more detail in the next study (on the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”), as well as a separate study devoted to the topic. However, it is worth mentioning here these important references in the parables to what is typically called “the delay of the Parousia”—i.e. a recognition among early Christians, after several decades, that the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) might not occur for some time. In this regard, the relative dating of the Gospels could be significant. Mark is usually recognized as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, dated perhaps c. 60 A.D., with Luke somewhat later (after 70 A.D.), and Matthew, perhaps, later still (c. 80 A.D.). Apart from the statement in 13:7b (to be discussed), there is little in Mark to suggest anything other than an imminent expectation of the end—i.e. within the lifetime of the disciples. If the conventional dating of Luke and Matthew is correct, they would have been written at a time when a number of the disciples—i.e. the first generation of believers—were beginning to die off. It must be admitted that this issue is not specifically addressed in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, usually thought to be the latest of the four (c. 90-95 A.D.?)—cf. the tradition (and the way it is presented) in Jn 21:20-23. It is natural that the later, more developed Gospel tradition would reflect the concern of this “delay”, and seek to explain it, at least in a rudimentary way.

Even so, it must be stated that evidence of this sort is rather slight in Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel writer felt it necessary to alter, to any real extent, the various Synoptic sayings and traditions which indicate an imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment. For example, they all leave the statement by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par in place without any real modification or explanation. Similarly, references indicating a significant ‘delay’ are relatively rare, and should not be overstated. We saw above, details in two of the parables which are worthy of note:

    • It is said of the Bridegroom that he was “taking (his) time” (xroni/zonto$), which led some of the maidens carelessly to fall asleep (25:5)
    • In the Parable of the Talents, it is only “after much time” (meta\ polu\n xro/non) that the master returns (25:19)

Both details, it would seem, reflect the same basic idea, though the latter more clearly indicates a significant period of time. If these parables properly refer to the return of Jesus, then it could, perhaps, express the idea (or at least allow for the possibility) that Jesus might not return within the lifetime of the first disciples.

The Gospel of Luke contains more details of this sort, which, indeed, is more fitting for the context of the combined work of Luke-Acts, with its emphasis on a period of mission work among the Gentiles that must take place before the end comes (Acts 1:6-8, etc). The parables also express this in various ways; there are two which need to be examined here: (a) the Parable of the Judge and the Widow, and (b) the Parable of the Minas.

Luke 18:1-8: The Parable of the Judge and the Widow

The purpose of this parable is expressed by the Gospel writer in the opening words (narrative introduction, v. 1): the necessity of the disciples “always to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] and not to act out of a bad (heart) [i.e. be weak, cowardly]”. In other words, Jesus exhorts his followers to be persistent in prayer, even in the face of difficult and trying circumstances, where it may seem as though God does not hear them. This is certainly the primary message of the parable (vv. 2-6); however, if we read between the lines, the chronological dimension of the parable could be taken to suggest a delay in the end-time deliverance of God’s people (i.e. the Judgment), which early believers (along with many devout Jews) were fervently expecting. The woman in the parable “would come toward him [i.e. the judge]” (v. 3), i.e. would come repeatedly; and the judge was apparently not willing to hear her complaint “upon [i.e. for] (some) time” (v. 4). The explanation of the parable by Jesus in verse 7, and its application to the disciples (believers), suggests more is involved here than simply the question of unanswered prayer:

“And would God (then) not (all the more) make out justice for his (chosen one)s (which he) gathered out, the (one)s crying to him day and night, and is his impulse (to answer) long upon them [i.e. is he long in answering them]?”

There seems to be an echo here of the eschatological (and Messianic) hope expressed, for example, in 2:25, 38. Moreover the persecution which Jesus’ disciples will face, also implied here in the parable, is often presented in an eschatological context (21:12-19 par, etc). Luke is fully aware that at least thirty years would pass, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, without the end coming, and that, during this time, the early Christians (especially missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas) would face persecution. This parable may have been included by the Gospel writer, in part, with just this context in mind. The eschatological orientation of the parable would seem to be confirmed by the concluding declaration by Jesus in verse 8b, which may have circulated originally as a separate saying: “All the more, the Son of Man (at) his coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”. Disciples are to continue following Jesus faithfully, trusting in God, for the period (however brief or long) that lasts until the Son of Man comes. Verse 8a suggests that this period of time will not be all that long, preserving the basic sense of imminence—”I relate to you that he [i.e. God] will make out justice for them in (all) speed!”. On the language of imminence here—i.e. the expression e)n ta/xei, “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”—cf. the separate study in this series on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Luke 19:11-27: The Parable of the Minas

The parable itself was discussed above, in connection with the Matthean Parable of the Talents. Here, it is necessary to focus on two elements of the Lukan version: (a) the narrative introduction in verse 11, and (b) the description of the man who goes away in verse 12. First consider the setting indicated in the narrative introduction, which also serves as a transition from the Zaccheus narrative in vv. 1-10:

“And (at) their hearing these (thing)s, (Yeshua,) putting (this also) toward (them), said (it as) an (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable], through [i.e. because of] his being near to Yerushalaim, and their considering that the kingdom of God was about to shine forth [i.e. appear] paraxrh=ma.”

The syntax is somewhat complex, but what the author is describing is clear enough. Jesus was aware that many people (among his disciples and other followers) were thinking/expecting that the Kingdom of God would suddenly appear and be realized (on earth) once they arrived in Jerusalem. The adverb paraxrh=ma is difficult to translate literally; fundamentally, it refers to something which comes along (para/) just as it is needed (xrh=ma)—i.e. just at the right time. Sometimes it carries the sense of “at that very moment”, “immediately”. The “triumphal entry” narrative in the Gospel tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par) indicates that many people envisioned Jesus as the Messiah (Davidic-ruler type) who would establish the Kingdom in Jerusalem—presumably an earthly (Messianic) Kingdom, according to popular tradition. The questions posed to him in Lk 17:20 and Acts 1:6 reflect a similar eschatological expectation. In response to those questions, Jesus redirects his audience, pointing them toward a different (and deeper) understanding. Much the same is done here, through the parable which follows in vv. 12ff. The Kingdom of God will not be established immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This brings us to the beginning of the parable, which differs from the Matthean version in the description of the man who goes away. Here is how it is stated in the Parable of the Talents:

“…a man going away from his own people…” (25:14)

This simple phrase likely reflects the core parable (cf. above); however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas, it is expanded considerably:

“A certain well-born man traveled into a far(-off) area to receive a kingdom for himself and (then) turn back [i.e. return].” (19:12)

I noted above that there is some ambiguity in these parables whether the figure of the master/landowner who goes away properly refers to Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). Probably in their original context it is God who is in view, though early Christians certainly would have come to interpret such eschatological parables in terms of Jesus’ return at the end-time. The Matthean Parable of the Talents could be understood either way; however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas there is no question at all—the man who goes away has to be identified with Jesus. This is abundantly clear from the details in verse 12:

    • a well-born man (but not yet a King)
    • travels into a far-away land
    • to receive a kingdom for himself
    • and then returns back to his own land

This action in the story refers to a local ruler (prince, etc) who travels to the land/court of a powerful sovereign (king) to be granted the title and status of king (i.e., vassal of the greater sovereign). When he returns to his own land he now rules as king under the authority of the sovereign who granted him that title. From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, this process described in verse 12 can only refer to the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Having being raised to the right hand of God the Father, when Jesus returns, it will be as a divine King ruling with God’s own authority.

There is nothing in the parable which indicates exactly the time that the man (Jesus) is away; the designation of “far-off land” is best understood in terms of location (i.e. with God in Heaven). The Matthean parable does state that it is only “after much time” that the man returns. If we are faithful to the Lukan parable itself, all that we can say is that the Kingdom of God will not be established until some time after Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure to the Father. In the context of the wider narrative of Luke-Acts, this allows at least for a period of missionary work among the nations (Gentiles), as indicated in Acts 1:6-8ff; however, beyond this, there is no indication of the amount of time that is involved. This will be discussed further when we study the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

Part 1 of this study examined the parables in the core Synoptic (triple) tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. We looked primarily at the Kingdom-parables in chapter 4, along with the parable of the Wicked Tenants in 12:1-12. Now we turn to the parables found in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark); some of these parables are unique to each Gospel, while others occur in both (i.e. material commonly designated “Q”). These eschatological and “Kingdom” parables will be examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic Tradition in Mark 4

Matthew 13 clearly draws upon the same tradition as Mark 4—a sequence of Kingdom-parables, according to an established (thematic) arrangement. However, Matthew includes several parables and sayings not found in Mark (nor the corresponding version in Luke [8:4-18])—these are:

    • The dual-saying in vv. 16-17 (“Q”, cf. Luke 10:23-24)
    • The Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30, 36-43)
    • The Parable of the Leaven (v. 33)
    • The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl (vv. 44-46)
    • The Parable of the Net (vv. 47-50)
    • The concluding saying in vv. 51-52

The additional parables all illustrate the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of Heaven“, in Matthew)—vv. 24, 33, 44, 45, 47, and also v. 52. They also serve to enhance the eschatological orientation of the sequence of Kingdom-parables; in particular, the Parables of the Weeds and Net have a clear reference to the end-time Judgment.

The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43)

The “Parable of the Weeds” is similar in theme and scope to the Synoptic Parable of the Sower (13:3-9 par); both parables include an explanation of the parable by Jesus given to his close disciples (vv. 18-23 par, 36-43; cf. verse 11ff). Many critical commentators express doubt that the explanations come from Jesus himself, but rather reflect early Christian interpretation. It is hard to find clear objective evidence for such a distinction, and the explanations are generally consistent with the language and style of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic tradition. The question, for our study, is especially significant in the case of the Parable of the Weeds, since the explanation of that parable, if coming from Jesus, would reflect his own eschatological understanding.

Unlike the parable of the Sower, the Weeds-parable is marked specifically as a Kingdom parable: “The kingdom of the heavens is (consider)ed to be like a man scattering fine seed in his field” (v. 24). However, in the explanation to the parable of the Sower, Jesus does indicate that it, too, relates to the Kingdom, identifying the seed as “the word/account [lo/go$] of the kingdom”. The context of that parable suggests that the sower is Jesus (proclaiming the message of the Kingdom); while the explanation of the Weeds-parable identifies him as “the Son of Man” (v. 37). This expression, or title, is used frequently by Jesus, often as a self-designation. The eschatological usage, drawn primarily from Daniel 7:13-14, features prominently in the Weeds-parable, and will be discussed in more detail in the study on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Interestingly, while the seed in the Sower-parable is identified as the message or “word” of the Kingdom, in the Weeds-parable it is the “sons” (ui(oi/, i.e. children) of the Kingdom (v. 38). The reference to “sons”, in terms of the Semitic idiom which Jesus would have understood, has two principal aspects:

    • In the literal sense of (royal/aristocratic) sons who will inherit their father’s estate, and
    • Indicating those (as a group) who belong to the Kingdom—i.e. members of the Kingdom. The Hebrew /B@ (“son”) is often used in the sense of someone who belongs to a particular group or category, possessing certain attributes or characteristics, etc.

By contrast, the “weeds” (ziza/nia) are identified as “the sons of the evil (one)”. It is possible to translate this expression as “the sons of evil”, but the context suggests a person (or personification)—”the evil one” (i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’); Jesus’ usage elsewhere would seem to confirm this (cp. in the Lord’s Prayer, 6:13). This sort of stark dualism is less common in the Synoptic sayings of Jesus than in the Johannine discourses, where it features prominently (Jn 3:19-20; 5:29; 8:39-47). First John presents a contrast very close to that of the parable here (3:8-10, “the children of God and the children of the devil”, v. 10). A similar dualistic contrast (“sons of light” and “sons of darkness”) is found in the Qumran texts. The ziza/nion, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, would typically be translated as “weed”, but seems to refer primarily to a type of grass or stalk which resembles the grain itself, but yields no produce.

The “field” (a)gro/$) in the parable is said to be the sower’s own field (“his field”, v. 24), while in the explanation it is identified as o( ko/smo$ (“the world-order”, v. 38a), i.e. creation, the created order. This emphasizes the cosmic aspect of the parable, and also indicates that the Son of Man, as God’s heavenly/divine representative, has authority and control over the world. Here ko/smo$ is used in a neutral sense—i.e. the world and all the people in it—much as in the parable of the Sower, where there are different types of soil, representing different responses of people to the message of the Kingdom. A different sort of illustration, but along similar lines, is presented in this parable: the Son of Man sows the good seed, while the enemy (e)xqro/$, the ‘devil’, dia/bolo$) sowed in the weeds (the false seed) secretly, at night. The explanation suggests two levels at which this may be interpreted:

    • True and false disciples of Jesus, both part of the same group of people identifying themselves as his followers. This certainly would have been the immediate understanding of the parable by early Christians.
    • The “weeds” as intrusive attempts to stifle the spread and growth of the Kingdom—this would include both people (false believers, persecutors), and other sorts of obstacles, temptations to sin, etc (v. 41)

The crux of the parable is its eschatological orientation—the harvest motif (vv. 28-30) used in parable, with the explanation in verses 39ff. The climactic statement of the parable would have immediately evoked the idea of the end-time judgment, as seen from the words of the Baptist in 3:12 par, echoed here:

“Release [i.e. allow] both to grow together until the reaping [o( qerismo/$], and in the time of the reaping I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the weeds and bind them into bundles toward the burning down (of) them, but bring together the grain into my building where (the grain is) put away!'” (v. 30)

In the explanation, there is no doubt left as to what Jesus means:

“The reaping [i.e. harvest] is the completion (all)together of th(is) Age, and the reapers are the (heavenly) Messengers” (v. 39b)

He is referring to the end of the current Age, and the idea, expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition, of the role of the Angels (assisting the Son of Man) in the end-time Judgment (Mk 8:38; 13:27 par; Matt 16:27; 25:31, etc). Verses 40-41f drive this home emphatically:

“…so it will be in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Son of Man will set forth his Messengers, and they will gather together out of his kingdom all the (thing)s tripping (people) up, and the (one)s doing (things) without law, and he will cast them into the burning chamber [i.e. furnace] of fire…”

The kingdom of the Son of Man (“his kingdom”, par “his field”) involves: (a) the proclamation of the message of the Kingdom in the world, and (b) those who belong to the Kingdom and respond to this message (i.e. the true disciples of Jesus). All that does not belong to the Kingdom, or which hinders its proclamation and establishment on earth, will be burned up at the end-time Judgment. The divine/heavenly dimension of the end-time Kingdom is made clear in the concluding words of the parable (v. 43, cf. Daniel 12:3):

“Then the just/righteous (one)s will give out (rays of) light as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-50)

The parable of the Fish-Net is much shorter and simpler, but has essentially the same theme as the parable of the Weeds. Instead of seed cast into a field, it uses the image of a fishing-net cast into the sea (v. 47). Fundamentally, it is the end-time Judgment which is in view here; first in the parable—

“…and when it was filled, they stepped it up upon the shore, and, sitting (down), they gathered together the fine (fish) into containers, but the rotten (one)s they threw away” (v. 48)

and then in the explanation (v. 49):

“So it will in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Messengers will come out and will mark off the evil (one)s out of the midst of the just/righteous (one)s.”

The dualistic contrast here is simpler, drawing upon the traditional religious-ethical distinction of good/bad, righteous/wicked. Jesus’ statement in John 5:29 reflects the same traditional language:

“…and they will (all) travel out [i.e. from the dead]—the (ones hav)ing done good into a standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of life, but the (ones hav)ing acted foul(ly) into a standing-up of judgment.”

2. Vineyard Parables

Jesus appears to have regularly used the image of workers in a vineyard in his teaching. Many in his audience likely would have identified themselves with the servants, laborers, and tenants of these parables. The illustrations seem to play especially upon the idea of the absentee landowner—a man who travels away or lives elsewhere while the land itself is worked by hired laborers and tenant farmers. This proved useful for instruction on the theme of responsible discipleship—working faithfully while God is ‘away’ (in Heaven). The same storyline and setting could easily be applied—both in the authentic tradition, and in early Christian interpretation—to the idea of Jesus as the master who goes away (i.e., his death, resurrection, and departure to the Father). In several of the parables with an eschatological emphasis, this latter setting seems to be in view.

We have already looked at the (Synoptic) parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12; par Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). It remains to examine two other parables found in the Gospel of Matthew, both of which occur in the general context of (end-time) reward and judgment—cf. 19:13-30; 20:20-28; 21:33ff.

Matthew 20:1-16: Payment of Laborers in the Vineyard

This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:

“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man (who is) master of a house(hold), who went out before (daytime) [i.e. in the early morning] to arrange (for) workers in his vineyard (to work) for wages…” (v. 1)

The eschatological aspect of this parable has to be inferred from the fundamental idea of the work in the vineyard being done over the course of an entire day (these being day-laborers, with a harvesting context implied). At the end of the day (v. 8), i.e. at the end-time (end of the current Age), the agreed-upon wage (misqo/$) for each worker is paid. There is an obvious parallel here to the idea of heavenly reward for the faithful/righteous ones at the end-time Judgment, being implicit in the parable (vv. 9ff). Early Christians certainly would have understood the workers in the vineyard as faithful disciples of Jesus, who came to be disciples at different points in time. For all such disciples the payment/reward is the same, which is the primary theme of the parable—believers do their work in common, as disciples of Jesus, without expecting any special priority or status based on when or how long one has been a disciple. This is emphasized by the concluding, paradoxical words in verse 16, which may have originated as a separate saying: “So will the first be last, and the last first”. The saying could easily be interpreted a different way, according the reversal-of-fortune motif found in a number of Jesus’ sayings. Here, by contrast, an egalitarian principle is established, one which softens or re-works the traditional eschatological language of the Judgment (cf. above). However, since it is disciples of Jesus (i.e. believers) who are the subject of the parable (not the wicked), this emphasis is more appropriate.

Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons

The contrast between righteous and wicked—true and false disciple—is expressed more clearly in the “Two Sons” parable. Here it is a Father (i.e. God) who asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard (v. 28). As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this word from the Master (vv. 29-30, note the interesting textual variants of wording and order found in the manuscripts). While not designated specifically as a Kingdom-parable, the Kingdom (of God) is clearly in view, when Jesus essentially gives an explanation of the parable to the religious leaders who were questioning his authority (vv. 23-27):

“…Amen, I relate to you that the toll-collectors and the prostitutes lead (the way) before you into the kingdom of God!” (v. 31b)

This is effectively an application of the statement in 20:16 (above), according to the reversal-of-fortune motif: sinners in the present age will enter the Kingdom, while the ‘righteous’ (according to traditional religious and morality) may not. A more precise application would follow the Vineyard-laborer parable—the religious leaders may still enter the Kingdom, but only after the lowly/wretched sinners have done so!

There is not an obvious eschatological aspect to this parable, other than what can be inferred from its basic setting, along with the narrative context—much of Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (chapters 21-25) is eschatological in orientation.

3. Banquet/Feast Parables

There are three such parables to consider, the first two of which may derive from the same line of tradition (the so-called “Q” material). They draw upon the older traditional motif of the heavenly/eschatological banquet, inspired by passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14; cf. 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4, etc (Fitzmyer, p. 1026). It is alluded to at several points in the book of Revelation (3:20; 19:9). At times this banquet/feast is specifically associated with the Messiah (and/or a “Messianic Age”). Jesus applies the idea to himself, and his closest disciples, in Luke 22:16ff, 29-30 par.

a. Matthew 22:1-14 / Luke 14:15-24

Matthew and Luke appear to be dealing with a common parable by Jesus (“Q” material), though the differences are significant enough that one must allow for the possibility of ‘separate’ parables coming from two distinct lines of tradition. However, the basic outline is the same—that of a (wealthy/prominent) man who invites people to a great feast. As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this message, but initially they are all negative—everyone invited declines to attend, offering various reasons to be excused. These reasons all relate to the business of daily life, and would seem to parallel the the third soil-type in the parable of the sower and “the concerns/distractions of the world” (Mark 4:19, Jesus’ explanation). As a result, the man extends his invitation further afield, reaching to the poorer segments of society. This aspect echoes the parable of the Two Sons (cf. above), and the contrast between the repentant sinners/outcasts and the ‘righteous’ who fail to respond to Jesus’ message. In what appears to be the core parable, the invitation goes out to the streets of the city (Matt 22:8 / Lk 14:22); however, in Luke’s version, this is further extended to the crowded narrow lanes (where the poor and disabled are commonly found), and even further out into the roadways and fenced-off lands. This latter detail allows for (Lukan) application in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Both versions treat this as a Kingdom-parable, though in different ways:

    • In Matthew, it is so designated by Jesus (“the kingdom of the heavens is [to be] considered like a man…”, 22:2). Moreover, the man is specifically referred to as a king, and the feast identified as a wedding banquet for his son (further giving the parable a Messianic dimension). The people being invited are thus members of his kingdom.
    • Luke introduces the parable in the narrative context of a feast Jesus is attending (14:15), at which a man declares to him: “Happy the (one) who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is similar to Jesus’ own words to his disciples at the Last Supper, where he speaks of drinking from “the produce of the vine” (i.e. wine) in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14:25 par). These motifs of eating/drinking should not taken too concretely; they are simply idioms referring to partaking in a meal. However, these references are eschatological, and relate to the feast/banquet motif mentioned above. As we see often in the Gospels, Jesus redirects his audience away from a simple traditional understanding (without entirely rejecting it), and points them toward a deeper meaning.

In Luke’s version, the poor and outcast take the place of the ‘righteous’ who refuse to attend, just as Jesus states in the Two Sons parable. Matthew’s version presents this quite differently, according to more traditional imagery associated with the end-time Judgment (cf. the chap. 13 parables above). Instead of the poor and afflicted, the call goes out to all people in the city, and a crowd comes to the feast—good and evil alike (22:10). This is very much akin to the parable of the Net, where good and bad fish are gathered up together in the net, to be separated out at the end-time Judgment. That is very much what the parable describes here in vv. 11-12, though in a most distinctive and memorable way, isolating on a single individual.

The Matthean version is thus more complex than the Lukan, and seems to be describing more distinct stages:

    • The well-to-do members of the kingdom (i.e. religious Israelites/Jews) who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and/or fail to respond to his message
    • The disciples of Jesus who respond to his message, coming from all segments of the city—though not all are true, faithful disciples
    • At the end of the Age, at the time of the great feast, it is then that the true and false disciples will be separated

Finally, it is also worth mentioning a third version of this parable, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying/section 64); some critical commentators consider the Thomas version to be the more primitive, original form of the parable (Fitzmyer, pp. 1050-2).

Luke 13:23-30 (esp. verses 28-30)

There is a brief parable or illustration in the Gospel of Luke which is part of a block of teaching with an eschatological orientation. The section may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 22)
    • Question by someone (disciple?) in the crowd (v. 23):
      “(is it that) the (one)s being saved (are only) a few?”
    • Illustration of the Narrow Door (v. 24)
    • Illustration of the Master of House standing at the Door (vv. 25-27)
    • Illustration of the Kingdom Feast (vv. 28-29)
    • Concluding saying (v. 30):
      “see, there are the last who will be first, and the first who will be last” (cp. Matt 20:16, above)

The setting in vv. 22-23 introduces the eschatological context of these illustrations. For the association with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cf. on Luke 19:11 below (Part 3); the context of question in verse 23 relates salvation to entering/inheriting the Kingdom at the end-time. In contrast to the belief expressed in Jewish tradition, that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; Fitzmyer, p. 1022), a number of Jesus’ sayings seem to suggest that only a small percentage of the people (i.e. those accepting and following him) will be saved. The two Door parables (compare with Matt 7:13-14, 21-23) seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ (eschatological) message:

    • Entering the kingdom requires struggle (a)gw/n), due to the narrowness (ste/no$) of the door or gate, the result of the many obstacles which surround it (cf. the Parable of the Weeds above). Jesus declared and emphasized on numerous occasions to his disciples (and would-be disciples) that considerable hardship was involved in following him—a lifestyle which demanded an ethic even more stringent than that of the Pharisees (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, etc); and also a faith/trust in God which is rare indeed among people (cf. on Luke 18:8 below [Part 3]).
    • Moreover, the door is open only for a (short) period; at some point (the end-time) the Master of the house/kingdom, will decide to close the door. It will be impossible for anyone to enter at that point, regardless of the claims or petitions they may make (i.e. that they were followers of Jesus, etc).

This leads into the Feast parable of vv. 28-29—entering the Kingdom at the end-time means joining in this great feast, at which all the righteous attend (the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, etc). There are two components to this illustration:

    1. Many Israelites will not join Abraham and Isaac, etc, in the Kingdom, but will be “thrown outside” (v. 28)
    2. Others will come from all the surrounding nations, from all directions (east, west, north, south) and will “lean back (to dine)” in the Kingdom (v. 29)

Given the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, it is not surprising that the Lukan parables and teachings of Jesus emphasis this more inclusive aspect—allowing even for the inclusion of Gentiles (through the early Christian mission) into the Kingdom.

(to be continued in Part 3)

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB] 28A (1985)

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

Having studied the sayings of Jesus, it is now time to turn our attention toward the longer illustrations and parables. There are two areas which need to be examined: (1) parables related to the Kingdom of God, and (2) parables with an eschatological aspect or dimension. There is a good deal of overlap, but it is important to keep these two areas distinct. Just because Jesus may refer to the Kingdom in a parable, does not mean the thrust of the parable is eschatological per se. As we have seen, his use of the “Kingdom” expression and image is more complex than that.

According to the basic meaning of the Greek word, a parabolh/ is something “cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. placed alongside—an illustrative story or comparison, used as an aid in teaching. Jesus’ parables, as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, tend to be relatively short stories, sometimes taking the form of example covering just a sentence or two. Again, I will begin with the Synoptic parables, represented by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to those in Matthew and Luke. There are relatively few Markan/Synoptic parables; most notable are those which occur in Mark 4 par.

1. The Kingdom of God (Mark 4:1-34 par)

If we begin with the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there is only one section (chap. 4) which brings together a sequence of parables by Jesus, and these have the Kingdom of God as their primary theme. This is clearly expressed by the formula in verse 30:

“How may we say (what) the kingdom if God is like, or in what (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] should we set it?”

The sequence of parables covers 4:1-34, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • The Sower (vv. 3-20):
      —The parable (vv. 3-9)
      —Jesus and the disciples (vv. 10-13)
      —Explanation of the parable (vv. 14-20)
    • The Lamp (vv. 21-25)
      —which includes an exhortation and reward-saying (vv. 23-25)
    • The Growing Seed (vv. 26-29)
    • The Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew and Luke have modified or developed this tradition in different ways. In Matthew (chap. 13), the Markan setting is maintained, but the author has included other parables and sayings which enhance the eschatological thrust of the section (cf. below). By contrast, Luke (8:4-18) has a simpler/shorter version of the Synoptic material, and sets it in a different context (cf. 8:1-3, 19-21). The essential theme, in both the Markan and Lukan versions, relates to the success of Jesus’ ministry—i.e. his proclamation of the good news (of the Kingdom) and the response (of his disciples) to this message. Many commentators feel that in the original context of the parable of the Sower—the parable itself, more than the explanation—had an eschatological emphasis. In spite of the initial obstacles, and lack of response, Jesus’ mission would take root, and from the first disciples, the message would quickly spread to a much wider audience, before the end comes. This is certainly suggested by the language in verses 8, 20 (cf. the parallel in v. 32), though it must be admitted that the emphasis in the explanation (vv. 13-20) is rather on the character of the different kinds of soil as representing different responses to the Gospel. The context of Luke’s version brings out the focus on discipleship even more clearly. Even so, an eschatological thrust by Jesus is likely, given the Kingdom-parables which follow in Mk 4:21ff par. We may consider the brief parable of the Lamp in vv. 21-25, which appears to be made up of several sayings which may originally have circulated separately, but certainly fit together here as a unit:

    • Illustration of the Lamp (v. 21)
    • Explanation/application for his disciples (v. 22)
    • Exhortation (v. 23)
    • Paradoxical dual-saying regarding (heavenly) reward (vv. 24-25)

Beyond the obvious reference to heavenly reward, implying an end-time Judgment setting, the eschatological emphasis may also be seen by the ‘explanation’ of the illustration in verse 22:

“For there is not any(thing) hidden, if not (so) that it may be made to shine forth; and (has) not come to be uncovered, so that it may (now) come into (the) shining (light)?”

This idea of the uncovering of secrets implies the end-time Judgment by God (indicated by the divine passive here), when all things will come to light—on similar passages in the New Testament, cf. John 3:19-21; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:11-14. In this context, however, the saying must refer back to verse 11 and the “secret of the Kingdom” (cf. the next section below). It is the secret(s) of the Kingdom of God which are to be revealed at the end-time. They had been kept hidden (by God) previously, so they would not be uncovered until the present time—i.e. the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Luke has another form of this (or a similar) saying in Lk 12:2-3, where the emphasis shifts from an eschatological warning (v. 2) to a directive to the disciples to proclaim the secret, i.e. of the Kingdom (v. 3). In Paul’s writings, and elsewhere in the New Testament, this revealing light is identified precisely as the Gospel message of what God has done in the person of Jesus (Lk 1:79; 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:18ff; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10, etc).

2. The “Secret of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11 par)

Central to the sequence of parables in Mark 4 is the exchange between Jesus and disciples in vv. 10-13, preceding the explanation of the Sower parable (vv. 14ff). I give these verses in a chiastic or bracketed outline form:

    • Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
      —Declaration: The disciples are given the secret of the Kingdom (v. 11)
      —Scripture citation: The secret of the Kingdom is (and has been) kept hidden from others (v. 12)
    • Question of Jesus to the disciples about their understanding the parables (v. 13)

The apparent difficulty of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 has been overplayed in the past, tripping up commentators. Luke (8:10) has effectively removed the main problem by eliminating the second portion of the citation (v. 10). The thrust of the citation is that God has intentionally kept the “secret of the Kingdom” hidden from people until the moment it is to be revealed by Jesus and his followers—and only by them. As indicated by the outline above, this establishes the contrast in Mk 4:11-12, between Jesus’ close followers (who are given the secret), and all other people (from whom it remains hidden). I have discussed this passage in a detailed study on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”). There are contemporary parallels to this expression (“secrets of God”) in the Qumran texts—1QM 3:9; 16:11; 1QS 3:23; 1QpHab 7:8, etc. The Qumran Community believed that they (alone) represented the faithful ones of Israel, who would play a central role in the end-time appearance of God (His Kingdom and Judgment), thought to be imminent. In this, they shared much in common with the earliest Christians, who inherited a significant portion of their eschatology from Jesus himself; on this, cf. the recent articles on the eschatological sayings of Jesus, and also the upcoming study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

3. Seed/Harvest Imagery in the Parables (esp. Mark 4:26-33 par)

A third aspect of the sequence of parables in Mark 4 to note is the repeated use of seed and harvest motifs, brought out even more vividly in Matthew’s version (cf. below). In addition to the parable of the Sower, we have the two Seed-parables in 4:26-33. Of these we notice especially:

    • Both are identified specifically as illustrations of the Kingdom of God (vv. 26, 30)
    • The first (parable of the Growing Seed) has an unquestionable eschatological emphasis (v. 29)

It is this last point which needs to be expounded further, as verse 29 serves as the climax to the parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29). It also continues the image of the Kingdom of God as something hidden—adding this aspect (cf. vv. 11ff, 22, and the discussion above) to the earlier Sower paradigm:

    • “…as a man might cast (down) scattered (seed) upon the earth” (v. 26)
    • “and might sleep and rise, night and day, and the scattered (seed) might sprout and lengthens (even) as he has not seen (it)…” (v. 27)

The seed, earlier identified as the “word of God” and the proclamation of the Kingdom, works in a hidden manner, unseen and unknown to the man sowing who otherwise goes about his daily business. Yet the seed has a special power all its own, intrinsic to its very nature:

“Moving (it)self, the earth bears fruit—first (the) green (sprout), then a standing head (of grain), (and) then full grain in the standing head.” (v. 28)

Though hidden, this growth is both natural and expected; and, at the end of its period of growth, the time for harvest comes:

“But when the fruit gives along (its sign), straightaway (the man) sets forth the (tool for) plucking, (in) that [i.e. because] the (time for) reaping [qerismo/$] has come to stand alongside [pare/sthken].”

Many translations simply read “…the harvest has come”; however, I have translated the verb pari/sthmi according to its fundamental, literal meaning (“stand alongside”), to bring out more clearly the eschatological connotation, an emphasis which is inherent in the very harvest motif being employed. For the traditional use of harvest imagery to convey the idea of the end-time Judgment, in particular, cf. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:15ff; and also Matt 13:30, 39 (below). It was a natural image, as it clearly expresses the end of a distinct period of time—i.e. the agricultural season. The verb pari/sthmi connotes two eschatological concepts:

    • The sense that something is close by, or near to taking place—i.e. the imminence of the end-time Judgment
    • A usage similar to that of pa/reimi (“be [present] alongside”), which is the basis for the noun parousi/a (parousía), a technical term for the end-time appearance of God and/or His chosen representative (i.e. the return of Jesus, in early Christian usage).

4. The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-2 par)

This is the other parable in the core Synoptic tradition which has a distinct eschatological emphasis. Its location in the Gospel reflects two themes implicit in the parable: (1) the impending death of Jesus, and (2) the coming destruction of Judea/Jerusalem. The second of these features prominently in the “Eschatological Discourse” of chapter 13 par, while the first is the subject of the Passion account which follows. However, unlike the similar parable in 13:32-37 (cf. below), only the climax of the “Wicked Tenant” parable here refers to the end-time. In this regard, the image of the landowner who “went away from his people” (v. 1) can be somewhat misleading, when compared, for example, with Luke 19:12ff par. Here the man who ‘goes away’ is not Jesus, but represents God the Father, who gives over control of his land to ‘tenant farmers’. These people mistreat the landowner’s messengers (i.e. the Prophets), and, eventually, decide to kill the man’s son (Jesus) when he comes as a representative. The judgment/punishment for this deed will take place as soon as the landowner (God) returns/appears; the implication is that it will occur very soon after Jesus’ death:

“What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and make the(se) workers of the land suffer (great) loss [i.e. destroy them], and he will give the vineyard to other (worker)s.” (v. 9)

If the landowner initially went “away from his people” (vb. a)podhme/w), when he comes back to his people it will be to punish the wicked ones. The end-time Judgment is clearly in view, but also the more specific idea of judgment on Israel (esp. Judea and Jerusalem) for their treatment of the Prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus (who is also the landowner [God]’s son). As harsh as this sounds, and as uncomfortable as it might make Christians today, it is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching, being found several other places in the Gospel tradition—Matt 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-52; 13:33-35; 19:41-44; cf. also Paul’s words in 1 Thess 2:14-16.

The parable of the Pounds/Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar framework, but appears to deal more directly with the idea of Jesus‘ departure and return. It will be discussed in the next part of this study. Another parable similar in tone and emphasis is found at the conclusion of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:32-37 par), and will be discussed in the study on the Discourse itself. It is worth mentioning here the same issue as in the Wicked Tenant parable, only modified and addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, who function as the servants left in charge of the owner’s estate. They are urged to act responsibly, in a righteous and faithful manner, realizing that the owner might return at any time.

Part 2 of this study will examine the specific parables in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) which have an eschatological aspect or emphasis.

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’).

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.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 1)

The Synoptic Gospels

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus

We begin our study of the eschatology of the New Testament with the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the sayings and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition. On the basic approach adopted here, see the introduction to my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. The shorter sayings and teachings of Jesus will be examined first, followed by the parables, and concluding with a study of the great “Eschatological Discourse”.

When dealing with the Sayings of Jesus, the situation is complicated considerably for many critical scholars, who, as a matter of principle (and method), seek to distinguish between sayings which are authentic (going back to the words of Jesus) and those which are thought to be largely the product of early Christians in light of their beliefs regarding Jesus, etc. Various “criteria of authenticity” have been developed which help scholars to determine, on objective grounds, the sayings which are more likely to be authentic. Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, tend to accept the Gospel accounts at face value, viewing all (or nearly all) of the recorded sayings as reflecting the actual words of the historical Jesus, allowing for a modest amount of editing and translation (from Aramaic, etc). While I do not reject out of hand nor disregard the critical analyses and theories regarding authenticity—indeed, I often find them to be most helpful and insightful—however, for the purposes of this study, I work from the assumption that the Gospel Tradition preserves the genuine words of Jesus in substance. Only in special cases will I be discussing matters related to the question of authenticity.

Any discussion of the sayings of Jesus, relating to his (and early Christian) eschatology, must start with the declaration that begins his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition.

Mark 1:15 par

Following his baptism by John (Mk 1:9-11), and his time of testing in the desert (1:12-13), we read of Jesus that he

“came into the Galîl proclaiming the good message of God [and saying] that ‘The time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!'” (1:14-15)

This theme which introduces Jesus’ public ministry generally follows the preaching of John the Baptist, as it is recorded in the Gospels (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119). Indeed, in Matthew’s version, John makes the very same declaration: “Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!” (3:2, using “kingdom of Heaven” instead of “…of God”, cp. 4:17). Even though this is not found precisely in the wider Synoptic tradition, it very much fits the tenor of his preaching—on the need for repentance in light of the coming Judgment of God upon humankind. The Synoptic summary of John’s ministry makes this clear:

“…Yohanan, the (one) dunking (people), came to be in the desolate (land) proclaiming a dunking of a change-of-mind(set) [meta/noia, i.e. repentance] unto the release of (one’s) sins. And all (the people in) the area (of) Yehudah and all the Yerushalaim (peop)le traveled out toward him, and were dunked under him in the Yarden river, giving out as one an account of [i.e. confessing/acknowledging] their sins.” (Mk 1:4-5 par)

The eschatological orientation of John’s ministry of baptism, and his preaching, is readily apparent from:

    • The citation of Isa 40:3 in Mk 1:2-3. This passage is one of a number in Isa 40-66 (Deutero-Isaiah) which had been given a Messianic interpretation by Jews in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. the recent survey of Messianic passages). There is every reason to believe that John, much like the Community of the Qumran texts (1QS 8:14-16), identified himself with the herald “crying in the desert”, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord (at the end-time). This is made explicit in Jn 1:19-23. According to certain strands of traditional Jewish eschatology, this coming of the Lord (YHWH) for Judgment was realized through, or along with, the end-time appearance of YHWH’s chosen representative (Anointed One, “Messiah”).
    • Details from the traditions in Matthew and Luke (the so-called “Q” material):
      (a) John’s preaching of the need for repentance is specifically connected with “the anger (of God) (be)ing [i.e. that is] about (to come)” (Matt 3:7-9 / Lk 3:7-8), i.e. the coming Judgment
      (b) the images of the axe (cutting down the tree) and of the harvest (separating grain from chaff) also refer to this idea of God’s impending Judgment (Matt 3:10, 12 / Lk 3:9, 17)

Given these facts, there is little reason to think that Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 par is meant in a fundamentally different sense than that of Matt 3:2 (as a summary of John’s preaching). Thus we can isolate three main elements, or aspects, of Jesus’ statement:

    1. The coming of God—his kingdom, i.e. God as king/ruler over the world
    2. The nearness of His Coming—that it is about to take place, and
    3. The need for repentance—in light of God’s coming rule (incl. Judgment on the wicked)

There can be little doubt that this reflected John’s proclamation to the people of Judea, and Jesus, it would seem, began his ministry with essentially the same message. However, in the case of Jesus, the situation is complicated greatly by the many and varied references to “the kingdom (of God)” in his sayings and parables, as recorded in the Gospels. He spoke quite often about this Kingdom, much of which has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition, bringing out a number of distinct points of emphasis; for Jesus, the Kingdom (basilei/a) was a multi-faceted concept and symbol. I have discussed this extensively in an earlier two-part article, as well as in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 5). It will be worth summarizing that analysis briefly here.

These are the primary aspects most commonly found in the sayings and parables. As part of my earlier study, based on the entirety of the evidence, I isolated four basic senses of the term “Kingdom (of God)” in the New Testament:

    1. The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
      a. An absolute sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
      b. A contingent sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
    3. The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
    4. The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers

The fundamental idea informing the phrase “Kingdom of God” is that of the rule of God—that is, His governing power and authority—coming to be present, or made manifest, on earth, in a manner beyond what one sees in the natural order of things. In this regard, and in light of the range of meaning outlined above, it is possible to narrow the focus in Jesus’ usage to three primary aspects:

    • The coming Judgment of God upon the world, after which the righteous (believers) will enter the Divine/Eternal Life and receive heavenly reward [sense #2a above]
    • The establishment of an end-time Kingdom (rule of God) upon earth, however this is understood precisely, with judgment (of the wicked) and transformation of the social/religious order of things [sense #2b above]
    • The Kingdom of God is manifest and realized in the person and presence of Jesus [sense #3 above]

We must ask, which of these three aspects is being emphasized in the declaration of Mark 1:15 par? The first two aspects reflect different sides of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation—that is, of an (imminent) future eschatology. The third aspect represents what we may call “realized” eschatology—i.e., events and attributes understood as related to the future are realized (for believers) in the present. As discussed above, the parallel with John’s preaching strongly indicates that Jesus is drawing upon the common eschatological expectation—that the end-time appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment, was soon to take place.

This is the interpretation accepted by many, if not most, critical commentators today, and it serves to epitomize the fundamental difficulty in dealing with early Christian eschatology. For traditional-conservative scholars and readers of Scripture, the problem is particularly acute, and may be summarized this way:

    • If Jesus proclaimed that the coming of the Kingdom—and, with it, the end of the current Age—was close at hand, then it opens up the possibility of his being in error on that point.
    • Yet, at the same time, to understand his view differently (and to avoid the doctrinal problem), risks distorting or neglecting the straightforward sense of his words, and how they would have been understood by people at the time.

Before proceeding any further on this thorny interpretative question (one of the most difficult in modern New Testament studies), let us examine the actual words used by Jesus in Mark 1:15; there are three phrases, or components to his declaration:

1. peplh/rwtai o( kairo/$ (“the time has been [ful]filled”). The verb plhro/w has the basic meaning “fill (up)”, sometimes in the more general sense of “complete, bring to completion, fulfill,” etc. Here the expression means that the period of time (and all that it entails), leading up to the point (kairo/$) when a particular event will take place, has been filled (i.e. completed). For a similar example, using the related verb plh/qw, see Luke 2:21-22. It precludes the idea that Jesus is announcing something which is still to come in the (distant) future; the time is now, at his very speaking. There is doubtless also an allusion to the fulfillment of prophecy, where the verb plhro/w is frequently used (cf. Luke 4:21, etc).

2. kai\ h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“and the kingdom of God has come near”). However one understands the expression “kingdom of God”, it is quite clear what Jesus says about it: “it has come near” (h&ggiken). The verb e)ggi/zw is related to the adverb e)ggu/$ (“close”), and means “come (or bring) close”; the intransitive usage is more common (“come close/near”). It can be understood either in a spatial or temporal sense. In a religious (and theological) context, it can refer to persons (i.e. priests, the righteous) approaching God, as well as the reverse—of God coming near to his people. For example, cf. Exod 3:5; Lev 21:21; Ezek 40:46 (all LXX); James 4:8; Heb 7:19; Eph 2:13, 17. One may also come near to God in a figurative sense (implying a religious attitude), as in Isa 29:13, etc. For the temporal usage, the time when something will occur (i.e. is about to take place), cf. LXX Num 24:17; Isa 26:17; Hab 3:2, etc.

The background to the eschatological use of e)ggi/zw is found in the (later) Prophets ([Deutero-]Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc LXX). It is used in reference to the coming of the “Day of YHWH”, which is the time of salvation and/or Judgment—Isa 13:6; 50:8; 51:5; 56:6; Ezek 7:4; 22:4; 30:3; cf. also Joel 1:5; 2:1; 3:14; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7, 14. The New Testament usage is primarily based on (Deutero-)Isaiah. There are 42 occurrences of the verb. Besides the ordinary sense of coming near (to a place, etc), it is used in three ways:

    • The eschatological sense—that the time of God’s appearance (the day [h(me/ra] of Judgment, salvation, etc) has come, or is coming, near. The third person perfect form h&ggiken is almost always used. Rom 13:12; Heb 10:25; James 5:8; 1 Pet 4:7; cf. also Acts 7:17 for the similar idea of a promised time coming to pass.
    • The sense of believers coming near and encountering God (cf. above)—James 4:8; Eph 2:13, 17. Note Philo’s use of the verb in On the Unchangableness of God §161; On the Special Laws II.57; cf. also Psalm 33:18; 119:151; 145:18 LXX.
    • The special sense of Jesus’ time (or “hour”), i.e. the time of his Passion, coming near—Matt 26:45-46 par; cf. also Lk 4:13.

Jesus’ use of the verb is unquestionably eschatological, along the lines indicated above. This is clear when one compares the declaration in Mark 1:15 (par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7) with the statements in Luke 21:8, 20, 28. One should also note the distinctive (eschatological) use of the related adverb e)ggu/$ (“close/near”) in Mark 13:28-29 par; Luke 19:11; Rev 1:3; 22:10; cf. also Rom 13:11; Phil 4:5.

[For more on the verb e)ggi/zw, etc, see the article by H. Preisker in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], Vol 2, pp. 330-2.]

3. metanoei=te kai\ pisteu/ete e)n tw=| eu)aggeli/w| (“change your mind and trust in the good message”). There are two aspects to this statement: (a) people are to change their way of thinking (and acting), i.e. “repent”, and (b) they are to trust in the “good message” (eu)agge/lion) of salvation. The verb metaneu/w (lit. change [one’s] mind) and the idea of repentance featured prominently in the preaching of John the Baptist (cf. the discussion above). It is not especially common in Jesus’ own preaching, as recorded in the Gospels, but it is certainly present (cf. below). The word eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. ‘gospel’) is also surprisingly rare, especially in the traditional Christian sense of the “good news” about Jesus (cf. Mark 8:35; 10:29; 14:9). For the righteous (and sinners who repent), the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, for several reasons:

    • It represents the coming of God and the establishment of his rule on earth—entailing the elimination of evil and wickedness.
    • The righteous will be delivered from the power and influence of the wicked (and of sin, etc).
    • The righteous will be saved/rescued from the coming Judgment, passing through it into eternal life.

This eschatological context of the “good message” is confirmed by the use of the term in Mark 13:10 par; the implications of this particular verse will be discussed in the upcoming article on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Matthew’s version (4:17) of the declaration in Mark 1:15 is briefer and uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” rather than “kingdom of God”:

“Change your mind(set)—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!”

This matches the declaration by the Baptist (3:2), and is essentially repeated in 10:7. These words of Jesus are not present at a corresponding point in the Gospel of Luke, where the public ministry of Jesus is introduced from a different standpoint—the citation of Isa 61:1 and the episode at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). However, Luke does still depict Jesus as proclaiming the Kingdom during the Galilean ministry (4:43; 8:1, etc). In particular, the central declaration (of Mk 1:15 par) is preserved in Luke 10:9, 11: “The kingdom of God has come close [h&ggiken] upon you!” This reflects the Synoptic tradition of Jesus’ sending out his disciples to follow his example, as his representatives, doing the same work (healing miracles, etc) and proclaiming the same message—the coming of the Kingdom and the need for repentance (Mark 3:14f; 6:7-13 par; cf. Matt 10:7; Lk 9:2). Thus this message was not limited to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but continued on through much of the Galilean period (as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition).

The eschatological emphasis in Jesus teaching, as epitomized by the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, may not have defined entirely his teaching and understanding of the Kingdom of God (and its coming), but it was certainly the central starting point in his public ministry. It is important to keep this in mind as we proceed to examine the other sayings and parables found in the Synoptic Gospels.

August 15: Mark 4:10-12 (Isa 6:9-10)

The use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark 4:10-12 par

For a detailed study of the saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 (par Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10), see the previous two daily notes (Aug 13 & 14). Today I will look the Old Testament passage (Isa 6:9-10) used there in the context of the Synoptic narrative.

Isaiah 6:1-13 serves as the introduction for the division of the book spanning chapters 6-12, and, in particular, the context of the Syro-Ephraemite War in chs. 6-8. It may also be intended to represent the visionary experience of Isaiah the Prophet. The section can be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 1-7—The vision of God (YHWH) on his throne
      • v. 1: Setting and statement of the vision
      • vv. 2-4: Description of the Divine manifestation (Theophany)
      • vv. 5-7: Isaiah’s response culminating in a symbolic purification of the Prophet
    • Vv. 8-13—Commission of Isaiah and the Prophetic message
      • v. 8: Statement/narration of the commission—God’s request and Isaiah’s response
      • vv. 9-10: Description of the Message (Divine oracle)
      • vv. 11-13: Isaiah’s response culminating in a message regarding the ‘purification’ of the land and its people (through judgment)

There is a similarity in outline (and content) to the visionary experience of the Prophet Micaiah, described in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

    • A vision of God (YHWH) on his throne, surrounded by heavenly beings—1 Ki 22:19 / Isa 6:1-4
    • God’s request for a Messenger to be sent forth—1 Ki 22:20 / Isa 6:8
    • A Messenger volunteers:
      Heavenly messenger (“I will [go out]…”)—1Ki 22:21-22a
      Human messenger (“See, I [am here], send me”)—Isa 6:8b
    • At God’s command, the messenger is to obscure the understanding of human beings:
      To be a lying/enticing spirit for Ahab—1 Ki 22:21-23a
      To thicken/harden the hearts and minds of the people—Isa 6:9-10
    • The purpose is to bring about God’s Judgment on the land and its people—1 Ki 22:23 / Isa 6:11-13

The tendency has been for readers and commentators to focus on the positive part of Isaiah’s vision and commission (in verses 1-8), rather the negative portion of the message he is to speak (vv. 9-13). The most troubling aspect is the way that God seems to express the wish (or, at least, the purpose) that the Prophet, through his message, should harden the hearts and minds of the people so that they might not repent—at least not until the ordained Judgment comes (by way of the Assyrian invasions/conquests during the years 734-701 B.C.). In this regard, it is important to study closely the Hebrew text of verses 9-10, which I give here in a rather literal rendering:

“Go!—and you shall say to this people:
‘Hearing you must hear, and (yet do) not understand!
and seeing you must see, and (yet do) not (come to) know!’
Make fat(ty) the heart of this people—
their ears make heavy, and their eyes smear shut—
lest they see with their eyes,
and with their ears hear
and with their heart distinguish,
and there be turning and healing for (the)m!”

In some ways the key expression is found in the particle Á/P#, typically translated “lest” (for lack of a better option in English); however, the basic idea is something like “so as to avoid/remove (the possibility) that…”—i.e., “so that they do not see with their eyes,” etc. This combined with the causative (Hiphil) verb forms in v. 10—”make fat(ty)”, “make heavy”, “smear/glue (them) shut”—clearly indicates God’s intention regarding the effect of the Prophet’s message on the people. I regard only the portion marked by single quote marks (in v. 9) to represent the actual message; the remainder (v. 10) describes what the result of the preaching will (and should) be. This way of understanding human events and decisions as being foreordained and determined by God, according to his will and purpose, is generally foreign to our way of thinking today; however, it was quite common (and fundamental) to ancient (religious) thought. If a people suffered some disaster—plague, earthquake, invasion, etc—this was brought about by the divine powers; and, similarly, if people refused to repent or change their behavior, this too was the result of divine influence. It is really only in recent centuries that this basic worldview has undergone considerable change; and now the question of divine sovereignty vs. human freedom creates enormous difficulty and challenges for thoughtful persons, including believers in Christ. The problem was only generally (and vaguely) sensed by people in the time of Jesus; this, perhaps, may be glimpsed in the way that Isa 6:9-10 was rendered into Greek. Here is the LXX version:

“Go/travel (forth) and say to this people:
‘Hearing you will hear, and (yet) you should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
Looking you will look, and (yet) you should not (come to) see [i.e. know]!’
The heart of this people will be made thick/fat,
and they hear heavily in their ears, and close shut their eyes,
(that) they should not ever see with th(eir) eyes
and hear with th(eir) ears
and put (it) together [i.e. understand] with th(eir) heart,
and turn (back) upon (me), and I will heal them.”

The Greek wording, in verse 10, has altered the tone and tenor somewhat. First, the Hiphil imperatives have been changed into indicative forms, simply stating what has been (or will be) occurring; it also seems to put the responsibility on the people themselves. Second, the subjunctive forms make it at least possible that the people might (yet) see/hear/understand. The Greek particle mh/pote (“not ever, never”), corresponding to Hebrew /P# (see above), governing the subjunctive, could (conceivably) be read as a conditional statement—i.e., “unless they should see…” The last verb in v. 10 has also been changed into a first person future (indicative) form, where God says “I will heal them”. There are two ways v. 10 can be understood (in the LXX):

(a) “so that they might never see… and turn back (to me) and I would heal them [i.e. if they had turned to me, which they will not]”
(b) “unless they should see… and (then) turn back (to me) and I will heal them [i.e. if they do turn to me]”

The second of these is really not tenable, grammatically; for those readers who would like to shift the emphasis away from God’s purpose and over to the people’s response, it is necessary to infer a particle of result (rather than purpose)—”…they close shut their eyes so that [i.e. as a result] they won’t ever see…and turn back (to me), and (if they did turn) I would heal them”.

Matthew 13:14-15 cites the LXX rather closely; in Mark’s version, Jesus’ quotation is an abridgement (cf. the portion in italics above), with a few differences (marked by italics below):

“Looking they should look, and (yet) they should not see!
Hearing they should hear, and (yet) they should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
(that) they should not ever | turn (back) upon (me), and it be released [i.e. forgiven] for them”

The use of the third person (instead of the second) fits the application of the passage in context—i.e. as a fulfillment of the message God gave Isaiah to speak in Isa 6:9; and the use of the subjunctive throughout also fits the context, as an action/condition which eventually will be fulfilled. Here also the use of mh/pote + the subjunctive indicates more clearly a negative purpose—”so that…not ever…” Luke’s version has omitted any reference to verse 10, including just a (simplified) form of the Prophet’s message of v. 9: “Seeing they should not see, and hearing they should not understand” (Lk 8:10b). However, the author clearly realized the significance of the entire passage, since it is cited (by Paul) at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:26-27). In that context, its use holds somewhat closer to the original Old Testament setting, as an explanation (based on prophecy) for why many Jews refused to accept the Gospel. All through the second half of the book of Acts (chapters 1326), Paul experienced considerable Jewish opposition to his missionary work, in the midst of which he began to turn to the Gentiles (13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28). The tone of divine judgment, central to Isa 6:9ff, would not have been lost on Paul (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16). The failure (and/or unwillingness) by many of his fellow Jews to accept Christ was an issue dear to his heart, and one which he ultimately gave considerable attention to in Romans 9-11. There the basic theme of Isa 6:9-10 is developed and expounded—God has (temporarily) blinded/hardened Israel so that the Gentiles might come to salvation; when this has fully come to pass, Israelites and Jews will come to faith in Christ and be saved as well.

A similar use of Isa 6:9-10 (close in form to that in Mark 4:12) is found in John 12:40. There it relates more directly than in the Synoptics to the lack of trust/belief in Christ by the people (v. 37), influenced, it is stated, by the fear of persecution, etc., from the religious authorities (vv. 42-43). That section in John is bracketed by two powerful and provocative statements, which, according to the creative logic of the Gospel, are certainly related:

    • “Yeshua {Jesus} spoke these (thing)s and, going away from (there), hid (himself) from them” (v. 36b)
    • “For they loved the esteem/glory of men, more than the esteem/glory of God” (v. 43, alluding to the “glory” of God in Isaiah’s vision [v. 41; Isa 6:1-4])

This “hiding” of Jesus is connected, generally speaking, to the idea of the “secret” of his identity (as Messiah and Son of God), and, as I have argued in the prior notes, to the “secret(s) of the kingdom of God” of which he speaks in Mk 4:11 par. However, it must be admitted that the use of Isa 6:9-10 in the Synoptic context, is really only connected directly with the parables by which Jesus expresses the secret [musth/rion] of the Kingdom. Here, contrary to conventional opinion (and interpretation), the clear implication is that parables are used to hide the secret of the Kingdom from people at large; only to his disciples does Jesus explain the meaning and significance of the illustrations. Through Jesus’ parables, as with the preaching of Isaiah, God blinds/hardens the minds and hearts of the people—what they see and hear is a simple illustration based on everyday life details; but what they miss (and what many continue to miss today) is the profound depth of spiritual meaning that underlies the illustration. There are few clear examples of this in the Synoptics, but it comes to be a prominent theme in the Gospel of John. Over and over again, Jesus’ audience (including the disciples) hears his words in a superficial manner, and misunderstands or misconstrues their real, deeper meaning. Often this takes place through a simple play on words, as in John 3:3-8—the word a&nwqen fundamentally means “from above”, but also is commonly used in the sense of “from the first,” i.e., “as at first, again“; Nicodemus hears Jesus say “you must come to be (born) from above [or ‘again’]”, that is, by the Spirit, and misunderstands this to mean that one must be born a second time (naturally) from the mother’s womb.

That Jesus’ closest disciples failed to understand the meaning of his words, at least initially, is indicated numerous places in the Gospels. One especially interesting example, with similarities to the language in Isa 6:9-10, comes from the Lukan version of the second and third Passion predictions by Jesus (Lk 9:43b-45; 18:31-34). On both occasions, it is stated that the disciples did not understand; but note the wording:

“But the (disciples) did not know [i.e. understand] this utterance (by Jesus), and it was covered along (away) from them (so) that they should not perceive/discern it [i.e. its meaning]…” (9:45)
“And they put together [i.e. understood] nothing of these (word)s, and this utterance was hidden from them, and they did not (even) know the (thing)s being said/related (by Jesus)” (18:34)

The passive verb forms are examples of the so-called “divine passive”—i.e. indicating action (effectively) performed by God. The truth of Jesus’ words was (intentionally) covered/hidden from the disciples (by God), at least until after the crucifixion and resurrection had taken place (according to what may be inferred from the Gospels).

August 14: Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11; Lk 8:10

In yesterday’s note, I looked at the basic setting of the saying in Mark 4:11 (and its Synoptic parallels); today, I will be examining a bit more closely the meaning and significance of the saying in context.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here again is the saying in all three versions; for the sake of simplicity, this time I substitute “parable(s)” for the more literal “(illustrations) cast alongside”:

Mark Matthew Luke
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in parables.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them, only) in parables…”

Several key points can be drawn from this saying in context:

Contrast between the disciples and other people—In all three versions, the pronoun “(to) you [u(mi=n]” is emphatic, set at the start of the sentence; and the narrative setting makes it clear that Jesus is addressing his followers (including the Twelve). They are contrasted with all the others who might hear Jesus’ words; this is expressed differently in each version:

    • Mark: “to you… to those th(at are) outside”
    • Matt: “to you… to those (others)”
    • Luke: “to you… to the rest (of them)”

But the contrast juxtaposing the two ‘groups’ is definite, by use of the (adversative) conjuction de/ (“but…”). It is of course a common feature of (religious) group identity to distinguish those within the circle of believers from those without. This was an important element of early Christian identity, and it is hardly surprising that it extends back to the earthly ministry of Jesus and his followers. Especially in the case of those who face persecution or marginalization by the wider society, a tightly held group identity becomes all the more prominent.

The parables are meant to establish and confirm this contrast—Interestingly, the idea of the parable would seem to point in the opposite direction—i.e. that the illustration would help to explain and clarify Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom, etc. This is certainly the conventional thinking adopted by many commentators—i.e., that Jesus used simple illustrations from daily life to make his teaching easier for the common person to understand. The explanation offered by Jesus himself (in Mark 4:11-12 par) rather indicates that the parable was actually meant to hide the truth about the Kingdom from people at large. In this regard, we might observe that Jesus’ parables and stories are deceptively simple—they contain profound meaning and (spiritual) insight which centuries of study and interpretation have scarcely exhausted.

Only Jesus’ (close) followers are given an explanation of the parable—This is the whole point of the context of Mark 4:10-12, set in between the parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9) and its interpretation/explanation by Jesus (vv. 13-20). It is really the only parable (along with the similar parable of the Weeds in Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) for which such a detailed explanation is recorded. Some critical commentators have expressed doubt that Mark 4:13-20 par is authentic and represents the meaning of the parable as originally spoken by Jesus. It is not possible to address this issue in the space here, other than to state that I find little clear evidence to indicate that it is an early Christian product, rather than Jesus’ own teaching. There are, of course, many passages which depict Jesus’ followers (especially the Twelve) receiving information and insight from Jesus, apart from the crowds—cf. Matt 5:1ff (but contrast with 7:28); Mark 7:17ff; 8:14-21; 8:27-9:8ff; 9:30-32; 10:23-31, 32-34; 13:3ff; 14:12-31, etc, and pars.

Image of the Seed—All but one of the parables in Mark 4 use the image of a seed to describe the kingdom of God. The comparison is made directly in the two short illustrations in vv. 26-29, 30-32:

“So the kingdom of God is as (though) a man should cast the scattered (seed) [spo/ro$] upon the earth…”
“How should we liken the kingdom of God?… as a grain of (the) mustard plant, which when it should be scattered upon the earth…”

It is also central to the parable of the Sower:

“See! the one scattering (seed) went out to scatter (it), and it came to be, in the scattering (that)…” (vv. 3-4a)

In verse 14, in the explanation Jesus gives to his disciples, it is stated: “The one scattering (seed) scatters [i.e. sows] the word/account [lo/go$] (of God)”. The implied qualification is made explicit in the parallel of Lk 8:11—”The (seed) scattered is the word/account of God [lo/go$ tou= qeou=]”. Matthew’s version refers to it as the “word/account of the kingdom” (13:19a); it is perhaps likely that both Matthew and Luke have glossed an original lo/go$, each interpreting/explaining it in their own way. There are several important aspects to this image of the seed:

    • The seed is small and apparently insignificant (emphasized esp. in vv. 30-32)
    • It is effectively hidden, buried in the ground
    • The initial growth takes place unseen by human observers
    • The growth is gradual—before one realizes it, the plant has sprouted and shot up
    • Ultimately a large plant (or crop) comes from the tiny seed

The image of God (or Christ) as a man sowing seed also appears in Matthean parallel of the “parable of the Weeds” (13:24ff), and also in 25:24-26. Trust/faith (in God) is compared to a seed in Matt 17:20 / Lk 17:6. Most notably, Jesus ties the seed-image to his death (and resurrection/exaltation) in John 12:24; on this, cf. below.

What is the secret of the Kingdom?

In Matthew/Luke, the plural is used—”secrets [musth/ria] of the Kingdom…” They also qualify the verb used—”to you it has been given to know [gnw=nai] the secrets…” This seems to refer to knowledge regarding various details and aspects of the kingdom of God—its nature and growth, how it functions, its characteristics and manifestation, etc.—as illustrated in the various parables and other teachings of Jesus. The Markan version, on the other hand, suggests that the disciples themselves receive the Kingdom (or a key aspect of it): “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”. It is possible that the plural form has been influenced by the (Aramaic) expression “(the) secrets of God” (la@ yz@r`), which is found in several of the Qumran texts (1QpHab 7:8; 1QS 3:23; 1QM 3:9; 16:11, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 708). I would emphasize three fundamental ways of understanding this “secret”, in terms of:

1. The person of Jesus, his identity—As I discussed briefly in the previous note, the only real “secret” recorded in the Synoptic tradition has to do with who Jesus is, i.e. his identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) and/or the “Son of God”. This is central to the core Synoptic narrative, best represented by the Gospel of Mark, and sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Secret”. In the Markan framework, Peter’s declaration (“You are the Anointed [One]”) comes at virtually the midpoint of the Gospel (Mk 8:29), and is set parallel with the declaration (from Heaven) in the Transfiguration scene (9:7); in both episodes Jesus directs the disciples not to tell anyone about they have seen and heard. These events also surround the first of the three Passion predictions (8:31, followed by 9:31f and 10:33-34), which likewise involve a certain amount of secrecy (9:30; 10:32); clearly, the disciples were not able to understand the significance of these things at first (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:32)—cf. also the wording in Lk 9:45; 18:34, which is similar in sense to the citation of Isa 6:10 in Mk 4:12 par. In a subsequent note I will examine the idea of Jesus “hidden” among the people of the world; for the basic image of the Kingdom being present among people without their realizing it, cf. Jesus’ famous saying in Lk 17:20-21.

2. The death and resurrection of Jesus—This too is only implied in the parables of Mark 4; however, from the early Christian standpoint, the “word/account of God” (Mk 4:14 / Lk 8:11) primarily involved the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. below). A number of parables have this theme as well—cf. Mark 12:1-12 par; Matt 12:38-42; Lk 15:3-7 (cf. John 10:11-18); 16:19-31 (vv. 30-31). As will be discussed in an upcoming note, Jesus’ death and resurrection also informs Paul’s use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) in 1 Corinthians. As noted above, even Jesus’ disciples at first did not understand what he told them regarding his death (and resurrection); to the rest of the populace it would have been completely hidden. Only the suffering and death of the Prophets of old (who also proclaimed the word of God) was available for comparison, by way of foreshadowing (Matt 5:12; 11:11-14; 12:39-40; 23:29-36, 37-39 pars; and cf. Mark 8:28 par).

3. The proclamation of the Gospel—This is certainly how Christians have understood the seed (“word of God”) in the parable of the Sower. From the standpoint of Jesus’ own teaching, the expression must be taken somewhat more broadly, to encompass his proclamation of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15 etc, par), and other teaching, in light of the Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition. But, ultimately, it is the early (Gospel) proclamation (kerygma) that comes into view, with its emphasis on who Jesus was (point 1 above), his death and resurrection (point 2), and the salvation/forgiveness which is available (in his name) to all who come to trust in him. The book of Acts plays out, in narrative form, this aspect of the (seed) parables—through the proclamation of the Gospel, knowledge of Christ gradually spreads throughout the territory of the Roman empire, transforming the hearts and lives of many. In the first chapters of Acts we find numerous statements which summarize this early Gospel—e.g., 1:1-4; 2:22-24, 32-33, 36, 38-39; 3:13-21; 4:10-12, 27-28; 5:30-32; 7:52; 10:37-43; 13:23-31. Only after the resurrection could the truth be understood and the “secret” proclaimed (Mark 9:9 par; Matt 10:27 (cp. Lk 12:3); Lk 24:6-9, 25-27, 44-47; John 2:22; 14:19-20, 26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15, 25-26ff).

A proper study of Mark 4:10-12 still requires an examination of the quotation from Isa 6:9-10 (in v. 12 par)—this will be done in the next note.

August 13: Mark 4:11 par

This is the first in a brief series of daily notes centered on the (Synoptic) saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 par:

“To you has been given the secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God…”

I will start with this saying in the context of the Synoptic Gospels, before proceeding to examine the use of the word musth/rion (myst¢¡rion) elsewhere in the New Testament.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here is the complete saying from Mark 4:11:

“And he said/related to them, ‘To you [pl.] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those outside all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside”

The word translated “secret” is musth/rion (myst¢¡rion), presumably from the verb mu/w (“to close, shut”), i.e. something which is closed, hidden, etc. In the ancient Greek (religious) context, it implies something about which people are to keep silent (cf. the introduction to this word study series). This is certainly the case in the so-called mystery cults (of Demeter, Dionysus, Isis, etc). The special (divine) knowledge and hidden things revealed to initiates during the ceremonies were not to be disclosed to outsiders. This is part of the reason that so little information survives about the mystery rites. Early Christians adopted a similar approach to the sacraments—the Lord’s supper/table and the initiatory rite of Baptism—though there is little of this emphasis yet in the New Testament itself. The religious theme of withholding ‘secret’ knowledge and revelation is almost entirely absent, with one notable exception—in the (Synoptic) Gospels, Jesus repeatedly commands that knowledge regarding his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and Son of God not be made public (Mark 1:44; 8:30; 9:9, 30-31 par, etc). In the case of the unclean spirits which made (or might make) such a declaration, he specifically orders them to be silent (Mark 1:34; 3:11-12 par, etc).

The saying in Mark 4:11 par is set in the context of parables told by Jesus in chapter 4 (similarly in Matthew 13 and Luke 8:4-18). The English “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek word parabolh/ (parabol¢¡), from the verb paraba/llw (“cast, throw alongside”); the parabolh/ is thus something thrown alongside (i.e. set beside), often in the sense of offering a comparison. In English idiom we might also speak of setting something “side-by-side for comparison”. A parable, properly speaking, is a saying or short story which illustrates a particular topic or point by way of figure—i.e., “this is like…” Most of Jesus’ parables are meant to illustrate and describe the kingdom of God—”the kingdom of God is like what, then? with what shall I liken it?” (Lk 13:18). A similar statement begins several of the parables in Mark 4—”thus the kingdom of God is as (if)…” (v. 26), “how shall we liken the kingdom of God, or in what parable shall we set it?” (v. 30). This occurs more consistently with the parables in Matthew 13 (vv. 44-45, 47, 52, also in Matt 20:1; 25:1, and cf. Matt 18:3-4 par). Here is outline of Mark 4, which comprises a distinct narrative unit:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9)
    • Explanatory saying (vv. 10-12)
    • Explanation of the Parable of the Sower (vv. 13-20)
    • Parable of the Lamp (vv. 21-25)
    • Parable of the Seed (1) (vv. 26-29)
    • Parable of the Seed (2) (vv. 30-32)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew 13 contains additional parables and other material (vv. 24-30, 33, 34-35, 36-43, 44-50, 51-53), including a second explanation (with Scripture quotation) as to why Jesus taught using parables (vv. 34-35 [quoting Psalm 78:2]). Luke’s account (8:4-18) is shorter, corresponding to Mk 4:1-25 (but cf. also Lk 13:18-21). Mark 4:11 par is set between the parable of the Sower and its explanation:

And when he came to be down (where he was) remaining [i.e. ‘at home’, alone], the ones around him, together with the Twelve, asked him (about) the (illustration he) cast alongside [i.e. the parable]. And he said/related to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables], (so) that ‘looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]’.”

There are three parts to this saying:

    • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable (v. 10)
    • The saying (v. 11), and
    • The citation from Isaiah 6:9-10 (v. 12)

Matthew and Luke both follow the same pattern as Mark’s account, but with a few notable differences:

    • The notice of the disciples asking Jesus about the parable
      Matt 13:10: “And coming toward (him), the learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Through what [i.e. why] do you speak to them in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]?'”
      Luke 8:9: “And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him ‘What could this (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] be?'”

Matthew and Luke both omit any reference to the disciples coming to Jesus privately (i.e. alone). In Matthew’s account, they simply ask Jesus why he speaks in parables (the answer being given both in vv. 11-15ff [by Jesus] and vv. 34-35). Luke generally follows Mark, but specifically indicates that they are asking about the meaning of the parable.

    • The central saying
      Matt 13:11: “And giving forth (an answer) he said to them, ‘(In) that it has been given to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given'”
      Luke 8:10: “And he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them only) in (illustration)s cast alongside [i.e. parables]'”

Matthew and Luke agree in several details: (a) use of the plural “secrets” (musth/ria), (b) the expression “given to know [gnw=nai]” instead of simply “given”, and (c) no mention of the others as being “those outside”. Matthew characteristically uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” instead of “kingdom of God”; he has also included here another saying (v. 12), presumably moved from a separate location (Mk 4:25 / Lk 8:18, and cf. Matt 25:29 par) and joined to v. 11 by ‘catchword bonding’.

    • The citation of Isaiah 6:9-10
      Matthew (13:14-15) cites the LXX literally and in full, along with a characteristic citation formula (v. 14a). Mark’s version, which is an abridgment of Isa 6:9-10, is more likely to represent Jesus’ actual words as preserved in the tradition. Luke’s version (8:10b) is even simpler:
      “…(so) that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not put (it) together [i.e. understand]”
      The Markan form remains closer to the LXX:
      “(so) that looking they might look and (yet) not see, and hearing they might hear and (yet) not put (it) together, (that) they might not ever turn (back) upon (God) and it be released for them [i.e. their sin be forgiven]”

In omitting Isa 6:10 altogether, Luke has removed the (problematic) mention of conversion and forgiveness from the quotation.

The meaning and significance of this Synoptic passage will be discussed further in the next daily note.

April 6 (2): Luke 17:21-24

The Eschatological Discourse (sometimes called the “Olivet Discourse” from Mark 13:3 par) refers to a block of teaching by Jesus on future events as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel setting presents this as a single discourse, spoken by Jesus during his last week in Jerusalem (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21:5-36); however, it seems likely that different sayings and discourses of Jesus have been gathered together in the tradition, due to the common subject matter. On the other hand, one might argue that the days before his upcoming death would be an appropriate time for Jesus to address such matters. At the very least, the prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:1-2; Matthew 24:1-2) seems to fit in the current Gospel position.

Perhaps no portion of the Gospels is more controversial, or bristles with more (serious) interpretative difficulties, than these chapters. For now, I wish to look at a section of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in Luke, which the author presents as taking place prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Luke 17:20-27), though there are also parallels to portions of it in Matthew’s “Olivet” discourse (24:17, 23, 27, 28, 36-41). I will discuss the famous saying in verse 21, and then briefly touch upon an interesting phrase found in vv. 23-24ff.

Luke 17:21

In response to a question from the Pharisees asking when the kingdom of God would come (v. 20), Jesus responds first: ou)k e&rxetai h( basilei/a tou= qeou= meta\ parathrh/sew$, ou)de\ e)rou=sin: i)dou\ w!de h& e)kei=, “the kingdom of God does not come with close watching [lit. watching alongside], and they shall not say ‘See here!’ or ‘[See] there!'” (v. 20b, 21a). The same language (“See here, see there”) also occurs at v. 23 (with similar sayings in Mark 13:21; Matthew 24:23). In Matthew and Mark the reference is specifically to people saying “Here/there is the Messiah!”, whereas in Luke both references are unspecified: the first refers to the kingdom of God, the second presumably is to the Son of Man (or the “day” of the Son of Man [see below]). In all instances, we are dealing with people claiming that the Messiah (or the Kingdom of God / Son of Man) is to be found in a specific location or with a specific person. Regarding those who make such claims, Jesus warns “do not go from (where you are) and do not pursue (after them)” (Luke 17:23). The phrasing Jesus uses in v. 20b is interesting: does it mean “the kingdom does not come as the result of close watching” or “the kingdom does not come so as to be perceived through close watching”? The latter sense is probably to be preferred, as the point seems to be that the kingdom cannot be perceived visibly (by means of the senses); however, I think the verb also indicates the effort of watching closely which does not help one see (much less bring about) the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3).

What of the concluding phrase (v. 21b)? — ga\r h( basilei/a tou= qeou= e)nto\$ u(mw=n e)stin, “for the kingdom of God is e)nto\$ you (pl.)” The main difficulty is how to understand e)nto/$, an adverb (used as a preposition) related to e)n (“in”), which would normally be translated “within, inside”. Where this word occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 23:26) or in the Greek translation of Psalm 39:4; 103:1; 109:22; Isa 16:11, it is used rather concretely—the OT passages all refer to the heart or organs within/inside a person. It can also be used in a more general sense (spatially or temporally), “within the limits of” or “within reach of”. However, in nearly every instance a singular object is involved.

There are several possible interpretations:

  1. Mystical-spiritual: This involves a literal translation, i.e., the kingdom of God is within the heart/soul of believers, on the spiritual (or psychological) level. This certainly would make a suitable contrast to a visible/sensual coming of the kingdom. However, it is difficult to find many other passages in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke, in particular), where Jesus refers to the kingdom of God in this manner; but it may still be consonant with Jesus’ teaching (see references in John [3:3, 5; 18:36], and note the variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11:2] which connects the coming of the kingdom with the coming of the Spirit). A number of early translators (Old Latin, Vulgate, Peshitta) seem to have understood the verse this way, as did Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa (but no doubt influenced by their own orthodox ‘gnostic’ approach). The real difficulty with this interpretation is grammatical—the plural personal object (u(mw=n).
  2. Communal-collective: In light of the plural pronoun, one might better understand e)nto/$ as “among, within the limits/confines of”. Normally, this would be expressed more simply with the preposition e)n, which, when  the object involves a group of people, often means “among”; thus, the use of e)nto/$ to express this would be a bit strange. But if “among” is the correct sense, there are still several possibilities, one of which is that the kingdom refers to believers in the midst of the people at large.
  3. Hidden kingdom: The meaning could still be “among” or “in the midst of”, but with an emphasis on the invisible presence of the Kingdom—i.e., that God is working (in the person of Jesus, or by the Holy Spirit) in the midst of the people, but without it being readily apparent to the senses.
  4. Kingdom “at hand”: This interpretation understands e)nto/$ as “within reach, close”. This would fit the early Gospel message that the kingdom of God “has come near” (h&ggiken) (Mark 1:15 par., and esp. Luke 21:31). Or, perhaps it should be understood in a temporal sense: the kingdom of God will soon/suddenly appear.

All of these interpretations have merit, but I think that (3) probably comes closest to what Luke (and Jesus himself) originally intended.

There are several other parallel versions of this saying, which may (or may not) be derived from Luke 17:21:

    • (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas §3: Jesus said, “If those who lead you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” (translation Thomas O. Lambdin)
    • Gospel of Thomas §113 (Coptic): His disciples said to Him, “When will the Kingdom come?” <Jesus said,> “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” (Lambdin)
    • Gospel of Thomas (Greek):  Jesus said, “If those who attract you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is under the earth,’ then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. [Those who] become acquainted with [themselves] will find it; [and when you] become acquainted with yourselves, [you will understand that] it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 654.9-16, translation Grenfell-Hunt)

Luke 17:22-24

Verses 22-37 constitute another block of eschatological teaching, which may have originally been said in a different context from vv. 20-21 (these two portions were likely joined early on as a result of “catchword-bonding”). At first glance, this seems to present a more conventional “futurist” eschatology (as opposed to the “realized eschatology” of vv. 20-21). But here there are also some difficulties; I will mention just two:

  1. Jesus says to his disciples, e)leu/sontai h(me/rai o%te e)piqumh/sete mi/an tw=n h(merw=n tou= ui(ou= tou= a)nqrw/pou i)dei=n kai\ ou)k o&yesqe, “days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not look-with-eyes (upon it) [i.e. see it]”. What exactly are these “days of the Son of Man”? And what does it mean to refer to “one” (mi/a) of these days? The plural “days” (repeated in v. 26) is a bit peculiar—does it have any concrete significance, or is merely used as grammatical parallel (in context) to “the days of Noah” (v. 26) and “the days of Lot” (v. 28)? I wonder if the plural does indicate a general temporal period (similar to the “days” of Noah), which is in some sense contrasted with the “day” (singular) of the Son of Man in verse 24—the singular “day”, then, would not be a period of time as much as a specific representation of the Son of Man himself (in his appearing), much like the phrase “day of the Lord”. If so, then “one of the days” might indicate the possibility of deception (emphasized in v. 23)—in other words, a warning is implied: beware of seeking a specific temporal manifestation of the kingdom. The Son of Man in his day (e)n th=| h(me/ra| au)tou=, omitted in some MSS: Ë75 B D it) will appear suddenly and completely (like a lightning flash that fills the sky, v. 24).
  2. However, this image of the sudden, spectacular appearance of the Son of Man is itself difficult. The parallel saying in Matthew 24:27 prefaces the apocalyptic imagery of the Son of Man appearing in the cloud(s) with power and glory. Luke includes something of this, but in a quite modified form, later in 21:25-28; he also includes the parable of the fig tree (vv. 29-32), again in a very different form. Luke concludes this later eschatological discourse (v. 31) with a reprise of the early Gospel proclamation: ginw/skete o%ti e)ggu/$ e)stin h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“know that the kingdom of God is close”). How does this relate to 17:21?—can the Kingdom of God be both “close” (e)ggu/$) and “within you” (e)nto\$ u(mw=n) already?

For more on these verses, see the discussion in the series on the “Son of Man Sayings of Jesus”.