Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:1-8

In addition to the main section on prayer in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-13, discussed last week), there are two parables which deal with the subject. These appear in sequence at 18:1-8 and 18:9-14, likely joined together due to the common theme of prayer. Both of these parables occur toward the end of the Journey portion of the narrative—i.e. the extensive collection of teaching set during the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34; cp. Mark 10:1-34). This framing of Jesus’ teaching is as much a literary device as historical; it is likely that many of the sayings, parables, etc, were originally uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Here, in particular, the two parables may have been spoken by Jesus at different times, and not necessarily right after each other.

Luke 18:1-8

In the Lukan narrative, this parable follows a block of eschatological teaching (17:20-37), some of which is found in a different location (the Eschatological Discourse) in the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative context is important for a proper understanding of what follows in 18:1-8. Even if the parable (as spoken by Jesus) originally did not have eschatological significance, it clearly does in its current Lukan setting. The eschatological context, however, is not immediately obvious in the introduction to the parable (v. 1):

“And he related to them an (illustration) cast alongside [parabolh/, i.e. parable], toward [i.e. regarding] it being necessary (for) them to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] (at) all times, and not to be in weariness [i.e. grow tired] (about it)…”

Contrary to the parable in 11:5-8 (discussed last week), here the point (according to the notice in v. 1) is to be persistent in prayer, described two ways:

    • to pray to God “at all times” (pa/ntote)
    • not to become tired of it (vb. e)gkake/w), lit. be ill/weary/tired in the effort (of praying), and thus stop

The illustration or parable itself is in vv. 2-5. The first character is a judge (krith/$), described as “not fearing God and not turning in (to consider) man” (v. 2). The second verb (e)ntre/pw) is a bit difficult to translate; I have rendered it quite literally as “turn in”, that is turn in toward something (or someone). The middle/passive use (as here) indicates a person turning in to give consideration to something, occasionally in the sense of paying attention or giving respect. In other words, this judge neither fears God nor gives any consideration for other people; the description is similar to that of king Jehoiakim by Josephus (Antiquities 10.283, Fitzmyer, p. 1178). In verse 6, this man is further characterized as being “without justice” (a)diki/a), i.e. unjust, certainly the worst sort of quality for a judge to have.

The second character in the parable is a widow (xh/ra), who is involved in certain legal difficulties (v. 3), presumably as a plaintiff in a court case. This may have entailed action against property inherited from her husband, the sort of thing alluded to by Jesus in 20:47 par. It is this situation which prompts her to approach the judge, her specific request being: “(Please) you must work out justice [e)kdi/khson] for me from my (opponent the one) seeking justice [i.e. a decision] against [a)nti/diko$] (me)”. English translations tend to obscure the relation between the verb e)kdike/w and the noun a)nti/diko$—at their heart, and etymologically, both relate to dikh/ (“justice”, “what is just/right”). At first the judge refuses to consider the widow’s request, but then thinks to himself that, even though he does not fear God or give regard to people’s needs (v. 4, repeating the description in v. 2), yet

“…through [i.e. because of] this widow holding along a beating [ko/po$] for me, I will work out justice for her, (so) that she should not strike me under the eye unto [i.e. at] the completion (of her) coming (to me).”

I have rendered the idiomatic language quite literally, though this can easily mislead the average reader. First, “holding along a beating”, refers to troubling a person with repeated “blows” (noun ko/po$, an act of cutting, striking), here in the figurative sense of continually bothering someone to the point of wearing them down. Second, the verb u(popia/zw literally means “(hit) under the eye”, either in the sense of irritation or an act of violent striking (as in a fistfight). Here the sense is one of annoyance and irritation—with her constant coming to him, in the end, this widow will be so annoying as to ‘batter him under the eye’.

Jesus’ exposition of this parable comes in verse 6: “And the Lord [i.e. Jesus] said, ‘You must hear what this judge without justice relates (to you)'”. The point is made in verse 7, relating the judge’s decision with that of God:

“And shall God (then) not make the working out of justice for his gathered out [i.e. chosen] (one)s, the (one)s crying (out) to him day and night, and (so) bring (his) impulse long upon them?”

This argument is of the qal wahomer (“light and heavy”) type—i.e. from the lighter example to the heavier, a Hebrew expression similar to the Latin a minori ad maius. If a corrupt human being will respond this way to a poor person’s need, how much more will God the Father answer the prayer of his chosen ones (oi( e)klektoi/, “the ones gathered out”). The use of the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ gives this teaching, in its Lukan context at least, a distinctly Christian orientation, referring to believers in Christ as the “ones gathered out” (Romans 8:33; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9, etc). Interestingly, while the adjective is otherwise rare in the Gospels, it is used prominently in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:20, 22, 27 par), and, as such, could imply an eschatological significance here as well (cf. below). The term makro/qumo$ (here in the verb makroqume/w) literally means having a long(-lasting) impulse; in English we might paraphrase by saying that the movement of a person’s heart and mind is turned long and hard toward something (or someone). The word-group is often translated in terms of “patience” or “longsuffering”, but that applies better to human beings than it does to God; rather, the idea here is that His attention is intently fixed on the plight of the Elect (believers). Their severe suffering and distress is indicated by the phrase “crying (out) day and night”; this likely refers to the (end-time) persecution of believers (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. Rev 6:10), which, according to the early Christian eschatological worldview, begins with the suffering of the first disciples.

The eschatological orientation of the parable comes more clearly into view in the concluding verse 8, which contains two sayings, the first of which properly concludes the parable:

“I relate to you that He will make the working out of justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei].”

The precise meaning and force of this declaration is uncertain; there are two possibilities:

    • God may seem to delay in acting to bring justice to his people, but, when he (finally) does, he will act quickly.
    • God will act on behalf of his people very soon.

The first option better fits the historical setting of Jesus’ actual teaching; the second is more appropriate to the outlook of the Gospel writer, who is writing after the on-set of suffering/persecution of believers (i.e. in the period c. 35-70 A.D.). However, it is worth noting that, frequently in the New Testament, the expression e)n ta/xei has clear eschatological significance (for examples, cf. Part 1 of the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”). The second saying in verse 8 relates to the (end-time) appearance of the “Son of Man”:

“(But) more (than this)—the Son of Man, (at his) coming, shall he find trust upon the earth?”

This is one of the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition, which early Christians certainly understood in terms of the return of Jesus to earth, the so-called parousi/a (parousia)—his coming to be alongside us. Critical commentators debate the extent to which Jesus intended such a self-identification in the original sayings; I discuss the subject extensively in several different series (cf. articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the current “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”, and an earlier set of notes specifically on the Son of Man Sayings).

Two questions must be asked: first, what is the exact meaning of this saying? Jesus seems to raise the question of whether there will be any real trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) among people when the Son of Man comes. This is certainly being addressed to Jesus’ followers (i.e. believers), and not to humankind at large. The end-time will be one of great testing, involving suffering and persecution of believers; within the context of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, this is part of a period of distress (qli/yi$) that will come upon humankind prior to the end (Mk 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). Under such circumstances, it is possible even for believers (the Elect) to be deceived and to fall away (Mk 13:13, 23 par), and so requires that Jesus’ followers remain vigilant in prayer (cf. Mk 13:33-37 par; Lk 22:40-46 par). Whether his followers—all of them—will remain faithful, trusting in God, is an open question.

Second, we must ask: what is the relation of the saying in v. 8b with what came before in vv. 1-8a. At first glance, the saying seems unrelated, and, indeed, may originally have been uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion. In the Lukan context, it is joined to v. 8a by the coordinating particle plh/n, a specific indication, it would seem, of Lukan style and authorship—it occurs 15 times in Luke, and another 4 in Acts (more than half of all NT occurrences [31]), compared with just 6 in the other Gospels (and only once in Mark). Literally this conjunction means something like “more (than this)”, but the exact force of it can vary considerably. Quite often the meaning is adversative, drawing a contrast with a prior statement; here, this could mean that, yes (on the one hand) God will provide justice for the Elect, but (on the other) will there actually be any real faith present among the Elect by the time the Son of Man comes (i.e. after the period of suffering)? On the other hand, the force of the conjunction could be seen as cumulative, reaching a conclusion, i.e., yes it is true that God will bring justice, but beyond all this is the question of whether the followers of Jesus will remain faithful in the time of distress. I tend to lean toward the latter nuance. In this regard, the saying in v. 8b provides the perfect complement to the stated purpose of the parable—that disciples of Jesus (believers) must remain constantly in prayer through all things, and so demonstrate their/our trust in God (and in Christ), even in the period of great distress and persecution that marks the end-time. This will be considered further when we examine the theme of prayer in the Gethsemane scene of the Lukan Passion narrative (22:40-46).

The parable which follows, in verses 9-14, though also dealing with the subject of prayer, has a very different message and point of emphasis; this will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1983).

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

Having studied each Gospel’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Parts 1, 2, 3), it now remains to summarize the results and consider how best to approach the Discourse in light of the Synoptic Tradition as a whole. Many critical scholars would hold that the Discourse itself—the structure and arrangement of it—is original to the Gospel of Mark. I tend to think, however, that the basic outline of it pre-dates Mark, even if one accepts the premise that it represents a traditional (and literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, rather than a self-contained sermon spoken by Jesus on a single occasion. The critical premise would seem to be confirmed by the way that Matthew’s version includes sayings found in an entirely different location in Luke, as well as certain internal evidence (of catch-word bonding, etc) which we examined. The very fact of such editing and arrangement of material, however, strongly indicates to me that the Discourse, at its core, represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus that was assembled together at an early point. The basic similarity in outline with portions of the book of Revelation (such as the first six seal-visions) also argues for an early and authoritative arrangement.

Let us now consider each of the fundamental components of the Discourse, in turn, much as we did in the first three studies.

1. The Destruction of the Temple

The starting point of the Synoptic Discourse is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The shadow of the Temple hangs over the entire discourse (v. 3 par), and Luke’s version, in particular, makes the destruction of the Temple the central event announced by Jesus in the discourse. This is an authentic prophecy, which was fulfilled in the great war of 66-70 A.D.; as such, it establishes the only certain chronological marker for the eschatological narrative Jesus presents. As an historical setting, it admirably fits much of what is predicted—war and uprising, false Messiahs, a time of great distress for Judea, the desecration of the Temple and a horrible siege of Jerusalem by a foreign (pagan) power. Moreover, it took place within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ first disciples (v. 30 par; cf. also Mk 9:1 par; Matt 10:23).

2. Signs preceding the coming destruction

If we accept the context of vv. 3-4 at face value, then verses 5-8 represent the signs asked for by the disciples. Recall that their question was two-fold:

    • “When will these things be?”
    • “What is the sign when all these things are about to be completed together?”

“These things” (tau=ta) must include, first, the destruction of the Temple, and, second, the other things mentioned by Jesus in his eschatological teaching (such as that which follows in the discourse). Again, if we take the narrative context seriously, the things mentioned by Jesus in vv. 5-8 will take place before the destruction of the Temple. Admittedly, there is some confusion in the Gospel tradition at this point, as we saw when examining the form of the disciples’ question in the different versions. Luke and Mark are very close, differing only slighting in the wording; however, the use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) by Luke instead of suntele/w (“complete [all]together”) softens the eschatological impact, and may serve to separate the destruction of the Temple from other end-time events preceding the coming of the Son of Man. The (second) question in Matthew’s version is quite different, and moves in the opposite direction—giving greater emphasis to the eschatological context:

“what is the sign of your coming alongside [parousi/a] and the completion together of th(is) Age?” (24:3)

The question more bluntly refers to the return of Jesus and the end of the Age; indeed, only Matthew uses the noun parousi/a (also in vv. 27, 37, 39) which came to be a technical term among early Christians for the return of Jesus. Phrased this way, it reflects the early Christian viewpoint, rather than the understanding of the disciples themselves at the point in time indicated by the narrative. The framework in Mark/Luke is unquestionably more original, with the Matthean version likely representing an early Christian gloss.

Let us consider briefly, again, each of the “signs” mentioned by Jesus here:

    • The appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs (and/or persons claiming to be Jesus), who will lead many people astray
    • Wars/battles and various reports/rumors; these include specifically uprisings, one nation or people against another (superior/ruling power)
    • Natural disasters—earthquakes (lit. shakings) and times of hunger (famine); Luke’s version also mentions plague/pestilence and “great & fearful signs from heaven”

Two important statements position these “signs” within a general chronological framework:

    • “the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b par)—i.e. the end of the Age will not come immediately with these signs; a period of some length(?) is still to follow.
    • “these (thing)s (are) the beginning of (birth) pains” (v. 8b par; Luke does not have this)—these signs mark the beginning (or first part) of a period of intense suffering.

Both statements make clear that, while such signs mark the end-time, the end itself will only come after a period of suffering/distress. The length of this period is indicated at the end of the discourse (vv. 28-30 par), but only with some ambiguity, leading to questions of interpretation which remain under debate by commentators today (cf. below).

Central to the “signs” mentioned by Jesus is a period of war and uprising; it is possible that one may view the occurrences of hunger and pestilence as a natural result of this warfare, as seems to be the case in the third and fourth seal-visions in Revelation (6:5-8). Certainly, war, hunger, and plague/disease are found in all times and places, and really cannot be used to determine a specific location or period of history. However, if we keep in mind the context of the destruction of the Temple, it is reasonable to refer this to warfare and uprising within the Roman Empire (in the 1st century A.D.). For people in Judea and Jerusalem (Jesus’ audience), the uprising and war of 66-70 would be most terrible, and a natural extension of Rome’s brutal wars with dozens of nations and races. The Judean context is emphasized in vv. 14-22; here, it is the world and humankind more generally that is in view.

If we seek to relate these signs more precisely to the destruction of the Temple (i.e. the coming war of 66-70), the following details, as reported/recorded by Josephus, are worth noting:

    • Reference to a number of would-be prophets and quasi-Messianic figures in the 1st century, most notably Theudas (c. 45 A.D., Antiquities 20.97-8; Acts 5:36) and the person known as “the Egyptian” (50s A.D., Antiquities 20.169-71; War 2.261-2). Messianic beliefs and expectations appear to have played a significant role in the war of 66-70 (War 2.433-44; 4.503ff; 6.285, 312-3; 7.29, etc), as it did in the later Jewish revolts of 115-117 and 132-135 A.D. Matthew’s version of the Discourse (24:23-28) indicates that these “false prophets” take advantage of the time of war and distress to mislead and influence the populace, much as Josephus describes.
    • Descriptions of miraculous signs and omens indicating the coming destruction of Jerusalem (see esp. War 6.285-9ff). Even if one does not accept the factuality of these reports, they certainly fit the characterization in Lk 21:11 of “fearful things and great signs from heaven”.

There is a particular difficulty in verse 6 which needs to be considered again. Jesus refers to certain deceivers: “Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)'”. This can be taken several ways:

    • False Christians who prophesy/speak falsely in Jesus’ name
    • People claiming to be Jesus himself (having returned?)
    • People claiming to be the Messiah

The first two are difficult to maintain, at the historical level, though they would make sense for early Christians. The last option is much more likely, given the similar references to false Messiahs later on in vv. 21-22 par. For early Christians, of course, a claim to be the Messiah was effectively the same as claiming to stand in place of Jesus himself. Matthew here (24:5) clarifies what was almost certainly the original meaning—that there would be false Messiahs who would lead people astray, as in the examples reported by Josephus.

3. A period of persecution and mission work for the disciples

The next section of the discourse (Mk 13:9-13 par) relates more directly to Jesus’ disciples (and the earliest Christians). It describes a time of persecution and suffering for them which is parallel to the distress coming upon Judea and the nations. It implies a period of mission work, in which the disciples continue Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the Gospel (the “good message” of the Kingdom) throughout Judea and even into the surrounding nations. What Jesus describes here was fulfilled (in virtually every detail) in the period prior to the war of 66-70, as narrated throughout the book of Acts, the same being recorded (less reliably) in other sources of Apostolic tradition (such as the various deutero-canonical “Acts”). Only in regard to the extent of the mission is there any room for question. The general statement in Mk 13:10 is given a rather wider scope in Matthew 24:14, possibly indicating a period extending beyond the lifetime of the first disciples.

4. The period of “great distress” for Judea and Jerusalem

The expression “great distress” (more commonly rendered “great tribulation”) is best known from Rev 7:14, where we have the broader scope of a world-wide period of distress. Ultimately, this terminology is derived from Daniel 12:1, and, while the reference in Mk 13:19 par clearly reflects the same tradition, the “distress” (qli/yi$) mentioned in the Discourse is localized specifically in Judea and Jerusalem (v. 14). It relates primarily, if not entirely, to the people of Jerusalem (and Judea) whom Jesus is addressing (including his disciples). In the Markan version, generally followed by Matthew, the time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is marked by four signs or details:

    • An event/episode, viewed as a fulfillment of Dan 9:27, which marks the onset of the distress (v. 14)
    • The suffering will be intense and will affect virtually the entire population, resulting in many deaths (vv. 14b-20; cf. also Matt 24:28)
    • Claims that the Messiah has come or is present (v. 21)
    • The appearance of miracle-working false prophets and false Messiahs (v. 22, cf. above)

The difficulty of interpretation involves the allusion to Dan 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), with the editorial aside (“the one reading must have it in mind”), suggesting an application to the present/current situation of the Gospel readers (c. 60 A.D.). Matthew’s version (24:15) makes this more clear—i.e. that the “stinking thing of desolation” (to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$) will be standing in the Temple sanctuary (“holy place”). The parallel with the action of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in c. 167 B.C. (the immediate point of reference in Daniel, as presumed by most commentators), could indicate a pagan altar or image that has been set up in the sanctuary (1 Macc 1:54; 2 Macc 6:2). Just as likely is a more general reference to a pagan presence and desecration of the Temple, which could include Roman standards and the like. Paul almost certainly draws on this same basic tradition in 2 Thess 2:4-5 (to be discussed later in this series).

If the allusion to Dan 9:27 (in Mark/Matthew) remains somewhat obscure to us today, the Lukan version is unmistakably clear—it refers to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by a foreign army. If we accept the authenticity and accuracy of this, it means that the “stinking thing of desolation” is fulfilled by the presence of the (pagan) Romans who overrun the city (and the Temple), destroying it. There is no need to look beyond the obvious context of the war in 66-70 for fulfillment. Josephus gives a vivid account of the siege (and subsequent destruction) with the resultant horrors and suffering experienced by the people (War 5.47-97; 6.93, 149-56, 201-11, etc). To anyone caught in the middle of that terror, it would have seemed like the end of the world, and very much a fulfillment of what Jesus describes in Mk 13:14b-20 par. The final “desolation” of the city—its ruins and the captivity of its people/leaders—is also portrayed by Josephus (War 6.271-3, 420; 7.112-5, 118, 138, etc; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.8-13).

Thus, if we use the Lukan version of this section as our guide, we can state that what Jesus predicted was fulfilled (more or less accurately) in the war of 66-70. Some commentators would also interpret the exhortation to flee the city (Lk 21:21 par) in light of the tradition regarding the flight of the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in Perea (Eusebius Church History 3.5.3), but this is questionable at best.

(For more on the background and interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, see the earlier study on that passage [part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”]).

5. The coming of the Son of Man

The final section of prophecy in the Discourse involves the conclusion of the period of distress—the appearance of the Son of Man, marking the end of the current Age and the final Judgment. This is one of the core “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Like that which is set during his interrogation before the Council (Mk 14:62 par), the declaration here in the Discourse (13:26f par) is derived from Daniel 7:13-14. For other Son of Man sayings with a similar eschatological context, cf. Mk 8:38 par; Matt 10:23; 13:37ff; 16:28; 25:31ff; Lk 9:26; 12:8; 17:22ff par; 18:8; 21:36. These were discussed in the prior studies in this series on the eschatological sayings of Jesus.

Three distinct strands make up this section (Mk 13:24-27 par):

    • Vv. 24-25: Old Testament allusions (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Ezek 32:7, etc) using the language of theophany, referring to the “day of YHWH” and the (end-time) Judgment upon humankind
    • V. 26: The image of the Son of Man coming on/with the clouds (Dan 7:13-14)
    • V. 27: The heavenly/angelic deliverance of God’s people (the elect) at the end-time (cf. Dan 12:1ff, etc)

Luke’s version brings out the Judgment context more clearly (21:25-26), including different Scriptural allusions (Ps 65:7; Isa 34:4). The time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is paralleled here with a time of stress (suno/xh) for all the nations (on this point, cf. below). Moreover, at the end of the Lukan discourse there is a definite reference to humankind standing before the Son of Man (i.e. in the heavenly court) at the final Judgment (21:36, cp. Matt 25:31-46).

For believers today, this section represents the interpretive crux of the Discourse. While all (or nearly all) of the previous statements by Jesus (Mk 13:5-23 par) can be seen as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the references to the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27) cannot. This is a major discrepancy which requires some sort of explanation. I outline here three different solutions, or approaches, to the problem:

1. The section dealing with the Son of Man is secondary, or intrusive, to the Discourse in its original/earliest form. This would be by far the simplest solution; indeed, without vv. 24-27 par, virtually the entire Discourse could be understood as having a first century fulfillment, even within the lifetime of the disciples, and the otherwise problematic saying in v. 30 par could be taken in its obvious sense (i.e. “this generation” = those alive when Jesus spoke), with no need for special or forced interpretations. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, sound basis for excising vv. 24-27 from the Discourse. More importantly, even if those sayings by Jesus were originally uttered in a different context, there are plenty of other “Son of Man” sayings which evince an imminent eschatology, and would naturally apply here in the Discourse (as a collection of Jesus’ eschatological teaching) as well.

2. The image of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” properly refers to his coming toward the Father (in Heaven), not an appearance on earth. In other words, from an early Christian standpoint, it refers to Jesus’ exaltation and enthronement at God’s right hand, not to his (future) return to earth. This interpretation of the original meaning of Mk 13:26 par is advocated strongly by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann in their commentary on Matthew (Anchor Bible Vol. ), but it must be regarded as untenable. While faithful to the original context of Daniel 7:13-14, it ignores the wider scope of the book, especially that of chapter 12, which was of enormous influence for the thought and language of the Discourse. A combination of Dan 7:13-14 and 12:1ff yields the precise matrix we find here in the Discourse—the Son of Man, given divine authority to rule and judge, appears to deliver the people of God at the end-time. The very idea of Jesus’ future return makes little sense without the tradition from Dan 12:1ff etc. Jesus would not be able to fulfill this heavenly/Messianic role, until his (future) return in glory, and that is what is essentially being described in Mk 13:26-27 par.

3. A division of two periods (or gap in time) between Mk 13:5-23 and vv. 24-27. In favor of this approach is the arrangement of the Lukan version, which does seem to indicate, however slightly, two distinct (parallel) periods of distress and judgment:

    • The Distress (qli/yi$) coming upon Judea and its people (21:20-24)
    • The Distress (suno/xh) coming upon all the Nations (21:25-26)

If the first period was fulfilled in the first century A.D. (and perhaps some years thereafter, v. 24), the second period likely is understood as occurring after the first (the “time of the nations”) has been completed. The Judgment upon the Nations cannot take place until the time of their dominance/control over Jerusalem comes to an end. On the (reasonable) assumption that the Gospel of Luke was written shortly after 70 A.D., it would seem that the author understands that there is at least a short period after the destruction of the Temple, during which Christians continue their mission work, before the final Judgment (and end of the Age) occurs. Extending such a period to cover more than 1,900 years remains highly problematic—a problem for which there is no easy solution.

Many readers and commentators today would, I think, tend to prefer a different solution, one which might be labeled the “dual-fulfillment” approach. This line of interpretation would be summarized as follows:

    • The primary fulfillment of Mk 13:5-23 par occurred in the 1st century A.D., with the destruction of the Temple, etc.
    • However, this was only a partial fulfillment, which awaits completion at a future time—when many of the events and phenomena predicted by Jesus will, in a sense, be repeated.

In support of such an approach is the way the New Testament handles the very traditions from Daniel 9:24-27 and 12:1ff—i.e., they had an original fulfillment in the time of Antiochus IV (2nd century B.C.), but receive their completion in the time of the Romans (1st century A.D.). Jesus’ own predictions in the Discourse could be treated in a similar way. This still does not explain or account for a gap of 1,900+ years, but it does at least allow for a working interpretive model within which one might grapple with the difficulties.

6. The Time of the End

The popular modern interpretations, attempting to account for a ‘gap’ of 1,900+ years, are complicated considerably by the sayings of Jesus in Mk 13:28-31 par, especially the famous saying in v. 30 (cf. the study on “imminent eschatology” in the Gospels). The obvious and ordinary sense of the expression “this generation”, based on the evidence in the Gospels (and elsewhere in the New Testament), is that Jesus is referring to his audience—i.e. the people alive at the time he is speaking. Any other interpretation seems quite forced, out of the (admittedly real) need to avoid the implication that Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) was in error about the time of the end. As noted above, except for the coming of the Son of Man (and the actual end of the current Age), nearly everything in the Discourse could be understood as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., and within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples. Thus, the responsible commentator today must deal with two basic, and seemingly irreconcilable, facts:

    • Jesus is speaking to his disciples (and Jewish contemporaries) in the 1st century, referring to things that they will see and experience (i.e. in their lifetimes)
    • The end did not come in the 1st century, and we today continue to await the coming of the Son of Man, much as did Jesus’ first disciples

There is no easy answer as to how the faithful student of Scripture may reconcile these points. I offer an initial approach in the article on “imminent eschatology”, and will address the subject again in more detail at the conclusion of this series.

7. The exhortation(s) to remain vigilant

Theological concerns have exaggerated the importance of the saying in Mk 13:32 par; its main purpose is to emphasize that no person can know precisely when the end-time Judgment will occur (or begin). It will come upon people suddenly and unexpectedly, overwhelming them, as in the Old Testament illustrations of Noah and Lot—i.e., the Flood and the fiery judgment on Sodom & Gomorrah (Matt 24:37-39ff; par Lk 17:26-35). Only the faithful and obedient (i.e. sober and vigilant) disciple will survive the coming Judgment. This is framed through the parable format, used frequently by Jesus, of servants who work while their Master is away—those who act irresponsibly or wickedly will be punished when the Master returns (unexpectedly!). This sort of illustration naturally led to an early Christian interpretation in terms of Jesus’ end-time return (already beginning here in Matthew’s version, vv. 37, 39, 42, 44); however, this may not have been the original meaning by Jesus—the Lord/Master (Mk 13:35) who comes is God appearing to bring Judgment (i.e. the “day of YHWH” tradition). We can, I think, trace this development of thought in the Gospel tradition:

    • The coming of God to bring Judgment
    • The coming of God’s appointed representative—the divine/heavenly being who possesses His authority (i.e. the Danielic “Son of Man”)
    • Jesus is identified with this “Son of Man” figure—i.e., it is the exalted Jesus who comes (or returns) at the time of Judgment

The Chronology of the Discourse

Finally, a word must be said about the chronology of the Eschatological Discourse. Chronological systems of eschatology have been (and continue to be) extremely popular among Christians, though most of them are questionable at best in terms of their assumptions and basic approach. It must be admitted, however, that one finds a certain amount of systematization within the Synoptic tradition itself, as it developed. This began, we may assume, with the initial formation of the Discourse, especially if it represents a traditional (literary) arrangement of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus. Beyond this, it is possible to discern chronological aspects to the uniquely Matthean and Lukan developments of the Discourse material. Luke, in particular, provides a more systematic arrangement of this material. On the basis of the principle of “progressive revelation”, one might choose to use Luke’s version as a guide for interpretation in this respect. Let us begin first, however, with the Markan version, which I would outline (chronologically) as follows:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

Everything up to verse 24 was fulfilled by 70 A.D.; the remainder (vv. 24b-28), from the standpoint of the Gospel writer, probably was expected to occur within a relatively short time (a few years or decades?) after c. 70 A.D.

Special Note on Imminent Eschatology in the Gospels

As part of the recent article on “imminent eschatology” in the New Testament, I pointed out four key passages in the Gospels—four distinct Gospel traditions—which are particularly notable in this regard:

The first three are sayings of Jesus, while the fourth is an historical tradition (containing a saying of Jesus) specific to the Gospel of John. All four are distinctive in that they go beyond the general idea that the end of the current Age (and with it the coming Judgment and coming of the Kingdom) would soon occur. Each of these traditions may be taken to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) would take place within the lifetime of the first disciples. For many commentators, and Christians in general, this proves highly problematic, as it might suggest, at the very least, that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself!) were mistaken about the time of the end. Due to the controversial nature of these passages, it is necessary to examine each of them closely, looking at them from several aspects: (1) if they all truly mean what they appear to mean, (2) how early Christian may have understood or adapted them in context, and (3) attempts by commentators to explain and/or harmonize them with other New Testament references and theological/christological concerns.

1. Mark 9:1 (par Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)

This saying of Jesus is part of the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, occurring in all three Gospels, though with significant variation. In this regard, it is highly instructive as a case study on the development of the Gospel Tradition. It occurs at the same point in all three Gospels—part of a block of sayings/teaching (Mk 8:34-9:1) set between Peter’s confession (8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The sayings deal with faithfulness in following Jesus (i.e. discipleship) and may be separate traditions which were joined together (at a very early point) based on that theme. The last two sayings are eschatological in orientation:

    • The motif of judgment at the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man (8:38)
    • The saying in 9:1 on the coming of the Kingdom of God

Here is Mark’s version of the latter saying:

“Amen, I say/relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!”

Luke’s version (9:27) is quite close to the Markan:

“But I say/relate (this) to you truly: there will be some of the (one)s having stood (in) this (place) who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God.”

The main difference is the absence of the qualifying phrase “in power”. Matthew’s version (16:28) is actually identical with the Markan, except for the closing words (in italics):

(Matt) “…until they should see the Son of Man having come in his kingdom”
(Mark) “…until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power

How should this saying be interpreted? Clearly Jesus, speaking to his (close) disciples, is declaring that at least some of them will not die (“taste death”) until they see the Kingdom. This would seem to imply something which will take place during their lifetime. There are three primary ways to interpret this:

    • It refers to the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), witnessed by three disciples, in which Jesus appears in glorified manner
    • It refers to Jesus’ exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly appearance [at God’s right hand]), witnessed variously by the disciples
    • It is a reference to the end-time coming of the Kingdom of God and/or appearance of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ future return, in early Christian terms)

The literary context of the Gospel narrative makes the first option attractive—i.e., the saying is meant as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration experience. However, it must be said that this is really only plausible in Luke’s version (with its simple reference to “the kingdom of God”); the Markan and Matthean versions do not allow for this. It is conceivable that the Lukan omission of “in power” was meant to soften the eschatological implications of the saying, making it a better fit to the disciples’ experience during Jesus’ ministry, and in their subsequent experience after his resurrection.

This leaves the second option as the best choice if we wish to isolate something which definitely took place during the disciples’ lifetime. Certainly, there are other sayings in the Gospels where Jesus appears to identify the Kingdom of God with his own person and activity. There also can be no doubt that, in early Christian belief, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One (Messianic ruler, etc) and Son of God, was associated primarily with his resurrection and ascension (cf. the early preaching in Acts, Rom 1:4, Phil 2:9-11, etc). At least one early believer/disciple (Stephen, Acts 7:55-56) had a vision of Jesus (identified as the Son of Man) standing at God’s right hand in heaven; and, of course, a number of disciples witnessed Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-7, etc), along with his ascension (Acts 1:9-11), which may be said to involve Jesus’ coming in(to) his Kingdom. There is an interesting variant in the words of the “good thief” on the cross in Luke 23:42. The reading of some of the oldest/best manuscripts is “…when you come into [ei)$] your kingdom”, whereas the majority text reads “…when you come in [e)n] your kingdom”, which could be taken to mean his future coming in glory, something made specific in the reading of Codex Bezae [D] (“…in the day of your coming”).

In spite of this ambivalence of interpretation, an original reference by Jesus to his resurrection/exaltation seems unlikely here. If we take the Markan and Matthean versions together, it comes very close to the eschatological saying in Mk 13:26 par:

    • “some of the ones standing here…should see
      • the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mk)
      • the Son Man coming in his Kingdom” (Matt)
    • “they will see the Son of Man coming…with great power” (Mk 13:26)

This eschatological interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the prior reference to the Judgment and the coming of the Son of Man with the Angels in Mk 8:38 par. It is hard to avoid the implication that Jesus is referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, and that this, apparently, is to take place within the lifetime of his disciples.

[For the interesting parallel of the saying in John 1:51, which also involves the promise of seeing the Son of Man appear in glory, along with the presence of Angels, cf. my earlier study on that verse.]

2. Mark 13:30 (par Matt 24:34; Luke 21:32)

Another saying from the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, this declaration by Jesus is part of the “Eschatological Discourse” (for a survey and outline, cf. the recent study). Here there can be no doubt whatsoever about the eschatological context of the saying, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. Also, by comparison with the variation we saw for Mk 9:1 par (cf. above), this saying is essentially fixed in the tradition. Here is Mark’s version (13:30):

“Amen, I say/relate to you that this genea/ shall (surely) not pass along until the (time at) which all these (thing)s should come to be.”

Matthew’s version (24:34) is a bit simpler in its syntax (“…until all these [thing]s…”), but otherwise identical. Luke here (21:32) is identical to Matthew, except for reading “all (thing)s” instead of “all these (thing)s”.

It is interesting to consider the syntactical similarity with Mark 9:1 par (above):

    • Both sayings begin a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n (“Amen, I say/relate to you…”)
    • Both sayings have the same structure utilizing a double negative particle (ou) mh\) for emphasis (i.e. “not at all, surely/certainly not”), along with aorist subjunctive verb forms
    • This structure sets a clear conditional statement or assertion, framed the same way by the two subjunctive verb forms—i.e., “…{it/this} shall surely not happen…until {this} should occur”
    • The condition is temporal, or time-factored, governed by the particle e%w$ (“until”)—except for Mk 13:30 which expresses this a bit differently (me/xri$ ou!, “until the [time at] which”)
    • In both sayings, the time-condition seems to relate to the death of people who are currently alive

Let us now consider the saying in Mark 13:30 par in context. It comes after (1) the discussion of the signs/events which are to occur before the end (vv. 5-23), and (2) the description of the end itself, i.e. the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This provides the contextual reference for “[all] these (thing)s” (tau=ta pa/nta) in v. 30—all of the things Jesus has been describing in vv. 5-27, including the appearance of the Son of Man. It is stated that “this genea/” will not pass away (i.e. disappear, die off) until all of this takes place. The interpretive crux involve the much-disputed meaning of “this genea/“.

The noun genea/ is related to the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and fundamentally refers to someone/something which comes to be (born). Often it signifies a group of people who share the same line of birth (i.e. family, tribe, race), or a particular time/period when people are born and live. It is usually translated in English as “generation”, a word actually related to the Greek. As with genea/ itself, the English word “generation” has a similarly elastic meaning. In conventional idiom, when referring to a distinct period of time, a “generation” typically refers to a period of about 30-40 years, reflecting the principal lifetime of a parent in relation to their child—for example, a family with children, parents, and grandparents would be said to involve three different generations. Sometimes, however, it can denote a more extensive period of time.

If we examine the 40+ occurrences of genea/ in the New Testament, we note that all but 10 are found in the Gospels, and there primarily in sayings by Jesus. The Gospel evidence can be rather easily summarized:

    • In the Matthean genealogy (4 times in 1:17), genea/ appears to be used in the conventional sense outlined above, indicating a person’s lifetime up to the point when his/her child comes of age—i.e. a period of ~30-40 years. The same basic usage is found, more generally, in Luke 1:48, 50, as also in Acts 13:36
    • The majority of the occurrences in the sayings involve the expression “this genea/“, “this generation, as here in Mk 13:30 par—cf. Mk 8:12, 38; Matt 11:16; 12:41ff; Lk 11:29-32, 50-51, etc. In all these instances, Jesus would seem to be referring to the people whom he is addressing, i.e. the people alive currently, at the time of his ministry. Cf. also the similar usage in Mk 9:19 par; Matt 12:39; 16:4; Lk 16:8, as well as in Acts 2:40. It is worth noting the negative sense of the expression “this generation”; on this, cf. below.

Paul seems to have used the word in reference to the people of the past, taken as a whole, or speaking generally (cf. Col 1:26; Eph 3:5; Acts 14:16, as also [by James] in Acts 15:21). On one occasion (Phil 2:15) he refers to the current generation (i.e. people currently alive) in a manner similar to Jesus. Three other New Testament occurrences are worthy of note. In Acts 8:33 (citing Isa 53:8), the word is used in a more general sense of a person’s life (coming to be born and lifetime); in Heb 3:10 it is used in reference to a specific past generation (“that generation”); in Eph 3:21 it refers to periods of time (i.e. past Ages).

There would seem to be little reason to understand the usage in Mk 13:30 par any other way than as a reference to the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking—i.e. the people currently alive at that time. All other occurrences of the expression “this generation” in Jesus’ sayings have this meaning, as do the similar instances in Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15. This renders highly problematic other attempts to work around the historical problem, such as that it refers to:

    • The Age (or dispensation) lasting from Jesus’ time, i.e. to the present
    • Humankind or the Israelite/Jewish people in general
    • A specific generation living at some time in the (distant) future

Though the first two of these allow for relatively smooth harmonizing of the historical difficulties, it introduces meaning and distinctions which are foreign to Jesus’ use of the word genea/ and the expression “this generation”. A number of Christians today prefer the last of these options; in its favor is the fact that it preserves the concrete sense of future events that will be fulfilled in a specific (and relatively brief) period of time, as well as retaining the typical meaning of the word genea/. However, it labors under two serious problems:

    • It requires a significant gap in time (as much as 2,000+ years) between Jesus’ original audience and the fulfillment of the predicted events, something for which there is little or no evidence in the text itself; this point will be discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, and when we come to the eschatology in the book of Acts.
    • It is contrary to Jesus’ use of the expression “this generation”, which otherwise always refers to the people whom he is currently addressing (this present generation, i.e. those alive at the time). I find no immediate examples where the expression “this generation” (genea/ au%th) refers to a specific future generation.

One must also keep in mind the fact that Jesus tends to use the expression “this generation” in the context of the Judgment which is about to come upon the people living at the time. The expression is almost always used in this negative sense. Especially noteworthy is Matthew 23:36, where Jesus speaks of the judgment which the (Israelite/Jewish) people, especially those in Judea/Jerusalem and the religious leaders centered there, will face for the death and persecution of the Prophets throughout the years (vv. 29-35), and states bluntly in verse 36 that “…all these (thing)s will come upon this (present) generation”. The language is virtually identical with that of Mk 13:30 par. Central to the Eschatological Discourse is the framework of Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (vv. 1-2) and his description of the great distress which will come upon Judea (vv. 14ff). The Lukan version (21:20-24, cf. also 19:43-44) presents this in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, such as came to pass in 70 A.D. Viewed in these terms, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were largely fulfilled (fairly accurately) in the 1st century A.D., other than the fact that the final Judgment (with the coming of the Son of Man) did not take place. For more on this important topic, cf. the concluding part (upcoming) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse.

3. Matthew 10:22-23

Our focus here will be on the saying in verse 23 (found only in Matthew); however, in order to set in its proper context, it needs to be examined in connection with verse 22:

“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—but the (one) remaining under unto (the) completion [te/lo$], this (one) will be saved. (v. 22)
But when they pursue you in this city, flee into the other (one); for, amen, I say/relate to you (that) you shall (certainly) not complete the cities of Yisrael until the Son of Man should come!” (v. 23)

You will note immediately, the similar syntax of the saying in verse 23, comparing it with those in Mk 9:1 and 13:30 par (cf. above). All three sayings share a common structure, tone and meaning. If the first two are eschatological, it is extremely likely that this one (in its original context) is as well. As I discussed above, this is problematic for traditional-conservative commentators, and other devout readers, since it implies, again, that the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man will take place in the lifetime of the disciples. It is important to consider just what is expected to take place prior to the Son of Man’s appearance; two aspects are indicated: (1) a preaching ministry of the disciples (such as the immediate context of chap. 10), which takes them throughout Israelite territory; and (2) the persecution they will experience, forcing them to flee from one city to the next (cf. the mission narratives in Acts). The eschatological orientation here (cp. in the Eschatological Discourse, Matt 24:9-14 par) seems out of place in the context of chapter 10. Most likely verses 17-23 originated in a separate context and where joined with vv. 1-15f based on a common theme. As the verses stand now, they would imply that the disciples would not complete their mission in vv. 5ff before the coming of the Son of Man—an anachronism and historical implausibity!

Indeed, the persecution described here must be taken as a prophecy of future events which will occur after the resurrection—a period of mission work which will take place prior to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. In this regard, the instruction here is similar in tone and setting to that in the Eschatological discourse (24:9-13 par), only that, in the latter passage, a more extensive mission is described, one which reaches out in the Gentile world (i.e. of the Roman Empire). Mark’s account makes relatively little of this, but it is emphasized more prominently in Luke, as well as in Matthew’s version of the Discourse. The statement in Matt 24:14 goes beyond that in Mk 13:10, apparently referring to this mission work on a much grander scale:

“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.”

Many commentators feel that there is incompatibility between 10:16-23 and 24:9-14, and, at the very least, there does appear to be some tension, especially if we accept the historicity of the Gospel narrative and assume that Jesus is addressing essentially the same group of disciples. One passage assumes a mission field limited to the land of Israel/Palestine, the other a worldwide mission (within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, at the very least). However, as I will be discussing in the final portion (Part 4) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, this does not necessarily require a radically different understanding of the period of time involved before the coming of the end.

4. John 21:22-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Chapter 21, which most critical commentators consider to be a secondary addition to the Gospel, to judge by the narrative context, may effectively be narrowing the identification to the disciples mentioned in verse 2. Be that as it may, the “Beloved Disciple” was clearly a prominent figure in the congregations which first read/produced/transmitted the Fourth Gospel. According to 19:35 and 21:24, he is recognized as a principal source for the information and traditions recorded in the Gospel; it is less likely that he is the actual author, in spite of the apparent wording in 21:24.

Verses 20-23 record an important historical tradition, set in the period after the resurrection (vv. 1, 14), while Jesus was still present with his disciples. Actually, there would seem to be two distinct lines of tradition in vv. 15-23—one involving Peter and the death he would face (vv. 15-19), and the other involving the Beloved Disciple and the idea that he would (or might) not die before Jesus’ return. Critical commentators view these as separate traditions, joined by verse 20[f] in the narrative. At any rate, it is Peter’s question (“And what of this [one], Lord?”) which brings forth the statement by Jesus:

“If I wish him to remain until I come, what (is that) to you? You must follow me.” (v. 22)

The implication of this saying, that the Beloved Disciple would remain alive until Jesus’ future return, is certain, at least from the standpoint of the Gospel writer who makes this clear in v. 23:

“(So) then this account [i.e. word/saying] went out into the brothers, that that learner [i.e. disciple] is not (going to) die away; but Yeshua did not say of him that he is not (going to) die away, but ‘If I wish him to remain until I come…'”

According to tradition, John the Apostle was among the very last of the original disciples to die, effectively living to the end of the 1st century. A number of commentators feel that the Beloved Disciple had recently died, or was approaching death, at the time that chap. 21 was written; this would explain why it was important to include this detail, since his death might have been seen as contradicting the words of Jesus. If the Beloved Disciple was, indeed, one of the last of the initial disciples to die off, his death would have marked a significant turning point in early Christian eschatology. Verse 23 offers objective confirmation of the belief, expressed or implied elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. above), that the end-time return of Jesus would take place in the lifetime of the first disciples. Once the first generation of believers had “passed away”, this belief would have to be re-examined, and Jesus’ sayings reconsidered. It is possible that we see signs of this already in the Synoptic Tradition, especially in the more developed form represented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (often thought to date from c. 70-80 A.D.). Luke, in particular, was aware of an extended period of missionary work in the Gentile world (the Roman Empire), spanning at least until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Of all the Gospels, his version of the Eschatological Discourse gives the most precise presentation of this particular historical framework.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 3)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 3)

We have already examined the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” as presented in Mark (Part 1) and Matthew (Part 2); now it is time to complete the picture with a study of the version in the Gospel of Luke. It was seen how the Matthean version followed the Markan version rather closely, with relatively minor differences in wording, but, at the same time, including additional material which significantly expanded the Discourse. The Lukan version also follows Mark, preserving the (original) scope of the Discourse, but with a simpler and more streamlined structure, as well as a distinctive historical emphasis and context. In many ways, the Lukan Discourse is most instructive for an understanding of the eschatology of the New Testament.

Luke 21:5-36

Lk 21:5-7—Introduction

The literary treatment of the material in Luke is smoother and more elegant, as is typically the case. Consider how the corresponding narrative in Mk 13:1 is summarized:

“And as some (were) relating about the sacred (place) [i.e. Temple], that (it was built) with (such) fine stones and arranged (with gift)s set up (for God), he [i.e. Jesus] said…” (v. 5)

A specific statement by the disciples has been turned into a generalized reference to the beauty and splendor of the Temple complex. The actual saying by Jesus predicting the Temple’s destruction (v. 6), though tailored to fit this syntax, remains close to the Synoptic/Markan form, but with two significant differences:

    • Jesus provides a time setting for the Temple’s destruction: “(the) days will come in which…”
    • The key verbs are given in future indicative, rather than aorist subjunctive, forms; this removes any sense of a threat by Jesus, making it a simple prediction of what will occur. This may relate to the Lukan omission of any reference to the reported saying that Jesus would destroy (and rebuild) the Temple (Mk 14:58 par), though the author surely was aware of the tradition (cf. Acts 6:14).

More substantial is the difference in the wording of the question by the disciples which follows (v. 7); here is a comparison of the three Synoptic versions:

    • “When will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when all these (thing)s shall be about to be completed together [suntelei=sqai]?” (Mk 13:4)
    • “When will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign of your coming to be alongside [parousi/a] and of the completion (all) together [sunte/leia] of th(is) Age?” (Matt 24:3b)
    • “So when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when these (thing)s shall be about to come to be [gi/nesqai]?” (Lk 21:7)

This seems strong evidence in favor of the common Synoptic theory that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, adapting the Gospel material in various ways. Clearly, Matthew’s version expounds/explains the eschatological phrase “when all these things are about to be completed together” as “the completion of th(is) Age” marked by Jesus’ return (the noun parousi/a in its technical Christian sense). Luke follows the Markan form of the question much more closely, with two small differences: (a) “these things” instead of “all these things”, and (b) the simple verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) instead of the more technical suntele/w. Both changes appear to soften the eschatological impact of the question, and also limiting its scope to the more immediate issue of the fate of the Temple.

Lk 21:8-11—The sign(s) of what is to come

In this section, the same set of signs is given, as in Mk 13:5-8, and much of the wording is the same as well. The differences are relatively minor, but again rather significant:

    • In the reference to persons who come falsely in Jesus’ name (or claiming to be Jesus himself), verse 8 is almost identical with Mk 13:5-6, but has a different conclusion: “…saying ‘I am (he)’ and ‘the time has come near!’ You should not travel behind [i.e. follow after] them”. The claim “I am he” is paired with “the time has come near”, indicating the false message which might otherwise deceive Jesus’ disciples. The implications are that the period of trouble, prior to the destruction of the Temple, does not represent the actual coming of the end itself (cp. 2 Thess 2:2ff). Note the interesting parallel in wording (“the time has come near”) with the (eschatological) proclamation by Jesus himself in Mk 1:15 par (“the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near”); significantly, Luke does not record this (but cf. 10:9-11).
    • When referring to the period of warfare among the nations, the Lukan form of Jesus’ explanation differs slightly:
      “…it is necessary (that these things) come to be, but the completion (is) not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b)
      “…for it is necessary (that) these (thing)s first come to be, but the completion (does) not (come) straightaway” (Lk 21:9b)
      Luke’s version here establishes, in a subtle way, a more precise sequence of events.
    • The description of natural disasters/phenomena (Mk 13:8b) is expanded in Luke’s version: “…and there will be great shakings and (time)s of hunger and pestilence down (in many) places, and there will be fearful (thing)s and great signs from heaven” (v. 11). These serve, in large measure, to enhance the (eschatological) significance of the coming destruction of the Temple (cf. below).
    • Luke omits, or does not include, the final statement in Mark that “these are the beginning of (the birth) pains”
Lk 21:12-19—The persecution (of the disciples) which is to come

Compared with Matthew (cf. Part 2), the Lukan version follows Mark (13:9-13) quite closely in this section. Again, however, there are some important differences, beginning with the opening words of verse 12: “But before all these (thing)s (occur)…”. This makes clear what otherwise has to be inferred in Mark, that persecution of the disciples will take place even before the destruction of the Temple (and the signs preceding it). Obviously, this corresponds completely with the record in the book of Acts, all of which takes place prior to the war in 66-70. Luke also identifies the arrest/interrogation of believers in terms of the persecution of believers (“and they will pursue [diw/cousin] [you]”). There is an interesting shift in emphasis as well, regarding the purpose and effect of this persecution:

    • In Mark (13:9b), the arrest/interrogation of the disciples was allowed (by God) for the purpose of providing a witness to people on behalf of Jesus (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel)—”…unto a witness for/to them”
    • In Luke (v. 13), by contrast, this persecution serves as a witness for the disciples, i.e. their role as witnesses of Christ—”…it will step away [i.e. come out] for you unto a witness”

There is some question as to why Luke does not include the statement in Mk 13:10, given its obvious application to the narrative of the early Christian mission in the book of Acts. Fitzmyer, in his classic commentary (p. 1340) claims that this simply reflects the Lukan tendency to avoid using the noun eu)agge/lion, and does not have any eschatological significance per se. This is certainly possible; however, if the Gospel was composed after 70 A.D., it may also have been omitted to avoid any suggestion that the Christian mission would be completed entirely before the destruction of the Temple.

Most intriguing is the difference between verse 15 and Mk 13:11. The Markan form of the promise/exhortation to the disciples emphasizes the role of the Spirit, whereas in Luke it is the personal work of Jesus—”For I will give you a mouth and wisdom…”. This difference may be due to the fact that a similar statement, involving the Spirit, had already been presented earlier in the Gospel (12:11-12, par Matt 10:9-10). There are also a couple of differences in the concluding words of this section:

    • The addition of the proverbial saying in verse 18: “And (yet) a (single) hair out of your head shall not suffer loss from (this)”.
    • The wording of the final promise:
      “(It is) in your remaining under (that) you must acquire your souls” (v. 19)
      “…but the (one) remaining under unto the completion—this (one) will be saved!” (Mk 13:13b)

Given the reference to the disciples enduring persecution (and death), the saying in v. 18 seems somewhat out of place. In its proverbial sense (cf. 1 Sam 14:45; 2 Sam 14:11; 1 Kings 1:52; Acts 27:34), it is a generalized saying reflecting God’s care and protection for believers. However, the context of the parallel saying in 12:7 (par Matt 10:30), suggests that here it refers to the soul of the disciple/believer—though the body may be harmed, the soul will suffer no loss. The following statement in v. 19 would certainly confirm this. The same sentiment is expressed beautifully in the deutero-canonical book of Wisdom:

“But the souls of the just (one)s are in the hand of God,
and the torment [ba/sano$] shall (certainly) not touch them” (3:1)

The wording of verse 19 would appear to be another example of the Lukan softening of the eschatological implications for the disciples. The Markan form clearly indicates that the disciples are expected to continue faithfully, enduring persecution and the time of distress, until the end comes. In Luke, by contrast, it takes the form of a more general exhortation applicable to all believers. Both versions, however, emphasize the necessity for remaining faithful—it is only the faithful disciple who will be saved (i.e. “acquire [thei]r souls”) in the end.

Lk 21:20-24—The period of great distress before the end

It is here in this section that the Lukan version differs most noticeably from Mark and the Synoptic Discourse as a whole. The differences, compared with Mark-Matthew, may be summarized as follows:

    • The allusion to Dan 9:27 (Mk 13:14 par) has been replaced/explained entirely in terms of the coming military siege of Jerusalem (v. 20)
    • The statement regarding the “(great) distress [qli/yi$]” in Mk 13:19 par has similarly been ‘replaced’ by a more specific reference to the suffering and judgment to be faced by the people of Judea (v. 23b), mirrored by the additional saying in v. 22.
    • The references to the coming of false Messiahs/prophets and the role of the Elect in the time of distress (Mk 13:20-23 par) have all been omitted, or are otherwise not included.
    • Instead, the section concludes with a distinctive prophecy regarding the siege/destruction of Jerusalem (v. 24), following upon the initial warning in v. 20.

Thus, in Luke, the “time of distress” is made more precise and localized—it refers specifically to the judgment which will come upon Judea, centered in the form of a military siege of Jerusalem, leading to its conquest/destruction, and, with it, the destruction of the Temple. This naturally brings about a number of critical questions in terms of the relation of this Lukan version to the Synoptic Tradition.

First, we must consider v. 20 in relation to the Daniel allusion in Mk 13:14 par, discussed in Parts 1 & 2, the supplemental study on the influence of the book of Daniel on New Testament eschatology, as well as the earlier study on Dan 9:24-27. There are several possibilities:

    • Jesus made two different statements together, and the Gospel writers (Mark/Matt and Luke, respectively) each record only one. This would be a strict harmonization, perhaps favored/required by some traditional-critical commentators; it is, however, most unlikely. Three other options remain:
    • Luke has inserted a somewhat similar eschatological prediction (by Jesus) in place of the Synoptic (Mark/Matt) reference to Dan 9:27
    • Luke is explaining/interpreting an original saying by Jesus
    • Luke has the original saying by Jesus (in context), which the Synoptic tradition (in Mark/Matthew) has couched within a cryptic allusion to Dan 9:27

The second and third options are, in my view, the only viable alternatives. Both receive confirmation from the earlier words of Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. And yet, the evidence cuts both ways; on the one hand, it supports the authenticity of such a prediction by Jesus, but, at the same time, it demonstrates the Gospel writer’s interest for including such detail (regarding the siege of Jerusalem) not found in any of the other Gospels. While the destruction of Jerusalem is certainly implied in the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, as well as in Lk 13:34-35 / Matt 23:37-39 (“Q” tradition), only in Luke do we find detail describing a specific military siege. The best explanation for this remains the critical assumption that the Lukan Gospel was written (shortly) after 70 A.D. This does not, by any means, invalidate the authenticity of the sayings; it does, however, explain why the Gospel writer chose to include them as he did.

The use of the word e)rh/mwsi$ (“desolation”) certainly derives from the LXX of Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11 and the Hebrew expression <m@v) JWQv! (“detestable [thing] causing devastation”), rendered in Greek as to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$ (“stinking [thing] of desolation”). The idea of causing (or intending to cause) desolation certainly fits well with the Roman siege/destruction of Jerusalem; even Josephus uses this sort of language, referring to the “desolation” (e)rhmi/a) coming upon the city and its people (War 6.288-96). As for the expression “days of (work)ing out justice” (h(me/rai e)kdikh/sew$), it may be drawn from Hos 9:7 LXX, with “justice” in the sense of punishment or retribution. In Hosea it refers to the judgment which is about to come upon Israel, and that is precisely the same context here in the Eschatological discourse—punishment upon Judea and Jerusalem. For similar language, cf. Deut 32:35; Jer 46:10 [LXX 26:10], and note the various oracles prophesying Jerusalem’s earlier destruction (Mic 3:12; Jer 6:1-8; 26:1-9).

The expression of woe in verse 23 is similar in theme to the prophecy by Jesus in 23:27-31, almost certainly referring to the same ‘time of distress’—the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (“the days are coming…”). For the language used by Jesus in that latter prophecy, cf. Isa 37:22; 54:1ff; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9. The idea of people calling to the mountains to cover them and put an end to their suffering, comes from Hos 10:8; its eschatological significance, as a reference to the end-time Judgment, is found in Rev 6:16. The setting in Lk 23:27-31 also makes clear a connection between the death of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem, however uncomfortable this might be for Christians today. The kindling/burning of the dry wood is a traditional symbol of judgment (Isa 10:16-19; Ezek 20:47, etc). Again, the suffering/judgment in the Lukan version of the Discourse is focused specifically on Judea (“this land” / “this people”).

The nature and reason for this punishment is explained by the allusions to Deut 28:64 (cf. also Sir 28:18) in verse 24. The context in Deuteronomy involves the curse/punishment which will come upon the people for disobedience (i.e. violating the covenant), as expressed similarly in Ezek 32:9; Ezra 9:7, etc. In the original historical tradition, siege/destruction led to exile among the nations; however, Zechariah 12:2-3ff describes things in the reverse direction—the nations gathering together for a siege of Jerusalem, in an eschatological setting. This language likely influenced the description in verse 24 of Jerusalem being “trampled under the nations” (cf. also Rev 11:2, and the [upcoming] daily note that verse). The closing phrase “until the [moment] at which the times of the nations should be fulfilled” gives a distinctive chronological setting to the Discourse which is unique to Luke’s version, and one which depends entirely on the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. as a point of reference. This will be discussed further in the conclusion to our study on the Discourse (Part 4). There is a reasonably close parallel to this language in Tob 14:5, and Paul uses a similar manner of speaking (Rom 11:25), though in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Luke 21:25-28—The coming of the Son of Man

Here the Lukan version follows Mark fairly closely, though with a somewhat different emphasis. The celestial phenomena (and the Scriptural allusions to them, cf. Part 1) in vv. 25f are no longer simply an indication of the Son of Man’s appearance (theophany). Rather, they now represent an extension of the Judgment coming upon humankind—in vv. 25-26 the Synoptic tradition has been adapted to include humanity’s reaction (fear and astonishment), in traditional language from the Old Testament (Psalm 46:4; Isa 24:19; cf. also Ps 65:8; 89:10). This brings the scene close in tone and feel to the sixth-seal vision in the book of Revelation (6:12-17). Also important is the shift in location from Judea to the whole “inhabited world” (oi)kome/nh); if verses 20-24 refer the Judgment coming upon Judea, vv. 25ff describe that coming upon the whole world. It is possible that the omission of the phrase “in those days” (Mk 13:24) is meant to emphasize this distinction of two periods of Judgment—one for Judea (culminating in the destruction of the Temple), and one for all the nations.

Luke’s version also has quite different wording in reference to the deliverance which the Son of Man brings. In Mk 13:27 par, we have the traditional eschatological imagery of Angels gathering the elect from the ends of the earth; by contrast, here we find a more general promise of salvation, though one with Messianic implications:

“And (when) these (thing)s are beginning to come to be, you must bend (your necks) up and lift up your heads, for (the reason) that [i.e. because] your loosing from (bondage) [a)polu/trwsi$] comes near!” (v. 28)

We may recall that Luke earlier had omitted the proclamation by Jesus that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15 par, but cp. Lk 10:11); similarly, the declaration “the time has come near” is the mark of false Messiahs (v. 8). It is only with the appearance of the Son of Man, at the end-time, that the Kingdom truly “comes near” (vb. e)ggi/zw). The Anointed One now brings the long-awaited deliverance (lit. “loosing from [bondage]”) for the faithful ones among God’s people (on this expectation, cf. 1:68-77; 2:25-26, 38; 23:51). For the word a)polu/trwsi$ in this sense, as adapted by early Christians, see Acts 3:19-21; Rom 8:23; Eph 4:30.

Luke 21:29-33—Illustrations regarding the time of the End

A small but significant difference in the Lukan version here is the reference to the “Kingdom of God” in v. 31: “when you see these (thing)s coming to be, (then) know that the kingdom of God is near” (Mk 13:29 par, simply, “…know that it is near”). This repeats the point noted above—that in Luke, the coming of the Kingdom is specifically linked to the end-time, and is defined in terms of the appearance of the Son of Man (i.e. the return of Jesus, for early Christians). The Kingdom will not be fully realized until that time (cf. Acts 1:6-8). Another small difference is in the saying of v. 33, where Luke has “all things [pa/nta]” instead of “all these things [tau=ta pa/nta]” (Mk 13:30). In a subtle way, this deflects away from the signs of the end to its actual fulfillment—the coming of the Kingdom. The difficult saying in v. 33 par itself will be discussed in a separate article on imminent eschatology in the Gospels.

Luke 21:34-36—Concluding exhortation

Here Luke demonstrates a simplification/modification of the Synoptic discourse in Mk 13:33-37 par, with two notable results: (1) it emphasizes the idea of the coming Judgment, and (2) it becomes a more direct ethical exhortation for believers. The first point is brought out especially in verse 34b-35, making clear that the end-time Judgment will begin suddenly, without warning:

“…and that day will stand upon you without shining (in advance) [i.e. unexpectedly], as a trap—for it will come (suddenly) upon all the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the face of all the earth!”

The Judgment scene is described even more clearly in verse 36, moving from the experience of humankind on earth, to the heavenly court: “…to stand in front of the Son of Man [i.e. as Judge]” (cf. Matt 25:31-46, etc). Only the faithful disciple (believer) will be able to stand in the final Judgment, and pass through it. For the earliest Christians, this was the fundamental context and meaning of salvation—being saved from the coming Judgment.

The exhortation for believers here also specifically involves prayer (a special emphasis in Luke): “And (so) you must be without sleep [i.e. awake/alert], making request [i.e. praying] (to God) in every time…” It is this combination of alertness and devotion to God (in prayer) which marks the faithful disciple. The closing words encompass the entire discourse, as instruction for believers on how to be prepared for “all these (thing)s th(at) are about to come to be”—i.e. all that Jesus has mentioned in the Discourse. The seriousness of this is indicated by the exhortation to stay awake and in prayer (as in subsequent Passion scene in the garden, 22:40, 45-46 par). The time of distress, including temptation and persecution for believers, will require “strength against” it (vb. katisxu/w), and believers must be prepared to “flee out of” it (vb. e)kfeu/gw). This is very much the sort of idea expressed famously by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Lk 11:4b), and provides confirmation for scholars who see a definite eschatological dimension to the prayer—there, too, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Kingdom (Matt 6:10/Lk 11:2), as here in v. 31.

For a number of references and insights mentioned above, I am indebted to the fine commentary on Luke by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible series (Vol 28A: 1985); for the Lukan “Eschatological Discourse”, cf. pp. 1323-56.

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 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: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

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

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

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

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

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

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then in the explanation (v. 49):

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

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

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

2. Vineyard Parables

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

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

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

This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:

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

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

Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons

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

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

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

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

3. Banquet/Feast Parables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued in Part 3)

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

Notes on Prayer: Mark 1:35; 6:46; 11:25ff, etc

In these Monday Notes on Prayer, I am beginning a series exploring Jesus’ own teaching (and example) regarding prayer. We have already explored the famous “Lord’s Prayer” in some detail (cf. the earlier series), as well as the great Prayer-discourse in John 17 (cf. those notes). Now, as a follow-up, we will examine other key passages in the Gospels. Using the same critical approach adopted in other study series on the Gospels (esp. the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”), I will begin with the Synoptic Tradition, as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to passages and details that are unique to Matthew and Luke, as well as the separate Johannine Tradition (Gospel of John).

As a point of departure, it is worth noting the Greek word (group) which is commonly translated into English by “pray(er)”. Most frequently it is the noun proseuxh/ (proseuch¢¡) and related verb proseu/xomai (proseúchomai, mid. deponent). Both are compound prefixed forms of eu)xh/ (euch¢¡) and eu&xomai (eúchomai) respectively. Fundamentally, this root refers to speaking out, especially in the sense of making one’s wishes known, expressing them out loud. Early on, this word group came to be used frequently in a religious context, i.e. of speaking out to God—either in the specific sense of a vow, or more generally as prayer. The noun eu)xh/ is rare in the New Testament (just 3 occurrences), but is used in both primary senses (Acts 18:18; 21:23; James 5:15); the verb eu&xomai is likewise relatively rare (Acts 26:29; 27:29; Rom 9:3; 2 Cor 13:7, 9; James 5:16; 3 John 2). The compound forms, with the prefixed preposition/particle pro$ (“toward”), focuses the meaning more precisely in context—i.e. of speaking out toward God, addressing the deity in prayer or with a specific vow. As such, both noun and verb occur frequently in the New Testament (36 and 85 times, respectively).

If we look at the Gospel of Mark, either in Jesus’ own recorded words (sayings), or in the narrative describing his behavior, there are 12 occurrences of the proseux- word group (10 vb, 2 noun), of which the most relevant passages (within the Gospel tradition) may fairly be divided into five groups, which we will survey here, noting in each case the Synoptic parallels.

1. Mark 1:35; 6:46 (cf. also 9:29)

In these two passages, the narrative mentions Jesus’ practice of going off to a deserted place, to be alone, and spending the time in communication (prayer) with God. In each instance, this is mentioned following a period of ministry activity in which Jesus performed healings or other miracles in public (1:29-34; 6:30-44 par). Matthew does not preserve the episode of Mark 1:35ff (cp. Matt 8:18); Luke does have it (4:42-44), but curiously makes no mention of Jesus in prayer, despite the fact that this is a relatively common theme in his Gospel (compare 5:15-16 and 6:12).

The implication of these references is likely twofold: (1) the need for Jesus to spend time away from the crowds, and (2) the juxtaposition of miracles–prayer suggests that there is a connection between the efficacy of healing power and prayer to God. Jesus makes this quite explicit in the exorcism episode of Mark 9:14-29, which concludes (v. 29) with his declaration that “this kind [i.e. of evil spirit] is not able to come out in [i.e. by] anything if not [i.e. except] in speaking out toward (God) [i.e. by prayer]”. Matthew has this same episode (17:14-20), though ending with an entirely different saying (v. 20) drawn from a separate tradition involving Jesus’ teaching on prayer (cf. 21:21 = Mark 11:22-23). Luke also records a version of the episode (9:37-43), but without any such climactic saying, and thus (again, strangely) no reference to prayer. It is possible that the Lukan Gospel seeks overall to give a different emphasis to the role and purpose of prayer. I shall discuss this further in the upcoming notes.

2. Mark 11:17

In the Temple “cleansing” episode, Jesus cites Isaiah 56:7 (together with Jer 7:11); this detail is found in all three Synoptic versions (the Johannine version draws upon a different line tradition [and Scripture citation]). The juxtaposition of the two quotations (in Greek, generally corresponding with the LXX) reads [Isaiah in bold]:

My house shall be called a house of speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayer] for all the nations,
but you have made it a cave of (violent) robbers!”

Matthew and Luke each have a shortened version of Isa 56:7, omitting the phrase “for all the nations”, which is especially curious for the latter, given the central importance of this theme (i.e. the mission to the Gentiles) in Luke-Acts. The use of Isa 56:7 in the context of the Temple action by Jesus, with its disruption of the apparatus of the Temple ritual, suggests a new purpose for the Temple—prayer (i.e. direct communication with God), rather than the ritual of sacrificial offerings, etc. The extent to which Jesus himself intended this is much debated, but there can be little doubt that this re-interpretation of the Temple (its meaning and significance) took firm root in early Christianity, and is evidenced at many points in the New Testament. For more on this subject, see my articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (both in “Jesus and the Law” and “The Law in Luke-Acts”).

3. Mark 11:24-25

“Through [i.e. because of] this I say to you: all (thing)s, as (many) as you speak out toward (God) and ask (for), you must trust that you received (it), and it will be (so) for you.”
“And when you stand speaking out toward (God), release (it) if you hold (anything) against any(one), (so) that your Father the (One) in the heavens should also release for you your (moment)s of falling alongside.”

Here we have a pair of teachings (sayings) by Jesus, brought together. Only the first of these is found in the same context (cursing of the fig-tree) in Matthew (21:21), while the second is close to the saying in Matt 6:14f (in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. also 5:23-24). There is no parallel for either saying in the Gospel of Luke, though the idea of trusting that a person will receive what he/she asks for from God is found at a number of points throughout the Gospel tradition (Matt 7:7-11 [par Lk 11:9-13]; John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff, etc). In these sayings two things are said to hinder prayer from being answered by God: (1) a lack of trust in God, and (2) unresolved sin, especially that which involves a broken relationship with other people. Both are points of emphasis made by Jesus at various places throughout his teaching.

4. Mark 12:40

The reference to prayer here is part of a larger tradition whereby Jesus attacks conventional religious behavior, establishing a contrast for his followers—how they should think and behave in their religious conduct. The location of 12:38-40 in Mark, right before the episode of the widow’s offering (vv. 41-44), seems to be the result of “catchword bonding”, the two (originally separate) blocks of tradition being joined together because of the common reference to widows. At the same point in the Matthean narrative, in place of the “widow’s offering” scene, there is a much more extensive attack on the religious leaders (spanning all of chapter 23), much of which is drawn from a separate line of tradition (with parallels in Luke, cf. 11:39-52). By comparison, the (synoptic) tradition in Mark 12:38-40 is quite brief, directed against “the writers”, i.e. those literate men who are expert in written matters, especially the Scriptures and Torah, and all the religious authority (and prestige) that goes along with that expertise. They seem to be identified, in large measure (and typically in the Gospel tradition), with the Pharisee party (Matt 23:2).

The emphasis in vv. 38-39 is on their concern for worldly recognition and enhanced social status, along with the superficial trappings which mark such success and influence. The statement in verse 40 is more difficult, as it is not entirely clear how the two actions being described relate to one another:

    • “they eat down the houses of the widows”
    • “shining before (people as) speaking out long toward (God)”

The meaning of second phrase remains a bit uncertain, but the general idea seems to be that, even as they “consume” the houses of widows, these would-be religious leaders, at the same time, appear as highly devout persons engaged in much prayer (compare the Lukan portrait of the Pharisee in 18:10-14). To say that they “eat down” (consume/devour) the houses of widows is probably something of an extreme exaggeration, for effect. As those with knowledge of the law, and influential leaders, they should have been looking out for the poor in society—such as widows, who might be taken advantage of, to the point of being cheated out of their husband’s estate. A similar idea is implicit in the judgment against the rich man in Luke 16:19-31.

As for the rejection of prayer that is made publicly, to create and reinforce the impression of religious devotion, as opposed to true and earnest prayer made before God in private, that is the theme of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5-8), which will be discussed again briefly in the next note.

5. Mark 14:32-39

The final Markan/Synoptic passage on prayer is the garden scene from the Passion narrative, found in all three Gospels. Even though the Passion/garden scene in John is quite different, there are interesting parallels to Mk 14:32ff elsewhere in that Gospel (12:23-28). I discussed this passage in the earlier studies on the Lord’s Prayer, in the context of the petition in Matt 6:13. In many ways, this episode summarizes Jesus’ teaching on prayer:

    • He is by himself, in a desolate place, speaking out earnestly and intensely to the Father
    • The moment represents the cumulation of his public ministry and work on earth
    • Though separate, his disciples (especially those closest to him) remain nearby, and his behavior is meant to serve as an example for them to follow (as with the Lord’s Prayer, etc)
    • Interspersed between his moments/sessions of prayer, Jesus gives instruction (regarding prayer) to his disciples, exhorting them essentially to follow his example
    • This need (for prayer) is especially acute as the moment of his passion and death draws near—an eschatological time of darkness to come upon the world (and his followers)

With this (all too brief) survey of the Markan/Synoptic passages, we can now explore the references to prayer which are unique to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The next Monday study will focus on prayer in the Gospel of Matthew.

“…Spirit and Life”

For the next few weeks, in celebration of Pentecost, I will be presenting a series of word study notes based on Jesus’ statement in John 6:63:

“the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life

This involves two key words (and concepts) in the New Testament—pneu=ma (“Spirit”) and zwh/ (“Life”). Because these have such an important place in the Johannine writings, those works (especially the Gospel and First Letter) will be my primary focus. However, I will be examining key passages in the remainder of the New Testament as well.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to define both of these Greek words.

pneu=ma

The fundamental meaning of pneu=ma (pneúma), derived from the verb pne/w (pnéœ), is that of blowing. This is usually understood either (1) of the wind (a natural phenomenon), or (2) of breath (a personal/physiological phenomenon). In ancient thought, of course, these were often combined, especially in the mythological/cosmological sense of wind as the breath of God. For human beings, the life-animating principle, divinely bestowed, was often identified with the breath. Thus pneu=ma came to be used in reference to this inward life-force—the “soul” or “spirit”. When speaking of God (or deity), the source of life given to human beings could likewise be understood as the “breath” or “spirit”—i.e. the life-giving Spirit of God.

zwh/

The noun zwh/ (zœ¢¡) is somewhat easier to explain, being derived from za/w (záœ), a primary verb meaning “live”. Thus zwh/ fundamentally means “life”—usually in the sense of natural, physical/biological life. Again, since God represents the source of life, zwh/ could also be used to refer to the life possessed by God (or the Gods, in a polytheistic worldview). This divine life can be understood both in a qualitative and quantitative sense—both aspects are combined in the expression “eternal life”. Often, the divine life is contrasted with that of mortal beings, thus hinging on the idea of deathlessness (i.e. “without death”, a)qa/nato$). In ancient thought, the righteous or deserving among humans, either after death or following a final Judgment, could come to possess and share in the blessed life of (the) God(s).

The Synoptic Gospels

I begin this study with a survey of passages from the Synoptic Gospels, which include sayings of Jesus which are central to the early Gospel Tradition—thus reflecting one of the earliest (if not the earliest) layers of Christian thought. To someone who has not analyzed the evidence carefully, it may come as a surprise how rarely both words zwh/ (“life”) and pneu=ma (“Spirit”) occur in the Synoptics, especially if we combine together the parallel passages. Admittedly the word pneu=ma itself is found relatively frequently, but often in the sense of a human “spirit” or of other “spirit”-beings (i.e. daimons, “demons”). Passages where the reference is clearly to the Spirit of God (or “Holy Spirit”) are far fewer. Let us survey these.

Pneu=ma in the core Synoptic Tradition

By this is meant the “Triple”-tradition, shared (generally) by all three Synoptics, and usually best represented by the Gospel of Mark. There are just six occurrences of pneu=ma (as “Spirit”) in Mark:

  • Three times in the context of the Baptism of Jesus:
    • The saying of John the Baptist:
      “I dunked [i.e. baptized] you in water, but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8, par Matt 3:11 & Lk 3:16 [both add “and fire”])
    • The Baptism scene:
      “…stepping up out of the water he saw the heavens being split, and the Spirit as a dove stepping [i.e. coming] down unto him” (Mk 1:10; par Matt 3:16 [“Spirit of God”] and Lk 3:22 [“Holy Spirit”])
    • After the Baptism:
      “And straightway [i.e. immediately] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (land)” (Mk 1:12; cp. Matt 4:1; Lk 4:1)
  • The saying regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit”:
    “All (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men, the sins and the insults, however they might give insult; but whoever should give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age…” (Mk 3:28-29; cp. Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10)
  • In Mark 12:36 (par Matt 22:43), Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit as the source of David’s inspiration in the composition of Ps 110:1ff.
  • Mark 13:11 (par Matt 10:20; cp. Lk 12:12)—as part of the eschatological teaching given by Jesus to his disciples, he refers to the Holy Spirit:
    “…whatever shall be given to you in that hour, this you shall speak—for you are not the (one)s speaking, but (rather) the holy Spirit

It is only in the last of these (Mk 13:11), part of specific teaching by Jesus to his disciples, that something like the early Christian concept of the Holy Spirit appears to be in view. The sense of the “Holy Spirit” in the famous saying in Mk 3:28-29 is much more difficult to determine.

Pneu=ma in the “Q” material and the Gospel of Matthew

(References marked with an asterisk might be considered part of the so-called “Q” material, shared by Matthew and Luke [but not found in Mark])

    • In the Matthean Infancy narrative, the Holy Spirit is mentioned as the source of the supernatural (virginal) conception of Jesus—Matt 1:18, 20 (on the Lukan parallels, cf. below).
    • Matt 12:18—part of a citation of Isa 42:1-3, a (Messianic) prophecy applied to Jesus (“I will set my Spirit upon him…”)
    • *The saying of Jesus in Matt 12:28: “but if in [i.e. with/by] the Spirit of God I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God has (already) arrived upon you”. The parallel saying in Luke 11:20 reads “finger of God” instead of “Spirit of God”.
    • *The saying regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit” in Matt 12:31-32 and Lk 12:10 differs in certain respects from the Markan parallel, and may be derived from the “Q” tradition.
    • Matt 28:20—The famous statement by Jesus, part of the closing “Great Commission” refers to the Holy Spirit in something like a Trinitarian sense. Here it seems to reflect (or at least anticipate) early Christian thought and understanding regarding the relationship between the Spirit and Jesus.
Pneu=ma in Luke

The Gospel of Luke contains noticeably more references to the Spirit, representing a key theme and motif that continues on in the book of Acts. This will be discussed in a separate note in this series. Here it is necessary to survey the key Gospel references unique to Luke:

    • In the Infancy Narrative, John the Baptist, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Simeon are said to be “filled with the Spirit”, or that the Spirit is (or will be) upon them, that they are “in the Spirit”, etc.—Lk 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27. This reflects both the traditional idea of Prophetic inspiration, as well as a foreshadowing of the role of the Spirit among Christians (e.g., in the book of Acts). In reference to the conception of Jesus (cf. Matt 1:18, 20), “the Holy Spirit” is parallel (and synonymous) with “the Power of the Highest” (Lk 1:35).
    • Luke has expanded the basic Synoptic tradition from Mark 1:12 (par Matt 4:1), describing in more precise terms, the relation between the Spirit and Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (before and after the Temptation scene):
      Lk 4:1: “And Yeshua, full of the holy Spirit, turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in the desolate (land)”
      Lk 4:14: “And Yeshua turned back in the power of the Spirit into the Galîl…”
    • As part of this narrative recording the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in Galilee), there is the citation of Isa 61:1 in Lk 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” This a fundamental passage regarding Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), both at the historical level, and in the Gospel of Luke.
    • This same aspect of Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit is reflected in the introduction to his saying in Lk 10:21:
      “In that hour he leapt (for joy) [in] the holy Spirit and said…”
    • The Lukan version of the saying in 11:13 (cp. Matt 12:34):
      “if you…have known (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will the Father out of Heaven give the holy Spirit to the (one)s asking him?”
    • Mention should also be made of Lk 24:49, which, though the word pneu=ma is not used, clearly refers to the Holy Spirit. On “Power” as a kind of synonym for the Spirit, cf. Lk 1:35.

Thus, even without considering the evidence from the book of Acts, it is clear that there has been a degree of development in the Gospel Luke, giving greater emphasis to the (Holy) Spirit, both in relation to believers and to Jesus himself.

Zwh/ (“Life”) in the Synoptic Gospels

It is somewhat surprising that the word zwh/ occurs just 16 times in the Synoptic Gospels (compared with 36 in the Gospel of John). If we exclude the Synoptic parallels as such, the actual number of distinct occurrences is even smaller. Found in the sayings of Jesus, they involve certain idiomatic expressions, generally with an eschatological orientation:

Only twice (in Luke 12:15 and 16:25) is zwh/ used in the normal sense of an ordinary human life (or life-time). In all the other occurrences cited above, it can more properly be understood as eternal life—that is, the divine life which the righteous will come to possess (or enter) at the end-time (following the Judgment). This is important, as it indicates the background to the term as it came to be used regularly by early Christians. If we accept the fundamental authenticity (and historicity) of the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, we would have to recognize that the early Christian usage has been shaped and influenced in important ways by Jesus’ own teaching.

For more on references to the Holy Spirit in the Synoptic Gospels, consult the notes in the recent series “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition”.