Immediately after the turmoil of those days 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. And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man [in heaven], and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a great trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of heaven to their ends.
I argued in a couple of posts recently that Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24 has reference exclusively to the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the significance of this catastrophe for Jesus’ disciples. I maintain, in agreement with Dick France on this point, that the paragraph about the shaking of the heavens, the appearance of the Son of Man, and the sending out of the angels speaks of circumstances that would transpire in conjunction with the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:29-31). See It’s not eschatology, folks, it’s just a story and Assessing Dick France’s argument about the parousia of the Son of Man in Matthew.
The imagery of abnormal cosmic darkness is commonly used in the Old Testament for judgment on a city or nation. The tribes of the land will see the Son of Man who suffered—that is, Jesus—vindicated, and coming with power and glory. He will “send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”. As these things unfold, the disciples will know that the Son of Man is at the gates, their redemption is drawing near, the kingdom of God is near (Matt. 24:33; Lk. 21:28, 31).
The language is symbolic in the same way and to the same effect as in the Old Testament. The narrative follows on “immediately” from the account of the tribulation of the war, and will be completed—Jesus makes the point quite emphatically—within a generation (24:34). This presents an obvious problem for traditional readings, and numerous exegetical strategies have been devised to escape the inescapable conclusion that Jesus expected the entire sequence to play out within this very tight schedule. I think we have to learn to live with the chronology, out of respect for the text; scripture has other ways of getting us to where we want to go.
Since it has been put to me that it makes no sense to think that the gathering of the elect by the angels happened during this period, I want to consider briefly who the “elect” are in the Synoptic Gospels, what story they are part of. Here I think is the main data—if I’ve overlooked anything important, let me know.
1. Jesus called his disciples, “choosing” (eklexamenos) from them twelve, whom he called apostles (Lk. 6:13). Apostles, of course, are people who are sent into the world to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, which is news both of judgment and of restoration.
2. The parable about the widow who seeks justice against her adversary is told for the sake of God’s “elect” (eklektōn), who cry day and night (Lk. 18:1-8). Jesus says that God will give them justice: “Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” These “elect” are faced with unjust adversaries, they suffer, and cry out to God to be vindicated. Jesus promises that God will not delay to deliver them, which will be “when the Son of Man comes”.
3. At the end of the parable of the wedding feast Jesus comments regarding the man without a wedding garment, who is cast into the outer darkness: “many are called, but few are chosen (eklektoi)” (Matt. 22:14). It’s unclear whether this man is one of the original invitees or one of those, “both good and bad”, brought in off the streets. But the “chosen”, in any case, are those who celebrate the wedding feast given by the king for his son, following on, note, from the destruction of the city of those who had declined the invitation and killed the king’s servants. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. The gathering of the elect is part of the vindication of Jesus when God judges his people, when the kingdom of God comes.
4. In the apocalyptic discourse the period of suffering caused by the war against Rome will be cut short for the sake of the “elect”. During this period false christs and false prophets will attempt to lead the “elect” astray (Matt. 24:22, 24). Those of the elect who endure to the end, who stay faithful despite the suffering, will be saved (24:13)—that is, they will be gathered by the angels from the places to which they have been scattered; their suffering will come to an end.
5. Finally, it is worth observing that Jesus himself is the “chosen one” (ho eklelegmenos), who will suffer and be glorified (Lk. 9:35), the crucified “chosen one” (ho eklektos) of God (Lk. 23:35). Arguably, his “elect” are simply those who share in his mission and experience for the sake of the future reign of Israel’s God.
So what are we to conclude from this?
The “elect” are protagonists in a story that culminates in a moment of vindication when the kingdom of God appears, when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory, when the wedding feast is celebrated, following on from God’s judgment on his rebellious and faithless people, and within a generation. The elect are those who have been belatedly invited to the feast, both good and bad—the outsiders who love and trust and find forgiveness and healing. They are the poor, the meek, those who mourn over the wretched condition of God’s people, who seek the righteousness of God. Most importantly, there are those among the elect whom Jesus sends out as his emissaries to proclaim both to Israel and to the nations the good news of what YHWH is doing to judge and save his people.
The elect will suffer—as the “elect” Jesus suffered before them—both as casualties of the tribulation and as persecuted messengers of this good news. But the suffering will be cut short. They will cry out to God for deliverance, for justice, for justification, for vindication, and God will hear them. He will show the world that they are in the right. Within a generation the Son of Man will come looking for faith on earth. He will send out his angels to search out the scattered elect—those scattered by war, those scattered by the mission to the nations. They will be gathered together—figuratively speaking, because Jerusalem has been destroyed—following the crisis and turmoil of judgment on Jerusalem, as a renewed people of God.
That’s more or less as far as Jesus takes the story. End of chapter. But, of course, the story doesn’t stop there….