Assessing Dick France’s argument about the parousia of the Son of Man in Matthew

In a comment on my recent post It’s not eschatology, folks, it’s just a story Ian Paul kindly took me to task for not consulting Dick France’s commentary on Matthew. I used his commentary on Mark when writing The Coming of the Son of Man, but the Matthew commentary came out a couple of years later. I have since got hold of a copy, and I have to say, it hasn’t changed my view.

France’s argument is basically that whereas in Mark 13 Jesus speaks only about the fall of Jerusalem and its significance for the renewal of God’s people, in Matthew 24-25 he makes a fundamental temporal distinction between the vindication of the Son of Man in conjunction with the destruction of the temple and the parousia of the Son of Man at the close of the age. There are five main lines of support for this argument, which I have summarized below. I give my reasons for not being persuaded. Be warned. It’s a little complex….

1. The form of the disciples’ question in Matthew allows for a temporal distinction between the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia / completion of the age (894-95).

In principle, yes, the form of the question in Matthew allows for a distinction between two different events—the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia of Jesus at the end of the age:

Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your parousia and of the end of the age? (Matt. 24:3)

But it does not require such a distinction; nor does it unequivocally establish it as the premise for the rest of the passage. We have a “when” question and a “what” question, not two “when” questions. The two part question differentiates between the timing of the destruction of the temple (“these things”) and the “sign” of the parousia at the end of the age. On the face of it, Matthew’s disciples appear to make the assumption that the parousia and the end of the age will be part of the completion of “all these things”. The “what” is an extension of the “when”.

France can be a little disingenuous here. A couple of times he notes that the disciples’ question “nevertheless suggested some association between the two events, probably supposing that the one cannot occur without the other” (917). The obvious explanation is that Matthew has not constructed the double question with a view to setting up the sort of sharp temporal distinction that France’s exegesis presupposes.

It is just as likely, as I suggested in a comment on the previous post, that Matthew’s “completion (synteleias) of the age” corresponds to Mark’s “all these things are about to be completed (synteleisthai)”. France also draws attention to the echo of Daniel 12:6-7 LXX in the disciples’ question about the “completion” (synteleias) of the age (894):

And they said to the one wearing linen, “O, O Sir, when then will you do the consummation (synteleia) of the wonders and the purification of these things which you have told?” And I heard the one wearing linen, who was above the water of the stream: “Until the time of the consummation (synteleias).” And he raised the right hand and left hand toward heaven, and he swore by God, who lives forever, “The consummation (synteleia) of the power for the release of the holy people will be at a time and times and half a time, and all these things will be accomplished (syntelesthēsetai).” (Dan. 12:6–7 LXX)

Mark’s form of the question is arguably closer: “when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”; and it could well be that the disciples’ question is similarly an echo of the angels’ question. But if the point is valid, it equates the parousia and the end of the age with a “day of affliction” specifically facing Jerusalem as a result of pagan aggression, “which will be such as has not occurred since they were born until that day” (Dan. 12:1), when the holy people will be forgiven or released.

2. Verses 27-28 are parenthetic, pointing forward to an event subsequent to the destruction of the temple. The parousia is mentioned here in order to “differentiate it from the chaotic events of the siege of Jerusalem” (901).

The problem with this subtle argument is that a very similar contrast is presented between the sightings of the false messiahs and false prophets and the appearance of the Son of Man, preceded by heavenly portents, coming on the clouds of heaven, in verses 29-30. Why would Matthew want to highlight the contrast with the parousia of the Son of Man in this parenthetic way, as an “aside”, when Mark has already afforded him just this contrast in relation to the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven? If the coming of the Son of Man following the destruction of Jerusalem is already a transcendent and glorious event, unlike the mundane appearances of false messiahs and false prophets, as Mark emphasizes, why does Matthew further need to stress that the parousia of the Son of Man will be different from the chaotic events of the siege of Jerusalem?

It seems to me much more likely that Matthew’s sayings about the parousia of the Son of Man shining as lightning and the vultures gathering around a corpse are integral to the narrative at this point, not an aside, as France thinks. No temporal distinction has been inserted—it is the contrasting manner of the Son of Man’s appearance that is stressed. The word parousia denotes the presence of someone who has just come or arrived; it naturally anticipates the vision of the “Son of Man coming (erchomenon) on the clouds of heaven” in verse 30. The coming (exerchetai) of the lightning from the east and shining as far as the west similarly prefigures the gathering of the elect “from one end of heaven to the other”.

3. The coming of the Son of Man described in verses 29-31 is not the parousia of the Son of Man, otherwise we would have to suppose that Jesus or Matthew was mistaken in thinking that the parousia would take place at the time of the destruction of the temple.

France argues that verses 29-31 are to be understood as “Jesus’ way of speaking, in the colourful language of OT prophecy, of the climactic event of the destruction of the temple and of his own authority as the vindicated Son of Man” (920). He also insists that “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…” disallows any period of time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the events described in verses 29-31. I agree with this.

I’m less convinced that verse 31 refers to the reconstitution of the people of God. Here, as in the later judgment of the nations, the focus is not on the whole people of God but on the disciples, who have been sent into the oikoumenē to proclaim the good news of what YHWH is doing in Israel, and who will suffer as Jesus suffered. The mission of the disciples will be brought to an end, and they will then reign, as the community of the Son of Man, throughout the coming ages—that is, in the kingdom of God.

But the main point to make is that there is no problem with associating the parousia and end of the age with the destruction of Jerusalem if parousia is simply another way of referring to the moment when the vindicated Son of Man comes to “save” his disciples and judge the nations.

France appears to assume that the parousia must be a final event, presumably on the basis of Paul’s usage. My view is that Paul uses it not finally but with reference to the coming of Jesus to rule in the place of Caesar and the many other “lords” of the ancient world. I suggest that Matthew has retrojected the term into Jesus’ discourse but without disrupting Jesus’ more limited outlook.

4. Matthew begins a new subject in verse 36.

France argues that peri de (“But concerning…”) marks a change of subject in verse 36, finding a parallel in Matthew 22:31 (839, 936). But in 22:31 the phrase manifestly does not mark a change of subject. “But concerning the resurrection of the dead” refers back to the preceding verse: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” If anything, this suggests that “But concerning that day and hour” in 24:36 is meant to pick up and develop a prior temporal statement—the moment when summer comes, the Son of Man is at the gates, and all these things will take place (24:32-35).

I may have missed something, but France appears not to deal with the fact that Mark also has “But concerning that day or that hour…”, followed by a parable about a man going on a journey and an exhortation to be prepared (Mk. 13:32-37). Matthew has certainly expanded this argument, but he has added nothing that takes it outside the temporal frame provided by Mark. This seems to me a fatal objection to France’s contention that Matthew 24:36 introduces a body of teaching with a fundamentally different time frame.

The simpler solution by far is to suppose that no temporal distinction is inserted here, and that the parousia of the Son of Man is the same as the coming of the Son of Man.

5. The destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man will happen within a generation and will be preceded by signs. The parousia / completion of the age will happen at some indefinite point in the future and will not be preceded by signs.

The shift from “those days” to “that day and hour” is readily explained as a distinction between the period of time leading up to the coming of the Son of Man and the moment of his coming. The real shift here, however, is not between two events but between an apocalyptic narrative, on the one hand, and parenetic teaching about being constantly prepared, on the other. This also accounts for France’s observation that verses 4-35 are linked by temporal connections which are missing from the second section (937). There is no evidence here for a fundamental change from history to eschatology in some “proper sense”.

The shift from a narrative that culminates in a longed for deliverance and vindication to warnings against complacency also accounts for the absence of any sign preceding the unexpected parousia of the Son of Man (24:37). The narrative, with its tightly constructed sequence of events, provides assurance that their redemption will eventually come (cf. 24:32-35). The parenesis is meant to ensure that when it does come, they are found still to be faithful servants. The two passages have contrasting objectives, but we do not need France’s chronological hypothesis to explain the fact.

So I hold to my view… 

The chronology in Matthew is no different to the chronology in Mark. Matthew has added the parousia term and thinks of the destruction of Jerusalem as the end of the age, but this can hardly be said to breach Mark’s coherent Jerusalem-centred narrative. Presumably—as France rather suggests (894)—parousia had simply become a current term for Matthew’s readers. The “completion of the age” (tē synteleia tou aiōnos) is the moment when the Son of Man will send out his angels to remove all wickedness from his kingdom, when the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”—another allusion to Daniel 12:13-3 (Matt. 13:43).

Matthew has also added a judgment of the nations when the Son of Man comes (elthēi) in his glory, all the angels with him, to sit on his glorious throne. There is no parousia here, and no reason to dissociate this “coming” from the “coming” described in 24:29-31. It is not a final judgment, as France thinks (956-60)—see The judgment of the sheep and the goats. It is a judgment of the nations according to how they have treated Jesus’ disciples in their midst. The mission and affliction of the disciples will be brought to an end within a generation (Matt. 24:14), at the coming of the Son of Man (24:33). This judgment of the nations—which either opposed or supported them—belongs within the same time frame.

Did you like what you just read?
If you enjoyed reading this post, why not share it with associates, friends, and loved ones?

Thanks for this detailed interaction with France. As always, I very much appreciate his careful attempt to ground his view with clear arguments, but feel, like you, that it ultimately remains unpersuasive in this case.