I came across this comment from Peter Enns this week: “I am very amenable to Andrew’s approach and others like it—although I still do a double-take at Matt 24:30-31.” That sort of remark—particularly from someone as sane as Peter Enns—usually makes me go back and look at the text again. I think I’ve got this whole thing right—the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ eschatology—and it troubles me when people disagree, especially when they are otherwise amenable to the narrative-historical approach.
But it’s funny how sometimes it doesn’t take much to cast a passage in a new light. Working through Matthew’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse again in reaction to Peter’s scepticism, it occurred to me that I may have over-restricted the scope of Jesus’ statement about the Son of Man (Matt. 24:29-31). Maybe.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days…
The meaning of the phrase “the tribulation (thlipsin) of those days” is given in the preceding passage. Jesus speaks of a period of time before the “end” when there will be wars, famines and earthquakes. These are the “beginning of the birth pains” (24:6-8). The disciples will be delivered up “to tribulation” and will be put to death; they will be hated by all the nations; but those who endure to the end of this very difficult period will be “saved”. But the tribulation will not come to an end until the good news about the coming intervention and reign of Israel’s God has been proclaimed throughout the empire (oikoumenē) “as a testimony to all nations” (24:9-14).
The period of “great tribulation” (thlipsis megalē)—presumably the “birth pains” of the age to come—kicks off with the appearance of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” in the “holy place”, which must have something to do with the unclean Romans intruding into the temple. Those who are in Judea should escape to the mountains. The tribulation will be “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (24:21). Daniel made reference to a “day of affliction” (hēmera thlipseōs) for Israel in relation to the conflict provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes, which will be “such as has not occurred since they were born until that day” (Dan. 12:1). Josephus will later speak of the destruction of Jerusalem in the same terms: “Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were…” (Jos. War proem 12; cf. proem 1). But Jesus offers some comfort: “those days” will be cut short for the sake of the elect, otherwise none will survive the hardships of this period (24:22).
So when Jesus then says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…”, he must have in mind a set of events or circumstances that will occur in conjunction with the tribulation that his disciples will suffer around the time of the Roman assault on Jerusalem.
At that time the parousia of the Son of Man will not be pointed out by false prophets but will be as the lightning, which “comes from the east and shines as far as the west” (24:26-27). What this means is much debated, of course, but it’s where I think I may begin to revise my previous understanding.
Only Matthew uses the term parousia in this passage, and only Matthew specifies that the lightning shines from the east “as far as the west”—Mark does not have the saying, and Luke has: “as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day” (Luke 17:24). Since parousia has strong political connotations (the visit of a Hellenistic ruler to a city), I wonder if perhaps Jesus’ words are an implicit statement (by Matthew) about the coming rule of a king from the east over the whole oikoumenē to the west of Jerusalem. This is probably more than the disciples were asking for in verse 3 (“what will be the sign of your parousia”), but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest that Matthew has Jesus extend the horizon of their question.
…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
This is standard Old Testament language, used widely to express the theological import of national disasters, no doubt supported by a cosmology that saw causative links between events on heaven and events on earth. The closest parallel is Isaiah 13:10 LXX, which is part of an oracle of judgment against Babylon:
For the stars of heaven and Orion and all the ornament of heaven will not give light, and it will be dark when the sun rises, and the moon will not give its light. And I will command evils for the whole oikoumenē… (Is. 13:10–11)
Since similar language is used elsewhere in connection with judgment against Jerusalem (eg. Joel 2:31), I have tended to assume that this was the point of the imagery here: verse 29 would be a reflection on the catastrophe of the war against Rome. But if the saying about the parousia of the Son of Man in verse 27 has in view the “imperial” ambitions of Israel’s new king, then perhaps the heavenly signs of Matthew 24:29 presage the régime change that will come with divine judgment on Rome. If the imagery of stars falling from heaven comes from Isaiah 34:4, then we have further reason to think that Matthew’s Jesus has in view the “wrath of the Lord… against all the nations” (Is. 34:2 LXX).
This understanding would also make better sense of the Son of Man motif. Daniel’s symbolic son of man figure, which represents the saints of the Most High, is given kingdom, etc., following the destruction of the fourth beast—the oppressive, blasphemous kingdom which had made war against Israel. Judgment against apostate Israel is part of the narrative, but the longer term outcome of the crisis is that rule over the nations is given to faithful suffering Israel (Dan. 7:14, 27). That is precisely the New Testament story.
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man…
The disciples had asked, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Earlier the Pharisees had asked for a “sign from heaven”, but no “sign” will be given to this evil and adulterous generation of Israel except the sign of Jonah (Matt. 16:1, 4; cf. 12:39). The saying is difficult to interpret, but I am inclined to think that Jesus is not so much describing an event—the seeing of something in the sky—as referring them to Daniel’s vision, in the same way that he had referred the Pharisees to the story of Jonah. That is, people will see the “fulfilment” of such a vision: kingdom taken from the blasphemous and destructive beast, now understood to be Rome, and transferred to “one like a son of man”, who is both Jesus and his persecuted disciples.
…and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Zechariah issues a word of the Lord regarding Judah. There will be a siege against Jerusalem. The nations will be gathered against the city, and it will become “a trampled stone for all the nations” (Zech. 12:1-3 LXX). But the Lord will enable the armies of Israel to defeat their enemies and will save Jerusalem. He will “pour out a spirit of grace and compassion on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Zech 12:10). In response the people will look to YHWH and “shall mourn for him with a mourning as for a loved one, and they shall be pained with pain as for a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10 LXX). All the tribes of the land of Israel will mourn. On that day the Lord will “destroy the names of the idols from the land” and will remove the false prophets and unclean spirits (Zech. 13:2).
If judgment on Rome is in view here, it is perhaps more likely that it is the tribes of the earth which mourn and not merely the tribes of the land (either translation is possible). The allusion to the saying in Revelation also lends weight to the wider perspective. John writes to the churches in Asia as a “partner in the tribulation (thlipsei) and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (1:9). Jesus is “ruler of kings on earth”; he has “made us a kingdom” (1:5-6). He is “coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him”.
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
The “elect” are the disciples who were sent out into the empire to proclaim the good news that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him judge and ruler of the nations (cf. Matt. 24:14). They will have to endure considerable affliction, but if they stay faithful to their mission through to the end, they will be saved. Their task will be completed when the nations of the Greek-Roman world recognise that “kingdom” has been taken from idolatrous Rome and given to the Son of Man. At that point, symbolically speaking and in the language of Old Testament prophecies of restoration, Jesus sends out his angels to “save” his disciples.
Zechariah 2:10-16 LXX (=2:6-12 ET) provides an appropriate narrative. YHWH will gather his people “from the four winds of heaven” and bring them back safely to Zion. He has sent the prophet “to the nations who despoiled you; he is bringing his hand against them. Many nations “shall flee to the Lord for refuge on that day and shall become a people to him”.
The sending out of the angels, therefore, brings closure to the eschatological narrative. God judges his people; messengers are sent out to the nations of the Greek-Roman world to announce the wider political significance of the resurrection of Jesus; they suffer severe persecution; the nations are convinced that kingdom has been given to the Son of Man; the messengers are sought out, delivered from their afflictions, and are reunited with the renewed international people of God. The end. And the beginning of the next chapter in the long and tumultuous history of the family of Abraham.