In the discussion prompted by my post on ‘The parables of delay and the question of dual fulfilment’ paulf argued that it’s impossible to resolve the tension in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse between the early references to the destruction of Jerusalem and the later statement about the Son of man: ‘we know from history that the son of man did not come through the clouds and set up a kingdom.’ So either Jesus was wrong, which many have argued; or he was speaking about something that would happen in an entirely different time-frame, presumably at the end of history.
In attempting to address this objection Rich puts forward two arguments, one concerning the nature of Jesus’ language, which I more or less agree with, and one concerning the nature of the kingdom of God, which I do not agree with.
The sign of the Son of man
Rich is right to insist that the imagery of Matthew 24:30 was never meant (by Jesus, let’s suppose) to be understood as a literal account of a bodily descent through the clouds – not unless Jesus was a very poor interpreter of the Jewish scriptures.
The central motif derives from Daniel 7:13-14. It concerns the giving of kingdom, etc., to the symbolic figure in human form whom Daniel sees coming on the clouds of heaven. The interpretation of the vision by the angel (Dan. 7:23-27) makes it clear that this figure stands for the community of Jews who remain faithful to the covenant when they come under ferocious assault from a pagan ruler, who is identified from later chapters as the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes.
The vision in Daniel 7 speaks of a divine judgment on the pagan kingdom and its blasphemous ruler (7:11) and a vindication before the throne of God of the suffering saints of the Most High. The wider narrative also includes a subplot of Jewish apostasy and of judgment on the nation.
Jesus retells this story for his disciples because he believes that events that will unfold over the coming decades will be, at a political-religious level, analogous to the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes.
On the one hand, Israel will suffer at the hands of a foreign pagan aggressor, and many will choose a course of action – a broad road – that is bound to end in destruction.
On the other, Jesus has gathered around himself as the symbolic Son of man a community of ‘righteous’ followers who will endure much suffering for his sake and for the sake of the good news regarding the future of the people of God. This community will eventually be vindicated, not least by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, for having chosen an alternative way of life and an alternative ‘temple’.
Not only Jesus but also those who share in his story of death and resurrection will receive or inherit the kingdom. As paulf says, the coming of the kingdom is essentially a future event, even if it may be anticipated in such present events as the healing miracles.
The kingdom of God
This is where I disagree with Rich. The ‘kingdom’ that is established – that is given to the Son of man – is not an invisible or internal thing in the manner of his reading of Luke 17:20-21. ‘Kingdom’ is fundamentally a matter of who reigns over the people of God – who exercises judgment over the people and defends them against their enemies. This two-part definition goes all the way back to the original demand for a king made to Samuel:
But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam. 8:19-20)
So the coming of the kingdom of God has to do with i) the judgment of the current generation of unrighteous Israel, and ii) the salvation and vindication of faithful Israel – the deliverance of the disciples, that is, from their enemies.
Jesus’ perspective is somewhat limited to the first horizon of the war against Rome – he is concerned about Jerusalem primarily (see Daniel Kirk’s recent comments on ‘Jerusalem & Judgment in Luke’), much less about the subsequent antagonism between the emerging churches and Greek-Roman paganism. This is why the imagery of the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven is so closely associated with the war.
The gathering of the elect (eg. Matt. 24:31) refers, I think, again symbolically, to the inclusion of the disciples in Jesus’ own vindication as the Son of man. He ‘comes’ in two respects, therefore: as the one who himself receives kingdom and authority from the throne of God following his own suffering, and as the one who ensures the vindication of his persecuted disciples.
Paul’s perspective, I would argue, is broader. He uses the same apocalyptic narrative but extends it to make sense of the conflict between the churches and, supremely, the pagan opponent who, like Antiochus Epiphanes, will seek to suppress worship of the God of Israel (eg. 2 Thess. 2:1-4). The kingdom that is given to Jesus is an authority over the powers of the pagan world – the name which is above every name. In concrete, visible historical terms it finds fulfilment in the conversion of the pagan empire to Christianity.