23 February 2008

New Testamanet Eschatology -- Background Question

I have received some comments and emails regarding my understanding of the 'coming' of Jesus in Matthew 24. Since this, to me, is foundational to the rest of this series, I thought I would address it now before we move on.

Basically, the question is, 'I have always been taught (or believed) that the 'coming' Jesus talked about in Matthew 24 was his 'Second Coming' at the end of time. So, I'm not so sure if I agree with your view. Can you give me some passages to help support your view?'

That's a fair question. I have not always held this view and, like so many others, have always seen the 'coming' of Jesus as the 'Second Coming' at the end of history. But, once I started looking into eschatology, I realized that there were other views out there and some were better at addressing some of my concerns. To sharpen the point, I saw other 'comings' in the Bible. Please, consider the following.
Genesis 18.13-14. 'Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Did you notice that? YHWH promised Abraham and Sarah the YHWH would 'return' to them the following year. But, when we read the passage, YHWH is nowhere to be 'seen'.
Genesis 21.1-3. 'The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son for Abraham in his old age. This happened at just the time God had said it would. And Abraham named their son Isaac.'

What is fascinating about this passage is manifold. First, in Genesis 18, YHWH appeared to be a man. YHWH came in the guise of a human being. Then YHWH told Abraham that YHWH would return to them. Now, we would expect this to be a 'physical' return, wouldn't we? That's what we think of in the New Testament. But that is not what the passage is telling us. YHWH's 'return' was the birth of Isaac. YHWH fulfilled the promise. So, the fulfilling of a promise can be seen as a 'coming' of YHWH.

Another passage that we don't often think of when we think of the 'coming' of YHWH is 1Samual 24. I'm sure we remember the story. King Saul has heard that David and his men are hiding in the wilderness near Engedi. So he gathers 3,000 of his best warriors and goes after David. At some point, Saul goes into a cave at Wild Goat Rock to relieve himself and David and his men are further back in that very cave! 'Now's your chance', they tell David. 'YHWH has delivered your enemy right into your hand.' David sneaks up on Saul. However, instead of killing him, David just cuts off part of Saul's robe and creeps away. Once Saul has left the cave and ventured a little ways away, David comes out and tells him what happened. Now, what is interesting about all of this is the song David wrote about this scene. He wrote:
Psalm 18.6-11. [In] my distress I cried out to the Lord; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth quaked and trembled. The foundations of the mountains shook; they quaked because of his anger. Smoke poured from his nostrils; fierce flames leaped from his mouth. Glowing coals blazed forth from him. He opened the heavens and came down; dark storm clouds were beneath his feet. Mounted on a mighty angelic being, he flew, soaring on the wings of the wind. He shrouded himself in darkness, veiling his approach with dark rain clouds.

Now, did any of that take place in 1Samuel 24? Nope. But that doesn't mean it's not real. David saw his rescue from Saul as YHWH 'coming' to his aid and used poetic language to describe it. So, deliverance from an enemy can be seen as a 'coming' of YHWH.

There are a lot of other passage that contain similar poetic language but we will only give a couple of examples. In Isaiah 13 we read:
Isaiah 13.6-13. 'Scream in terror, for the day of the Lord has arrived—the time for the Almighty to destroy. Every arm is paralyzed with fear. Every heart melts, and people are terrified. Pangs of anguish grip them, like those of a woman in labor. They look helplessly at one another, their faces aflame with fear. For see, the day of the Lord is coming—the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger. The land will be made desolate, and all the sinners destroyed with it. The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will provide no light. “I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty. I will make people scarcer than gold—more rare than the fine gold of Ophir. For I will shake the heavens. The earth will move from its place when the Lord of Heaven’s Armies displays his wrath in the day of his fierce anger.”

In this passage we have several things: the day of the Lord, desolate land, destruction of sinners, the heavens turned black, extinguished stars, darkened sun and moon. On this day the Lord will 'punish the world for its evil' and 'shake the heavens' and move the earth from its place. This was a message Isaiah received concerning the destruction of Babylon and it was fulfilled in roughly 539 BCE. One of the questions that comes in here is, if this type of thing literally took place, then where is the passage that talks about YHWH creating a new heavens and new earth? A literal reading of this passage would lead one to believe that the entire planet was destroyed. 'The earth will move from its place' would completely destroy all life here and perhaps even the planet itself. This is poetic language used to describe the judgment of YHWH on Babylon.

Another example is found in Micah 1. There we read:
Micah 1.1-5. The Lord gave this message to Micah of Moresheth during the years when Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah. The visions he saw concerned both Samaria and Jerusalem. Attention! Let all the people of the world listen! Let the earth and everything in it hear. The Sovereign Lord is making accusations against you; the Lord speaks from his holy Temple. Look! The Lord is coming! He leaves his throne in heaven and tramples the heights of the earth. The mountains melt beneath his feet and flow into the valleys like wax in a fire, like water pouring down a hill. And why is this happening? Because of the rebellion of Israel—yes, the sins of the whole nation. Who is to blame for Israel’s rebellion? Samaria, its capital city! Where is the center of idolatry in Judah? In Jerusalem, its capital!'

There are a couple of things here. There is the 'coming' of the Lord resulting in the trampling of the 'heights of earth' and 'melting' the mountains. This passage was fulfilled in roughly 722 BCE by the Assyrians. Again, none of this actually or literally happened. The poetic language is used to show that the fall of a nation is the work of YHWH. So, the destruction of a nation is seen as a 'coming' of YHWH.

In this post we have looked at different 'comings' of YHWH. YHWH 'came' at the fulfillment of a promise, the deliverance from an enemy, and the destruction of a nation. It is with the last one that the New Testament is most concerned. It is used throughout the entire New Testament. I believe it is the basis for Jesus' conversation with the disciples in Matthew 24 (parallel passages are Mark 13 and Luke 21) and their use of the 'coming of the Lord' throughout the rest of the New Testament. Next time we will start looking at some of the New Testament passages. Until then...

Peace be with you.


12 February 2008

New Testament Eschatology -- New Testament Background Concluded

Last time we briefly looked at the stories Jesus told at the end of Matthew 24 and the beginning of Matthew 25. But, we left off the story in Matthew 25 that some call the 'Final Judgment'. The question is, 'Isn't Jesus talking about his 'Second Coming' in this story?' I have wrestled with this passage over and over again. I think it can be tied with the rest of these stories as an illustration of Jesus' return. Although, I must admit, some scholars see this story as being 'tacked' on to the others. That is, it may not have any reference to the other stories at all and might very well be a story about Jesus' 'final coming'. So, it could go either way. But, for the sake of argument, let's see how it would fit into the stories of Jesus coming within his generation.
Matthew 25.31-46. “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

This story is about the event of the return of the 'master', 'bridegroom', or 'man'. It's not so much about the time between the leaving and the return as it is about the handing out of decisions based on what the 'servant', 'bridesmaids', or 'servants' did while the 'master', 'bridegroom', or 'man' was away. This scene, therefore, looks more like a court room. There are two groups of people (a 'wise' group and a 'foolish' group) and a 'judge'. The judge looks at the lives (what they believed and did) of the two groups of people and hands down his verdict. The wise group is rewarded and the foolish group is 'judged'. That is the same story as the previous stories. Except, like I stated, this is more about the verdict than the time between the 'going' and 'return'.

But what about the 'nations'?

This might get a little dense but I'll try to make it simple ('Simple is better'). All throughout the history of Israel, they were referred to as 'nations'. YHWH told Abraham that he would be 'the father of many nations' (Genesis 17). When Rebekah was pregnant with Easu and Jacob, YHWH told her 'the sons in your womb will become two nations' (Genesis 25.23). YHWH told Jacob his descendant would become 'many nations' (Genesis 35.11).

The Church was also seen as a nation. Jesus said that the 'kingdom of God' would be taken from the Jews and 'given to a nation that produces the proper fruit' (Matthew 21.43). Peter claimed that the church was a 'holy nation' (1Peter 2.9).

Next, notice that the verdict surprised the plaintiffs. Clearly the people who thought they were 'in the right' were shocked to see that they were actually in the wrong. We see this again and again in the Gospels. The Jews of Jesus' day thought they they and they alone were the people of God. And not just them as a whole, but only certain 'classes' of Jews, i.e., the religious leaders, the pure, the zealots, the Essenses, etc. Since they were children of Abraham, they assumed that they would be 'in the right'. But they were not 'in the right'. In fact, John the Baptist told some of them, 'Don’t just say to each other, "We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham." That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones' (Matthew 3.9). Jesus agreed with John and told them, 'if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example' (John 8.39). Again and again in the New Testament, the writers stated that the Christians were really the 'children of Abraham' and therefore, the true people of YHWH. So, in other words, the verdict was still out. In the first century, we had different groups, different 'nations', who were saying that they were the real people of God. This story is about the 'Son of Man' deciding. If we look at the fall of Jerusalem as the verdict then we will see that it was the Christians who were the 'real' people of God. In keeping with the previous stories, the Jews were the 'foolish' people and the Christians were the 'wise' people.

Now, it should be noted here that the early Christians were Jews. The Gentiles didn't come until later. This is something that we, in modern Western culture, just don't get. The Bible refers to a 'collective' judgment and then an 'individual' judgment. The first-century Jews, as a whole, didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, the first-century Jews, as a whole, killed him and sought to destroy the whole movement. This is seen in the Gospels and the book of Acts (Saul had papers from the first-century Jewish leadership). This was one of the main reasons that Jerusalem was destroyed. But not every Jew followed along. Only the 'foolish' Jews followed along. The 'wise' Jews listened to Jesus, believed him, and fled the city when the signs of judgment loomed on the horizon.

Finally, there is also the idea that these parables are not about the future (to them or us) but the 'coming' of Jesus during his public ministry. All throughout his public ministry, Jesus was doing and being in ways that only YHWH was supposed to do and be. Some see Jesus' final coming into Jerusalem as the fulfillment of many Jewish Scriptures that refer to YHWH's coming (finally) to Jerusalem (e.g., Malachi 4). The parables, then, serve not as something coming in the future but a winnowing out of YHWH's people during the life of Jesus. In fact, John the Baptizer stated just that thing in Matthew 3, 'You snakes--who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send?...Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire' (emphasis added).

Well, that's our brief look at Matthew 24. I maintain that it was this conversation that impacted the disciples understanding of the 'time of the end'. Next time, we will address some questions I have received about the 'coming' of Jesus I have put forth in this argument. Until then...

Peace be with you.


05 February 2008

New Testament Eschatology -- New Testament Background Continued

The Olivet Discourse Continued

For the last several posts, we have been going through the Olivet Discourse. We have seen that Jesus' entire 'sermon' has actually been an answer to the disciples question regarding the fall of the Temple. In a nutshell, the fall of Jerusalem, including the Temple, would happen within their generation. They and their contemporaries would witness it destruction. Furthermore, the Fall of Jerusalem would be a 'world shattering' event similar to the fall of Egypt or Babylon or the flood of Noah. Jesus gave them several 'signs' that would point that YHWH's judgment was coming, though the exact moment was unknown. Therefore, they must always be on the lookout so they could escape and not be caught up in it. People would be swept away by YHWH's judgment on the city but the outcome would be nothing less than the fulfillment of Daniel 7. The 'Son of Man' would be vindicated and all power and authority would be stripped from the rouge powers and be given to him. When it was all said and done, the cosmos would have a new King.

In this concluding look at our background information, we will examine, quite briefly, the stories Jesus told at the end of Matthew 24 and the first two-thirds of Matthew 25.
Matthew 24.45-51. "A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. But what if the servant is evil and thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

The point I want to make here is one of delay. Most people see in the story a delay of the Second Coming of Jesus. They have tied it to the previous sections about the [supposed] re-establishment of Israel, the unknown time of Jesus return, the dissolving cosmos, etc. They see in this story that the servant is a general term meaning the followers of Jesus. And, clearly, the Second Coming of Jesus has been delayed for a long time. This story is about being faithful during that delay.

And I agree with that. However, this isn't about an unknown time with unknown servants. The story clearly talks about the 'master' returning to the 'servant' he left. This isn't a different servant. It was the same servant, the exact person, that the master left in charge. If the master returns and finds that servant acting badly, he will be judged like the 'hypocrites'. Clearly, Jesus is the 'master' in the story but the 'servant' isn't a general term for all followers of Christ throughout the ages. The 'servant' in the story is a general term for the disciples Jesus was talking to. In other words, Jesus' story is about leaving his disciples and returning to them. He is telling them that there would be a delay. But, they could be certain, his return and judgment would happen in their generation.

The next two stories follow the same theme. The story of the ten 'bridesmaids' is about the 'bridegroom' leaving them for a while and while he's away, five of the bridesmaids prepare for his return and five of them think they have plenty of time to prepare. However, the bridegroom is away for a long time and the five unprepared bridesmaids get a little lazy. But, the bridegroom returns and finds half of them unprepared and informs them that they are not fit to be his brides. Notice again, while there was a long delay, the bridegroom returned to the bridesmaids he left.

The story of the 'Three Servants' is more specific but the message is the same. A man is going away on a 'long trip'. But before he goes he gives three servants some bags of silver according to their 'abilities' and then leaves. While away, two servants invest the silver and make a profit for the man but the third servant buries it. 'After a long time' the man returns and wants the servants to give an account of what they did with the money. The first two are rewarded but the third is punished. Once more we see the point of the story. The man was gone for a 'long time' but he returned to the servants he left.

Therefore, these stories are about the time between Jesus ascension and the fall of Jerusalem forty years later (as an interesting aside, forty years equaled one generation, see Hebrews 3). In other words, Jesus was saying that he would return to the people he left.

But what about the last part of Matthew 25? The part called 'The Final Judgment'?

That's a good question. And I think it's best to answer that next time. The post would be too long to answer it here, so we, too, will have to have a 'delay'. Until then...

Peace be with you.