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

The parable of the weeds and the question of hell

36 Then having left the crowds he came to the house; and his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”

37 Answering he said, “The one sowing the good seed is the Son of Man.

38 The field is the world, and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are the sons of the evil one,

39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the close of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 Just as, then, the weeds are gathered and are burned in a fire, so it will be at the close of the age.

41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of offence and those doing lawlessness,

42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

43 Then righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let the one have ears hear.”

What bearing do the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43) have on the current debate about hell? Two questions present themselves. First, is Jesus speaking of an imminent judgment on Israel or a final judgment on humanity—or perhaps both? Secondly, if this is a final judgment, should we understand the burning of the weeds as a metaphor for eternal conscious suffering in what is popularly called “hell”? Of course, if the answer to the first question is that Jesus has in view only a historical judgment, the second question is redundant. What I will argue here is that both the context and the content of the parable and its interpretation point to a restricted narrative-historical setting—a crisis of the failure of the covenant analogous to that described in Daniel 7-12.

1. The parable of the sower is a story about the proclamation of the gospel or the “word of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:19) in the context of Jesus’ prophetic ministry to Israel. Jesus makes the point emphatically in Matthew’s gospel: he has been sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24); the disciples are not sent among the Gentiles but “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). We have the image of seed “sown among thorns” (eis tas akanthas spareis, 13:22) in Jeremiah 4:3 LXX as part of a call to Israel to repent of its abominations and return to the Lord: “Renew for yourselves what has been made new, and do not sow among thorns (mē speirēte ep’ akanthais).” The argument is different, but it highlights a natural resonance with prophetic narratives of judgment and restoration. Jeremiah continues: “Be circumcised to your God, and remove the foreskin of your heart, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my anger goes forth like fire and will blaze forth, and there will be no one to quench because of the evil of your doings” (4:4 LXX). Fire, note, is a natural image of judgment on a people that sows among thorns.

2. Jesus explains his habit of speaking in parables by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matt. 13:13-15), which very clearly restricts the scope of these parables to the narrative of an impending judgment on Israel. Isaiah asks how long the nation will remain complacent and uncomprehending. “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away…” (Is. 6:11). The quotation of Psalm 78:2 works to similar effect: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). The psalmist relates the story of Israel’s rebelliousness during the exodus period in order to account for the devastation of the northern kingdom and God’s choice of Judah and David.

3. The parable speaks of a judgment at the “close of the age” (Matt. 13:39; cf. 13:49). The Gospels give us no reason to think that this phrase refers to the end of history and good reason to think that it refers to the catastrophic transition that will accompany the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 24:1-3). This is also in keeping with the statement in Paul and Hebrews that “the end of the ages” has come upon the current generation (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26).

4. Jesus identifies the sower in the parable of the weeds as the “Son of Man”, who then at the “close of the age” will send his angels to eradicate from his kingdom “all causes of stumbling and those doing lawlessness” (13:37, 41). How we frame the judgment narratively, therefore, will depend on how we understand Jesus’ argument about the Son of Man. My view is that the image of the Son of Man coming with his angels either to execute judgment on his enemies or to gather his elect properly refers to an event or events that will constitute the vindication of the suffering church.

5. The Jewish frame of reference is probably indicated by the phrase “all causes of offence (skandala) and those doing lawlessness” (Matt. 13:41). The continuing presence of the aboriginal Canaanites in the land along with their gods will be a “stumbling block” (skandalon) to Israel (cf. Josh. 23:13; Judg. 2:3; Ps. 105:36 LXX = 106:36). Hosea accuses Ephraim, that is Israel, of being an “associate of idols”, corrupted by the Canaanites. Ephraim “placed stumbling blocks (skandala) against himself” (Hos. 3:17 LXX = 4:17). In Psalms of Solomon we find: “Happy are those who fear the Lord in their innocence; the Lord will save them from deceitful men and sinners, and he will save us from every stumbling block of the transgressor of the law (pantos skandalou paranomou)” (Pss. Sol. 4:23). Typically, therefore (Wis. 14:11 is an exception), it is Israel that is finds itself under judgment because it has been corrupted by “all causes of offence and those doing lawlessness”.

6. The only real objection to this reading is Jesus’ identification of the field as the “world” (kosmos) rather than as Israel (Matt. 13:38), but this is less of a stumbling block than it may appear. It is not the field that is “judged” at the close of the age. What happens is that the “sons of the kingdom” are separated from the “sons of the evil one”. “Kingdom” probably should not be directly equated with Israel here, but it is certainly to be understood as the exercise of divine sovereignty with respect to his people. In John’s Gospel Jesus says to the Jews who assert their descent from Abraham, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn. 8:44). In other words, they are not “sons of the kingdom” but “sons of the evil one”. The “world”, therefore, is merely the backdrop to a judgment that saw the destruction of a generation of Jews that asserted an illegitimate claim to descent from Abraham and the vindication of those who acknowledged the authority that had been given to the Son of Man.

7. The imagery of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” signifies the exclusion of Jews from the kingdom. It is not what the damned do in hell.

8. The concluding statement that the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” recalls Daniel 12:2-3—and arguably we should understand the parable of the weeds as being essentially a retelling of exactly the sort of crisis of Jewish religion and identity, under threat from a blasphemous and brutal paganism, that is described in Daniel 7-12. In the limited “resurrection” that follows the final defeat of the aggressor a distinction is made between the “wise”, who will “shine like the brightness of the sky above”, and the unrighteous, who will be raised to “shame and everlasting contempt”. The preceding narrative makes it clear that these are two categories of Jews, again equivalent to the “sons of the kingdom” and the “sons of the evil one”.

So, as I said, the second question is redundant. The parable is told about an obtuse and disobedient generation of Jews which would not escape the catastrophic judgment of the end of the age of second temple Judaism. It does not describe a final judgment, it has nothing to say about hell, and it certainly cannot be cited in support of a doctrine of eternal conscious torment. There will be a final accountability of humanity (cf. Rev. 20:11-15), but this is not it.

Is it possible that it refers both to a historical judgment and to a final judgment? Well, the question we would have to ask is this: What would lead us to draw that conclusion? Is there something in the text or elsewhere in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus typically and intentionally made prophetic statements that had a split fulfilment? Or are we being swept in this direction by the powerful currents of dogmatic tradition? Are we simply unable to accept that Jesus might have said something of crucial importance that was relevant for his people at his time and not for us? It seems to me that, while we may perhaps reasonably put forward the claim on theological—or canonical—grounds that this parable “refers” also to a final judgment, we have no exegetical grounds for attributing such an intention to Jesus.

Image of Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012), Paperback, 148 pages, $9.95

Comments

”..and the harvest is the close of the age, and the harvesters are angels.”

 

The angels of our Lord, who worship Him, could have come to Him when we were about to torture and murder Him. Jesus would have only had to call, and 12 regiments, which could have been 36,000-60,000 angels.

 

The angels are spirits that minister to us, and yet are God’s spiritual beings who administer judgment.

Jesus speaks of angels gathering. I was simply saying that these angels are are going to do just that are they not.

How do you see angels in this context Andrew?

Andrew,

I just stumbled across your material this week and have really enjoyed your site.  I just bought your book “The Future of the People of God” and it should arrive tomorrow.  Although I was raised as a Christian fundamentalist, I’ve now come to believe that the traditions of biblical interpretation in which I was habituated were largely naive and misguided.  I am now very sympathetic with the sorts of interpretations of Scripture which you (and perhaps N.T. Wright?) defend.  

Since the topic of hell seems to be on everyone’s minds these days, I wonder what you think about the view that eventually hell will not be populated with our brothers and sisters, but that all human beings will one day be redeemed by God.  Is there, in your opinion, any real chance that a view like that is true?  Or is it your view that any sufficiently serious reading of the New Testament ought to incline us to reject such a doctrine in favor of something like annihilationism?    

Best,

JW

I don’t think that the Bible teaches universalism, if that’s what you’re asking, though I can’t claim to have explored all aspects of the debate. It seems to me, generally speaking, that the wages of sin is death and that John’s lake of fire is simply a final affirmation of that fact. To have your name written in the book of life seems to be exceptional (Rev. 20:14-15).

But what bothers me more about universalism is that, like much traditional evangelical thought, it is premised on the priority given to soteriology—that Christianity is essentially a universal religion concerned fundamentally with the salvation of individual souls. I disagree with that premise. I would put in the foreground not salvation but the vocation of a people to embody in themselves, actually and prophetically, newness of creation, restored shalom, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world.

Hi Andrew,

Like JW, I’ve recently found your site and have found it to be quite a breath of fresh air from the fundamentalism I was raised into and am just now climbing out of.

I’m curious why you would say that unversalism is premised on the priority of soteriology.  I don’t see why that’s necessarily the case.  It seems to me that universalism is primarily about the restoration of all things–about God reconciling all of creation unto himself.  Of course, that involves the reconciliation of each human soul, but the overall picture is richer than just that.

I’m not necessarily arguing for universalism, as I just don’t know the debate well enough.  But your objection strikes me as odd.  Maybe I’m misunderstanding?

This makes good sense, Andrew.

What I hear you saying is that Jesus here takes on more of the role of a Hebrew prophet than Savior of the world, which is how most of us today typically view him.

Not that the latter is diminished in the text or in history, just that we as today’s audience of the gospels often fail to see Jesus’ words as having a direct prophetic effect on the audience he was speaking to.

Am I tracking with you?

Also, I am thoroughly enjoying “The Future of the People of God,” though I must admit that part of the reason is that it is so much lighter than Campbell’s “Deliverance of God.” ;~)

Yes and no. It is certainly true that Jesus puts himself forward as a prophet to Israel rather than as Saviour of the world. But I don’t think it inappropriate to say that he thought of himself as Israel’s saviour, understood particularly (not exclusively) within an eschatological narrative about the Son of Man who suffers and is vindicated.

I am thoroughly enjoying “The Future of the People of God,” though I must admit that part of the reason is that it is so much lighter than Campbell’s “Deliverance of God.”

That’s as good a reason as any for reading it! Thanks.

Is there any significance on the “current debate about hell,” or even if located as temporal judgment around 70 AD, that the word translated as “furnace” is not the thing you heat your house with by burning wood/coal/gas but a kiln where fire is meant to refine, strengthen, and purify?  That also seems a better fit with the overall trajectory of Scripture that the purpose of God’s historic acts of judgment is so that people might turn back to him- Pharaoh and Egypt, the Jewish people watching the Gentiles respond to Jesus as Christ, etc. 

Richard, the weeds—the sons of the evil one—that are thrown into the furnace are not refined but destroyed. It would make sense to say that in the process Israel is refined—that is, this particular form of evil is eliminated from it. There is also, I agree, the thought that Israel as a people may perhaps repent following judgment. But judgment remains a destructive force.

Absolutely agreed that judgment has a destructive element, so does refinement.  Refinement is the destruction of impurities, is it not?  But why must the destruction be absolute in a way the the text doesn’t seem to bear?  How can there be weeping and gnashing of teeth if there are no eyes or teeth? (and yes that’s literalistic but I think so is understanding destruction as absolute) 

So in continuing with a theme of destruction, what is being destroyed? As I understand the text, he specifies stumbling blocks and lawlessness, not the people who do those things (similar to how in the parable of the nets, Jesus says the “good” and the “bad” are sorted but doesn’t attach the word fish).  Isn’t it an interpretive choice to only ascribe agency to humans in reading the text or is there something in the text that pushes us there that I’m missing? 

Peter asked “Andrew Jones - is that O.K.?”

 

Peter, I will always comment here as “andrew jones” so there not be any confusion with mr perriman the ferryman.

I LOVE your input to these posts and really appreciate you taking the time.

Ever since I was taught at Bible College that many prophecies have an initial and later fulfilment (Isaiah’s virgin having a child, for example) I always stay open to the idea of a double whammy, a fractalisation of prophetic statements that will continue having impact in larger ways beyond the first strike. I think I am far more open to this idea than the Perriman but enjoy his strong argument in favour of a single malt interpretation, rather than a blended.

keep it coming, you guys are keeping me entertained and also teaching me a lot.

“It would make sense to say that in the process Israel is refined”

 

Even the Jews who Jesus said, “Your father is not God, but the devil.”?

I thought this quote from Dr. Sproul hit the nail plumb on the head. Thought it fits the discussion, perhaps just a short rabbit path away.

“No matter how we analyze the concept of hell it often sounds to us as a
place of cruel and unusual punishment. If, however, we can take any
comfort in the concept of hell, we can take it in the full assurance
that there will be no cruelty there. It is impossible for God to be
cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or
harsh than the crime. Cruelty in this sense is unjust. God is incapable
of inflicting an unjust punishment. The Judge of all the earth will
surely do what is right. No innocent person will ever suffer at
His hand.” -RC Sproul

The refining of a people (for example, by the fires of judgment) would entail the “destruction” of the “sons of the evil one”.

Well, I guess if you are going to have a concept of hell as a place of endless conscious torment as punishment for a finite lifetime of sin, moderated to whatever extent by natural human goodness, it’s reassuring to know that there won’t be any cruelty there.

That was irony. Don, are you serious?

The parable of the field is a good example of the “already - - - not yet” principle for reading the prophetic character of Jesus’s ministry, his two-stage introduction of the age to come, and the unanimous opinion of the rest of the NT concerning the resurrection of Jesus and resurrection to come, the giving of the Spirit as deposit and the full payment to come, and the message of imminent judgement and future judgement. Despite Andrew’s very focused exegesis of this parable, “already - - - not yet” provides a reading here which is more consistent with the gospels as a whole, the letters and Revelation.

Jesus’s warnings through his temple actions in Matthew 21, and in Matthew 23 and 24, of imminent judgement, and implicitly elsewhere, are not, and have not been, in dispute. What is of significance is that Jesus only occasionally associates these warnings explicitly with imminent judgement. This is true of the parable of the field. If we are to be precise with exegesis of the passage, we will  note that it simply refers to a harvest at “the end of the age”. There is no suggestion here, within the passage, of a crisis of the covenant, or a vision of the end of the age of 2nd Temple Judaism. But that’s not to say that these things are not implied.

A better interpretation of the passage, according to its literary sense, is that we are looking at a much more universal judgement than was reflected in AD 70, which although catastrophic for Israel, and certainly fulfilling the more explicitly imminent of Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 23/24, did not spell the end of the nation, nor of Judaism.

The Son of Man sows the good seed, which is the sons of the kingdom. The context is immediately wider than Israel, and directing us to the more universal kingdom of God, which although introduced in Israel, was nevertheless to be a worldwide phenomenon. The field is the kosmos, which also suggests the wider context than Israel alone. The setting is now the sons of the kingdom as opposed to the sons of the evil one. Disbelieving Jews who were intent on murdering Jesus are also described as having the devil as their father in John 8:44, but the implication here is of a much wider situation than a murderous cabal within Israel.

The Son of Man, an ambiguous form of self-identification which Jesus seems to play on, sometimes simply meaning “man”; sometimes echoing “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13, but rarely explicitly the latter, sowed the seed not simply in Israel during the three years of Jesus’s ministry, but continued to sow seed through the church, and not simply until AD 70, but beyond, to the present day.

This activity through the church was not simply a metaphorical way of speaking about someone who had died, someone whose followers tried to model their ethical life on his teaching, which you might be led to think by Andrew’s presentation.  Luke’s gospel is described in Acts 1:1 as “all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven”, in other words his teaching continued into the resurrection phase, and beyond in Acts, and the letters leave us in no doubt that Jesus’s continuing presence in the church was and is a real continuation of his life, albeit in a different form.

Taking the wider context of the life and ministry of Jesus as a whole, before and after his resurrection, the parable of the field acquires a much wider significance than events limited to the AD 70 horizon.

The harvest is a harvest of judgement, the angels the same spirit beings who gather the elect “from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” in Matthew 24:31, and the gathering is the same as that in Matthew 25:32, with the same separation: wheat and weeds, sheep and goats. The constituency of the gathering in Matthew 25 as in Matthew 13 is the entire world: “All the nations will be gathered before him” - Matthew 25:32. In Matthew 13:41, the son of man as judge weeds out of his kingdom “everything that causes sin and all who do evil.”

The question we should then be asking, in view of the literary sense of the parable, is whether the parable can be applied at all to the more imminent disaster of AD 70, not whether it means final judgement. The answer must be, here as elsewhere, that it can, where the AD 70 judgement was in some ways a foretaste of final judgement to come.

We must also observe that many things in AD 70 failed to reflect the more comprehensive judgement that is described in Matthew 13. AD 70 was not a time when every cause of sin and all evil-doers were destroyed - not even within Israel. It was not a time when the full force of “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” was realised, and even Daniel 12:3, which the phrase echoes, does not limit itself to a time within Israel’s history when these things would happen. Daniel also described a widespread general resurrection in 12:2, and much else which is obscure and open to interpretation - which should also make us wary of being overly confident in interpreting every detail in Matthew 24, not to mention Revelation.

In short, the parable of the field in Matthew 13 provides a good example of how prophecy can have a more distant fulfilment in view as well as providing suggestions of more imminent events. This is also the case in Matthew 24, and the parables of Matthew 24 and 25, though in the Mathew 24 prophecy there is rather more of the imminent disaster than the distant events which it also describes. The principle is illustrated in the judgement of Babylon (which cannot be telescoped into meaning simply Rome) in Revelation, and in the Old Testament, where passages such as Isaiah 7-9 or Joel 3, already commented on by me on this site and elsewhere, provide similar illustrations of a mixing of the imminent and more distant.

Andrew Jones - is that O.K.?

 

 

If we are to be precise with exegesis of the passage, we will note that it simply refers to a harvest at “the end of the age”.

The only place in Matthew where “end of the age” has clear temporal definition is Matthew 24:2-3, where it coincides with the destruction of the temple.

There is no suggestion here, within the passage, of a crisis of the covenant, or a vision of the end of the age of 2nd Temple Judaism. But that’s not to say that these things are not implied.

So? Given the fact that there are several explicit references to imminent judgment on Israel in the Gospels and no explicit, unequivocal references to a final judgment, it seems likely that Jesus has imminent events in mind here. The reference to the Son of Man and the resurrection of Daniel 12:2-3 seems a pretty clear allusion to a crisis of the covenant.

…we are looking at a much more universal judgement than was reflected in AD 70, which although catastrophic for Israel, and certainly fulfilling the more explicitly imminent of Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 23/24, did not spell the end of the nation, nor of Judaism.

This is just pedantic. A million Jews died according to Josephus, the temple was razed to the ground, sacrifice brought to an end, the place of God’s dwelling demolished, the city of Israel’s king destroyed—that is judgment on the “sons of the evil one”. There is nothing at all in the parable to suggest a universal judgment. The language entirely points to judgment within the narrative of God’s dealings with his people Israel. If Jesus had meant it to refer also to a final judgment, he would have said so.

I would consider the argument that “sons of the kingdom” includes Gentiles, but that does not mean that we are talking about an event beyond AD 70. Every detail in the story—including several that you have disregarded—points to a narrative about Israel.

Disbelieving Jews who were intent on murdering Jesus are also described as having the devil as their father in John 8:44, but the implication here is of a much wider situation than a murderous cabal within Israel.

How come?

AD70 was not a time when every cause of sin and all evil-doers were destroyed - not even within Israel.

That is an issue of how we understand prophetic-apocalyptic language. I don’t think it has to be applied in such literalistic detail, and arguably its function is primarily to invoke Old Testament narratives of judgment. The causes of offence and those doing evil are the particular reasons for the impending judgment; we do not have to suppose that Jesus is talking about all sin in an absolute sense.

The only place in Matthew where “end of the age” has clear temporal definition is Matthew 24:2-3, where it coincides with the destruction of the temple.

These verses (24:2-3) raise more questions than they answer. Is Jesus telling the disciples that his “coming” and “the end of the age” will coincide with the destruction of the temple? 

What is assumed in the disciples’ questions in Matthew 24:3? Would they not have expected a Messiah to come and avenge the destruction of the temple, and the close of the age to be, according to Jewish expectations, the era of Israel’s triumph over the nations? If this is the case, Jesus is correcting the mistaken assumptions of the disciples about his coming and end of the age. The temporal connection is not clear.

Is Jesus addressing his disciples on the assumption that they already understand that his “coming” and “the close of the age” will be temporally connected with the destruction of the temple, and the destruction will be the expression of his coming and the close of the age? Is this assumption compatible with the suggestions of admiration they have for the temple: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them” - Matthew 24:1-2?

In other words, is Jesus’s answer to the questions is in agreement with their assumptions, or in correction of their assumptions?

If it is the latter, then “coming” and “close of the age” are not necessarily temporally connected with the temple’s destruction. “Coming” (parousia) is mentioned twice in the discourse, the second occasion being where there is ambiguity about the time frame of the reference - Matthew 24:27.

Parousia is next mentioned in Matthew 24:39, where the context does not suggest anything like the circumstances of the Roman invasion of AD 67-70.

The reference to the Son of Man and the resurrection of Daniel 12:2-3 seems a pretty clear allusion to a crisis of the covenant.

Yes, but as I’ve pointed out, Daniel 12:2-3 does not fit well with AD 70 and the 1st century - if at all. Which resurrection is Daniel speaking of? Apart from Matthew 27:52, the only clear reference to resurrection in OT and NT is at the final judgement.

This is just pedantic. A million Jews died according to Josephus, the temple was razed to the ground, sacrifice brought to an end, the place of God’s dwelling demolished, the city of Israel’s king destroyed—that is judgment on the “sons of the evil one”. There is nothing at all in the parable to suggest a universal judgment. The language entirely points to judgment within the narrative of God’s dealings with his people Israel. If Jesus had meant it to refer also to a final judgment, he would have said so.

I don’t want to minimise the slaughter - though many think Josephus’s figures are questionable. Many, like myself, would say that sacrifice was brought to an end with the death of Jesus, and that any continuation of sacrifice in Herod’s temple, itself not the authentic temple, was no more than empty ritual.

From the time of Pentecost onwards, Jerusalem had ceased to have significance, eschatologically or otherwise, in the eyes of the NT writers. Eg Galatians 4:26-27; Hebrews 13:22. Yes, the destruction of Jerusalem was a judgement; but the eschatological narrative had moved on, and I think you are overestimating its importance. By AD 70, the main eschatological events are no longer connected with the temple or geographical Jerusalem. This is probably why there is no reference to the destruction of temple or city outside the gospels.

Every detail in the story—including several that you have disregarded—points to a narrative about Israel.

My post was clearly arguing the opposite.

How come?

(referring to my assertion that “sons of the evil one” were part of a wider scheme than a “murderous cabal” who wanted to kill Jesus in John 8:44)

The arena in at the end of the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13 is cleared of everything and everyone except the sons of the kngdom and the sons of the evil one, and the reapers/angels. This is hardly the diverse picture of those responding to Jesus in 1st century Israel. The implication is that we are looking at an ultimate division of humanity, when the only groupings will be two - those for and those against Jesus: wheat and tares, sheep and goats. This had not happened in Jesus’s lifetime, although the process had been set in motion. Neither was it completed by AD 70.

It’s for this reason that I think we have to ask what is the literary sense of apocalyptic language. It is not literalistic, but neither is it unanchored in reference to realistic detail. In the end, its meaning relies on the usual principles of understanding the literary sense of language, which includes taking into account echoes of similar language used elsewhere, in the OT, for instance. OT antecedents have to be take with some care however, as Jesus was plainly not fulfilling in a literalistic sense OT expectations. In the end, some common sense has to be used - Jesus was not so obscure in the parables that they could not be understood.

It’s curious, to continue this conversation with myself, that Mark and Luke have only: “And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”, “and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”, in response to Jesus’s prediction of the temple’s destruction, where Matthew adds “and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”

There then follows in Matthew a resumé of events preceding the destruction of the temple, including the flight of believers from Judea from the Roman invasion. Once again, warnings are given about false Christs, who continued to appear within the very siege of Jerusalem itself.

If it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus is correcting the very Jewish assumption of the disciples that a destruction of the temple would precipitate the very Jewish expectation of a Messiah who would come like King David and overthrow pagan tyranny, then the ensuing discourse can be understood along the following lines.

First, the temple’s destruction would only be at the end of a period of extreme disturbance and suffering, which would have to be endured first. All these things happened before the temple was destroyed.

Next, the destruction of the temple would be preceded by its desecration, similar to the desecration described in Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11 - under Antiochus IV. At that time, and probably beforehand, flight rather than fight was urged. History shows that this was so, and that this course of action was taken by Christian believers in Jerusalem and Judea. An avenging messiah would not appear on behalf of Israel.

Further warnings about the appearance of false Christs are given. Clearly, a Messiah would be, and was, expected at that time. A Messiah who would physically appear, and could visbly be seen, to stand for Israel against the invading Roman armies. So Jesus says that there will be no doubt about his appearance - it will be a public, universally visible event - Matthew 24:27. Even allowing for apocalyptic figure of speech, the flow of thought in the passage points to a publicly, visible event. The word used here is parousia,  repeating its use in Matthew 24:3, in the extended question asked of Jesus by the disciples.

So was the destruction of the temple, to which all the events described lead, the parousia of Jesus? It was certainly public and visible. It was an expression of Jesus’s power: if he himself was enacting the judgement through the instrumentality of the Romans. The fall of the temple was certainly a judgement, and not simply the end result of natural historical consequences. Is this what Matthew 24:27 is describing?

A parousia is a visitation, such as the arrival of an Emperor or dignitary to visit a town or city in the Empire. Was Matthew 24:27 a parousia of judgement, in which the activity of the Son of Man was seen, rather than the physical presence of the Son of Man himself?

The phrase “Son of Man” echoes Daniel 7:13, where the person who enters the presence of the Ancient of Days was assumed to be a corporate figure representing Israel, in contrast with the beasts who represented pagan nations and empires. In Matthew 24:30, a “coming” of the Son of Man is repeated, but this time using the erchomai form, which is also the form used in the LXX Daniel 7:13. The Daniel passage speaks of the event in which the power of the Son of Man, and/or the Ancient of Days, is executed to bring “all peoples, nations, and men of every language” to worship him. Since “worship” can mean respect towards God or man, it can be seen how the eschatological expectation of Israel’s triumph included their authority over all nations as well as the authority given to the Ancient of Days.

So was the destruction of the temple the event which demonstrated that authority, and the entire fulfilment of the Matthew 24 prophecy? A parousia of judgement, which also reflected the “coming”, erchomai, of the Son of Man into the presence of the Ancient of Days - a figurative way of describing the authority given him over the nations by YHWH?

It’s here that doubts arise over this simple interpretation.

First, the Messiah has not physically, visibly appeared, as Jesus seems to be implying through his repeated warnings against false messiahs. It would seem strange to warn that false messiahs would come, physically, while the true messiah did not so appear, except in the signs of his activity. However, that is what Matthew 24:30 goes on to say: that the sign of the Son of Man will be how he is seen. The Son of Man will be “seen” in the sense that his judging activity will be visible. The end of the temple. The end of the Jewish age.

On the other hand, there is something left open. Surely the disciples were implying more than a “coming” in the form of a demonstration of judgement without a physical ”coming” in their question (Matthew 24:3)? Surely they were implying something more than the end of a Jewish age?

Jesus has corrected an expectation of the appearance of a messiah who would arise on behalf of Israel, whose temple was to be destroyed, a Messiah who would overthrow Roman tyranny. There was not to be an Empire of Israel ruling the Gentile nations, as might have been expected from Daniel 7. But there was to be a Jesus who would demonsrate his kingly authority. The destruction of the temple was such a demonstration. But in what sense could this be taken as a paradigm for Jesus’s entire future authority? Was the kingdom he was bringing to be one of judgement which protected his true people against their enemies, whom Israel had become, or was it to be one of re-creation, through the supernatural activity of the Spirit in people’s lives, and through supernatural demonstrations of healing, deliverance and miracles?

The activity of the angels in Matthew 24:31 casts further doubt on an entire fulfilment of Matthew 24 in the 1st century. There is no doubt about the worldwide range of the predicted gathering of the elect: “from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” - Matthew 24:31b. This gathering should have been a local affair if the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple had been exclusively in view. There was no worldwide gathering at that time. If anything, there was a worldwide dispersal.

Could Matthew 24:31 mean that the fall of the temple and Jerusalem would precipitate a further gathering to come? The language doesn’t seem to imply this.

I have good reasons for continuing to question your interpretation of Matthew 24, Andrew, and the supporting passages in Matthew (such as Matthew 13, the parable of the wheat and the tares). First, you have provided us with a paradigm which does violence to the meaning of ’ kingdom of God’ (in relating it entirely to God’s activity of judgement on behalf of his people). Second, the event which provides the focal point of this paradigm, the destruction of the temple (and he would add judgement on Rome), swallows up the other major NT eschatological categories. The cross is solely a means of navigating safely the turbulent 1st century waters of transition for the people of God. The resurrection is more a historical 1st century sign of transition than a transformative power at work in believers now. The ascension of Jesus is subordinated to the kingdom as judgement, reflected in Matthew 24 as a 1st century event. The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is significant only insofar as it accompanies the supposed entire thrust of the narrative towards the temple’s destruction and the deliverance of believers. The Spirit is part of the judgement narrative, rather than the basis of the church for all time.

I am convinced that a narrative interpretation of the NT is the way forward to explaining its meaning, in both gospels and letters. I just think that there is a better way of providing this interpretation than one which relativises everything so radically to the 1st century. I think it starts with questioning the current trend to interpret Matthew 24 as dscribing purely 1st century events. I think there are too many anomalies which call into question this view.

I’m a bit worried about you talking to yourself.

Would they not have expected a Messiah to come and avenge the destruction of the temple, and the close of the age to be, according to Jewish expectations, the era of Israel’s triumph over the nations? If this is the case, Jesus is correcting the mistaken assumptions of the disciples about his coming and end of the age. The temporal connection is not clear.

Not sure that follows. The disciples expect that the “coming” of Jesus will follow the destruction of the temple. Jesus tells them that immediately (eutheōs) after the destruction of the temple, etc., they will “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”—symbolic, I think, of the vindication of the suffering community. There is no indication here that the disciples are mistaken. The destruction of Jerusalem and the vindication of the emerging church of Jesus Christ through this event will mark the end of the age of second temple Judaism or of Judaism according to the Law.

In other words, is Jesus’s answer to the questions is in agreement with their assumptions, or in correction of their assumptions?

How does he express disagreement? He simply answers their question. He makes it clear that they could mistake the timing of the event (40 years is a long time!) or the nature of his appearance, but this is still within the temporal frame of first century Judaism with its false prophets and false messiahs, in the decades leading up to the war.

This is probably why there is no reference to the destruction of temple or city outside the gospels.

That’s debatable. Acts 2? Romans? 2 Thessalonians 2? Hebrews? Revelation? I’m sure there’s a sense in which the obsolescence of the temple is anticipated in the New Testament, but this is only because there was a certain expectation, based on Jesus’ teaching, that this would actually happen. But we’re not talking about the rest of the New Testament. We’re talking about Jesus’ teaching to his disciples when they ask him about the destruction of the temple and the end of the age.

Thanks Andrew. I do need to stop talking to myself.

Also, I hadn’t realised that you read “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” as symbolic of the vindication of the suffering  community. So I’m still getting my head round what you are saying. I must pay closer attention in future.

No nearer agreeing with you, alas.

Isn’t it a bit odd that the disciples should use phrases like “sign of your coming” and  ”end of the age” as if they already fully understand the implications of the temple’s destruction? After all, it had been destroyed before, and needed to be destroyed and rebuilt if an ‘authentic’ temple was to be constructed. 

Odd also that they completely concur with Jesus’s coming as he describes it - not a physical coming (like the false messiahs), but as a judgement expressing his authority, of which the temple’s destruction was a “sign”, and “vindication of the suffering community”. Those are quite complex concepts, which would be implied in their use of the phrase “sign of your coming” if they had not needed correction by Jesus.

If you are right, isn’t the disciples’ question rather a leading question - if you take it as a straightforward question which receives a straightforward answer?

Maybe it was an editorial device planted by Matthew (or whoever) to point towards the full significance of the temple’s destruction. In view of the disciples’ dimness generally, their normal slowness on the uptake, and the unexepectedly sudden exchange of an implied admiration for the temple for a complete acceptance of Jesus’s prediction of its destruction, it just seems odd and out of character.

The common view of the Messiah was that he would come and fight on Israel’s behalf. This is what Daniel 7:13 implies. Jesus has to correct that interpretation, in his predicted judgement of Israel. Nevertheless, Daniel will be fulfilled, but not at all in the way Israel was expecting, or was implied in Daniel. Were the disciples any exception to that common expectation?

It’s not a straightforward interpretation of Daniel which Jesus provides, and there is a correction of commonly understood prophetic interpretation taking place, whether the disciples were being corrected or not.

This is what comes of talking to myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“That was irony. Don, are you serious?”

Do you read the quote by Sproul and ponder it? His point is that the Scripture does teach that there is eternal punishment, and that it is just, and not cruel. Cruel would be to punish someone in a way he doesn’t deserve.

I guess it comes back to the Word, and the truth that some people would be better off never being born than to receive their due just punishment for their sins.

Andrew you don’t believe the Word teaches this, and most scholars throughout history do. The Church as a whole believes in the judgment of hell and eternal “torment” (Rev. 20:10).

Don, I have a nice family, treat people with respect, pay my taxes and credit card bills on time, recycle fanatically, exercise and eat healthy foods and so on.

But I don’t believe Jesus died for my sins.

You think for that I deserve to suffer eternal torment? That my punishment for wrongly interpreting an ancient book (if in fact I am wrong) should be a trillion times a trillion years of agonizing pain?

And you think that it would not be cruel of anybody to inflict that on me?

 

Hi Andrew,

I recently discovered your site after following a link from Andrew Jones’s site (Tall Skinny Kiwi). I must say that I have found your thinking and dialogue very insightful as I try to make sense of what the Bible actually says about issues to do with our eternal destination (rather than human/traditional interpretations that have been heaped upon it for millenia). This is, of course, much easier said than done, and it’s new to me: only now, as I reach my 40s, and having been a committed believer for some 25 years, am I questioning some doctrines that I have hitherto swallowed without question.

I was especially arrested by your comments in the above discussion to the effect that Christianity is not primarily concerned with the salvation of individual souls. I’ve been mulling this over and trying to understand where you’re coming from, and here’s where I’ve got to: I think you’re saying that individual salvation is not the end goal of God’s mission in the earth, and thus of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection; rather, the end goal is the renewal and eternal reign with God of a covenant community, and individual salvation is either (a) the entry point into that community, or (b) the defining characteristic of those who are members of that community, depending on which way you look at it.

So, two questions at this point:

1. Is my understanding of what you are saying along the right lines?

2. Can you point to any other accessible resources that might help me understand this perspective and its implications for us as 21st century gentiles? (By accessible, I mainly mean “not requiring a degree in Theology to understand”!)

Thanks in advance, and keep up the discussion, which I shall be following with interest.

Rob

“And you think that it would not be cruel of anybody to inflict that on me?”

 

You shall receive your just punishment Paul. That is for sure. If you reject God’s kindness, and reject what Christ did for your sins, then you will pay for each and every one, according to His perfect knowledge of your heart.

There are those in the church, who are quite good citizens as well, and who do all sorts of good deeds, and live a life “with faith”, and they shall hear the Lord say, “Depart from Me.” Infact their eternal punishment will be more severe, for Christ tells us that as well.

Can we explain this in detail?

No. But it will be eternal seperation just the same for all sinners.

Have a pleasant weekend. And I pray you would consider the truth that Jesus spoke. He lived a perfect sinless life. No pride, no lust, no resentment, no false nor guile of any kind. And He loved the Father with all His heart, mind, strength, and soul perfectly.

 

 

Take a quick peek at Matthew 15:12-14

12Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?

13But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.

14Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

This explains better the parable of the wheat and tares. Jesus told his disciples to leave the tares alone

Matt 13:28-30

28He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?

29But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.

30Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

Roger, that is an excellent observation. The two teachings may not be making exactly the same point, but they certainly presuppose the same eschatological framework of judgment on Israel.