I spent some time with the staff of a church in south London this week talking about “eschatology”. Which is half the problem. As long as we treat eschatology as a more or less independent sub-section of—or worse, appendix to—our general theology, we have no frame of reference, nowhere to anchor it. So my argument was that eschatology is simply an aspect or part of the story, just as soteriology and ecclesiology and pneumatology are not independent topics but ways of speaking about what is going on in a narrative. Take the arguments and beliefs out of the story and they have no real reason to exist.
To make the point, we went through the “apocalyptic discourse” in Mark 13 looking at how Jesus draws on the scriptures to tell a compelling story about the real and foreseeable future of first century Israel and to explain to his disciples what it will mean for them. Here I will do the same thing with Matthew 24, setting the passage in the context of Jesus’ final week in order to underline the point that this is not free-floating teaching on the end times. It arises directly out of the preceding events.
This is brief—don’t expect too much detail. The links will take the interested reader to more developed discussions.
Jesus’ denunciation of the leaders of Israel
At the beginning of the week, Jesus rides into Jerusalem (21:1-11) on behalf of an oppressed and afflicted minority in Israel, as a prophetic demonstration of his conviction that YHWH would give him—and them—victory over their enemies. The action in the temple is a denunciation of a priestly hierarchy that has made the temple “a den of robbers” and a prophecy of its impending destruction (21:18-19). Jesus curses the fruitless fig tree of Israel to the same effect (21:12-13).
The chief priests and elders of the people are like the son who said he would go to work in the vineyard and then didn’t (21:28-32). They are the wicked tenants who killed the servants and then the son, who will be put to a miserable death (21:33-41). They are the guests who can’t be bothered to come to the wedding, who kill the servants; and the king sends his troops, who “destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (22:1-10). Jesus makes the implicit claim to the Pharisees that he is the Son who will be seated at the right hand of God “until I put your enemies under your feet” (22:41-44). He will later say the same thing to Caiaphas at his trial (26:64).
We then have the long tirade against the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23, who have always persecuted and killed the servants that YHWH sends to them and will continue to do so. Punishment for these sins will come upon “this generation” (23:31-36). Jesus concludes with a lament over Jerusalem, the “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”—this is a recurrent motif. Their house will be left desolate (23:37-39). It is a house built on sand that will be washed away when the storm and flood comes (cf. Matt. 7:26-27).
So we can imagine that Matthew’s Jesus is angry and upset when he leaves the temple with his disciples—and no doubt some of Matthew’s anger shows through the telling of the story. This is what’s going on in his head. The disciples make some inane reference to the splendour of the buildings, and Jesus’ response is fierce: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (24:2).
The war and what it will mean for the disciples
They cross the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, where the disciples as him privately, clearly concerned by his statement: “When will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your parousia and of the close of the age?” The discourse which follows is Jesus’ answer to that question.
1. He warns them not to be led astray in the build up to the war. The language is that of the prophets. Jeremiah, for example, describes the Babylonian invasion in similar terms: “behold, there comes a rumour of a noise and a great earthquake from a northern country, to appoint the cities of Judah for destruction” (Jer. 10:22 LXX; cf. Matt. 24:6-7). When the inhabitants of Jerusalem hear news of the approaching army, anguish takes hold of them, “pains (oidines) as of one giving birth” (Jer. 6:24 LXX; cf. Matt. 24:8).
2. The disciples can expect to be hated and persecuted. Confusion will be sown among them. Many will fall away. But those who endure to the end of this limited period of “tribulation” will be saved. That is, the community of disciples will survive, as a community, if they remain faithful. As Habakkuk says, when the wrath of God comes upon his people bringing terrible destruction, the righteous will survive by trusting in YHWH (Hab. 2:4). But before this end comes, the nations will have heard the “good news” that YHWH has raised his Son from the dead and given him the kingdom, authority to judge and rule. The gospel will be preached throughout the empire (en holē tē oikoumenē) before the end of the age of second temple Judaism—and Jesus will be with his disciples throughout this period (Matt. 28:20).
3. Jesus urges the disciples to flee Judea when the sort of story told in Daniel 11:29-35 begins to play out, culminating in the desolation of the temple by an unclean pagan power. The suffering will be worse than anything that the Jews had experienced before or would experience after (the Holocaust is beyond Jesus’ horizon). Josephus said of the war: “the misfortunes of all nations since the world began fall short of those of the Jews” (Jos. War Proem 4; cf. 6.9.4). But for the sake of the “elect” community of disciples, the period of suffering would be “cut short”. Josephus also tells us of the numerous self-appointed prophets and saviours who promised deliverance for the Jews during the course of the war.
4. There is no let-up in the story here. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days”, Matthew records, 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” (cf. Joel 2:10, 30-32). This is standard apocalyptic imagery for earth-shattering political events. Then the “sign of the Son of Man” will appear in heaven, answering the disciples’ question, “what will be the sign of your parousia?” The tribes of the land (cf. Zech. 12:12) will “see” the fulfilment or extension of Daniel’s vision; they will see what Daniel “saw”—a figure like a son of man “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. This is Jesus vindicated and glorified, coming for the sake of his followers. It is symbolic language, as it was for Daniel. He will send out his angels to gather his suffering elect, who have been proclaiming the good news of Israel’s salvation to the nations, from the four winds. This is not the ingathering of diaspora Jews at the restoration of Israel. It simply marks the end to the period of the persecution of the elect. It is their moment of salvation.
5. When will all this take place? At the end of this unfolding story of war, destruction and vindication. Jesus cannot say exactly when—not even he knows the day which the Father has fixed, when the vineyard will be wrested from the unrighteous leaders of his people and given to a people who will give him its fruits (24:36; cf. Acts 1:6-7). But it will be within a generation, within a lifetime. His disciples have to be prepared, or they too will be swept away in the devastation like those who were happily eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, only to be swept away in the flood.
The whole thing is Israel’s story. The prophecy is all about the task of the disciples, the impact that the impending political catastrophe will have upon them, and what will be demanded of them. The central point that Jesus makes—the climax to the narrative—is that if they remain faithful, if they endure to the end, they will be saved and vindicated. The same point is made in the parables and the judgment story of chapter 25. The Son of Man, who suffered and was vindicated, will come with the clouds of heaven (because that is what characterizes him as the figure of Daniel 7:13-14), at the end of the age of second temple Judaism, to rescue his elect, who also will have suffered in the hope of being vindicated.