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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.

OD

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