A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Is Jesus’ apocalypse prophetic or predictive?

By that, I mean was Jesus foreseeing something to happen that could not be potentially seen? Or, was Jesus revealing a mystery or making sense of certain trends within Israel? It is important that we do not too quickly fall into an all or nothing dichotomy, where everything Jesus said was either prophetic or all of it was merely predictive of current trends.

The focal point of the apocalypse seems to be focused around the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:2). This leads the disciples to ask the question what will be the signs that this is going to happen (Mark 13:4; Matthew’s version has them asking about the end of the age). This leads Jesus to speak of a few things: first off that there would be other so-called Messiahs, that one nation will get into a war with another, earthquakes and famines, conflict for the disciples, a great tribulation, and the abomination of desolation.

Most of those things would not have require a prophet to realize, merely someone who didn’t have a vested interest in a militaristic Israel. The idea that there would be other Messiah’s wasn’t new. There had been some before Jesus who had claimed to be the Messiah. Secondly, the idea that a nation would rise up against another nation (veiled language for Rome against Israel) would not have been surprising, considering Israel’s militaristic path and Rome’s past ruthlessness.

From the militaristic direction Israel was heading, it isn’t surprising that people who would not commit to the violent path, such as Jesus was calling his disciples, would be captured. Accusations of being a traitor to one’s own people would have been very feasible, if one didn’t approve of the military effort (for instance, just look at people who were called unpatriotic in America for not support the Iraq war). And it wasn’t a logical leap to think that if Rome invaded, there would be trouble and tribulation within Israel.

The only thing left uneasily explained of the list given so far is earthquakes and famines. Although one might logically associate war with famine, but earthquakes would not seem directly dependent upon one nation invading another.

But when we look at the bulk of what Jesus said, it didn’t require a direct vision about the future to be able to predict what he did. It could be seen merely by seeing the direction was Israel taking and turning the clock forward.

There are two signs that not all of Jesus’ apocalypse was prophesy of future events. First off, in Mark 13:22, Jesus indicates the possibility of the elect being deceived by the false Messiahs and prophets. If Jesus was purely prophesying about the future, then he would have been able to see if the elect would or would not have been able to be mislead. But as it is, he is not certain of how the elect would react, only that there may be the struggle for them to reject the false teachers.

Second, the uncertainty he places on the arrival of the Son of Man. One might interpret this as saying that the Father just didn’t reveal to the Son or the angels the time of the coming, but revealed everything else. But it seems more reasonable to say that Jesus was not able to foresee when he would come (again), leading one to believe that Jesus was in part predicting based upon the current direction of Israel, not upon some prophetic prediction. He couldn’t see when the the Son of Man would come because nothing is Israel’s history necessitated that.

However, there are some things that can not be simply attributed to foresight. Predicting of earthquakes couldn’t simply be predicted based upon human actions. It is conceivable, however, to see that as being part of God indicating the signs of the time, but that gets to be more prophetic than merely predictive.

And then when we look at the destruction of the Temple, it is a possible conclusion one might draw from a Roman invasion. However, it is by no means a definite result. It could bring recollection of history when Babylon invaded and destroyed the first temple. However, Israel was an independent power that was invaded. This time, Rome still had control over Israel. It would be hard to just foresee that Israel’s rebellion would be severe to lead to the point that Rome would destroy Jerusalem and the Temple with it.

It probably serves as no coincidence then that an event that couldn’t just be foreseen, Jesus used Old Testament apocalyptic material to describe. “The abomination of desolation” from Daniel fits both in context and language of that of the complete destruction of the Temple.

Jesus also uses apocalpytic material from Isaiah and Joel to refer to the signs of the changing of powers of Israel with the destruction of the temple. Jesus foretells of heavenly signs (which interpreted in modern day lnaguage are a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and a meteor shower), which themselves are used to indicate changes of earthly powers.

Furthermore, when he speaks of the future coming of the Son of Man with the angels, he continues to use Old Testament apocalyptic material.

All this leads me to conclude that Jesus was in part prophesying of the future, but when he did so, he appealed to the prophets in the past to communicate it. But foreseeing the destruction of the Temple, perhaps the main prophetic prediction he made, Jesus would probably reflect on how the worldly events would lead up to this point. In which case, it is not hard to take Israel’s current militaristic direction, and extrapolate from it that that mentality was going to lead to the destruction. It also seems feasible that Jesus could even see that the militaristic attitude was so prevalent that it was going to happen soon, and with it the destruction of the Temple, and so he could foretell of all those things happening within the current generation, which was aggresive against Roman rule.

If this is correct, then we don’t have to go so far as to state that Jesus was predicting the time of his actual coming on the clouds (however it is to be interpreted). As I talked about in two previous posts (here and here), I would say that Jesus makes foretells of that because once the powers of Jerusalem are deposed, the reign that would heavily oppose Jesus as King would be deposed in Israel. In other words, it would be necessary for Jesus’ coming as king, but not necessarily sufficient. But of what else would be necessary, Jesus himself may not know of. We can simple see Jesus as being a wise person who could see the logical direction of Israel, and what it could lead to after their destruction, all centered around the prophetic idea that the Temple and the nation of Israel was going to be judged and destroyed.

So, I would say that Jesus material is partly prophetic, but partly extrapolation of the current trends of Israel. In the end, I feel this makes the most sense of the material we have at hand, without explaining away anything as a later addition or appealing to a Wrightian interpretation in denying a physical appearance of Jesus coming on the clouds (which itself denies a literal referent in the language)

October 5, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

The contrast of celestial signs in Matthew 24:29-31

It is often times concluded from reading Matthew 24:29-31 (and its parallels in Mark and Luke) that the coming of the Son of Man (whatever that might mean) must be immediately following the sun and moon darkening (whatever that also might mean). The adverb tote (translated at “then”) might be seen as indicating as something that soon follows. And this might be a justified interpretation if there is no other relation (like a cause-effect or chronological relationship) between 29 and 30. However, I would suggest there is another relationship between the sun and moon darkening with the coming of the Son of Man (along with angels being sent) that isn’t a chronological.

If we note closely and know a bit about apocalyptic language, one notices that there is a seeming contrast of celestial signs between 29 and 30-31. Verse 29 speaks about the moon not giving light and the sun being darker. This is language used to refer to a solar and lunar eclipse, but it also had a further meaning of being signs of a shift in powers. And if Jesus’ apocalypse refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, then we indeed have a lunar eclipse and solar eclipse that take place soon after on March 1st and 20th 71 AD, respectively. So the significance of that imagery is two fold, a literal celestial sign for the changing reality

Verses 30-31 then take upon the same pattern, but in a compound form. It goes as follows (and I will explain afterwards):

sign of the Son of Man (sign) -> Son of Man coming upon clouds (reality and sign) -> sending of angels (reality) -> the great trumpet (sign) -> gathering together of the elect from the four winds (reality and sign) -> [implicitly] vindication (reality)

Let me explain this a bit further, first regarding the Son of Man coming upon the clouds. I have already talked about this allusion to the imagery of Daniel 7:13 here. I argued that the allusion to Daniel 7:13, which is regarding ascent, doesn’t mean the imagery can not be used to refer to a descent. I say it is, but the notion of coming upon the clouds signifies the authority the Son of Man has. So on one hand, we have an action happening, but then the clouds also signifies something further.

Now that sign signifies the authority Jesus has, and the reality it points to is the exercise of that authority in the sending of the angels. But then that sending of the angels leads to another sign. The sign is that of the trumpets, which is a sign for the bringing together of people. That sign/reality combination is rooted in Isaiah 27:12-13.

But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues to use heavenly imagery, that of the the angels collecting “from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” It speaks of the universal effect the gathering will have, which leads to another reality that is signified (implicitly as in verse 29), vindication of the elect, which implies judgment also.

In other words, the language is vested with apocalyptic meaning, in which what is important is the literal meaning but what is symbolized by it. On the other hand, the langauge can also be literal, in which signs from of the heavens (the sky) speak about the change happening on the earth. We can base this on relying on verse 29 to be a literal sign that symbolizes something more.

Furthermore, the basis of all that happens is the authority of the Son of Man. His authority leads to what results in the judgment of all nations.  And as the imagery of clouds is associated with in Daniel 7:13-14, that authority is that of a new kingdom.

So implicitly then, there is a contrast between 29 and 30-31. The old kingdom of Israel’s destruction is signified by the solar and lunar eclipse (and the powers of the heavens are shaken also). This then makes the sitaution ripe for the new kingdom to come by the Son of Man. In other words, there is a vacuum of power in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that would make it feasible for the King to come to inaugurate (in full) the new kingdom. In other words, there is a logical necessity for the destruction of the old regime of Israel for the new kingdom of Israel to be inaugurated on earth. And the contrast between celestials powers suggest that in my opinion.

The literary relationship between the two isn’t based upon the adverb “then” meaning a chronological relationship. Rather, the literary relationship is that of celestial imagery, and that imagery speaks of opposing forces. This opens up the interpretation of Jesus is referring to a necessity for the coming of the Son of Man, not necessarily a prophetic prediction of when (although Matthew may interpret Jesus, or at least the disciples question, as referring to the sign of his coming as king and of the end of the age, but that can be addressed in a later post). Once the powers of the old kingdom, symbolized by the Temple, are destroyed, then the Son of Man can come, but is not necessary that he come then. This allows for Jesus to seem to have confidence in the destruction of the Temple coming relatively soon and yet not knowing necessarily when He would come.

Also, one other possible relationship between 30-31 and the other apocalyptic material. The final implicit reality that occurs is the judgment of the world. This may be related to the fact that Jesus speaks of false Messiahs decieving the people, even possibly the elect, along with the abomination that would occur. This speaks of particulary Jewish sins (not many Gentiles would be a Messiah, or take part in a Messianic movement) along with Roman sins (with Rome essentially symbolizing all the Gentile world). Judgment was coming upon them for their evil doings, implied by the vindication of the elect.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Matthew’s “the end of the age”

A phrase that is pivotal to understanding Jesus’ apocalypse, especially Matthew’s version of it (Matthew 24), is to understand the meaning of the phrase “the end of the age” which the disciples inquired about in conjunction with Jesus’ coming according to Matthew (Matthew 24:3).

The phrase is used 5 times in the New Testament, and all five times are use in the Gospel of Matthew. It is used three times in the parables (Matthew 13:39-40, 49), once in Matthew 24:3, and once in the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:20).

Interesting enough, in the disciples question that lead to Jesus’ apocalypse, only Matthew has them asking about “signs… of the end of the age.” The other two synoptics have them asking about “the sign when all these things are about to take place,” referring to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. In addition, the two parables in which the phrase “the end of the age” occurs, the parable of the wheat and tares and the parable of the net, do not occur in Mark and Luke.

Now when we look it’s usage in the parables, it seems to be associated with a judgment, or more specifically a separating of the righteous and the wicked. Furthermore, the angels are spoken of as instruments of this judgment by removing the wicked from the presence of the righteous. The combination of judgment and angelic judgments also occurs in Matthew 25:31-46, also not in Mark and Luke.

This reflects one of Matthew’s theological purposes, to speak of a coming judgment separating the righteous from the wicked. So when we come to Jesus’ apocalypse, which speaks of Jesus’ coming on the clouds (echoes of Daniel 7:13-14 and the Son of Man’s authority) and of the angels gathering (although in this instance, the elect), it should be of no coincidence that Matthew would have the disciples asking about “the end of the age” (which was asked about alongside Jesus’ coming, as king).

Furthermore, “the end of the age” seems to be Danielic also. Although the Greek words are different between Daniel 12:13 and Matthew, the both have the same meaning. Also, in explanation of the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus speaks of the righteous shining like the sun after the judgment that comes upon the wicked, which is an allusion to Daniel 12:3 (replace sun with stars).

This leads to conclusion that Jesus’ reference to the his coming on the clouds doesn’t refer to some vindication or distant ideal of authority from afar in heaven, but rather that he comes with angels and gathers everyone together to separate the righteous and the wicked and bring judgment upon the wicked, at least according to Matthew. Either that, or we have to regard to similarity in language as as coincidental.

The options we have before us then are:

1) Matthew misinterprets Jesus

2) Jesus was mistaken in reference to His coming

3) Jesus’ apocalypse does not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD

4) There is a gap between the destruction of Jerusalem (signified by a solar and lunar eclipse that follows) and the coming of Jesus to reign as king and judge

NT Wright’s interpretation cannot fit within the evidence at hand without rejecting the first premise (at least not without further taking more language without any reference to a literal meaning). Skepticism and critical readings enslaved to one form of interpretation accepts the second. Popularized eschatologies accepts the third option. I, however, have been arguing for the fourth option as I presented here. There remains difficulties with it, but I will attempt to address them in the near future.

September 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

The relationship between Daniel 7:13 and Jesus’ apocalypse

I have already gone once on the topic of Jesus’ apocalypse to his disciples here. However, as I continue to try to finish up Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (seminary reading and sickness slowing me down), I feel a further discussion on the relationship between these two passages are warranted.

Wright is correct in noting that Daniel 7:13 itself does not refer to a future second coming as envisioned by modern eschatologies. The text itself actually speaks of the Son of Man coming into the presence of the Ancient of Days. The Jewish language is that of ascent, not descent. And as the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days, he is given the authority to rule over the entire world.

It is reasonable to think that the notion of the “Son of Man coming with clouds” became invested with that meaning. That a person who came on a cloud was in fact the royal ruler. While knowing the context from which the phrase is used, it obtained a meaning that isn’t quite as nuanced as the interpretation of the text. Clouds would represent the authority such a person had, but the idea of ascension would not be retained in the connotation of the phrase outside of its original home in the text.

So when Jesus uses such language in his message to his disciples, his intent is not to speak about the precise meaning of the original context of the language, but rather the meaning that is invested in the idea of a person being upon a cloud. In other words, if he descends in a cloud, then he is the one who ascended to the Ancient of Days with a cloud. This might be the reason Acts 1:11 makes explicit the notion that as Jesus ascended on clouds, he will descend the same way. Latent in the early tradition is a belief that Jesus will return as he left, with a cloud standing as a symbol of his royal authority. He has authority to enact his rule of Israel, and the world. And all three of the synoptic gospels say that he is coming with authority and glory.

So it doesn’t become necessary for Daniel 7:13 to be invested with meaning of a “second coming” for Jesus to use language in such a way. Jesus is using the idea of coming upon clouds to convey the authority he has, not to say that “his coming” as Matthew 24 asks about is a fulfillment of the Danielic prophecy.

September 26, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Mark 13:24-32

As I noted in my previous post, one of the places where I feel Wright falls short in his tendency to argue for more metaphorical (although a different type of metaphorical) and apocalyptic understanding of Mark 13 that takes 24-26 not as literal events. Let me start off by saying that I don’t think language always has to be taken with wooden literalism, that doesn’t allow words and phrases to be invested with meaning other than the dictionary definition, and that the invested meaning might even totally over shadow the literal meaning.

This passage (and it’s parallels in Matthew and Luke) has been the subject of varying interpretation, perhaps more than most any other passages in the Bible. But they can be summed up in five different options:

A) The events foretold are literal (at least in part), and they have yet to be fulfilled (more conservative branches)

B) The events foretold are literal (at least in part), but Jesus was mistaken (more critical response)

C) The things Jesus refers to is fulfilled spiritually (full preterism)

D) The language is more metaphorical (Wright)

E) The “little apocalypse” was the invention of the early church (now I am not going to address this because that goes beyond the scope of this post, but only mention it for completeness sake)

As I said, I reject Wright’s view for a couple reasons. He correctly notes that the potential use for apocalyptic language to be used in a way that isn’t based upon the basic definitions on the words, but rather is based upon the imagery and associations the words bring. But to interpret 24-26 in light of that raises an issue: what is the signal to the hearers/reader that this is not more literal?

Because throughout the earlier part of the “little apocalypse,” Jesus has been using which is almost universally considered descriptions of more literal events (whether in foresight or hindsight). The foretelling of other so-called Christs/Messiahs literally happened in Israel. Is it proper to see Jesus suddenly shift to a different form of communicating without any “marker” to indicate such? The meaning Wright would give to 24-26 would need to be so ingrained into the public (or at least the disciple’s) consciousness for such a “marker” to be unnecessary. Otherwise, Jesus would be rather confusing (or the gospel writers amiss at accurately communicating Jesus’ message).

Secondly, when we go to Luke’s version, he involves the language of the signs of the heavens more into Jesus’ sermon (10-11). If Luke is written more of a story of how Jesus’ group was not revolutionary force that served as a threat to Rome, then wouldn’t it behoove Luke, who seemed to have a very good grasp of the Torah and Prophets, to clarify that the language refers more to Jerusalem’s destruction (assuming Luke was written after 70 AD)?

Now this is not to say the apocalyptic doesn’t have anything to do with the changing of the powers on earth. But it is may be a false dichotomy to presume either a literal meaning or a more metaphorical meaning. I would propose it was a literal sign to signify the change of things. For instance there was indeed a solar eclipse (albeit a hybrid) that could have been seen in Israel in 71 AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem (“Immediately after the tribulation of those days…”). After all, there was a reason the language of the different celestial events began to be associated with the changing of the earthly powers.

And that moves us forward to the “second coming” verse of 26. It is important to remember, as Wright notes, that this would not be seen as a “second coming” by the disciples, but rather the sign of Jesus’ coming to be king of Israel, which they assumed he was going to take within his lifetime (the typical human vision of lifetime). No doubt, such language is literal, would have caused confusion to the disciples, because Jesus was on the earth right there. But despite the incapability of the disciples to understand how what Jesus said was going to happen, it did not stop him from speaking of such literal events, like for instance the foretelling of his death and resurrection.

Then you have Acts 1:9-11 speaks of Jesus descending just as he ascended up with a cloud. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks of descent with a trumpet (see Matthew 24:30-31). Unless these instances are also filled with more metaphorical use of the language (I doubt a strong case can be made for that), either there was a misunderstanding between the transmission from Jesus to Paul and Luke or there is envisioned a literal event.

Also, some were waiting for the king of Israel, the ruler of God’s kingdom (see Zechariah 6:13). Wright’s appeal to vindication avoids the issue. A mere vindication of Jesus wasn’t the expectation, but the actual presence of the king, a king who could serve as judge. Because Jesus’ quotes from Daniel 7:13, and the following verse refers to the authority that the “son of man” who came in the clouds would wield. Furthermore, the expectation of a king to rule on the throne of David (Isaiah 9:6-7) would presume the notion of a physically present king, not merely a vindicated but, by implication, an absent one.

But if the “little apocalypse” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, did Jesus fail to return as he foretold? I think the mistake is assuming that the purpose of the apocalyptic sermon was to talk about the end of all things, which was naturally associated with Jesus’ second coming. But the question attributed to disciples by all three accounts was about when the destruction of the Temple would occur and the signs that would accompany it, although Matthew “interprets” the second question as referring to Jesus’ coming (as king).

If indeed the primary purpose was to refer to the destruction of the Temple, as he had just foretold, then the mention of his coming in the clouds could be seen as a further insight to what will happen beyond the destruction of the Temple. This might probable, as destruction of the temple would speak against the Herods and would set up the stage for the building of a new temple, which would obviously leave Israelites asking the question of the next building of the Temple and the new king. So destruction of the Temple is associated with the rebuilding of the Temple by the true king, the anointed one of God. Hence Jesus would make mention of his return (although again, perhaps baffling to the disciples at that moment), to be associated with a rebuilding of the temple that the King would do. This might also explain the difference between Matthew 24:3 and Mark 13:4 with Luke 21:7.

So what does this mean? That Jesus may not have had the purpose of saying that his coming would be immediately following the destruction that would come from 70 AD. This would allow for sort of a chronological gap between 24-25 from 26-27. And as I would argue, the parable of the fig tree would fit into that notion.

The purpose of the parable was to say that after these signs came that Jesus was near, he would soon take his place as King. Off hand, it is natural to see “near” as referring to near within the span of a few years. However, if Wright is correct in his notion about Israel feeling about being in exile, then near could be referring relative to the history of Israel as a whole, and not so much near in time for the current generation. Hence, Jesus would feel it appropriate to say “all these things,” referring to the signs in my opinion, would happen in the current generation, because the history of Israel was coming to a climax and coming close to God’s purposed goal in this generation. The nearness would be relative to Israel’s history (especially if we span back farther than Abraham, even as far back to Adam). It could even mean that there are not significant changes, or new ages, to come before the king arrives.

That Jesus is not trying to assign a particular specific time relative to the other events is made clear by 32. Unless we take the words with wooden literalism, Jesus is likely trying to say that time frame in which his return was to happen was unknown to him. He only knows that once the signs take place, at least as far as Israel is concerned, the stage is set for Jesus to appear at any time. The temple is destroyed and the political forces of power that opposed Jesus are deposed, which means the True King can come to build the true temple at anytime and bring in God’s Kingdom as it is truly meant to be.

This allows for the obvious interpretation of the signs referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (instead of the modern eschatology, represented and unintentionally caricatured by the Left Behind series), while not having to appeal to an out of place call to more metaphorical langauge and without having to relegate to a “spiritual fulfillment” of the coming of Jesus by full preterism. Nor does it need to say that Jesus was incorrect in saying that he would come (again).

August 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments