p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The not so Great Commission

16 The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus appointed for them,

17 and seeing him they worshipped, but some doubted.

18 And approaching Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

19 Going therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

20 teaching them to observe everything whatsoever I commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age.’

Reading Ed Stetzer’s reflections on the ‘meanings of missional’ from a year or so back provoked a familiar sense of bewilderment. How is it that five lengthy posts on the meaning of such terms as ‘missional’ and missio dei, plus a large number of appended comments from leading missional thinkers, can offer no more than the occasional passing reference to the biblical narrative? Why do missiologists so often at least appear to take scripture for granted? It seems to me that the idea of mission in the New Testament is not nearly as straightforward as we imagine it to be. The so-called ‘great commission’ is a good example.

18 There must be a strong suspicion that when Jesus claims that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, he is alluding to the Son of man narrative (cf. Matt. 9:5; John. 5:26; 8:28). This is the authority that will be given to the suffering community of the saints of the Most High when they are eventually vindicated before the throne of God. It is central to Jesus’ claim to possess a unique calling that he appropriates this hope for himself and in that sense incorporates his followers into his own destiny. The claim also brings into view a broader apocalyptic narrative which makes him the arch-opponent of Caesar, who also claimed glory and dominion over the whole earth.

19 Jesus sends the eleven out into the whole world to establish communities of disciples who by their faithful existence will constitute an announcement, a sign, to the nations that God has raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord above all other gods and lords so that his people may have the hope of surviving the wrath that is coming, as Paul tells us (cf. Rom. 2:9), first upon Israel, and then on the idolatrous Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the empire. They will live as Jesus lived, observing his teachings, because that is the only practical basis on which the people of God will gain victory over Rome. This is their ‘mission’.

To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is not to be taken here as a general religious prescription. It associates this international body of disciples with the particular narrative of renewal: the God who is trusted under radical eschatological conditions as ‘Father’; the Son who suffers for the sake of the future of the people; and the Spirit which both foresees the coming judgment and gives life to the people of a new covenant.

20 Jesus promises to be with them all the days until the end of the age. The end of the age (hē synteleia tou aiōnos) in Matthew is not the end of the world. It is the moment when Israel will be judged - when the weeds will be gathered out of the kingdom and destroyed (13:40-42), when the good fish are separated from the bad (13:49-50), and when the stones of the temple will be thrown down by an invading army (13:2-3). Jesus’ assurance at this particular point in the narrative is a limited one: he will be with his disciples every moment, no matter what they face, until the Son of man is vindicated for his radical departure from tradition when the armies of Rome raze the temple of Israel’s God to the ground; and because they are the community of the Son of man in Jesus, that moment will also be their vindication.

Comments

Andrew,

I would agree with all of your comments about Jesus’ statements about “all authority,” in so far as it goes. But you then delimit the “broader apocalyptic narrative” to the immediate historical context of the Roman Empire. May I suggest that the broader apocalyptic narrative is much broader? Jesus’ arch-opponent was hardly Caesar. It was rather “the ruler of this age” (Jn.12:31; Lk.10:18; Mt.25:41; 13:39; cf. 2Co.4:4; Eph.2:2). Caesar was not finally the enemy of God’s saints (to whom Jesus called us to pay proper tribute, Mt.22:21; cf. Rom.13:1-7; 1Pe.2:13-14), but the authorities that stand behind the powers-that-be “in the heavenlies” (Eph.6:12; cf. Dan.10:20).

Similarly, the victory of God’s people is not over Rome. Remarkably, neither Jesus nor any of the apostles show much interest in Rome as such. Again, the victory of the saints contemplated is not over Caesar per se, but Satan (Ro.16:20). And as is evident in the verses noted above, these are neither synonymous nor conflated in the NT. Caesar is to be honored; Satan is not. Caesar, and his household, is to be evangelized (cf. Mt.10:18; Lk.21:12-13; Ac.23-26; 27:23-24; Phil.1:13; 4:22; etc.). Satan is to be opposed and avoided (cf. 1Pe.5:8-9; Jas.4:7). Caesar is ultimately not the enemy - nor any man; the devil is.

Lastly, your comments about “the end of the age” are the most non-compelling. The “end of the age” (suntelia aionos) is a phrase unique to Matthew’s gospel, and speaks of the final judgment (Mt.13:39, 40, 49; 24:3) - the wrapping up of “this present evil era.” In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the phrase is identified with the “harvest,” at which time Jesus will send his angles to ‘weed out’ of his kingdom all “stumbling blocks” and those who committ lawlessness (Mt.13:41). And what is this kingdom? Within the metaphor of the parable, it is the field, of course, which Jesus explicitly identifies with the world (13:38). The domain of Christ’s kingdom is the whole world. And at that time, at the end of the age, it will be seen that, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever,” (Rev.11:15; cf. Dan.2; 7:14ff.).

It seems plausible that the language of “the end of the age” is drawn from Daniel LXX (12:13), in which the prophet predicts an everlasting kingdom which shall never fail, nor pass away, nor be passed on to another people. This kingdom will endure forever, thus marking the end of history as we know it (Dn.2:37-44). In chp.7, we learn that One “like a Son of Man” inherits this kingdom, and that men from every tribe, nation and tongue will serve him (Dn.7:14; cf. Rev.5:9). It is precisely this universal authority which compels the univeral mission (Mt.28:18-19; cf. Rev.14:6).

Specifically, in Dan.12:13 “the end of the age” refers to a time of resurrection, in which Daniel himself is promised a resurrection to an inheritance of his alloted portion (cf. Dn.12:2-3; Mt.13:43). I.e., the “end of days” is the terminus of the present age, marked by the resurrection of the wicked and the righteous. Of course, with the resurrection of Christ (1Cor.15), the age to come has irrupted into the present age, such that they currently ‘overlap’ - the sons of the kingdom intermingle with the sons of the evil one! But the harvest is the end of this intermingling - the day of final separation (13:40-43; cf. Mt.25:31ff.). The present evil age ends with the resurrection of the righteous (and the wicked), and the final judgment. Then the kingdom of God will be established “on earth as it is in heaven,” then shall the “sons of God” be manifested in resurrection glory, and creation redeemed with the eschatological renewal of heaven and earth. Clearly, these things have not yet happened - the present evil age comingles with the age to come. And the mission continues, making disciples through our testimony, and, through the mysterious work of the Spirit, birthing new “sons of the kingdom.”

James,

In the first place, I agree with you that Jesus’ arch-opponent was Satan. But I’m not sure that this takes us very far beyond an apocalyptic narrative that addresses the situation of the people of God in the context of a hostile pagan culture. Roughly speaking, I would argue that within the scope of the biblical texts Satan is very closely associated with the imperial powers that oppress the ‘saints’: for example, this seems to be the significance of the beast symbolism within the tradition that runs from Daniel 7 to Revelation. That does not mean that we cannot speak of Satan operating outside that particular narrative; it is simply that the hierarchy of powers described in the New Testament is encountered most importantly in the violent opposition of the whole pagan system to the righteous.

So yes, the authorities that stand behind the powers-that-be are very much in view, as you say; but I think we read the New Testament better if we accept that the narrative that structures this theology is historically circumscribed. The fact is that within this historical narrative Caesar did ultimately prove to be the enemy: the church in the early centuries was very conscious of the fact that Caesar stood at the pinnacle of a whole hierarchy of political-religious powers that demanded loyalty at pain of death.

Jesus, it is true, does not show much interest in Rome, and there has been a tendency in recent scholarship to overstate the anti-imperial aspect of the New Testament. However, I would argue that Paul was acutely aware of the fact that his gospel challenged the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē. It cannot be merely an accident that so much of the kerygmatic language of Acts and Paul mimics the language of the prevailing imperial ideology I would argue that Philippians 2:6-11 depicts Jesus as an anti-Caesar: Jesus is not like the apocalyptic opponent of Israel who thinks that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul makes use of the same motif: a supreme figure of lawlessness, drawn from apocalyptic tradition, who threatens the integrity of the people of God and is eventually defeated by Jesus. If Peter refers to Rome as ‘Babylon’ (1 Pet. 5:13), it is because Rome was seen as the supreme enemy of the people of God, which would eventually be overthrown; and I think we see that overthrow depicted in Revelation.

I disagree that the parables in Matthew 13 refer to a final judgment. The parables are addressed to Israel – that is the point of the quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 in 13:14-15. They speak of an impending judgment on Israel, which has to be understood in the light of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. There is too much in the Gospels that points in this direction to disregard the natural historical reference of stories about a judgment of Israel at the end of the age. Jesus was not less than a Jewish prophet passionately engaged in the historical reality of first century Judaism. This is also an inescapable conclusion from Matthew 24:1-3: the destruction of the temple will mark the close of the age (it is hardly less than that) and the vindication of Jesus represented by the allusion to Daniel’s vision of a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive authority from the throne of God. The kingdom of God comes when sovereignty over God’s people is in practical terms taken from the oppressor, whether Herod, or Pilate or Caesar, and given to Jesus.

Is the field really the kingdom (Matt. 13:38)? Jesus says that the field is the world. The Son of man sows good seed in the world, which refers to the sons of the kingdom. The enemy sows bad seed in the midst of the good. When the harvest comes it is not the world that comes under judgment but that which has been planted. Presumably Jesus is still speaking here of the mixed reaction that he has been getting amongst Jews to his message about a coming judgment and a way of salvation for Israel (cf. the parable of the sower). What will be decisive in testing the character of this mixed reaction will be the historical disaster of the war and the upheaval associated with it, which Jesus describes in great detail in Matthew 24:4-28.

Daniel 12 is certainly in the background, but I don’t think that Daniel 12 is meant to describe a final judgment. It is the same judgment that we have in Daniel 7, when the aggressive pagan empire that has made war against the saints of the Most High is judged and destroyed. That has reference to a historical event. There is a partial resurrection described: many of those who died in the course of the conflict will be raised, some to life, others (apostate Jews) to shame and contempt; but that is part of how the judgment is apocalyptically conceived. This is not a final judgment of all the dead, which I think we only encounter when we get to John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 20:11-15.

Daniel’s story has to do with how the wrath of God that has been against Israel from the exile onwards (Dan. 9) will be brought to an end in a time of extreme conflict, when many in Israel will abandon the covenant and collaborate with the Gentile invader, but some will remain faithful and will suffer. Historically this refers to the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes’ violent campaign against Judaism, but Jesus saw the potential to tell the story again to describe the outcome of the crisis of Israel under Roman occupation – a crisis that would result in the far greater conflict of the war. This would mark the end of the age for Second Temple Judaism: it was God’s judgment on unrighteous Israel; but, in the words of Habakkuk 2:4, the righteous would live by their faith, by their trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

In the first place, I agree with you that Jesus’ arch-opponent was Satan. But I’m not sure that this takes us very far beyond an apocalyptic narrative that addresses the situation of the people of God in the context of a hostile pagan culture.

I don’t see a need to go beyond “an apocalyptic narrative that addresses the situation of the people of God in the context of a hostile pagan culture.” That narrative is cosmic. The scope of biblical narrative is evident from the fact that it is bookended by Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22. And specifically, the scope of the ancient promises regarding Messiah aren’t merely about Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon, or Medo-Persia, or Rome, but entail the entirety of Adam’s race. Messiah’s enemies are ultimately much bigger than these historical, socio-political structures. As you yourself acknowledge, behind the present “hostile pagan” authorities stands the powers of this dark world and…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The arch-enemy of Jesus and his people is not Caesar, then, as you admit, but Satan: the god of this world. Yet you say, “Rome was seen as the supreme enemy of the people of God,” and “Caesar did ultimately prove to be the enemy.” Rather, I would argue, they recognized that their enemy was not “flesh and blood,” (i.e., Caesar) and longed, not for the mere collapse of Rome (only to replaced by yet another corrupt regime), but for a “new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2Pe.3:13), in which the Sons of God were manifested in resurrection glory (Ro.8:18-26). The NT is more accurately described as being eschatologically circumscribed, and applied within the particular historical context of its original audience. And the eschatology of the NT cannot be circumscribed the Roman Empire for the simple reason that Jesus and the apostles constantly redirect our attention away from kings and officials to the heavenly powers that transcend our particular historical location.

Why Jesus’ relative disinterest in Caesar, or Rome (or, much to his irritation, Pilate), for that matter? If you will, Jesus is going after bigger fish. Our Lord’s victory over Satan is much larger than a skirmish over first century Israel and Rome. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Lucifer has fallen like lightening from heaven. As a result, whatever historic, geo-political entities and religious powers that serve “his satanic majesty’s request” (to quote the Stones) are doomed to fall. Jesus’ victory than is over all empires. He is truly King of Kings and Lord of Lords

Roughly speaking, I would argue that within the scope of the biblical texts Satan is very closely associated with the imperial powers that oppress the ‘saints’: for example, this seems to be the significance of the beast symbolism within the tradition that runs from Daniel 7 to Revelation.

Yes, but association should not be equated with identification – even (or I should say, especially) within the biblical framework. Satan is much bigger than Caesar. Whether as the king of Tyre (Ez.28:12ff.), or of Babylon (Isa.14), he manifests his power and effects through various political powers throughout history. He wears many masks, and no doubt operates many puppets. As the enemy of God’s people, he is destined to fall by the power of Christ’s word, and with him, all the nations that rage against God and His anointed.

I would argue that Philippians 2:6-11 depicts Jesus as an anti-Caesar: Jesus is not like the apocalyptic opponent of Israel who thinks that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 Paul makes use of the same motif: a supreme figure of lawlessness, drawn from apocalyptic tradition, who threatens the integrity of the people of God and is eventually defeated by Jesus.

So which Caesar was the apocalyptic opponent of Israel? All of them? Some of them? One of them in particular? As far as equality with God, isn’t that as old as Adam and Eve? Isn’t that simply the heart of human (and angelic) rebellion? Must every biblical referent be strictly localized, and historically isolated? If there is a modernist disdain for detail in its search for universal principles, I fear there is equally a post-modernist disdain for transcending truth, in its commitment to “viva la difference.” Not that I am charging you with being philosophically postmodern, but chances are, both you and I are, socially speaking, postmoderns.

I disagree that the parables in Matthew 13 refer to a final judgment. The parables are addressed to Israel – that is the point of the quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 in 13:14-15. They speak of an impending judgment on Israel, which has to be understood in the light of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. There is too much in the Gospels that points in this direction to disregard the natural historical reference of stories about a judgment of Israel at the end of the age. Jesus was not less than a Jewish prophet passionately engaged in the historical reality of first century Judaism.

No, not less, but he was far more. As One from heaven, he spoke of heavenly things – transcending (and not thereby inapplicable to) earthly things. Even so, the prophets of Israel spoke of more than the imminent historical judgments coming against Israel (consider Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Malachi). Jesus himself testified, and taught his disciples, that the OT as a whole consistently points to the mysterious suffering and vindicated Messiah - fulfilled in him. It is evident that these Scriptures by and large address a consummation of promises well beyond the scope of their immediate, historical context and audience. Israel lived in hope (and partial fulfillments, as illustrated, for example, in the Davidic covenant and the contemporary Davidic king).

This is also an inescapable conclusion from Matthew 24:1-3: the destruction of the temple will mark the close of the age (it is hardly less than that) and the vindication of Jesus represented by the allusion to Daniel’s vision of a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive authority from the throne of God. The kingdom of God comes when sovereignty over God’s people is in practical terms taken from the oppressor, whether Herod, or Pilate or Caesar, and given to Jesus.

I can’t reconcile your reading of Matthew 24 with either the text itself, or the rest of the NT (e.g., Luke’s versions of the discourse, Paul’s writings in 2Thessalonians and the Book of Revelation). It would appear that Jesus is here answering the three questions the disciples posed: “tell us, 1) when will this [the destruction of the Temple] happen, and 2) what will be the sign of your coming, and 3) the end of the age? Evidently, in the minds of the disciples, these events were all bound-up together (chronologically). And Jesus answers their question from their own vantage, addressing altogether both the razing of the Temple in AD 70 (the immediate historical referent), and the parousia, when Christ’s “sign” will appear in the heavens (as lightening which flashes from the East to the West), and all nations will see it and mourn (cf. Rev1:7). The angels will then gather the elect together from the ends of the earth. Jesus’ strong language here makes clear that he expects this to be a universally public event, and it will signify the end. God’s elect people are gathered together (cf. 13:30), separated from the wicked in judgment (cf. 13:49; 25:31-33), and brought into the consummated kingdom of God (cf. 13:4; 25:34). It is hard to imagine this as anything other than the end. In Matthew’s discourse, these events appear collapsed together, whereas in Luke’s account, for example, there are subtle, but significant differences (e.g., note the intriguing change of language between Lk.21:20 and Mt.24:15, and note also the differences between Lk.21:24ff. and Mt.24:29ff.).

But more importantly, I want to address the theological question raised by your suggestion that God’s sovereignty over his people is “in practically terms taken from the oppressor…and given to Jesus.” Obviously, God is always sovereign over His people (e.g., Ps.2), even as the nations rage against Him and His Christ. This was true before Christ’s humiliation, and after his glorification (e.g., Ac.4:24-30). God remains sovereign even when His people are led by wicked men (as in pre- and post-Constantinian Rome). However, the kingdom of God will come one day in a manner which excludes all (merely) human rulers and kingdoms, and hence any subsequent transfer of power (cf. Dn.2:44-45) – i.e., the end of political history - and removes all the chaff from its domain (Mt.3:12; cf. Rev.21:27 22:15). We clearly still live in the inaugurated eschatological stage of Mt.13:38, and 13:47, where the wheat and the tares, the good fish and bad fish comingle. This will not be so in God’s consummated kingdom.

Is the field really the kingdom (Matt. 13:38)?

According to Matt.13:41, it would certainly seem so. At the very least, they appear co-extensive.

Jesus says that the field is the world. The Son of man sows good seed in the world, which refers to the sons of the kingdom. The enemy sows bad seed in the midst of the good. When the harvest comes it is not the world that comes under judgment but that which has been planted.

And what has been planted? Both the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one. That pretty much sums the entirety of the human race. The evil one, after all, has been sowing his seeds of discord and rebellion since the beginning. As Jesus told the Jews, to their very great offence, their sinfulness in and of itself demonstrates beyond doubt their satanic descent (Jn.8:34-44). Their violent rejection of Jesus is simply the ‘natural’ reaction of their dark natures against His light.

What will be decisive in testing the character of this mixed reaction will be the historical disaster of the war and the upheaval associated with it, which Jesus describes in great detail in Matthew 24:4-28.

If this is “decisive,” it is not apparent from Matthew’s Gospel, or any other. What is decisive is Jesus Himself (cf. Jn.3:19; 12:46-48; 15:22-24; etc.). I think you’re trying to get way too much mileage out of the comparatively miniscule verses in the Gospels that explicitly address the destruction of the Temple.

I will have to address your comments about Daniel 12 later. But thanks for the exegetical and theological workout!

I don’t see a need to go beyond “an apocalyptic narrative that addresses the situation of the people of God in the context of a hostile pagan culture.” That narrative is cosmic.

I agree that the overarching narrative of scripture is cosmic or creational. But that does not mean, in my view, that every ‘eschatological’ episode within that narrative must be read as having cosmic dimensions. The Old Testament narratives of judgment and renewal sometimes carry cosmic overtones, but that does not alter the fact that the reference is essentially to historical outcomes. The cosmic language is basically symbolic: it is a way of classifying historical events as acts of divine judgment or deliverance. It may also point to the hope that ultimately the whole of creation would be restored, but it seems to me that the focus is still very much on the immediate experience of a historical people as God’s creational microcosm - a people called to be a new creation in the midst of a renegade world.

The NT is more accurately described as being eschatologically circumscribed, and applied within the particular historical context of its original audience. And the eschatology of the NT cannot be circumscribed the Roman Empire for the simple reason that Jesus and the apostles constantly redirect our attention away from kings and officials to the heavenly powers that transcend our particular historical location.

I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here. I would sort of agree with the first statement, if I understand you correctly: the New Testament draws on a cosmic hope in order to express the conviction that the church will ultimately triumph over its immediate historical enemies. I’m not sure that way of putting it really reflects the manner in which New Testament eschatology is constructed, but there is certainly a tension between the pressing historical context and the conviction that the Creator will ultimately triumph over all evil and the final enemy, which is death.

But I’m not so sure that by drawing attention to the ‘heavenly powers’ behind the historical opposition the New Testament simply transcends the particular historical situation. In the apocalyptic language of Revelation, for example, judgment on Rome is portrayed as a supernatural conflict against satanic powers, but it is still a judgment on Rome. I find it very interesting that the fall of Babylon the great is followed not only by a resurrection of the martyrs but also by the confinement of the dragon, which is the devil and satan (Rev. 20:2-3). Of course, there are all sorts of interpretive problems here, but on the face of it, and from the perspective of the church in the first century, this looks to me as though there is at least a very strong symbolic association between the political and supernatural powers. Historically speaking, it seems to me quite appropriate to think that the apocalyptic narrative is contextualized in this way.

As a result, whatever historic, geo-political entities and religious powers that serve “his satanic majesty’s request” (to quote the Stones) are doomed to fall. Jesus’ victory than is over all empires.

Nicely put, and from our perspective that may make sense. But I am increasingly persuaded that the perspective of the New Testament is much more limited than that, and that we understand it better if we accept that its eschatology is developed within a historically restricted horizon. The New Testament does not have in view all and any earthly powers; it has in view the immediate situation of the people of God within the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

Whether as the king of Tyre (Ez.28:12ff.), or of Babylon (Isa.14), he manifests his power and effects through various political powers throughout history.

It seems rather unlikely to me that these texts speak of satan. They use the inflated rhetoric of royal ideology to describe earthly kings who aspire to exalted or divine status, equality with God, so to speak, and are brought down for their blasphemy and hubris. We can add to the list the description of Antiochus Epiphanes in Daniel 11:36: ‘He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods.’ These texts provide the type or pattern for a ruler who ‘makes himself equal to God’, who arrogantly defies the God of Israel. So when Paul speaks of a ‘man of lawlessness… who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God’, I think he has in mind a figure like the king of Babylon, or the king of Tyre, or Antiochus who will oppose the churches in similar fashion - and who will be defeated when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven as the one to whom God has given the nations as an inheritance (2 Thess. 1:7-8; 2:3-4). I don’t think it matters particularly which Caesar this referred to: Paul is simply characterizing the conflict in which the Thessalonians are already engaged as one against a supreme pagan political-religious authority that dares to defy the true God.

It is evident that these Scriptures by and large address a consummation of promises well beyond the scope of their immediate, historical context and audience.

What is the evidence that this is so evident? What is there in the Old Testament texts which unequivocally points beyond a future historical fulfilment as part of the narrative of Israel’s contested existence in the world?

I won’t address Matthew 24 here since this is the topic of the conversation on ‘Re-registering the coming of the Son of man’.