When Jesus goes off message: the righteous will shine like the sun

The Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus of our modern theologies, including proudly Jesus-centred, modern evangelicalism. This saying about the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of the Father could, I suppose, be adapted without too much difficulty to a mainstream evangelical message—as a way of speaking about the redeemed in heaven perhaps. But only if we ignore the context. The first century Jesus, who knew the scriptures and who spoke the language of Jewish apocalypticism, did not have in mind “saved” non-Jewish people basking in the glory of God in heaven when he said this. But this is the only Jesus known to us, so it’s about time evangelicals worked out what to do with him.

At the end of the age, Jesus says, the Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom “all stumbling blocks and those doing lawlessness” (my translation) and throw them into the furnace, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:41-43).

In Matthew’s Gospel the “end of the age” is quite precisely defined. There are two ages: “this age” and “the age to come” (Matt. 12:31). The Son of Man will come at the end of the current age (24:3) to bring a judgment (13:40, 49) that will consist historically in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (24:4-28). The disciples will not have gone through all the towns of Israel with their message about the coming reign of YHWH before the Son of Man comes; those who endure to the end of this period of turmoil will be saved (10:22-23; 24:13).

The good news concerning YHWH’s kingly intervention to judge and renew his people will be proclaimed as a testimony throughout the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, and then the end will come. In other words, the disciples will be delivered and vindicated only once they have proclaimed to the nations of the empire that in the disaster of the war against Rome YHWH has bared his holy arm (cf. Is. 52:10); he has acted decisively to save both his people and his reputation.

The “stumbling blocks” (skandala) are perhaps those elements of pagan culture in the Land which cause Israel to stumble: “They did not destroy the nations, which the Lord told them, and they mingled with the nations and learned their works. And they were subject to their carved images, and it became to them a stumbling block (skandalon)” (Ps. 105:34–36 LXX). The idea is closely associated with doing “lawlessness”—a failure to keep the Law of Moses: “Keep me from a trap that they set for me and from obstacles (skandalōn) of those who practice lawlessness (anomian)” (Ps. 140:9 LXX; cf. Ps. 49:19-21; 68:23-28 LXX).

Ezekiel speaks of a judgment on Jerusalem that would be like a furnace: it would melt the dross of the house of Israel and separate out the silver. Jesus has something similar in mind: the destruction of Jerusalem will separate the righteous from the unrighteous—the wheat from the weeds, the bad fish from the good (Matt. 13:24-30, 47-50).

What Jesus has in mind is a thorough reformation of a people that has failed in Torah-observance. In the age to come, following the catastrophe of the war against Rome, Israel would be righteous presumably according to a new covenant in the Spirit.

After judgment, in the new age, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”. This appears to be an allusion to Daniel 12:3: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3). This is a reference to the faithful Jews who not only personally resisted the pressure to apostatise under Antiochus Epiphanes but also encouraged others to resist.

The meme is used in 1 Enoch to similar effect, where it is said to the righteous who were persecuted and killed:

Be hopeful; for aforetime you were put to shame through ill and affliction; but now you shall shine as the lights of heaven, you shall shine and you shall be seen, and the portals of heaven shall be opened to you. And in your cry, cry for judgment, and it shall appear to you; for all your tribulation shall be visited on the rulers, and on all who helped those who plundered you. What shall you be obliged to do? You shall not have to hide on the day of the great judgment and you shall not be found as sinners, and the eternal judgment shall be far from you for all the generations of the world. (Enoch 104:2–3, 5)

This closely parallels Jesus’ apocalyptic narrative. The powerful in Israel are corrupt, they collaborate with the pagan oppressor, they persecute the righteous; but God will hear the cries of the afflicted for vindication and justice (cf. Lk. 18:1-8), and there will be a dreadful judgment at the end of the age, when the old régime will be overthrown.

In this new world the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven or like the sun. Since these people have died, they must be raised. Daniel says that when Israel is delivered, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Nothing is said about them going to heaven: the point is rather that they are raised in order to receive either honour or shame in the new order. Goldingay says:

Part of the sufferers’ affliction is that one way or another it deprives them of a place in the people of God; their awakening restores them to that. Dan 12 promises the awakening of people individually, but with a view to their sharing a corporate destiny.1

Finally, this shining of the resurrected righteous like the sun (eklampsousin hōs ho hēlios) may be visually prefigured in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun (elampsen… hōs ho hēlios), and his clothes became white as light” (Matt. 17:2). Hagner writes: “This language is almost exactly the same as that used in describing the transfiguration of Jesus in 17:2 and suggests the experiencing of the glory of God.”2

The glory of God, perhaps. But this glory from God is at the same time the honour and recognition that the righteous will receive on earth, in Israel, because they remained true to the covenant and served the purposes of YHWH.

So should evangelicals be preaching about this? Why not? Why would we not want to tell the story of how God used Jesus and his followers to reform his people and inaugurate a new age of life in the Spirit?

  • 1J.E. Goldingay, Daniel (1989), 307.
  • 2D.A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (2000), 394.
Miguel de Servet | Tue, 04/02/2019 - 08:25 | Permalink

The sense of the idiom “off message” (see Dictionary) is, with slight varations, “Deviating from a planned set of remarks or positions” (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language).

What do you mean by Jesus going “off message”?

peter wilkinson | Thu, 04/04/2019 - 08:40 | Permalink

Where do you think the resurrected martyrs currently are if they are not “in heaven”?

Fair question. I assume that they are in the same category as the first resurrected martyrs, the first fruits of the dead, namely Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is perhaps an attempt to answer the question of how the resurrected martyrs share in the reign of Christ, but is unclear about the details. The dead in Christ are raised and are caught up with him (and living believers) in the air… but then what? Does king Jesus return to heaven with the resurrected martyrs, having received acclamation from the church and nations on earth?

According to Revelation 20:4 those killed on account of their testimony to Jesus are raised and reign with him, presumably in heaven, until the thousand years is ended.

Finally, what happens to the “saints” (an allusion to the “saints” of Daniel 7?) who are raised at the time of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52-53)?

If you take 1 Thess. 4:13-17 as future there’s no problem. Revelation 20:4 can be understood as having three groups of people in view, not just the martyrs, who “lived again” (not “were resurrected”). The ordering of the Greek makes this a clearer possibility than the paraphrasing of the translations. The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:5  would then correspond to John 5:21, 24, and Colossians 3:1 — passing from death to life, and being raised from the dead,  but as yet without a resurrection body.

The resurrection conundrum is solved if it is  seen as having two stages: first “living again” (in this life and the next), then resurrection bodies. It is also first Jesus, then all the saints later, the Matthew 27:52 saints notwithstanding (who are not described as martyrs). The saints who have died, as well as those who  have been martyred, are alive in heaven with Jesus  awaiting resurrection. 


It is said of Jesus in Revelation 2:8 that he “was dead and came to life (ezēsen)”. That strongly suggests, doesn’t it, that “they came to life” (ezēsen) in 20:4 signifies resurrection? Notice that the letter ends: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Rev. 2:11). This is exactly what is said about the Roman martyrs who shared in the first resurrection and the thousand year reign (20:6). This is a group which would share in Jesus’ dying, coming to life in resurrection, and reign in heaven. They have been beheaded; they have not worshipped the beast of Roman power. It’s difficult to see that as a reference to all Christians.

Forms of the verb “live” are used interchangeably of Jesus and God in various places in Revelation, where it doesn’t specifically signify resurrection. In 2:8 it means Jesus lived, following his death, to which we may add that he lived through resurrection, but the verse itself does not specifically supply that meaning.

I was addressing the problem of why the martyrs would be bodily resurrected if they didn’t live out their “resurrection” on earth. IfIthey weren’t iniheaven either, where we’re they? One way of solving this is to locate 1 Thess. 4:17-18 in the as yet unfulfilled future, and also to note three groups introduced by kai in Rev. 20:4, comprising all the faithful believers at that time, including the figure of the 24 elders, the only group apart from God and Jesus said to occupy thrones in Revelation. All lived, and lived triumphantly on earth and in heaven (1000 years = triumphantly). “The rest of the (faithless) dead” did not share in this life, but “lived again” only when this time was over. This is the first time that “ana”/again is added to the verb.

To 1st century believers, this rhetoric of triumph in the face of persecution was applied to the Roman empire. Subsequent history has created a much longer timeline of persecution which has yet to come to an end, to which the rhetoric is equally applicable.

The second death pops up again in 20:14, where it is identified with the lake of fire, the destiny of death and Hades, as well as the devil (20:10a), and before him the beast and false prophet (10b). Make of that what you will, but it’s not simply to be understood in the context of 20:4-6, or even 2:11.

When I first saw you brought this up, I thought I remembered Andrew writing an article where he specified what he thought happened to the resurrected martyrs, so I went hunting for it.

I found it, and I hope you get as much of a kick out of the opening as I did:


That was February 2012.

Phil: what goes round comes round. But what opening did you get a kick out of? I responded to Andrew more comprehensively then than now, but I wasn’t doing it on my mobile (cell) phone. However, I need to apologise for something. I conceded then that anazao/”lived again” (Rev. 20:5) was from the flawed textus receptus (my phone keeps wanting a predictive “rectus”!) Greek text,  and I’d completely forgotten. 

I am coming from a different angle this time though — which is the question of what happens to the resurrected martyrs, if that is the single group referred to in 20:4. 

I think this discussion has run its course, so apologies for taking up everyone’s time. I’m bowing out.

Oh, I just thought it was amusing that, seven years ago, you and Andrew were going round about the same thing.

I know you’ve bowed out, but others may be interested.

The aorist ezēsen (twice in Rev. 20:4-5) suggests a particular moment when the martyrs came to life, as in the ESV translation. That is, it refers to the moment of resurrection. It is a coming-to-life of the same type as the coming-to-life of Jesus in Revelation 2:8.

It would hardly make sense to say that the souls of those beheaded for their testimony were spiritually alive on earth (in the sense of Jn. 5:21, 24; Col. 3:1) and reigned with Christ, and that the rest of the dead were not spiritually alive on earth until the thousand years was ended (Rev. 20:4-5).

Aune is helpful:

The verb ζᾶν, “to live,” is used here with the meaning “raised [from the dead], resurrected” (see v 5; 3 Kgdms 17:23; Matt 9:18; Acts 9:41); in 2:8 ζᾶν is used of the resurrection of Christ…). According to 2 Macc 7:9, 14 (based on Dan 12:2), those who have died for the laws of the king of the universe will be raised from the dead. Kellermann argues that this reflects the belief that immediately after death the martyr is transferred to the heavenly realm in a transformed mode of existence. (Aune, Revelation 17–22, 1089)

… what happens to the “saints” (an allusion to the “saints” of Daniel 7?) who are raised at the time of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52-53)?

Is this a rhetoric question, or do you seriously consider the zombie-like scene in Matt 27:53 as really happened?

Where do you think the resurrected martyrs currently are if they are not “in heaven”?

Sorry, just to be clear here, I think that they are in heaven, reigning with Christ, until the end of time.

It might seem to be getting a bit arcane, but there is a difference between the “resurrection” (ezēsen) in the instances quoted by Aune (Matt 9:18; Acts 9:41) and the resurrection which believers are said to share with Jesus in his post resurrection state. The former (Matt 9:18, Acts 9:41) are returning to life after death in the same physical body. The resurrection shared with Jesus is in a “resurrection” body (cf. 1 Cor.15:35-44).

While in Romans 14:9 and Revelation 2:8, (an)ezēsen is used of Jesus in his resurrection state (an “ingressive aorist” to quote you from 2012), the verbs more normally used for being resurrected (of Christ or with Christ) are anistēmi or egeirō. In Romans 14:9 — “Christ revived/returned to life” (anezēsen), Stephens and textus receptus add anistēmi, “rose”, implying that anezēsen needed anistēmi as clarification. (An)ezēsen is also used in a less literal way in Luke 15:24, 32 — of the lost son, who “was dead and is now alive again”, and in Romans 7:9 — “sin revived”.

As a footnote, I didn’t intend to convey that the martyrs were alive on earth spiritually at the same time as in heaven (if that’s what you understood). Also, your explanation of the destiny of “resurrected” martyrs answers my orginal question. If that had come earlier, this extended discussion need never have happened!