The Synoptic Gospels
The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus
We begin our study of the eschatology of the New Testament with the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the sayings and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition. On the basic approach adopted here, see the introduction to my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. The shorter sayings and teachings of Jesus will be examined first, followed by the parables, and concluding with a study of the great “Eschatological Discourse”.
When dealing with the Sayings of Jesus, the situation is complicated considerably for many critical scholars, who, as a matter of principle (and method), seek to distinguish between sayings which are authentic (going back to the words of Jesus) and those which are thought to be largely the product of early Christians in light of their beliefs regarding Jesus, etc. Various “criteria of authenticity” have been developed which help scholars to determine, on objective grounds, the sayings which are more likely to be authentic. Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, tend to accept the Gospel accounts at face value, viewing all (or nearly all) of the recorded sayings as reflecting the actual words of the historical Jesus, allowing for a modest amount of editing and translation (from Aramaic, etc). While I do not reject out of hand nor disregard the critical analyses and theories regarding authenticity—indeed, I often find them to be most helpful and insightful—however, for the purposes of this study, I work from the assumption that the Gospel Tradition preserves the genuine words of Jesus in substance. Only in special cases will I be discussing matters related to the question of authenticity.
Any discussion of the sayings of Jesus, relating to his (and early Christian) eschatology, must start with the declaration that begins his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition.
Mark 1:15 par
Following his baptism by John (Mk 1:9-11), and his time of testing in the desert (1:12-13), we read of Jesus that he
“came into the Galîl proclaiming the good message of God [and saying] that ‘The time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!'” (1:14-15)
This theme which introduces Jesus’ public ministry generally follows the preaching of John the Baptist, as it is recorded in the Gospels (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119). Indeed, in Matthew’s version, John makes the very same declaration: “Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!” (3:2, using “kingdom of Heaven” instead of “…of God”, cp. 4:17). Even though this is not found precisely in the wider Synoptic tradition, it very much fits the tenor of his preaching—on the need for repentance in light of the coming Judgment of God upon humankind. The Synoptic summary of John’s ministry makes this clear:
“…Yohanan, the (one) dunking (people), came to be in the desolate (land) proclaiming a dunking of a change-of-mind(set) [meta/noia, i.e. repentance] unto the release of (one’s) sins. And all (the people in) the area (of) Yehudah and all the Yerushalaim (peop)le traveled out toward him, and were dunked under him in the Yarden river, giving out as one an account of [i.e. confessing/acknowledging] their sins.” (Mk 1:4-5 par)
The eschatological orientation of John’s ministry of baptism, and his preaching, is readily apparent from:
- The citation of Isa 40:3 in Mk 1:2-3. This passage is one of a number in Isa 40-66 (Deutero-Isaiah) which had been given a Messianic interpretation by Jews in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. the recent survey of Messianic passages). There is every reason to believe that John, much like the Community of the Qumran texts (1QS 8:14-16), identified himself with the herald “crying in the desert”, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord (at the end-time). This is made explicit in Jn 1:19-23. According to certain strands of traditional Jewish eschatology, this coming of the Lord (YHWH) for Judgment was realized through, or along with, the end-time appearance of YHWH’s chosen representative (Anointed One, “Messiah”).
- Details from the traditions in Matthew and Luke (the so-called “Q” material):
(a) John’s preaching of the need for repentance is specifically connected with “the anger (of God) (be)ing [i.e. that is] about (to come)” (Matt 3:7-9 / Lk 3:7-8), i.e. the coming Judgment
(b) the images of the axe (cutting down the tree) and of the harvest (separating grain from chaff) also refer to this idea of God’s impending Judgment (Matt 3:10, 12 / Lk 3:9, 17)
Given these facts, there is little reason to think that Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 par is meant in a fundamentally different sense than that of Matt 3:2 (as a summary of John’s preaching). Thus we can isolate three main elements, or aspects, of Jesus’ statement:
- The coming of God—his kingdom, i.e. God as king/ruler over the world
- The nearness of His Coming—that it is about to take place, and
- The need for repentance—in light of God’s coming rule (incl. Judgment on the wicked)
There can be little doubt that this reflected John’s proclamation to the people of Judea, and Jesus, it would seem, began his ministry with essentially the same message. However, in the case of Jesus, the situation is complicated greatly by the many and varied references to “the kingdom (of God)” in his sayings and parables, as recorded in the Gospels. He spoke quite often about this Kingdom, much of which has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition, bringing out a number of distinct points of emphasis; for Jesus, the Kingdom (basilei/a) was a multi-faceted concept and symbol. I have discussed this extensively in an earlier two-part article, as well as in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 5). It will be worth summarizing that analysis briefly here.
- References to the coming of the Kingdom, either on people generally or to the righteous specifically—many references and allusions in the Synoptic Gospels, e.g. Matt. 6:10 (par. Luke 11:2); 12:28 (par. Luke 11:20); Luke 17:20-21; Mark 11:10 (par. Matt. 21:9; Luke 19:38); Luke 22:18.
- The motifs of “entering” (lit. coming into) and “inheriting” the Kingdom—this language typically is used in an ethical context, emphasizing the need for righteous behavior, and to avoid sin, etc—Mark 9:47; 10:23-25 (par. Matt. 19:23-24; Luke 18:24-25); Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 25:34, etc
- The related concept of receiving the Kingdom, or of the righteous (believers) being given it by God (Mark 4:11 [par. Matt. 13:11]; Luke 12:32; Mark 10:15 [par. Luke 18:17]; Matt. 21:43, etc), as well as the idea of Jesus’ followers belonging to the Kingdom (Mark 10:14 [par. Matt. 9:14; Luke 18:16]; Matt. 5:3, 10 [par. Luke 6:20]; 13:38).
- The fitness/qualification of people for (entering) the Kingdom (Matt. 5:20; 7:21; Luke 9:62, etc), and also the related idea of the status of persons in the Kingdom (Matt. 5:19-20; 11:11 (par. Luke 7:28); 18:1-4 par; 20:1ff; Luke 14:15).
- Suffering for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt. 5:10; 19:12; Luke 18:29 par), and violence or obstruction against the Kingdom (Matt. 11:12; 23:13; Mark 10:14 par, etc).
These are the primary aspects most commonly found in the sayings and parables. As part of my earlier study, based on the entirety of the evidence, I isolated four basic senses of the term “Kingdom (of God)” in the New Testament:
- The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
- An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
a. An absolute sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
b. A contingent sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
- The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
- The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers
The fundamental idea informing the phrase “Kingdom of God” is that of the rule of God—that is, His governing power and authority—coming to be present, or made manifest, on earth, in a manner beyond what one sees in the natural order of things. In this regard, and in light of the range of meaning outlined above, it is possible to narrow the focus in Jesus’ usage to three primary aspects:
- The coming Judgment of God upon the world, after which the righteous (believers) will enter the Divine/Eternal Life and receive heavenly reward [sense #2a above]
- The establishment of an end-time Kingdom (rule of God) upon earth, however this is understood precisely, with judgment (of the wicked) and transformation of the social/religious order of things [sense #2b above]
- The Kingdom of God is manifest and realized in the person and presence of Jesus [sense #3 above]
We must ask, which of these three aspects is being emphasized in the declaration of Mark 1:15 par? The first two aspects reflect different sides of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation—that is, of an (imminent) future eschatology. The third aspect represents what we may call “realized” eschatology—i.e., events and attributes understood as related to the future are realized (for believers) in the present. As discussed above, the parallel with John’s preaching strongly indicates that Jesus is drawing upon the common eschatological expectation—that the end-time appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment, was soon to take place.
This is the interpretation accepted by many, if not most, critical commentators today, and it serves to epitomize the fundamental difficulty in dealing with early Christian eschatology. For traditional-conservative scholars and readers of Scripture, the problem is particularly acute, and may be summarized this way:
- If Jesus proclaimed that the coming of the Kingdom—and, with it, the end of the current Age—was close at hand, then it opens up the possibility of his being in error on that point.
- Yet, at the same time, to understand his view differently (and to avoid the doctrinal problem), risks distorting or neglecting the straightforward sense of his words, and how they would have been understood by people at the time.
Before proceeding any further on this thorny interpretative question (one of the most difficult in modern New Testament studies), let us examine the actual words used by Jesus in Mark 1:15; there are three phrases, or components to his declaration:
1. peplh/rwtai o( kairo/$ (“the time has been [ful]filled”). The verb plhro/w has the basic meaning “fill (up)”, sometimes in the more general sense of “complete, bring to completion, fulfill,” etc. Here the expression means that the period of time (and all that it entails), leading up to the point (kairo/$) when a particular event will take place, has been filled (i.e. completed). For a similar example, using the related verb plh/qw, see Luke 2:21-22. It precludes the idea that Jesus is announcing something which is still to come in the (distant) future; the time is now, at his very speaking. There is doubtless also an allusion to the fulfillment of prophecy, where the verb plhro/w is frequently used (cf. Luke 4:21, etc).
2. kai\ h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“and the kingdom of God has come near”). However one understands the expression “kingdom of God”, it is quite clear what Jesus says about it: “it has come near” (h&ggiken). The verb e)ggi/zw is related to the adverb e)ggu/$ (“close”), and means “come (or bring) close”; the intransitive usage is more common (“come close/near”). It can be understood either in a spatial or temporal sense. In a religious (and theological) context, it can refer to persons (i.e. priests, the righteous) approaching God, as well as the reverse—of God coming near to his people. For example, cf. Exod 3:5; Lev 21:21; Ezek 40:46 (all LXX); James 4:8; Heb 7:19; Eph 2:13, 17. One may also come near to God in a figurative sense (implying a religious attitude), as in Isa 29:13, etc. For the temporal usage, the time when something will occur (i.e. is about to take place), cf. LXX Num 24:17; Isa 26:17; Hab 3:2, etc.
The background to the eschatological use of e)ggi/zw is found in the (later) Prophets ([Deutero-]Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc LXX). It is used in reference to the coming of the “Day of YHWH”, which is the time of salvation and/or Judgment—Isa 13:6; 50:8; 51:5; 56:6; Ezek 7:4; 22:4; 30:3; cf. also Joel 1:5; 2:1; 3:14; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7, 14. The New Testament usage is primarily based on (Deutero-)Isaiah. There are 42 occurrences of the verb. Besides the ordinary sense of coming near (to a place, etc), it is used in three ways:
- The eschatological sense—that the time of God’s appearance (the day [h(me/ra] of Judgment, salvation, etc) has come, or is coming, near. The third person perfect form h&ggiken is almost always used. Rom 13:12; Heb 10:25; James 5:8; 1 Pet 4:7; cf. also Acts 7:17 for the similar idea of a promised time coming to pass.
- The sense of believers coming near and encountering God (cf. above)—James 4:8; Eph 2:13, 17. Note Philo’s use of the verb in On the Unchangableness of God §161; On the Special Laws II.57; cf. also Psalm 33:18; 119:151; 145:18 LXX.
- The special sense of Jesus’ time (or “hour”), i.e. the time of his Passion, coming near—Matt 26:45-46 par; cf. also Lk 4:13.
Jesus’ use of the verb is unquestionably eschatological, along the lines indicated above. This is clear when one compares the declaration in Mark 1:15 (par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7) with the statements in Luke 21:8, 20, 28. One should also note the distinctive (eschatological) use of the related adverb e)ggu/$ (“close/near”) in Mark 13:28-29 par; Luke 19:11; Rev 1:3; 22:10; cf. also Rom 13:11; Phil 4:5.
[For more on the verb e)ggi/zw, etc, see the article by H. Preisker in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], Vol 2, pp. 330-2.]
3. metanoei=te kai\ pisteu/ete e)n tw=| eu)aggeli/w| (“change your mind and trust in the good message”). There are two aspects to this statement: (a) people are to change their way of thinking (and acting), i.e. “repent”, and (b) they are to trust in the “good message” (eu)agge/lion) of salvation. The verb metaneu/w (lit. change [one’s] mind) and the idea of repentance featured prominently in the preaching of John the Baptist (cf. the discussion above). It is not especially common in Jesus’ own preaching, as recorded in the Gospels, but it is certainly present (cf. below). The word eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. ‘gospel’) is also surprisingly rare, especially in the traditional Christian sense of the “good news” about Jesus (cf. Mark 8:35; 10:29; 14:9). For the righteous (and sinners who repent), the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, for several reasons:
- It represents the coming of God and the establishment of his rule on earth—entailing the elimination of evil and wickedness.
- The righteous will be delivered from the power and influence of the wicked (and of sin, etc).
- The righteous will be saved/rescued from the coming Judgment, passing through it into eternal life.
This eschatological context of the “good message” is confirmed by the use of the term in Mark 13:10 par; the implications of this particular verse will be discussed in the upcoming article on the “Eschatological Discourse”.
Matthew’s version (4:17) of the declaration in Mark 1:15 is briefer and uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” rather than “kingdom of God”:
“Change your mind(set)—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!”
This matches the declaration by the Baptist (3:2), and is essentially repeated in 10:7. These words of Jesus are not present at a corresponding point in the Gospel of Luke, where the public ministry of Jesus is introduced from a different standpoint—the citation of Isa 61:1 and the episode at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). However, Luke does still depict Jesus as proclaiming the Kingdom during the Galilean ministry (4:43; 8:1, etc). In particular, the central declaration (of Mk 1:15 par) is preserved in Luke 10:9, 11: “The kingdom of God has come close [h&ggiken] upon you!” This reflects the Synoptic tradition of Jesus’ sending out his disciples to follow his example, as his representatives, doing the same work (healing miracles, etc) and proclaiming the same message—the coming of the Kingdom and the need for repentance (Mark 3:14f; 6:7-13 par; cf. Matt 10:7; Lk 9:2). Thus this message was not limited to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but continued on through much of the Galilean period (as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition).
The eschatological emphasis in Jesus teaching, as epitomized by the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, may not have defined entirely his teaching and understanding of the Kingdom of God (and its coming), but it was certainly the central starting point in his public ministry. It is important to keep this in mind as we proceed to examine the other sayings and parables found in the Synoptic Gospels.