Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this study, I surveyed the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse as represented by Mark 13. According to the common hypothesis, held by many critical scholars, the Gospel of Mark was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. Whatever the precise relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, it is clear that they draw upon a common line of tradition, in which the same material occurs in the same sequence and setting. This is certainly true of the Eschatological Discourse. It is part of the common Synoptic narrative, derived either from Mark, or from a Gospel framework with a similar outline and set of contents. In discussing the Matthean version of the Discourse, I will be focusing almost entirely on the elements or features which are distinct or different from the Markan version. These may be viewed either as Matthean additions and modifications, or in terms of a particular (literary) arrangement and emphasis which the writer has given to the material.

Matthew 24

Matt 24:1-3—Introduction

Matthew’s version follows Mark quite closely, as can be seen already in the introduction (vv. 1-3; comp. Mk 13:1-4). Matthew’s account differs here in two respects: (1) it has a simpler narrative, with less local color/detail, and (2) it evinces a more distinctly Christian perspective. On the first point, one simply notes the omission of the disciples’ words in Mk 13:1 commenting on the great stones and buildings of the Temple complex, as also the fact that the disciples who subsequently approach Jesus (v. 3) are left unnamed (in Mk 13:3 they are identified as Peter, James, John, and Andrew). The second point touches upon the most significant difference in these verses—the form of the question posed by the disciples to Jesus. Compare the question in Mark and Matthew, respectively:

    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed (all) together [suntelei=sqai]?” (Mk 13:4)
    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion together [sunte/leia] of th(is) Age?” (Matt 24:3b)

The first part is virtually identical, but the second portion differs considerably. In Mark the question refers, somewhat ambiguously, to “all these things”—in the present literary context, this must refer primarily to the time-frame of the Temple’s impending destruction; however, we may infer that other teaching regarding the end-time, especially the coming Judgment, may also be involved. The disciples ask for a sign (shmei=on) so they may known when these things will occur. The verb suntele/w, literally refers to “all these things” being completed together; an eschatological context is implied (i.e. the end of the current Age). Matthew’s version makes this context much more specific: “…the completion (all) together of th(is) Age“. The noun sunte/leia is related to the verb suntele/w, but functions as a distinct technical term (Dan [LXX] 8:17, 19; 11:27, 35, 40; 12:4, 6-7, 9; Matt 28:20; Heb 9:26; cf. also Testament of Zebulun 9:9; Benjamin 10:3, etc). More problematic is the way that this eschatological context is tied to the (early Christian) idea of Jesus’ future return, using the technical term parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”). The actual disciples of Jesus, at this point, prior to his death and resurrection, would have had little or no sense of his future return. At best, they may have begun to connect his statements regarding the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” with Jesus’ use of that expression as a self-designation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, it is hard to see the disciples formulating the question this way. The Markan version is more realistic; Matthew here likely reflects a Christian gloss, or explanation, of the disciples’ words.

Matt 24:4-8—The sign(s) of what is to come

In Mark 13:5-8, Jesus gives an answer to the second question by the disciples (“what is the sign…?”), outlining several things which will occur before the coming of the end: (a) people coming falsely in Jesus’ name, (b) a period of warfare among the nations, and (c) shakings/earthquakes in various places. Matthew’s version is nearly identical in this description, with a number of small, but significant differences. Two may be noted:

i. In Mark 13:6 Jesus warns his disciples: “Many (people) will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’…”. This indicates that there will be persons who claim to speak for Jesus (prophetically), or, perhaps, claim to be Jesus himself. At the same time, later in the Discourse (vv. 21-22), Jesus warns of the coming of false Messiahs—lit. “false Anointed (One)s”, in Greek yeudo/xristoi (i.e. false Christs). Matthew’s version brings this association into the earlier saying as well:

“For many (people) will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed (One)'” (v. 5)

This appears to reflect a degree of confusion in the Gospel Tradition—a confusion which clears itself up instantly when we realize that, for early Christians, claiming to be the Messiah and claiming to be Jesus were effectively the same thing. From the standpoint of the historical Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, however, this simple identification is problematic. A warning against people claiming to be the Messiah is more realistic in a first-century eschatological setting; in this regard, Matthew’s version is perhaps closer to Jesus’ original intent.

ii. In Mark 13:7, Jesus says: “But when you hear of wars…”; Matthew (v. 6) phrases this a bit differently:

“And you are about to hear of wars…”

This has two subtle effects: (a) it enhances the passage as a prophetic declaration by Jesus, and (b) it distances the coming period of warfare from the present moment. This is perhaps significant in relation to Jesus’ statement in v. 6b (= Mk 13:7b) that “…the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)”.

Matt 24:9-14—The persecution (of the disciples) which is to come

Here Matthew’s version, while following the same outline as Mark, differs more substantially in the way the material is presented, as well as in the points of emphasis reflected in Jesus’ words. To begin with, the prediction in Mk 13:9 refers to the disciples being brought before the Jewish council(s), as well as the courts/tribunals of rulers (in the wider Greco-Roman world), enduring beatings and mistreatment during the process of interrogation. In Matthew, by contrast, the prediction is more general and harsher in nature:

“Then they will give you along into distress and will kill you off, and you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name.” (v. 9)

Another difference is that the statement in Mk 13:10 occurs in Matthew at the end of the section (v. 14, cf. below). It may be helpful to compare the Markan and Matthean versions, in outline (marked by letters to aid in comparison):

    • Mark 13:9-13:
      • [A] Interrogation and mistreatment of the disciples before ruling authorities (v. 9)
      • [B] Statement on the proclamation of the good message into all the nations (v. 10)
      • [C] Promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples when they speak (v. 11)
      • [D] Hostility and division within families (over the Gospel), leading to persecution and death (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
    • Matt 24:9-14:
      • [A*] Mistreatment of the disciples[, including being put to death; hatred by all people] (v. 9)
      • [**] Lack of faith and betrayal (i.e. abandoning the true/Christian faith) by many (v. 10)
      • [**] Rise of false prophets (v. 11, cf. v. 24)
      • [**] Increase in lawlessness and lack of love (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
      • [B*] Statement on the proclamation of the good message to all the nations (v. 14)
        Note: asterisks indicate sayings or details in Matthew not found in Mark

Matthew’s version thus differs from the Markan in three respects:

    • The suffering/persecution faced by the disciples (or believers) is made more general
    • The statements regarding the work of the Spirit and division within families (Mk 13:11-12) are replaced by a trio of statements describing the overall decline of both the (early Christian) Community and society in general; however, note the similar promise regarding the role of the Spirit in 10:9-10 (par Lk 12:11-12).
    • The statement on the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations occurs at the end of the section

Overall, in Matthew’s version, this section paints a more negative portrait of both the condition of the world (i.e. human society) and the difficulties faced by the disciples (believers) in this environment. On the one hand, the emphasis on a period of missionary work by the disciples, central to the Markan version of this section, is not present in Matthew’s version. At the same time, what remains of this mission (proclamation of the good message) is given a more robust formulation in the saying corresponding to Mk 13:10:

    • “And it is necessary first to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”
    • Matt 24:14:
      “And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world) unto a witness for all the nations—and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive!”

The context and significance of these two statements are dramatically different. In Mark, the Jesus’ words simply indicate that the disciples will not face the persecution mentioned in 13:9 until they first begin to proclaim the good message. In Matthew, it becomes a sign of what must first happen before the end comes! This Matthean formulation, while authentic enough in comparison with, e.g., Lk 24:47-49; Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19-20, appears out of place at this point in the Eschatological Discourse, when judged from an historical-critical standpoint. The Markan version is much more realistic within the overall context of this material. Again, Matt 24:14 may well be an early Christian gloss, reflecting (accurately) the belief that a period of extensive missionary work would have to occur before the end comes. This will be discussed further in Parts 3 and 4, as well as in the study on the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Matt 24:15-28—The period of great distress before the end

This section corresponds to Mark 13:14-23, and follows it relatively closely in outline and in much of the wording. However, Matthew has an expanded, developed form of this material, primarily in verses 26-28 which appear to have been added/appended to the Synoptic section (represented by Mark); their secondary character is confirmed by the fact that Luke has the same sayings as vv. 27-28, but in an entirely different location (17:24, 37). This does not mean that the sayings are inauthentic; on the contrary, it confirms that the Discourse itself is most likely a traditional/literary arrangement of (authentic) material on eschatological themes. Matthew simply has a more extensive arrangement at this point.

This first significant point of difference is in the allusion to Dan 9:27 in Mark 13:14, which Matthew (v. 15) makes specific and turns into a direct citation; compare (differences in italics):

    • But when you should see the stinking thing [bde/lugma] of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)
    • Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Matt 24:15-16)

If the saying of Jesus in Mark is authentic (in that precise wording), then most likely Matthew has modified it to give clarity for his readers, making clear that: (a) the expression “the stinking thing of desolation” comes from Daniel (9:27), and (b) that the phrase “having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not” refers to a location in the Temple (“holy place”), that is, in the sanctuary, as indicated in Daniel. I have discussed Dan 9:24-27 in its original context in an earlier detailed study. Most commentators accept that v. 27 refers primarily to the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian/Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, with a corresponding disruption of the Temple ritual, 167-164 B.C. According to 1 Maccabees 1:54, this involved a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple, a pattern which was to be repeated by the emperor Gaius (Caligula). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

It is not clear what the editorial aside (in English idiom, something like “let the reader understand”) means specifically. The author who inserted it (whether the [Markan] Gospel writer or an earlier source) must have assumed his audience would have understood the context and significance of Jesus’ saying, and is thus referring to an early interpretation, perhaps tying it to the present circumstances related to Roman rule over Jerusalem. That is certainly how it is interpreted in the Lukan version (to be discussed in Part 3), where it is connected with the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, fulfilled in 70 A.D. Matthew’s version, however, does not take that step, but follows the Synoptic/Markan form of the section closely. Whatever is to take place in the Temple, it marks the beginning of the brief but intense period of “great distress” for Judea described in vv. 17ff (par Mk 13:15-22). The summary statement utilizing the expression (“great distress”) is a citation/allusion from Dan 12:1; in Mark (13:19) it reads:

“For (in) those days there will be distress [qli/yi$], (and) of such (kind) as this (there) has not come to be, from the beginning of (the world’s) formation which God formed, until now, and (surely) will not (ever) come to be (again)!”

Matthew has a slightly different formulation, simpler and more pointed:

“For then there will be great distress, such as has not come to be, from the beginning of the world-order [ko/smo$] until now, and (so) will not (ever) come to be (again)!” (Matt 24:21)

The expression “great distress” suggests a development in the tradition (cf. Rev 7:14), echoed by the expanded version of the remainder of the section in Matthew, with the addition of the sayings in vv. 26-28. The effect of this expansion to enhance the role of believers (the elect) during this period. In Mark, the structure of the section may be outlined:

    • Allusion to Dan 9:27, marking the time of distress (13:14a)
    • Warnings and instruction regarding the severity of the coming distress, in traditional language and imagery (vv. 14b-18)
    • Statement on the time of distress (v. 19)
    • The Elect in the time of distress (vv. 20-22)
      —It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 20)
      —False claims that the Messiah has appeared or is in a particular location (v. 21)
      —The appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets who might deceive the Elect (v. 22)
    • Final exhortation (v. 23)

Here is the portion corresponding to vv. 20-23 in Matthew:

    • The Elect in the time of distress (24:22-28)
      • Duration: It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 22)
      • Character of it: A time of testing for the Elect—False signs and testimony:
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared (v. 23)
        —Appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets (v. 24)
        —Importance of this: Jesus is warning them ahead of time (v. 25)
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared in various locations, outdoor and inside (v. 26)
        —The true Messiah (Son of Man) will appear suddenly, in a manner visible and unmistakable to everyone (v. 27)
        —Proverb: The false prophets are like vultures circling around, taking advantage of the time of distress (v. 28)

The closing exhortation in Mark 13:23 thus serves a different purpose in Matthew: instead of being an assurance by Jesus to his disciples that they will be able to recognize the signs and events of the end-time when they come, it specifically relates to the appearance of false Messiahs and false prophets. This takes on much greater importance in Matthew’s version, and the three added sayings enhance and reinforce the message:

    • 26—Repeated warning regarding claims that the Messiah has appeared
    • 27—Contrast with the actual appearance of the true Messiah (Son of Man), that it will be clear and unmistakable to everyone
    • 28—Closing illustration: The false Messiahs/prophets are like vultures circling around a dead body, taking advantage of people in the time of distress

This is an altogether different sort of eschatological setting for the material than in the Gospel of Luke (17:23-24, 37); the way these sayings were adapted and included by each Gospel writer will be discussed in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse.

Matt 24:29-31—The appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time

In the outline of the Discourse, the section describing the time of distress is followed by a description of the Son of Man’s appearance, which contains three pieces:

    • Supernatural celestial phenomena—combination of Scripture allusions, drawing upon the language/imagery of theophany (manifestation of God) [Mk 13:24-25]
    • The appearance of the Son of Man (allusion to Dan 7:13) [Mk 13:26]
    • The gathering of the Elect by the Angels [Mk 13:27]

Matthew follows Mark closely here; the only real difference is in the actual description of the Son of Man’s appearance (Matt 24:30 / Mk 13:26), where the Markan saying is preceded by two additional statements (in italics), each beginning “and then…” (kai\ to/te):

And then the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in heaven, and then all the offshoots [i.e. tribes/races] of the earth will beat (themselves), and they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor.”

Let us consider each of these additions:

    • “the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in (the) heaven”—On the one hand, this serves to distinguish the Son of Man’s actual appearance from the celestial phenomena which preceded it. These were signs that he (a divine/heavenly being who represents God himself) was about to appear, but now his presence, as he comes down from heaven, is marked by a special sign in the sky. At the same time, the context here suggests that the sign (shmei=on) is to be understood as the cross—symbol of the Son of Man’s (Jesus’) suffering and death.
    • “all the offshoots of the earth will beat (themselves)”—If there is a sign in the heaven of Jesus’ suffering and death, so there is also a corresponding sign on earth, which follows in response. The earth’s “offshoots” (i.e. the tribes and races of people) beat themselves in an act of collective mourning. This is an allusion to Zech 12:10, interpreted in light of Jesus’ death (cf. John 19:37). Revelation 1:7 also combines Dan 7:13 with Zech 12:10 in a similar eschatological context, referring to the exalted Jesus’ visible return to earth at the end time.

Both of these additions make more specific what would otherwise have to be inferred by early Christians in this, as in all the other, eschatological Son of Man sayings (cf. the earlier study)—that the Son of Man’s appearance is to be equated with Jesus’ future return. This is confirmed by the way that the Son of Man is specifically identified here with Jesus in his exalted state (in Heaven), following his death and resurrection. Again, it is easier to view these statements as explanatory additions by the Gospel writer, and that Mark (13:26) more closely approximates the original saying of Jesus.

Matt 24:32-25—Sayings and illustrations on when the end will occur

Matthew follows Mark in this section very closely, almost verbatim. One small, but possibly significant difference is in the application of the fig-tree parable. Mark (13:29) reads: “So also you, when you see these (thing)s coming to be [gino/mena]…” Matthew (24:33) does not include the participle “coming to be”, stating more flatly, “…when you see these (thing)s”. It is possible that this is intended to avoid the implication that all these things will, indeed, come to pass for the disciples, i.e. in their own lifetime. If so, then it might give a slightly different sense to the famous statement that follows in verse 34 (par Mk 13:30), distancing “this generation” from the current generation whom Jesus is addressing. This is possible, though rather unlikely, and is, in any case, untenable as the original meaning intended by Jesus. I discuss this difficult saying in a separate study (upcoming) on “Imminent Eschatology” in the Gospels.

Matt 24:36-44—Concluding exhortation and illustration(s)

This corresponding section in Mark (13:32-37) brings the Discourse to a conclusion; it has a relatively simple structure:

    • Declaration that no one knows the exact time (day and hour) of the end, though it is coming soon (v. 32)
    • Exhortation to stay awake/alert (vv. 33-37)
      • Initial warning/exhortation (v. 33)
      • Illustration of the Master who goes away (v. 34)
      • Application for disciples/believers (vv. 35-36)
      • Final exhortation (v. 37)

This has been modified/expanded significantly in Matthew’s version (24:36-44ff):

    • Declaration on knowing the day and hour (v. 36, nearly identical to Mark)
    • Illustrations on the sudden/unexpected coming of the Judgment (vv. 37-41)
    • Illustration on the coming of the Lord / Son of Man (vv. 42-44)
    • Illustration of the Faithful Servant (vv. 45-51)

Verses 42-44 generally correspond to Mk 13:33-37, but in simpler form and with a distinctive emphasis, which specifically interprets the core illustration in terms of the end-time coming of the Son of Man and the return of Jesus. The bracketing exhortations in vv. 42 and 44 make this abundantly clear (note the italicized words):

    • “(So) then, you must keep awake/alert, (in) that you do have not seen on what day your Lord comes!” (v. 42)
    • “Through this you must come to be (made) ready, (in) that (it is) in an hour which you do not consider (that) the Son of Man comes.” (v. 44)

The first statement could be understood in the traditional sense of the coming of God (YHWH, the Lord) at the end time (i.e. the day of YHWH); but, when paired with the similar saying involving the “Son of Man” (i.e. Jesus) in an early Christian context, it can only refer to the end-time return of Jesus. Again, Matthew makes specific what would otherwise have to be inferred in Mark’s version.

Matthew also includes significant additional material, in verses 37-41 and 45-51. The sayings in vv. 37-41 are part of the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. Luke has these sayings in a different location (Lk 17:26-27, 34-35), in a separate section of eschatological instruction (17:20-37). They will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse. In the Matthean context, the sayings build upon the statement in verse 36 about knowing the day and hour; they are traditional (and proverbial) illustrations to the point that the end-time Judgment will come upon people unexpectedly—most of the population will be overcome and destroyed, while only the faithful ones will be saved. The detail of the illustration in vv. 40-41 is not entirely certain; there are two figure-types—one who is “taken along” and the other who is “released” or “left”. It clearly is meant to distinguish between those saved from the Judgment and those destroyed by it, but uncertainty remains among commentators as to which figure-type represents which category; there are two possibilities (I tend to prefer the latter):

    • “taken along”, i.e. into the ark (salvation); “left” (behind) to face the Judgment
    • “taken along”, i.e. by the flood (destruction); “left” (behind) to survive the Judgment
Matt 24:45-51—An additional (transitional) parable

The parable in vv. 45-51 is unique to Matthew here, and is not part of the Markan/Synoptic Discourse, though it corresponds to the pattern of a number of Jesus’ parables. It features the familiar idea of a Master who goes away, leaving his land/estate in the care of servants. The primary purpose of this parable type is as a vehicle for ethical instruction—i.e., whether the servant will be faithful diligent while the Master is away. The juxtaposition of the two servant types—one faithful, the other lazy/wicked—was a natural fit for the eschatological aspect of such parables. The end-time Judgment would separate the righteous from the wicked, a motif present in most of the eschatological parables, especially the Matthean parables of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43) and the Fish-net (13:47-50), as well as those which follow here in chapter 25 (cf. below). If the illustrations in vv. 37-41 build upon the saying in v. 36, the parable in vv. 45-51 builds upon the sayings/illustration of vv. 42-44, demonstrating the importance (and ultimate consequence) of believers acting and behaving faithfully which the Master (Jesus) is away.

Nearly all of the distinctive elements and characteristics of Matthew’s version of the Discourse seem to point in the direction of an early Christian interpretation of Jesus’ (original) sayings, as, for example, in identifying the “Son of Man” more precisely with Jesus himself (and his end-time/future return). At every point, Mark appears to have the more ‘primitive’ version of the material, closer to the context and setting of the authentic sayings. The inclusion of sayings, which Luke preserves in an entirely different location, as part of the Discourse, confirms a level of (secondary) development in Matthew’s version. This must not be misunderstood—it reflects an interpretive layer in addition to the Synoptic material which otherwise more closely reflects the authentic historical tradition. It does not, by any reasonable standard, contradict or invalidate the historicity of the tradition.

On Chapter 25

The expanded nature of Matthew’s version of the Discourse is made even more clear when one considers the place of the three parables in chapter 25. These were discussed already in the earlier study on the eschatological Parables. As I did in that study, those three parables are often treated separately from the Eschatological Discourse; however, the Gospel writer, by all accounts, regards them (and presents them) as part of the Discourse. There is no indication of any break in the narrative between chapters 24 and 25, indicating that, on the narrative and literary level, they represent a single Sermon-Discourse, much as chapters 5-7 are presented as a single “Sermon”. The parable in 24:45-51 is transitional to the three great parables in chapter 25. They all deal with the contrast between faithful and negligent servants, true and false disciples, in the (eschatological) framework of the coming end-time Judgment. The first two parables follow the pattern of the Master who has gone away and is about to return, just as in the illustrations which close the Discourse proper in chap. 24 (cf. above). When viewed in this light, taking chapters 24 and 25 together, it shows just how far, and to what extent, the Synoptic Discourse was adapted in the Gospel of Matthew. Only in Matthew’s version is the end-time Judgment and appearance of the Son of Man completed with a vision of the final Judgment taking place in the heavenly court (25:31-46), ending with the clearest possible description of the fate of the righteous and wicked respectively. In this regard, Matthew’s version of the Discourse is closer to the scope and vision of the book of Revelation, which moves between predictions (visions) of the end-time Judgment, and scenes set in Heaven before the throne of God (cf. the current series of daily notes on Revelation). Moreover, it is in Matthew’s version that the exalted position of Jesus (as Son of Man) is given greatest emphasis.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The most extensive eschatological teaching by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is found in the so-called “Eschatological Discourse” in Mark 13 (par Matthew 24 & Luke 21:5-36). Within the Synoptic framework, it is presented as a sermon or discourse by Jesus; however, many scholars feel that this arrangement is literary (and traditional) rather than historical. That is to say, it represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which may have originally been uttered on separate occasions. This view would seem to be confirmed by the evidence from Matthew and Luke, where eschatological sayings recorded in other locations (in Luke) are incorporated as part of the “discourse” (in Matthew). It is useful, however, to begin with the Gospel of Mark, as representing the core Synoptic Tradition. The distinctive features and elements of the Matthean and Lukan versions will be examined in Parts 2 and 3 of this study, respectively.

Mark 13

An outline of the Markan version of the Eschatological Discourse gives some indication, I think, of how different sayings or traditions might have been combined. This is not to say that Jesus might not have given a longer discourse, dealing with eschatological matters, which resembles the Synoptic Discourse; but the thematic arrangement of the sayings and parables of Jesus is, on the whole, better viewed as a result of the early collection and transmission of the material. On this basis alone, however, there is no (objective) reason to doubt the authenticity of any of the sayings. Here is an outline of the Markan Discourse:

    • Vv. 1-2—Narrative introduction, including:
      • Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (v. 2)
    • Vv. 3-4—Introduction to the Discourse: Question by the disciples
    • Vv. 5-8—”Birth Pains”: Things which will occur before the end
      —Appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (v. 6)
      —Wars among the nations (vv. 7-8a)
      —Natural disasters and famine (v. 8b)
    • Vv. 9-13—Persecution of the Disciples which will occur before the end, reflecting missionary work among both Jews and Gentiles
    • Vv. 14-23—Sayings regarding the affliction which will come upon Judea
      —Saying concerning the “abomination of desolation” (v. 14)
      —Warning of the coming suffering (vv. 15-20)
      —Repeated reference to the appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (vv. 21-22)
      —Concluding exhortation (v. 23)
    • Vv. 24-27—The appearance of the Son of Man
    • Vv. 28-31—Sayings on the time when the end will come
      —Illustration of the fig-tree (vv. 28-29)
      —Two sayings with the verb pare/rxomai (vv. 30-31)
    • Vv. 32-37—Concluding Parable (and Sayings)
Mark 13:1-2

The narrative introduction provides the general setting for the discourse, in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple:

“And (at) his traveling out of the Sacred Place, one of his learners [i.e. disciples] says to him, ‘Teacher, (do you) see what sort of stones and what sort of buildings (these are)?'”

This expression of amazement reflects the grandeur of the Herodian Temple in Jesus’ day, which is described extensively by Josephus (Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227). The size and beauty of the building, and its great stones, would have been impressive indeed; Jesus, however, declares:

“(Are) you look(ing) at these great buildings? (Yet) there shall not be here (even one) stone left upon (another) stone which shall not be loosed down!” (v. 2)

This must be regarded as a prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which, of course, came to pass in 70 A.D. as a result of the Jewish revolt and Roman siege of Jerusalem. It is important as a general time-frame for the Eschatological Discourse. The Lukan version gives much greater emphasis to the Roman attack on the city.

For more on the eschatological aspects of the Temple—especially the Temple action and saying(s) by Jesus—cf. the supplemental article on this subject.

Mark 13:3-4

With these verses, the Discourse begins, though the introduction clearly continues from where the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2 leaves off—with its connection to the Temple (note the similar structure):

“And (at) his sitting (down near) unto the Mount of the Olive-trees, down opposite to the Sacred Place [i.e. Temple], on their own [i.e. privately]…they asked him…” (v. 3)

The introductory statement, as in verse 1, culminates with a question by the disciples—here the ones who ask are identified as Peter, James, John and Andrew. Their question must be understood, in context, in relation to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. It is actually a two-fold question which serves the (literary) purpose of joining Jesus’ Temple saying with the eschatological instruction which follows:

    • “when will these (thing)s be?”
    • “what (shall be) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?”

In Matthew’s version, the disciples’ second question is more precisely eschatological, framed in more obvious Christian terms: “what is the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion (all) together of th(is) Age?”. In Mark, however, the question is more general and ambiguous—to what “things” exactly are the disciples referring? Is it simply to the destruction of the Temple, or does it imply other eschatological teaching by Jesus? The literary context of the Discourse requires the latter, and points to the very teaching which follows in vv. 5ff.

Mark 13:5-8

Jesus’ initial response deals more with the disciples’ second question (“what shall be the sign…?”) rather than the first (“when…?”). He offers three such “signs”, which are summarily described as “the beginning of the (birth) pains” (v. 8); these are:

1. Persons claiming to be Jesus and/or speak in his name, causing many to go astray (vv. 5-6). Here is how this is stated in Mark’s version:

And Yeshua began to say to them, “You must look (carefully so that) someone should not lead you astray—(for) many will come upon my name saying that ‘I am (he)’, and will lead many astray.”

There is some confusion in the Gospel tradition here as to whether Jesus is speaking of people claiming to be him (i.e. Jesus) and speak for him, or whether they are claiming to be the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ). Early Christians would have treated these essentially as identical situations, but it is not so clear how this might have been framed by (the historical) Jesus to his followers. This will be discussed further when we examine the Matthean and Lukan versions, and when we come to verses 21-22 below.

2. A period of warfare among the nations (vv. 7-8a). Syntactically, the second and third signs should be discussed together; however, thematically, it is useful to keep them distinct:

“And when you should hear of wars and the hearings [i.e. rumors] of wars, you must not be frightened (by these things)—they need to come to be, but the completion (of them) is not yet (here). For nation will rise upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom…”

This would seem to refer to a period of relatively widespread warfare, involving a number of different nations and kingdoms. The book of Revelation describes something similar in the visions of the first four seals (i.e. the four horses and riders) in 6:2-8—they represent an intense period of war which has a devastating effect upon society. For those eager to place these verses in a more precise time-frame, it is virtually impossible to do so, as there have been many periods of widespread warfare from the first century A.D. down to the present time in the 21st century. Also, it may be claimed that Jesus is here referring to a mindset and outlook, reflecting human wickedness and violence, and its effects, as much as to any specific events.

3. Natural disaster and famine (v. 8b). This continues from the description of the period of warfare:

“…(and) there will be shakings [i.e. earthquakes] down in (many) places, (and) there will (also) be (time)s of hunger [i.e. famine]…

In the seal visions of Revelation, famine and food-shortage also follows the period of warfare among the nations (6:5-6, 8b), as well as “shakings” of the earth (vv. 12-13ff). Interestingly, there is no real indication that the book of Revelation is consciously following the Eschatological Discourse, even though both passages express the same basic message and traditional sequence. Jesus describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered. Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; John 16:21; Gal 4:19. Several other passages in the New Testament use the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, in an eschatological sense or context:

    • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31, which will be touched on briefly in the study on the Lukan version of the Eschatological discourse.
    • Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
    • The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.

In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.

Mark 13:9-13

Surely to be included among the “signs” of things which must occur before the end is the prediction of persecution and suffering of Jesus’ disciples, implying a period of missionary work which would extend outside the confines of Judea into the Gentile world. This idea was fundamental to New Testament eschatology at the time the Gospels were written (c. 60-80 A.D.), and especially so in the Gospel of Luke. It is less pronounced and developed in Mark, but it is still present (v. 10), as part of the Synoptic tradition. Verses 9-10 outline the missionary work and reflects the experience (narrated in the book of Acts) of a number of the disciples who were arrested and interrogated by government officials:

    • 9a: Among Jews (in Judea and beyond)—given over to the ruling bodies (“sitting together”, sune/drion, i.e. sanhedrin) & beaten in the places of gathering (“being brought together”, sunagwgh/, i.e. synagogue)
    • 9b: Into the wider world, which presumably include the Gentile kingdoms—made to stand before governors and kings, as a witness to them on behalf of Jesus

The period of early Christian mission is stated succinctly in verse 10:

“And first it is necessary to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”

It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this, as though it required an extensive worldwide mission (in the modern sense) before the end would come. Matthew’s version (24:14) does suggest something of the kind, but we must be cautious about reading that wording into Mark’s account. The use of the adverb prw=ton (“first”) here in Mark, I believe, is intended primarily to make clear what might seem obvious—before the disciples will experience these things, they must first begin to proclaim the Gospel (“good message”). It establishes the need for the early Christian mission, without any real indication of the time-period involved.

The persecution which Jesus’ disciples will experience is further summarized in three distinct sayings:

    • A promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples, giving them the ability to speak and offer a defense (v. 11)
    • Following Jesus will lead to violent splits within families (v. 12)
    • A declaration of the hatred believers will face from people, along with an exhortation to endure and remain faithful (v. 13)

This last saying involves an eschatological promise of salvation—i.e. the heavenly reward of (eternal) Life:

“But the one remaining under unto the completion, this (one) will be saved.”

We are accustomed to viewing this as a promise to all believers, and, indeed this is appropriate; however, if we consider it strictly in terms of the historical situation (i.e. the disciples whom Jesus was actually addressing at the time), it would tend to support the expectation that the end was to come within the lifetime of the first disciples.

It is interesting to note that the seal-visions in Revelation also include a reference to the persecution of believers (cf. the fifth seal, 6:9-11) in a roughly similar sequence.

Mark 13:14-23

Another intense period of suffering and distress is described in vv. 14-23, with certain similarities to what has gone before in the Discourse. This raises the question as to whether the three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23—are meant to describe sequential events or are different ways of describing the same general period (i.e. of events to occur before the end). Verses 9-13, referring to the persecution of believers, presumably is not meant to be taken as a period of time separate from the suffering in vv. 5-8 and 14-23. If these various sayings were originally uttered in different settings, this can no longer be reconstructed; we must work from the arrangement in the Discourse as it has come down to us. I suspect that vv. 5-13 are meant to be taken together as referring to the same ‘stage’, if you will; the exact relationship to vv. 14-23 is less certain. From a literary standpoint, the wording in verse 14 is transitional, creating a point of contrast with the promise of salvation in v. 13 (“But when you see…”). The exact setting or scenario described in this section is rather vague and allusive, at least in the Markan version of the Discourse. Several points can be determined with certainty:

    • It involves an allusion to Daniel 9:27 (v. 14)
    • It refers to something which will be localized in Judea
    • It involves suffering and trauma which will upset much, or all, of society (vv. 14b-19)
    • It will be an especially intense, though brief, period of suffering (v. 20)
    • In the midst of it, there will be false Messiahs and false prophets (vv. 21-22)

In Luke’s version (to be discussed), this is all presented in terms of a military invasion of Jerusalem. However, it is poor method simply to read this into Mark’s version, which otherwise makes no clear reference to such an invasion (apart, possibly, from the allusion to Dan 9:27). Even so, it must be said that nearly all of vv. 14-22 could well fit the setting of the war of 66-70 A.D. and the ultimate siege and destruction of Jerusalem, according to the historical accounts narrated by Josephus. This will be discussed in the concluding part of our study.

In my view, all of verses 5-22 describe a single, intense (and relatively brief?) period of suffering and distress which precedes the coming of the end. It is the same period, with three different points of focus:

    • The effect on the world (nations) and people in general (vv. 5-8)
    • The effect on the disciples (believers) (vv. 9-13)
    • The effect on Judea (and Jerusalem) (vv. 14-22)

Jesus’ concluding words in verse 23 are often overlooked, but they are important in the way that they clearly summarize and mark off the events preceding the end from the end itself: “And (now) you must look (closely): (for) I have spoke all (thing)s to you before(hand)”. The disciples now have all they need to recognize the signs that the end is about to come.

Mark 13:24-27

The description of the end itself begins in verse 24, as indicated clearly by the opening words:

“But in those days after that (time of) distress [qli=yi$]…”

The period covered by vv. 5-22 is called qli=yi$ (“crushing [force], pressure, [dis]tress”), the same word used, in a very similar sense, in Revelation 1:9 and 7:14. In translation, the word has taken on a life of its own in modern eschatology as “the Great Tribulation” (from the phrase in Rev 7:14). It is important, however, to stay rooted to the Greek text, and remain focused, for the moment, on the Eschatological Discourse here in Mark. Nothing more is said about this “distress”, only what comes after it—namely, the appearance of the Son of Man. This appearance is accompanied by an upheaval of the natural order of things in the universe, drawing upon the ancient/traditional language of theophany—i.e. the manifestation of God within creation. Nature itself can not withstand the appearance of God, falling and submitting before him; moreover, the forces of nature and the heavens are obedient to God and work as servants on His behalf. This sort of imagery is expressed numerous times in the Old Testament, especially in Prophets, where it begins to take on an eschatological coloring. The description in vv. 24-26 by Jesus is taken from passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7. The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man. That moment is described here as follows:

“Then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming in/on (the) clouds with much power and splendor.” (v. 27)

This is largely drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, but apparently with a difference in orientation—instead of the Son of Man coming toward God (v. 13), he comes to earth as God’s representative to judge humankind and deliver the faithful ones among God’s people (more closely related to v. 14). It is the latter aspect of deliverance which is emphasized by Jesus in verse 28:

“And then he will send forth the Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) [his] (chosen one)s gathered out, (from) out of the four winds, from the (farthest) point of earth unto the (farthest) point of heaven.”

This is salvation in the proper New Testament sense—deliverance from sin and wickedness at the end-time and being saved from the final Judgment. Only in the later strands of the New Testament do we see a definite shift from final (eschatological) salvation to the experience of believers in the present (i.e. ‘realized’ eschatology).

For more on the influence of Daniel in the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the supplemental study on 7:13-14 and 9:27.

Mark 13:28-31

Here we encounter two of the more controversial pieces in the Eschatological Discourse: (a) the illustration of the fig tree (vv. 28-29) and (b) the saying on “this generation” in v. 30.

On the surface the parable/illustration of the fig tree is simple and straightforward, being similar in style to the mustard seed/tree parable (Mk 4:30-32 par). It also resembles the illustration on interpreting the ‘signs of the time’ in Luke 12:54-56 / Matt 16:1-3. As in a number of Jesus’ parables, it uses an easily understandable observation from farming and the natural world to describe some aspect of the Kingdom. Though not specifically indicated here as a Kingdom-parable, it may fairly be characterized as relating to the end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God. The comparison is clear enough:

    • When the branch is soft and puts out leaves, you can tell that summer is near (v. 28)
    • When the disciples see “these things [tau=ta]” coming to pass, they will know that “it is near” (v. 29)

In context, “these (thing)s” can only refer to the signs Jesus has spoken of in vv. 5-22—the things which are to take place before the end comes. Similarly, the generic statement “it is near…”, refers to the coming of the end—specifically, the coming of the Son of Man which ushers in the final Judgment. The exact phrase used is “it is near upon the gates”, which could be an allusion to the gates of the city (Jerusalem), though it need not be taken that concretely.

It has become popular in some circles to identify the fig tree as a particular symbol of Israel (the people or nation/state). This, however, is misplaced. The fig tree and vine together serve as symbols of blessing and fruitfulness, but in a general, proverbial sense; it can, of course, be applied to Israel as God’s people, but only in Hosea 9:10 is there anything like a direct connection (fig tree = Israel). The blossoming fig branch here refers not to Israel, but to the coming of the end and the appearance of the Son of Man.

In verses 30-31 we have two seemingly unrelated sayings; they are connected by common use of the verb pare/rxomai (“come/go along[side]”). This is an example of what commentators call “catchword-bonding”, and serves as evidence in support of the view that the Discourse is a collection of sayings, etc, which may originally have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Early Christians brought this material together, arranging it by theme (eschatology) or on the basis of common words and phrases. This would have begun to occur at the level of oral tradition, helping the earliest believers to remember and transmit the teachings of Jesus, and continued as the first collections were written down. It is possible that Jesus did utter both sayings together, and that the wordplay is his own, but given the many examples of “catchword-bonding” in the Gospel tradition, the critical view seems more likely. Here are the two sayings taken together:

    • “Amen, I relate to you that this (period of) coming to be [genea/] shall (certainly) not go along [pare/lqh|] until the (time at) which all these (thing)s shall come to be.” (v. 30)
    • “The heaven and the earth will go along [pareleu/sontai], but my words [lo/goi] will not (ever) go along [pareleu/sontai].” (v. 31)

The first saying uses the verb in connection with the noun genea/, which fundamentally refers to something coming to be (born) [vb. gi/nomai], often in the sense of (1) a group of people from a common line of birth, or (2) an age or period when people were born (and lived). In both cases, the English word “generation” (itself related to the Greek) is typically used to translate. Here, for the first time in the Discourse, Jesus addresses the initial question posed by the disciples in verse 4: “When will these (thing)s be?” As the saying in verse 30 makes clear, “these things” will take place before “this generation” goes away. A more precise interpretation of the time indicated here is difficult and has proven controversial, for a variety of reasons (and cf. verse 32 as a word of caution). It will be discussed in more detail in the article on “imminent eschatology” in the sayings of Jesus.

The second saying (v. 31), in context, serves to reinforce the reliability of Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the end. His words will last longer than heaven and earth themselves (i.e. the created order), remaining after the physical universe has disappeared. There may be an allusion to Scriptures such as Isa 40:8; 51:6; Psalm 119:89; cf. also Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:18.

Mark 13:32-37

The Discourse concludes with a short block of material that centers around a parable by Jesus, utilizing the familiar setting of the master who goes away and the servants who work in his absence. Jesus used this story framework repeatedly, including a number of other parables (discussed earlier in Parts 2 and 3 of the study on the Parables) which have an eschatological orientation. The parable itself occurs in verses 34-36; we may outline this section as follows:

    • Saying on the day and hour when the end will come (v. 32)
    • Exhortation for the disciples to watch and stay alert (v. 33)
    • Parable of the Returning Master (vv. 34-36)
    • Second Exhortation to stay alert (v. 37)

On the whole, the section continues Jesus’ answer of the disciples’ question “When will these things be?” Beyond the basic declaration that they will occur before “this generation” goes away, Jesus makes clear in verse 32 that the disciples cannot know the time with any more precision: “About that day or th(at) hour, no one has seen [i.e. no one knows]”. Commentators and students can be tripped up by reading too much theological (and Christological) significance in the the second half of the saying, which states that neither the (heavenly) Messengers nor the Son (of Man) know the time, but only God the Father. It makes for interesting speculation, but all Jesus is really saying is that the disciples cannot know the exact time—it is one of the “secrets of the Kingdom” (4:11) which has not been revealed to them. Indeed, the overriding message of this section, driven home by the parable and the double-exhortation to stay awake, is that “these things” could occur at any time:

“(So) then you must keep awake—for you have not seen [i.e. do not know] when the lord of the house comes…” (v. 35a)

The figure of the returning master, can be interpreted at several levels, based on one’s view of the development of the Gospel tradition:

    • A general reference to God’s appearance to bring the end-time Judgment
    • This divine visitation as taking place through the Son of Man as God’s appointed/anointed representative
    • The return of Jesus, who is identified as the Son of Man

By the time the Gospels were written, among early Christians the latter would certainly have been in view. For more on the background of the expression and title “Son of Man”, and the identification of Jesus with this heavenly/Messianic figure, cf. Part 10 of the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 3)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 3)

    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 two areas of study were addressed in the previous article (Part 2); here we will be examining the next two areas (#3-4, in italics above).

3. The Coming Day of Judgment

The idea of a final Judgment by God upon the world is probably the most common eschatological motif in early Christian thought, and it informs nearly every aspect of the eschatology of the New Testament. While the basic idea is common to many cultures, the early Christian understanding derives from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—especially as related to the expression “Day of YHWH” in the Prophetic nation-oracles, etc. The main passages using this expression are: Isa 13:6ff; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1ff; 3:14; Amos 5:18ff; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7-8ff; 2:2-3; Zech 14:1-3ff; Mal 4:5; many others allude to it. The original background presumably stems from ancient “holy war” tradition, in which God does battle for his people against their enemies. Gradually, especially in the context of the Exile and post-Exilic period, the idea came to reflect the eschatological (and Messianic) expectation of Israel. Support for this certainly could be found in the Prophets—the “Day of YHWH” was a time when God would appear to judge (and punish) the wicked, and to deliver the faithful among his people.

When the similar expression “Day of the Lord” comes to be used in the New Testament, it still refers to the end-time Judgment of God upon humankind, but it is now thoroughly connected with a belief in the return of Jesus, who will appear as God’s chosen representative to judge the earth (cf. 1 Cor 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10, etc). This role of Jesus, as one who brings about (and oversees) the final Judgment, is central to early Christian preaching, as we shall see when we examine the eschatology in the book of Acts. However, the idea also goes back to the sayings of Jesus himself, especially those which refer to the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man”. These references will be examined in the next area of study (section #4) below. Here, I wish to survey the sayings which refer more generally to the coming Judgment. I divide these as follows:

    • Sayings which specifically mention the (day of) Judgment
    • Those which deal with reward/punishment, in the context of an end-time Judgment
    • Specific sayings which mention entering/inheriting/receiving the Kingdom
a. Sayings which mention the (day of) Judgment

Somewhat surprisingly, there are almost no sayings in the core Synoptic tradition (as represented by the Gospel of Mark) which use either the verb kri/nw (“judge”) or the related nouns kri/si$, kri/ma (“judgment”); indeed, there is only one—Mark 12:40 par. It is much more common in Matthew and Luke, both the material they share in common (“Q”), and other sayings unique to each Gospel. These are:

All of these sayings draw upon traditional religious and ethical language (and instruction), warning people that ultimately they will face judgment by God for the things they have said and done. In Jesus’ sayings, this viewpoint has been adapted slightly, so that it now also refers to people being judged for the way in which they responded to Jesus in their lifetime (cf. below on the Son of Man sayings).

b. Sayings dealing with reward and punishment

There are a number of such sayings by Jesus, and all (or nearly all) of them have a strong eschatological orientation—i.e., they refer to the (heavenly) reward or punishment which a person receives following the Judgment.

The idea of the reward which one will receive from God, for faithfulness in following Jesus (his teachings and example, etc), is especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount (and the parallel Lukan “Sermon on the Plain”), beginning with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12 par, esp. verse 12); on the eschatological background of the beatitude form, cf. my earlier series on the Beatitudes. The contrast between the present (earthly) situation and the ultimate heavenly situation is most striking in the Lukan version (6:20-23), with its woes (vv. 24-26), reflecting a reversal-of-fortune theme common in Jesus’ teaching. Other references dealing with reward and punishment are:

Especially noteworthy is the prophetic illustration in Matt 7:21-23 (par Lk 6:46; 13:25-27), in which Jesus apparently casts himself in the role of judge, distinguishing his true followers (those who do “the will of my Father in heaven”), from those who only claim to be so.

When we examine the wider Synoptic tradition, several passages stand out:

    • Mark 10:29-31 par—those who have sacrificed everything to follow Jesus, enduring deprivation and hardship in this life, will receive heavenly reward (eternal life) in the “Age to Come”. Note the variations between the Gospels (Matt 19:28-30; Lk 18:29-30) on the precise nature of the reward, with apparent fluctuation between heavenly and earthly(?) emphasis.
    • Mark 9:41 (par Matt 10:41-42)
    • Luke 10:20, with a possible eschatological nuance to vv 18f
c. Entering/inheriting/receiving the Kingdom

A number of the sayings express the idea of heavenly reward in terms of “entering” (or inheriting, receiving) the Kingdom, and, conversely, of punishment as failing to do so.

4. The Son of Man Sayings

These are the sayings of Jesus which refer to the “Son of Man” figure in a clear eschatological context. Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) is distinctive, and, it would seem, unique to his discourse. That it reflects an authentic characteristic of the historical Jesus, his mode of expression, is confirmed by the fact that hardly occurs at all elsewhere in the New Testament or in other early Christian writings. It is not a title regularly used of Jesus by early believers; the occurrences in Heb 2:6 and Rev 1:13; 14:14 are quotations from the Old Testament. It is virtually limited to the Gospels, and, even there, is essentially never found except in the words of Jesus. Originally, as I have discussed elsewhere on a number of occasions, the expression “son of man” (Heb <d*a* /B#, Aram. vn`a$ rB^) was simply a (poetic) parallel for “man”—that is, a human being or member of the human race. It came to be used as a personal reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun “I” (i.e., this particular human being), though it is hard to find clear examples of this usage prior to Jesus. There can be no question, however, that Jesus did use the expression in just this way—as a self-designation or reference to himself. We may isolate three specific contexts for the expression “son of man” in Jesus’ sayings and teachings, as recorded in the Gospels:

    1. Where he identifies himself with the human condition—especially in terms of human suffering and mortality (death)
    2. Specific references to his impending death (and resurrection)
    3. Eschatological references to “the Son of Man”

The last category is the subject of this study. A critical analysis of these eschatological references is complicated by several factors, most notably the historical context. If Jesus is referring to his own future coming (i.e., after his death and resurrection), this would have been largely unintelligible to people at the time. Even his own closest disciples would have had little or no awareness of this sequence of events (death, resurrection, ascension, future return). This has led critical commentators to give serious consideration to two different possibilities:

    • The sayings, insofar as they identify the coming of the Son of Man with Jesus’ return, are largely the product of the early Church
    • In these sayings, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to a separate/distinct figure indicated by the title “Son of Man”

As I have discussed in an earlier study, there would seem to be very little evidence in the Gospels themselves for the first possibility. The second is much more plausible, but, in my view, cannot be embraced without serious qualification. I would offer the following explanation:

Jesus was drawing upon a tradition, derived primarily (if not exclusively) from Daniel 7:13-14, which envisioned a divine/heavenly being who would appear at the end-time to deliver God’s people and usher in the Judgment. For the background of this eschatological (and Messianic) figure, which would have been understood by at least some Israelites and Jews in Jesus’ time, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (also the separate note on Dan 7:13f). Jesus identifies himself with this figure, but not in a way which would have been readily understood by people at the time (note the confusion indicated in John 12:34). The identification would have been implicit, based on his distinctive use of the expression “son of man”, and not made absolutely clear until the scene before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61-62ff par, cp. Acts 7:55-56). This view, I think, allows for a proper interpretation of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Gospel Tradition. Jesus could have made these references, without his disciples (at the time) necessarily connecting them with his own post-resurrection return.

In the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there are three such Son of Man sayings:

    • Mark 8:38: “For whoever would feel shame over me and my words in this adulterous and sinful (time of) coming to be [i.e. age/generation], (so) also the Son of Man will shame over him, when He should come in the splendor of His Father with the holy Messengers.”
      The Lukan parallel in 9:26 is largely identical, the main difference being the reading “in His splendor and the (splendor) of His Father…”. Matthew’s version (16:27, cf. below) is quite different.
    • Mark 13:26: “…and then they will look with (their) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man coming on/in (the) clouds with much power and splendor”
      Again, Luke (21:27) is nearly identical, while Matthew differs considerably (note the additional words in italics):
      Matt 24:30: “and then the sign of the Son of Man will be made to shine forth in heaven; and then all the offshoots [i.e. peoples/races] of the earth will beat (themselves) and they will look with (their) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor”
    • Mark 14:62: “…and you will look with (your) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man, sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”
      Matthew (26:64) and Luke (22:69) both record the saying prefaced with a temporal indicator (“from now [on]…”); otherwise, Matthew is identical to Mark, while Luke’s version is in a simpler form which also removes the visual/visionary aspect:
      “…the Son of Man will be sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power of God!”

The first saying (Mk 8:38 par) follows the traditional end-time Judgment scene indicated in the sayings noted above (section #3). The Son of Man plays a leading role in overseeing (or otherwise participating in) the heavenly Judgment; the ethical dimension has been reinterpreted to cover the disciple’s faithfulness in accepting and following Jesus (cf. below). The sayings in Mk 13:26 and 14:62 pars more properly refer to the end-time appearance, or coming, of the Son of Man, and both draw clearly upon Daniel 7:13. The emphasis in Daniel is somewhat different, in that the heavenly figure (“one like a son of man”, i.e. resembling a human being) comes on the clouds toward God, i.e. approaching Him, rather than becoming visible to people on earth. However, the motif of the end-time Judgment (and deliverance of God’s people) was already present in the original vision (v. 14ff). The saying before the Sanhedrin is distinctive for several reasons:

    • Here Jesus makes a much more explicit identification of himself with the Son of Man figure
    • In the context, it is related to the death and eventual resurrection of Jesus
    • Dan 7:13f is blended together with the idea of Jesus being present at the “right hand” of God. This motif comes primarily from Psalm 110:1, and was central to the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus—his resurrection resulted in his exaltation to heaven and a position at God’s right hand.
    • All of this is further connected with Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and “Son of God”, cf. the question in Mk 14:61 par.

Luke’s version of the saying in Mk 14:62 (22:69) eliminates the eschatological aspect, possibly with the tradition in Acts 7:55-56 in mind. However, in 21:27 the eschatological dimension is retained. This saying (Mk 13:26 par) will be discussed as part of the upcoming study on the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. The connection in Matt 24:30 between Dan 7:13-14 and Zech 12:10 is also attested in the book of Revelation (1:7).

There are additional Son of Man sayings in the so-called “Q” material—i.e., the traditions shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. In theme and concept these follow the Synoptic sayings in Mk 8:38 and 13:26 par, relating to: (a) the Judgment to be ushered in (and overseen) by the Son of Man, and (b) the coming/appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time. Several other sayings, unique to Matthew and/or Luke, will also be included under these headings.

(a) The Judgment Scene.

    • Matthew 10:32-33 / Luke 12:8-9. This double-saying is generally parallel to that of Mark 8:38 (cf. above). Note that only in Luke’s version is the expression/title “Son of Man” used; in Matthew’s version, Jesus uses the pronoun “I”, indicating that it is self-designation (on this, cf. above).
    • Matthew 13:41 (cf. also verse 37)—this reference will be discussed as part of the study of the eschatological elements in Jesus’ parables.
    • Matthew 16:27—in place of Mk 8:38 par, Matthew includes a similar saying where the Judgment scene is connected more clearly with the coming/appearance of the Son of Man:
      “For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give from (himself) [i.e. reward/repay] to each (person) according to his deeds”
      This saying (along with that of v. 28) will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the eschatological imminence indicated in certain of Jesus’ sayings.
    • Matthew 25:31—the Judgment scene is vividly depicted in this parable, which will be discussed further at the proper point in this series.
    • Luke 21:36—part of the Lukan “Eschatological Discourse”, to be discussed.

(b) The Coming/Appearance of the Son of Man. These references largely preserve the Judgment context; however, it is the sudden/impending appearance of the Son of Man which is particularly emphasized.

    • Matthew 24:27 / Luke 17:24
    • Matthew 24:37, 39 / Luke 17:26, 30
    • Matthew 24:44 / Luke 12:40
      All these sayings are included in Matthew’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Luke has them in different locations), and will be discussed further as part of our study on the Discourse.
    • Matthew 16:28—Matthew’s version of the Synoptic saying in Mk 9:1 par will be discussed in the upcoming note on “imminent eschatology” in Jesus’ sayings.
    • Luke 17:22—This saying, along with the peculiar phrase “one of the days of the Son of Man”, will be discussed in the study on the Eschatological Discourse.
    • Luke 18:8—A rather famous saying, often cited entirely out of context:
      “…the Son of Man, (at his) coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”
      It, too, will be touched on briefly in discussing imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings.

Finally, notice should be given to the statement by Jesus in Matthew 19:28:

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

The idea of judgment is certainly present, but the emphasis is on the heavenly throne/court setting, rather than on the Judgment scene itself. It is roughly parallel to the opening of the parable in 25:31. Luke records a saying very similar to Matt 19:28 (22:28-30), which is often regarded as coming from the “Q” line of tradition (despite the different settings). Luke’s version does not use the title “Son of Man”. The saying in Matt 19:28 will be discussed further in the next part of this study (section #5).

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.

September 11: Revelation 1:11-16

Revelation 1:9-20 (continued)

Revelation 1:11-16

In the previous note, I examined the introduction (vv. 9-10) to the first vision of the book of Revelation. Today, I will be discussing the vision itself, which as I noted, is presented as a theophany (i.e. manifestation of God). The figure who appears, and speaks to the seer John, though not specifically identified as Jesus Christ, is certainly to be understood as the rised/exalted Jesus. His appearance is described with both heavenly and divine characteristics, largely drawn from Old Testament tradition. Each of these will be discussed in turn:

1. “a great voice as a trumpet” (v. 10b)—cf. the previous note.

2. “and I turned about to see the voice that spoke with me” (v. 12a)—Here English translations tend to obscure what may well be an allusion to the Sinai theophany (Exod 20:18, cf. also Deut 4:12): “And all the people saw the voices…and the voice of the horn [i.e. trumpet]…” The plural “voices” refers to the sounds of thunder (i.e. thunder as the “voice” of God). Jewish tradition has explained this wording along the lines that the voice of God was so great as to seem visible to those who heard/witnessed it (cf. Philo Life of Moses II.213; On the Decalogue 46-47; Josephus Antiquities 1.285; 2. 267ff, etc; Koester, pp. 244-5ff, and for a number of the references below).

3. “seven golden lamp(stand)s” (v. 12b)—The author here repeats the verb e)pistre/yw (“turn upon/about”), adding dramatic suspense to his act of turning: “and, turning about, I saw…” These seven golden lamps are clearly parallel to the “seven Spirits” around God’s throne in verse 4 (cf. the earlier note), and again suggests that the manifestation of Jesus is very much like the manifestation of God himself. The most direct allusion is to Zechariah 4:2ff, where the lamps are explained as heavenly Messengers (“eyes”, v. 10b)—that is, Angels (“Spirits”)—but where there is also a connection with the presence of the Spirit of God (v. 6). The seven lamps may also allude to the golden lampstand, with seven branches, in the Tabernacle and (Second) Temple (Exod 25:31-40; 1 Macc 4:49-50; Josephus, Jewish War 5.217; the depiction on the Arch of Titus, etc).

4. “one like a son of man” (v. 13a)—This, of course, alludes to the famous description of the divine/heavenly being in Daniel 7:13-14 (also quoted earlier in verse 7 [cf. the note]):

“And see—with the clouds of heaven (one) like a son of man [vn`a$ rb^K=] was coming…”
LXX: “And see—upon the clouds of heaven (one) as a son of man [w($ ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou] came…”

While the Greek version of Dan 7:13 uses the general particle w($ (“as”), the description here in Rev 1:13 is a bit more precise, using the adjective o%moio$ (“similar [to]”), emphasizing likeness. Originally, the expression “son of man” (Aram. vn`a$ rB^) simply meant “human (being)”, part of “(hu)mankind”; and, thus, the reference in Daniel is to a heavenly being who has the appearance of a human being. The use of the expression as a distinct title (“Son of Man”), referring specifically to such a divine/heavenly being, is fundamental to the early Christian understanding of Jesus, and of the eschatological outlook in the New Testament. For more on this topic, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. It is important to note that, while Dan 7:13f is the primary basis for the eschatological/Messianic title “Son of Man”, here the book of Revelation does not use the title, but goes back to the underlying wording in Daniel. The opening phrase “in the middle of the lampstands” emphasizes the centrality of Jesus, but also echoes the presence of God (and his throne) in the middle of the (surrounding) “seven Spirits”.

5. “a golden girdle [i.e. belt]” (v. 13b)—The initial description of this figure “like a son of man” refers to his clothing: “having been sunk in(to a garment) to the feet, and girded about toward the breasts (with) a golden girdle [i.e. belt]”. From a socio-cultural standpoint, this clothing indicates a high, honored/dignified status; possibly also a priestly status is suggested (cf. Exod 28:4-5; Zech 3:4, etc). It is best to view this clothing, with its golden belt, simply as characteristic of a heavenly being (Dan 10:5; cf. also Ezek 9:2f, and note again the description in Rev 15:6).

6. “his head and hairs were white as wool, white as snow” (v. 14a)—This would seem to be drawn from the description of God (the “Ancient of Days”) in Daniel 7:9 (cf. also 1 Enoch 46:1; 71:10). It may be intended to reflect the divine/heavenly generally (white symbolizing purity, etc), and could refer to a heavenly being (Angel) such as in 1 Enoch 106; however, the context of Dan 7:13, and the other parallels with the appearance of God (theophany), suggests a comparison with the “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:9).

7. “his eyes (were) as a flame of fire” (v. 14b)—Again, this description would be characteristic of a heavenly/divine being (Dan 10:6; 1 Enoch 106:5f); the detail occurs again in 19:12.

8. “his feet (were) similar to white copper” (v. 15a)—The word xalkoli/banon refers to white[ned] (li/bano$) copper (xalko/$), i.e. refined/burnished bronze, “as (if) having been burned in a furnace”. It appears to be unique to the book of Revelation (also in 2:18), but is presumably derived from the description of the heavenly being in Dan 10:6. A shining fiery appearance at the feet (or below the feet) is also part of the manifestation of God (on his throne) in the language of theophany.

9. “his voice (was) as the sound of many waters” (v. 15b)—This image most likely comes from Ezekiel 1:24; 43:2, where it describes the approach of God (preceded and surrounded by heavenly beings). There is probably also an allusion to Daniel 10:6, as well as the thundering “voices” of God in the Sinai theophany (Exod 19:16; 20:18).

10. “he (was) holding…seven stars” (v. 16a)—These stars are being held in his right (lit. “giving”) hand, i.e. the hand or side indicating favor and blessing, as well as power and authority, etc. Power over the stars could be attributed to heavenly beings, but more properly relates to God as the Creator and sustainer of the heavens—i.e. God as the one who “causes the (heavenly) armies [i.e. bodies/beings] to be/exist” (toxb*x= hwhy). Verse 20 explains that the stars are, in fact, heavenly Messengers, connected with the seven congregations to whom the epistle-book of Revelation is addressed.

11. “out his mouth traveled a sharp two-mouthed sword” (v. 16b)—A two-edged (lit. “two-mouthed”, di/stomo$) sword was a military weapon, to be used for cutting/killing in battle (the “mouth” of the sword eats/consumes its victims). The image specifically relates to the traditional military role of the Messiah at the end-time (defeating/subduing the wicked nations), especially in the light of Isa 11:4 and 49:2, as these passages were given a Messianic interpretation. The idea of the “word of God” as a sword (Heb 4:12) presumably comes from the same background (esp. Isa 11:4 LXX, “the word of his mouth”). This military imagery is applied to Jesus more graphically in Rev 2:16; 19:15, 21.

12. “the sight of him (was) as the sun shining in its power” (v. 16c)—I have translated o&yi$ here as “sight”, i.e. “visual (appearance)”, but can specifically refer to the face, which is presumably intended here. The immediate Scriptural allusion is, again, to the heavenly figure in Dan 10:6, but, certainly, the sun (light, shining, etc) is a natural symbol for deity, and this is indicated by the qualifying phrase “in his/its power”.

This concludes the vision—that is the visual description—of the figure who appears to John. What follows in verses 17-20 are the words which the figure speaks. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

“…Spirit and Life”: John 6:27ff

John 6:27-58

The motif of “life” (zwh/) is especially prominent in the great “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6. This discourse is similar to that of chapter 5 (cf. the previous notes), in being centered on a miracle story—in this case, the Miraculous Feeding episode, which is also found in the Synoptic Tradition (Mk 6:30-44 par, cf. also 8:1-10 par). I have discussed the Bread of Life discourse in a number of prior notes and articles, most recently as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (cf. the relevant notes). The discourse, in the context of the chapter as a whole, is quite complex; I would outline it as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction—the Feeding Miracle Episode:
    • Narrative setting (vv. 1-4)
    • Tradition: The Feeding Miracle (vv. 5-14)
    • Transitional statement (v. 15)
    • Associated Tradition: The Walking on Water (vv. 16-21)
  • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
  • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
    • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
    • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
    • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
    • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
    • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
  • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
    • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
  • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
    • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
  • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)

There are thus three separate divisions to the discourse proper (vv. 25-58), each of which follows the basic discourse format: saying (by Jesus)–reaction (by the people)–exposition (by Jesus). In each instance, the exposition builds upon the central saying (vv. 27, 35, 51), explaining the true meaning of Jesus’ words. The word zwh/ (“life”), along with related verb za/w (“live”), occurs repeatedly throughout these verses; these references may be grouped as follows:

    • The expression “Bread of Life“, in two forms:
      bread of Lifeo( a&rto$ th=$ zwh=$ (vv. 35, 48)
      living breado( a&rto$ o( zwh=n (v. 51)
    • The expression “Life of the Age” (vv. 27, 40*, 47*, 53-54*, also v. 68*)
      the asterisk indicates that the expression involves the verb e&xw (“hold, have”)
      —i.e. “hold the Life of the Age”
    • The noun “Life” without modification:
      —giving Life to/for the world (v. 33)
      —over the life of the world (v. 51)
    • The verb “Live” (participle “Living“):
      —will live into the Age (v. 51, 58)
      —Living Father…I live…that one will live (v. 57)

All told, there are 13 occurrences over a span of 32 verses—quite a high number. The expression “Bread of Life” (once “Living Bread”) features in the second and third sayings of Jesus, both of which relate back to the first saying (in verse 27):

“Do not work for the food th(at is) going to ruin, but (for) food th(at is) remaining into (the) Life of the Age, which the Son of Man will give to you—for God the Father has set (his) seal (on) this (person).”

Jesus begins from the context of the feeding miracle—the eating of bread-loaves by the people—to establish a contrast between ordinary bread (which perishes) and the bread (or “food”, brw=si$) which the Son of Man (Jesus) gives. This is precisely parallel to the contrast between ordinary water and the “living water” which Jesus gives (4:7-15ff)—one involves eating, the other drinking. During this portion of the discourse, the motif shifts to another kind of “bread” provided miraculously to the people—the manna of ancient Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Exod 16:31ff; Num 11:6ff; Deut 8:3, etc). This manna is referred to as “bread from heaven” in Exod 16:4; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15—some combination of these may be intended by the general Scripture citation in v. 31 (“He gave them bread out of heaven to eat”). This reference, given by the people in their reaction to Jesus’ statement(s), almost certainly should be seen as relating to the Passover setting of the feeding miracle (v. 4). The people’s reaction should be understood according to the context of the following points in the saying/exposition by Jesus:

    • Jesus’ identification with the Son of Man who gives eternal food/bread
    • The divine/heavenly source of this—”God the Father set (his) seal”
    • Obtaining this food involves doing (working) the “work of God” (as in the gathering of the manna by the Israelites)
    • Jesus defines this “work” more precisely in v. 29b:
      “…that you would trust in th(e one) whom that (One) [i.e. God the Father] se(n)t forth”

The reaction by the people in vv. 30-31 is thus similar to the question by the Samaritan woman in 4:12. It also touches upon the contrast between Jesus and Moses (the Torah/Scriptures) in 5:39ff. The wording of verse 31 is significant:

“Our fathers ate manna in the desolate (land), even as it has been written…”

One can envision an implied question/challenge along the lines of 4:12—i.e., “you are not greater than Moses, through whom God gave us this food to eat, are you?” Jesus makes the contrast definite in v. 32:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, (it was) not Moshe (who) has given to you the ‘bread out of heaven’, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.”

This bread coming down from heaven is said to “give Life to the world” (v. 33). Jesus has gone a step beyond the discourse with the Samaritan woman; now, rather than being simply one who gives Life, Jesus identifies himself (the “Son of Man”) with that very Life itself. This is clear enough from the saying which begins the second portion of the discourse:

“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Bread of Life; the one coming toward me should not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting in me will not (ever) thirst.”

The blending of hunger and thirst (eating and drinking) suggests that Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) has the earlier “living water” discourse in mind, though the specific image of bread would seem to apply only to eating. The “I am” declaration is repeated in verse 48 (“I am the Bread of Life”), where it is connected back to the manna tradition (“Bread out of Heaven”). In the intervening exposition, Jesus makes absolutely clear that eating this “Bread of Life” means trusting in him:

    • “every one looking (closely) at the Son and trusting [pisteu/wn] in him holds (the) Life of the Age” (v. 40)
    • “the one trusting [pisteu/wn] in me holds (the) Life of the Age” (v. 47)

As in the earlier discourses, the expression “Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life) is primarily eschatological, referring to the life which the righteous (believers) will come to possess in the end-time, following the resurrection (v. 40b, etc). Within the context of the Johannine discourses, however, this is blended with a “realized” eschatology for believers in Jesus—they experience in the present the very Life which the righteous are thought to inherit at the end-time. This is the main significance of the expression “holds the Life of the Age”—i.e. the believer already possesses it now.

The third portion of the discourse runs parallel to the second, and begins with a parallel saying by Jesus:

“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Living Bread th(at is) stepping down out of Heaven; and if any one should eat out of this Bread, he will live into the Age…” (v. 51)

If the second portion of the discourse expounds the theme of the first (“Bread from Heaven”), the third portion also expounds the theme of the second (“Bread of Life”). Now, it is designated as “living Bread” (similar to the “living water” of 4:10ff), and the spiritual significance of the exposition is deepened by the introduction of eucharistic language and motifs. I have discussed this controversial aspect of the discourse at length in prior notes (cf. especially the earlier Saturday Series discussion). The eucharistic association is established already in the second half of the verse 51 saying:

“…and the Bread which I will give is my flesh, over [u(pe/r] the life of the world”

One need not look any further than words of institution (of the Lord’s Supper) in the Gospel tradition:

    • Mark 14:22-24:
      “this is my body…this is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many”
    • Luke 22:19-20 [MT]:
      “this is my body given over [u(pe/r] you…”

If there were any doubt as to an apparent eucharistic allusion here, verses 53-54 make it all but certain:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if you would not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold Life in yourself. (But) the one chomping my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) Life of the Age, and I will stand him up in the last day.”

It is interesting to consider the three aspects of (eternal) Life present in this statement:

    • Life which the believer holds in him/herself—i.e. through the essential presence of Jesus (his “flesh” and “blood”)
    • The Life of the Age which the believer holds (now, in the present)—”realized” eschatology
    • The Life which the believer will possess at the end time, following the Resurrection—traditional (future) eschatology

While the last two aspects have been present in the prior discourses (in chaps. 3-5), the first aspect is new to the Gospel here, though it has been implied, to some extent, both in the prologue and, perhaps, in verses 5-8 of chapter 3. It refers to the essential unity between the believer and Jesus, and this is a theme which will be developed considerably as one proceeds through the Gospel.

“…Spirit and Life”: John 3:15-16, 34-36

John 3:15-16, 34-36

The explanation by Jesus in Jn 3:5-8 (of the central saying in verse 3) is followed by a second, more detailed exposition in verses 10-21. It is introduced by a second question from Nicodemus, again indicating his lack of understanding: “How are these (thing)s able to come to be?” (v. 9). Thus the exposition which follows builds upon the previous discussion in vv. 3-8, dealing with idea of being born “from above” (i.e. from God, “out of the Spirit”). This setting of vv. 10-21 in the context of the discourse is vital to any proper interpretation. The exposition is divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 10-15—The testimony of the Son of Man
    • Vv. 16-21—The witness and work of the Son of God

Two important motifs are introduced in the first section, appearing together in verse 12:

“If I said to you th(ing)s upon [i.e. about] (the) earth and you do not trust, how will you trust if I say to you th(ing)s upon [i.e. about] Heaven?”

The two motifs are: (1) the idea of trusting (vb. pisteu/w) and (2) the contrast between heaven and earth, i.e. above vs. below. This latter motif relates back to the central saying (and theme) from verse 3—of being born from above (a&nwqen). Verses 13-15 introduce the figure of the “Son of Man”, as used by Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, according to two important aspects:

    • The Son of Man as a heavenly/divine figure who will appear on earth (at the end time) to attend/oversee the Judgment
    • “Son of Man” as a self-designation by Jesus

Both aspects are combined together here, and are related to the two key motifs identified above. There is a definite progression to the line of thought in vv. 13-15:

  • The Son of Man (Jesus) is the one who has come down out of heaven (i.e. from above) [v. 13]
    • He will be “lifted high” [v. 14]—an expression of ascent (i.e. back to heaven), parallel to his descent (from heaven), understood as a comprehensive symbol entailing three aspects:
      (a) Jesus’ death—lifted up on the cross (the immediate reference to Num 21:9)
      (b) His resurrection, rising from the dead
      (c) His return to God (in Heaven)
      • Trust in him, in the entire context of his person and work (vv. 13-14), leads to Life [v. 15]—i.e. being born from above (v. 3)

As indicated above, there is a shift from Jesus as “Son of Man” to his identity as the “Son of God” (vv. 16-21)—a title which encapsulates two concepts: (1) Jesus’ relationship to the Father (as an only Son), and (2) Jesus as the one sent by the Father as His perfect representative (i.e. a “Son”). Verses 15-16 serve as the hinge joining the two sections (vv. 10-15, 16-21)—”Son of Man” and “Son of God”. The verses contain parallel statements involving the motifs of “trust” and “life” (zwh/). This parallelism can be seen by comparing the formula used in vv. 15 and 16b respectively:

    • “(so) that every one trusting in him might hold (the) Life of the Age” (v. 15)
      (so) that every one trusting him should not (come to) ruin, but might hold (the) Life of the Age” (v. 16b)

Centered in between these statements is the famous declaration of v. 16a:

“For God loved the world this (way)—so (that) he even gave his only (born) Son…”

I discussed the background of the expression “Life of the Age” (zwh\ ai)w/nio$) in the earlier notes on Jn 11:20-27. It is an eschatological idiom, referring to the blessed (divine) life which the righteous will inherit at the end-time, in the Age to Come. However, this eschatological meaning was transformed in Christianity—and in the Gospel of John, especially—so that it also refers to the life which believers possess in the present, through union with Christ. This is often described as “realized” eschatology. It should be pointed out, however, that the use of the subjunctive in 3:15-16 (“might hold, should [come to] hold”) retains much of the original eschatological (future) orientation of the expression. The end-time Judgment features prominently in vv. 16-21, but it has been reinterpreted entirely in terms of faith (trust) in Jesus. The “realized” aspect of this eschatological theme is clear enough:

“The one trusting in him is not judged; but the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that he has not trusted in the name of the only (born) Son of God” (v. 18)

More nuanced (but equally clear) is the concluding exposition beginning in verse 19:

“And this is the Judgment: that the Light has come into the world and the men [i.e. all those in the world] loved the darkness rather (than) the Light…”

In other words, Judgment is realized already (in the present) when a person comes to the Light (Jesus) and/or does not come to it (because he/she prefers darkness).

John 3:34-36

The motifs of “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) occur together in the closing verses of chapter 3—part of a separate discourse (vv. 22-36) involving John the Baptist (rather than Jesus), but one which has a number of features in common with that of vv. 1-21. In particular, the exposition by Jesus in vv. 10-21 runs parallel, in certain respects, with the exposition (by the Baptist [?]) in vv. 31-36. I have outlined the common elements in an earlier (Saturday Series) discussion. For the purposes of this particular series of notes, the following parallels are of special importance:

    • V. 34: Jesus, as the one sent by God, speaks the words of God—this word/speaking is connected with the giving of the Spirit
      —In vv. 5-8ff, being born “out of the Spirit” is related to trust in the testimony of Jesus, as the one sent by God (vv. 11-12ff, 16ff)
    • V. 36: Trust in the Son (Jesus) results in the believer possessing Life; by contrast, the one failing to trust (lit. being unpersuaded) will not see Life, but will endure the Judgment (“the anger of God remains on him”)
      —Vv. 15-16 is a precise parallel to v. 36a; while vv. 18ff more properly relates to v. 36 as a whole.

In particular, verses 35 and 36a, taken together, result in a formulation close to that of v. 16 (common words/expressions in italics):

    • “The Father loves the Son and has given all [pa=$]… the one trusting in the Son holds Life of the Age…” (vv. 35-36a)
    • “God loved…he gave his only Son, so that every [pa=$] one trusting in him…should hold Life of the Age” (v. 16)

It is interesting to consider the different ways that the verb give (di/dwmi) is used in these two discourses of chapter 3:

    • God (the Father) has given all things/people [spec. the Elect/Believers] to the Son (v. 35, cf. also v. 27)
    • God gave his Son to the world [i.e. humankind, spec. the Elect/Believers] (v. 16)
    • The Son (Jesus) gives the Spirit [to Believers] (v. 34)

The idea of Jesus giving the Spirit to believers will take on greater prominence later in the Gospel, in the Last Discourse (and following). I discussed the interesting expression “not out of measure” (ou) e)k me/trou)—i.e., “for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit”—in the previously mentioned discussion on v. 34.

May 15: Mark 3:28-29; Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10

Mark 3:28-29; Matthew 12:31-32; Luke 12:10

The next passage to be discussed, in this Pentecost-season series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, is the famous (and controversial) saying of Jesus regarding the so-called “sin (or blasphemy) against the Spirit” in Mark 3:28-29 par. Over the centuries, this has proven to be one of the most challenging sayings of Jesus for commentators and believers generally to interpret and apply. The interpretive difficulties are complicated by the questions surrounding the differing forms of the saying (or sayings) as preserved in the Synoptic Tradition.

I begin with the version in Mark 3:28-29, which is set in the context of Jesus’ exorcism miracles (vv. 22-27, cf. verses 11-12, 15). This central section is framed by two episodes which express the misunderstanding and/or opposition to Jesus by his family and relatives:

    • vv. 20-21—”the ones alongside him”
    • vv. 31-35—”his mother and his brothers”

The pericope concludes with the declaration that Jesus’ followers are his true family (vv. 34-35). Here is the saying regarding the Holy Spirit in verses 28-29:

“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).”

This use of the Greek ai)w/n, indicating an age/era or (long) period of time, is hard to render meaningfully into English, often being generalized as “(for)ever, eternal(ly)”, etc.; however, in the Israelite/Jewish idiom and thought world, there is a strong eschatological aspect which must be preserved—”into the Age” specifically refers to the “Age to Come”, which is ushered in by God’s Judgment upon the world at the close of the present Age. Also, I would call attention to the Greek verb blasfhme/w, which is often simply transliterated into English as “blaspheme”, but this tends to gloss over and distort the fundamental meaning—to speak evil or abusive words, i.e. insult, revile, mock, slander, etc. I have translated blasfhme/w above simply as “insult”. At first glance, there would seem to be relatively little difficulty in the interpretation of this saying, since verse 30 which follows in Mark’s account gives a rather clear explanation:

“(This was in) that [i.e. because] they said ‘He has/holds an unclean spirit’.” (cf. verse 22)

Matthew essentially preserves the Markan narrative context—

Luke’s account differs even more, with the varied inclusion of (so-called) “Q” material:

However, the Lukan version of the Holy Spirit saying occurs in a very different context—that of believers acknowledging/confessing Jesus (the Son of Man) publicly (Lk 12:8-12). The saying in verse 10 would seem to be based on a “Q” version that corresponds to Matt 12:32. Let us first examine Matthew 12:31-32 in terms of the Markan version:

Mark 3:28-29Matthew 12:31-32
“All things will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men—the sins and insults, whatever they may insult—but whoever gives insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release into the Age, but is held in (guilt) of a sin of the Age(s).”Every sin and insult will be released [i.e. forgiven] for men, but the insult(ing) of the Spirit will not be released. And whoever should say an (evil) word/account against the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but whoever should say (evil) against the holy Spirit, it will not be released for him—not in this Age and not in the (Age that) is about (to come).”

The italicized portions in Matthew indicate the portions shared by the saying in Mark. The saying regarding the “Son of Man” does not correspond to anything in Mark, but it is similar to the Lukan version of the saying (Lk 12:10):

“Every one who will speak an (evil) word/account unto the Son of Man, it will be released for him; but for the (one) giving insult unto the holy Spirit, it will not be released.”

According to the standard critical theory, Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, as well as a collection of sayings and traditions commonly referred to as “Q” (from German quelle, “source”). Luke 12:10 and the non-italicized portion of Matt 12:32 above represent the “Q” version of the saying. Matthew has apparently combined the Markan and Q versions. As always, when dealing with similar and/or parallel sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, the key critical question is: (a) do these represent separate sayings given by Jesus on different occasions, or (b) are they different versions of the same saying which were transmitted and preserved separately? Traditional-conservative commentators usually opt for (a), while critical scholars and commentators tend to choose (b). In most instances, valid arguments can be offered for each position, and it can be difficult to come up with a definitive solution on entirely objective grounds (i.e., without relying on doctrinal or ideological presuppositions). In the case of this particular saying, there is one strong argument that favors the common critical view, which can be illustrated by a comparison of the first portion of the Markan and “Q” versions respectively:

Saying/Version 1 (‘Mark’) Saying/Version 2 (“Q”)
“All/every sin(s) and insult(s) will be released for the sons of men [toi=$ ui(oi=$ tw=n a)nqrw/pwn]…” “Every one who speaks an (evil) word/account unto/against the Son of Man [to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou], it will be released for him…”

Mark has likely preserved the original wording “sons of men” (Matthew simply reads “men”). Is it possible that the Semitic idiom “son of man” was confused during the process of transmission? Originally, the Hebrew expression “son of man” (<d*a* /B#, Aramaic vn`a$ rB^) simply referred to human beings generally, as a parallel to “man” (<d*a*). The idiom is foreign to Greek—indeed, quite unusual—and the expression o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou (“[the] son of man”) is found in the New Testament only in the words of Jesus, and in a few citations of the Old Testament. With regard to the words of Jesus, the Greek is generally assumed to be a rendering of sayings originally spoken in Aramaic; and, by the time the Gospels came to be written (by 60 A.D. and following) and transmitted to the wider Greek-speaking world, many of the Semitic idioms and expressions had long since been translated or reworked into meaningful Greek. I have addressed the difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man” at length in earlier notes and articles.

Returning to the saying in question, did “son of man” in the “Q” version originally have the general/generic meaning—i.e., “whoever speaks (evil) against a(nother) human being…”? If so, then it would correspond roughly to the Markan version, and could conceivably be traced back to a single (Aramaic) saying by Jesus. However, it should be noted that Luke definitely understands this “Q” version of the saying as referring to Jesus himself (“the Son of Man”), as the context clearly indicates. Let me here summarize briefly Jesus’ self-identification as “Son of Man” in the Synoptic tradition, especially the Gospel of Luke, isolating the following usage:

    • In the generic sense—”human being”—but often, it would seem, as a substitute for the pronoun “I”, i.e. “this human being” (myself).
    • Many of the Son of Man sayings are related to Jesus’ earthly life and existence, by which he identifies himself with the human condition—especially in terms of its mortality, weakness and suffering.
    • A number of these sayings refer specifically to Jesus’ Passion—predictions of the suffering and death which he would face in Jerusalem.
    • There are also additional sayings where Jesus identifies himself with a heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”) who will appear, as God’s representative, at the end-time Judgment, largely influenced by Daniel 7:13-14 and resultant traditions.

In the next daily note, I will examine further how Matthew and Luke understand the Holy Spirit saying, as well as the additional (related) saying in Matt 12:28 / Lk 11:20.

April 15 (2): Acts 7:55-56

This is the last in the series of daily notes for Easter Season, during which we have explored the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and John. Today’s note is on Acts 7:55-56—the last Son of Man verse in Luke-Acts, and one of only four occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” outside of the Gospels (the others being Heb 2:6 [quoting Ps 8:4ff] and Rev 1:13; 14:14 [referring to Dan 7:13]).

Acts 7:55-56

Most of the Son of Man sayings in Luke relate either to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, or (2) his exaltation to Glory (and future return in Judgment). As I have previously discussed, the use of “son of man” in the first instance would seem to identify Jesus specifically with humankind in its mortality (weakness, suffering and death); in the second, he identifies himself as the Divine/Heavenly figure (of Daniel 7:13ff) who will appear at the end-time Judgment by God. These two aspects of the expression “Son of Man” are present during the night of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22:22, 48 and Lk 22:69), and also in the Angelic announcement of Lk 24:7 where the predictions of Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:22, 44-45; 18:31-33) are connected with the Resurrection.

When we turn to the book of Acts, the theme of Jesus’ suffering (and death) continues—both with regard to the message that is proclaimed by the disciples (Acts 1:16; 2:23ff; 3:13-15, 17-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30 etc), and as a pattern for their own experience of suffering and persecution (cf. throughout chapters 3-7), predicted by Jesus himself (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). So also the theme of Jesus’ exaltation (cf. below). Acts 7:55-56 represents the climactic moment of the Stephen narrative, which spans chapters 6-7:

  • 6:1-7: Introduction, setting the stage for the conflict
  • 6:8-15: The conflict with Stephen, including his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin
  • 7:1-60: The Sermon-Speech and Execution of Stephen
    • 7:1: The question of the High Priest to Stephen, which serves as the immediate narrative introduction to the Speech
    • 7:2-53: The Sermon-Speech of Stephen
    • 7:54-60: The response to the Speech and Execution of Stephen
  • 8:1a: Transitional verse, mentioning Saul/Paul’s role in the execution
  • 8:1b-4: Narrative summary describing the onset of Persecution (led by Saul)

Of the three major scenes in Acts which show the early believers in conflict with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42), it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

  • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
    —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
  • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
    —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
  • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
    —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
  • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
    —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
  • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
    —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
  • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
    —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
  • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
    —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
  • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
  • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
  • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
    —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
  • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
    —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
  • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
  • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
  • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
    —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
    —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
  • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
    —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc). Let us compare specifically the Son of Man parallel:

Jesus’ saying (Lk 22:69):

“From now on, the Son of Man will be sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the power of God”

The formula in Mark/Matthew is:

“[From now] you will see the Son of Man sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the Power, and coming with/upon the clouds of Heaven

The declaration by Stephen (in Acts 7:56) is:

“I behold the heavens opening through and the Son of Man standing out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of God

The preceding narrative in verse 55 adds the following details: (1) he saw the glory of God, and (2) Jesus is specifically identified as the Son of Man (“Jesus standing at the right hand of God”).

The use of the verb dianoi/gw (“open through[out], open thoroughly”) is interesting, as it appears to be a favorite of Luke’s—7 of the 8 occurrences in the New Testament are in Luke-Acts, and five of these refer to the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, and of coming to faith, etc. Note:

    • Luke 24:31—”and their eyes were opened through [dihnoi/xqhsan] and they knew upon [i.e. recognized] him…”
    • Luke 24:32—”Were our hearts not burning [i.e. being set on fire] [in us] as he spoke with us in the way, as he opened through [dih/noigen] to us the Writings [i.e. Scriptures]?”
    • Luke 24:45—”Then he [i.e. Jesus] opened through [dih/noicen] their mind for th(eir) bringing together the Writings [i.e. understanding the Scriptures]”
    • Acts 16:14—”a certain woman {Lydia}… of whom the Lord opened through [dih/noicen] (her) heart”
    • Acts 17:3—Paul gathered through [i.e. discussed, argued] with them from the Scriptures, “opening through [dianoi/gwn]…that it was necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer and stand up (again) out of the dead, and that this Yeshua is the Anointed (One)…” (cf. Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46)

The early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) are still connected in many ways with the Gospel narrative, so it is fitting perhaps that they close with this vision by Stephen of the Son of Man, a fulfillment of the sayings by Jesus such as that in Luke 22:69. His vision confirms the reality of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and of his identity as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. Christ’s presence in heaven at God’s right hand was a common motif in early Christian tradition (Acts 2:25, 33ff; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3, etc), largely influenced by Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-28), on the other hand, narrates the spread of Christianity outside of Judea, out into the wider Greco-Roman world, and thus focuses more precisely on the message (the Gospel) of Jesus, and how people respond to it. If Stephen saw a vision of heaven “opened”, that is, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, so also do believers have their hearts and minds “opened” to the truth, and, in turn, proclaim the message of Christ to others, “opening” and explaining the Scriptures.

April 14 (1): John 1:51

In today’s note for the third day of Easter (Easter Tuesday), I continue the study of the Son of Man saying in John 1:51, begun yesterday (for more on the Son of Man sayings in John, cf. the earlier note). Here I will be looking more specifically at the meaning of the saying in the context of the Gospel narrative.

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

In the previous note, I explored four images or traditions which seem to be especially relevant for an interpretation of the saying, based on similarities in language and concept: (1) the baptism of Jesus, (2) the resurrection/ascension, (3) his (future) coming in glory, and (4) the dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. It must be admitted, however, that none of these are sufficient, nor do they entirely fit the position and context of the saying in John. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the narrative and thematic structure of the Gospel, in order to gain a better understanding of the ultimate significance of the saying. I will proceed, briefly, according to the following outline:

    1. The location of the saying, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
    2. Its connection with the other Son of Man sayings in John
    3. Its possible purpose as a comprehensive symbol

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section may be divided as follows:

    • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
    • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
      • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
    • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
    • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel. In the previous note, I mentioned several parallels with the Baptism of Jesus, and, given the position of the saying in relation to the Baptism (and the Baptist’s testimony) in this section, it is likely that some sort of allusion is intended. Interestingly, and altogether typical of John’s Gospel, the Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51. That the saying concludes the first section (1:19-51) means that it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

    1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (cf. especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
    2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, cf. my earlier note. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

    • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching—a statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—as the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central and climactic to the Discourse.
    • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death/resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated in those which use the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

  • With the Father in Heaven (Divine Pre-existence)
    • Descent (“stepping down”) from Heaven (Incarnation)
      • Death—being “lifted up” on the cross
        • Glorified—Life—Father-Son (Jn 13:31)
      • Resurrection—lifted/raised from the dead
    • Ascent (“stepping up”) into Heaven (Exaltation)
  • Return to the Father in Heaven

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doca/zw (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. A Comprehensive Symbol?

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

    • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the previous note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
    • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
    • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
    • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
      Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
      Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves together form a bracketing chiasm:
      “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
      —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
      —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      “My God” (Deity)
      Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
    • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb o)pta/nomai, o&ptomai/o&yomai would indicate (esp. Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22). As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
      • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
        you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
      • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
        Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.