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?