29 January 2014

NT Eschatology—Gospels Part 06

For the last several posts, we have been going through the Olivet Discourse. We’ve 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 its 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 to the coming judgment, 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 Yahweh’s judgment on the city but the outcome would be nothing less than the fulfillment of Daniel 7. The “Human One” would be vindicated and all power and authority would be stripped from the rogue powers and given to him. When it was all said and done, the cosmos would have a new Sovereign.

In this concluding look at our background information, we’ll 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 “Who then are the faithful and wise servants whom their master puts in charge of giving food at the right time to those who live in his house? Happy are those servants whom the master finds fulfilling their responsibilities when he comes. I assure you that he will put them in charge of all his possessions. But suppose those bad servants should say to themselves, My master won’t come until later. And suppose they began to beat their fellow servants and to eat and drink with the drunks? The master of those servants will come on a day when they are not expecting him, at a time they couldn’t predict. He will cut them in pieces and put them in a place with the hypocrites. People there will be weeping and grinding their 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 (so-called) rapture of the church, the dissolving cosmos, etc. They see in this story that the “servant” is a general term meaning the followers of Jesus. And, clearly, Jesus’ “Second Coming” has been delayed for a long time. This story is about being faithful during that delay.

And I agree with most of 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 separated by thousands of years. No. It’s the same servant, the exact person, that the master left in charge. If the master returns and finds that servant acting badly, that servant 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 the story about a “groom” leaving them for a while and how five prepare for his return and five think they have plenty of time to prepare. However, the groom is away for a long time and the five unprepared bridesmaids get lazy. But, the groom returns and finds half of them unprepared and informs them that they’re not fit to be his brides. Notice again, while there was a long delay, the groom returned to the bridesmaids he left.

The story of the “Three Servants” is more specific but the message is the same. A man goes away on a trip. But before he goes, he gives three servants some money according to their abilities. While he’s away, two servants invest the money 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. While the man was gone for a “long time,” he returned to the servants he left.

Therefore, all three of these stories are about the time between Jesus’ ascension and the fall of Jerusalem roughly 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 it next time. The post would be too long to answer it here, so, we, too, will be delayed. Click here for the next post in this series.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

26 January 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection—26 January 2014

Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in
shadow of death.

From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people.

The “good news” and the calling of the first followers. These first followers were called to help spread the “good news,” the “euaggelion,” (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον), often times translated as “gospel.” And what was the gospel message? “Here  comes the kingdom of Heaven!” Or as Tom Wright puts it1, “The kingdom of heaven is arriving!”

A couple of points. First, Matthew, writing to a mostly Jewish audience, wouldn’t have used “kingdom of God” like the other writers, even though they’re all talking about the same thing. To this day, devout Jews don’t write “God” where it might be erased or discarded out of reverence. The word “heaven,” i.e., G_d’s dimension of creation2, was often used instead. Matthew does the same throughout his telling of the story of Jesus. So, let’s not let that trip us up when reading his telling of the story.

Second, Jesus announced that G_d’s long promised Realm was coming at last (or “arriving”). Not sometime in the future (certainly not the distant future). But right then. Somehow, through Jesus.

Third, even though G_d’s promised Realm was coming through Jesus (however mystically that sounds), people wouldn’t just be able to access it. No. They’d have to “change their hearts and lives.” This is the Common English Bible’s understanding of the word, “repent.” The scholars and the editors and the study groups, et. al., felt that “repent” wasn’t clear enough, so they fleshed it out a bit. In other words, it’s not about how one feels, but what one does that’s important (sorry, my Reformed friends). The word means to “change direction” or “turn around and go the other way.” That is, it’s about action. It’s like an addict who no longer wants to be one. The addict must change the way she does things if she wants a life free from her addiction.

However, Jesus’ application of “repent” (or “change your heart and lives”) here is much more specific than a general call for repentance. His contemporaries were longing for freedom from Rome and were ready for violent revolt. They were wanting to fight the darkness with darkness — to go to war with Rome the Roman way. Jesus tells them that G_d’s promised Realm was coming — a realm that would bring true justice and peace. But, if the people were twisting justice and peace to suit their own grasps for power, they would need to change. Or they’d get caught up in G_d’s justice and wouldn’t like the outcome.

In other words, G_d’s promised Realm is different from the other realms people are used to. The “old way” of doing things, the “old ways” of being, just won’t cut it. No longer could people claim that they were G_d’s children because they were children of Abraham. Yahweh could easily raise up children from the stones on the ground (Matthew 3.9). These “new” people wouldn’t necessarily be people “who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. Instead, it is the person . . . who is circumcised in spirit, not literally” (Romans 2.28-29).

Furthermore, these “new” people could no longer act like people only caring about themselves. These “new” people will have to put other’s needs before their own. They would have to think of others first. They would have to let love rule in their hearts and that love would have to extend toward others, even their enemies. These “new” people would need to be willing to lay down their lives in service to others.

Therefore, when Jesus told people to “repent” he was meaning people will need to change and start doing things differently and being the people G_d has always intended them to be.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1 The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation; N. T. (Tom) Wright; © 2011 Harper One.

2 If you think of “heaven” as the place where you go when you die, you’ll miss what Matthew is getting at—G_d’s dimension is coming to our dimension.

22 January 2014

NT Eschatology—Gospels Part 05

For the last several posts we have been going through a sermon attributed to Jesus commonly called “The Olivet Discourse.” Within this sermon, some people see the “end of the world.” But our investigation has been leading us to a different conclusion. Specifically, it has been leading us to the destruction of the Temple (and Jerusalem) in 70 CE. While some people would agree with us up to this point, they would contend that with the next section(s), Jesus has switched from talking about the Temple’s destruction and moved to the “end of the world” and the “Second Coming.” They see this for a number of reasons. First, as we have noted, over and over Jesus referred to his contemporaries (i.e., the disciples and the nation as a whole that were living at the same time as Jesus). Second, Jesus gave them signs and symbols that were clues for them about the coming war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple. Third, the persecutions that Jesus described were taking place during the life of the early church. But then, starting at verse 36, some believe that Jesus changed his focus. We looked at this verse a little differently last time, so we’ll start with it here.

Matthew 24.36: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”

Here, some claim, Jesus clearly started a new topic. “While there were signs pointing to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple,” they say, “Jesus claims that there won’t be signs pointing to the end of the world. Beforehand, Jesus apparently knew when the fall of Jerusalem would take place (because he gave the disciples clues to when it would happen), here Jesus claims that even he doesn’t know when the end of the world would be.”

But, as we noted last time, that line of thinking doesn’t really make sense in the context. Certainly Jesus gave his contemporaries signs for them to look for, but did he tell them the exact moment when Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed? Did he say, like Moses to Pharaoh, “at midnight?” No. While there were signs that would lead them to understand that it’s destruction was close, those signs didn’t tell them the exact moment. That’s the whole point of signs. If Jesus knew when Jerusalem was to be overthrown, he would have simply told them—August 70 CE. But he didn’t. Because he didn’t know. That’s what he told them in verse 36. In other words, as Jesus was telling the disciples all of the signs, he wanted to make sure they understood that the exact moment wasn’t known to anyone but Yahweh. That’s what they asked about and that’s what he told them. “I don't know for sure, but here are some things to look out for that’ll let you know that it’s coming.” That’s the meaning of verse 36.

Now let’s turn to the next section.

Matthew 24.37-44:As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.”

In this section, some people see all kinds of things, most predominately the so-called “rapture” of the church. That is, some will say, “Perhaps Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem in the generation of the disciples, but now he’s definitely talking about the Rapture.” Is that really what’s going on here? Is that what Jesus was talking about? I don’t think the context supports this view. Let’s break it down and see what Jesus was referring to.

First, the phrase “the Human One” (or “Son of Man”). As we saw in a previous post, this phrase refers to Daniel 7. In that passage we see Israel represented by a human being, a True Israelite, who’s exalted to a place of honor (the right hand of the Ancient One) and vindicated. I submit that this is still the meaning when Jesus used it here. In fact, that’s the only reference to the Human One. The exalted one defeated the monsters who were attacking and persecuting and oppressing G_d’s people. At his exaltation, the Human One was vindicated for his actions. This exaltation included all the power and authority of the monsters being given to the Human One. That is, “all authority in heaven and on earth” would be given to the Human One. Whenever Jesus said the phrase “Human One,” that’s what people heard. The phrase “Human One,” then, refers to Jesus’ exaltation and vindication.

This vindication will be like “it was in the time of Noah” (verse 37). In Noah’s time, everyone was living like nothing was going on—life as usual. But then the flood came and “swept them all away.” According to the story, the flood was Yahweh’s judgment. Jesus said, “That’s the way it will be when I’m vindicated.” Then he describes those who will be “swept...away,” i.e., those who will be taken in judgement. “At that time,” he said, “there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.” (verses 40-41). How someone jumps from judgment to rapture in these statements is rather shocking. Jesus just said his vindication would be a judgment like that of Noah’s day. The person “taken” was not in taken in rapture but in judgment! The phrase “will be taken” is equal to the “flood came and swept them all away.” In other words, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would be Yahweh’s judgment upon Jesus’ generation just like the flood was Yahweh’s judgment of Noah’s generation.

And, just so we don’t miss the fact that Jesus didn’t change subjects, he told the disciples, i.e., those with him on the Mount of Olives, “Therefore, [you] stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming…Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know” (verses 42-44). Once more we see that Jesus is telling the disciples about things they’ll experience. He isn’t skipping around and talking about different things here—some things they’ll experience and other things other people will experience thousands of years in their future. No. He’s laser focused on answering the disciples’ question about when the Temple would be destroyed.

That’s enough for now. Next time we will finish up our New Testament background with a glance at the closing stories Jesus told his disciples as recorded in the rest of Matthew 24 and all of 25. Click here for the next post in this series.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

19 January 2014

Weekly Gospel Reflection—19 January 2014

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”

The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”

They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”

He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ). He led him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

“The Lamb of G_d who takes away the sin of the world.” This is a huge claim. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Did Jesus do it? Did he actually, really, ‘take away the sin of the world’?” If we’re honest, we might have to say, “No. He didn’t” We could base this on just a cursory glance at the world around us.

But as people of faith, we can’t just look at the things we see. We have to see things we can’t yet see. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews had something very profound to say about this. She* put it this way, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see” (Hebrews 11.1). What is the “reality of what we hope for”? Is it not a world at peace? A world without violence? A world of equality? A world without disease or poverty? A world where Love rules every life; every decision; every action?

The only way that world is fully established is if Jesus actually took away “the sin of the world”. Notice that this isn’t “sins” — plural — but “sin” — singular. It’s the one sin, the base sin, that Jesus removed. That sin is known as the “sin of Adam.” The first sin. The sin from which all others spring.

This is a crucial thing. If Jesus removed that sin, that barrier between G_d and creation, then all of creation has been set free. The door has been unlocked and is standing wide open; the chains have been shattered (Acts 16.26). Humanity is released. We’re now free to move beyond our basic desires and affections. We no longer have to celebrate negative human traits. We can now move beyond them.

That is what Jesus did. He did remove the sin of the world. It’s now up to us to live in that freedom. The calling for people is to live as if we believe that Jesus did take away the sin of the world. And because of that, we’re now free to be Jesus in the world.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

If you haven’t heard, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was Priscilla. You can see my blog post on it here.

15 January 2014

NT Eschatology—Gospels Part 04

As we’ve been studying New Testament eschatology, we started working through a sermon attributed to Jesus commonly called “The Olivet Discourse.” To the surprise of many, the Olivet Discourse has not been about the “end of the world” but about the destruction of Jerusalem. We’ll slow down a little bit and look at this next section in more detail. The reason for this is that a lot of people think that Jesus changed topics and moved from the destruction of Jerusalem to the “end of the world.” We want to determine if that’s the case. This is important because, as I have stated before, Matthew 24 (and the parallel passages) is part of the foundation for how the disciples interpreted the time they were living in.

Matthew 24.32-36: “Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you know that the Human One is near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”

In this passage, a lot of people interpret the “fig tree” as the re-establishment of Israel in 1948. The phrase “this generation,” then, refers to the world wide group of people who were alive at that time. This prophecy would reach its climax when “heaven and earth...pass[es] away” (i.e., destroyed). They see this for two reasons: 1) The “fig-tree” is seen as a poetic image for Israel (see Hosea 9.10; Joel 1:6-7; Jeremiah 24:2, 3, 5, 8). And 2) Because Jesus said “nobody knows when that day or hour will come.” Since the War of the Jews is history (66 to 73 CE), we know that “day [and] hour,” so, it can’t be that (they reason). For these people, then, the “end of the world” clock began ticking in 1948 and will stop with the complete destruction of the cosmos.

But is this accurate?

A few things need our attention in this passage. First, as we have seen up to this point, Jesus used the word “you” (roughly 11 times so far, including the four times in this section), obviously meaning the disciples and his contemporaries. Secondly, when Jesus said “when you (disciples) see all these things,” he clearly meant all of the things he had just told them in the previous verses. Thirdly, and tied to both of these, is the phrase “this generation,” solidifying that Jesus meant his contemporaries (we’ll return to this momentarily). So, Jesus hasn't changed topics. He was still referring to the destruction of Jerusalem.

But what about the ‘fig tree’?

Good question. As noted above, a lot of people believe that Jesus was referring to Israel in that phrase. That is, Jesus was referring to a re-established nation of Israel. Many claim that this took place in 1948. Therefore, Jesus must have been talking about things that we will see. But, this idea really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  The “parable from the fig tree” is about recognizing the signs of change. This can be seen when we read the parallel passage in Luke 21. There Jesus said “Look at the fig tree and all the trees” (v.29, emphasis added). His point wasn’t the tree. His point was the changes of the season observed in the transformation of the trees. Likewise, when the disciples and their contemporaries started to see the things Jesus had been talking about, they would know that “his return [was] very near” (v.33; NLT).

This is further seen by his following statement. Jesus said, “I assure you (i.e., the disciples) that this generation (i.e., his and their generation) won’t pass away until all these things happen.” Think about this for a moment. If Jesus was actually talking about something we would experience, why would he tell the disciples about it? They wouldn’t be around to witness the validity of his statements. It wouldn’t make sense. It only makes sense if Jesus was talking to them about things they (and their contemporaries) would undergo.

But “generation” means the people who will see the things Jesus talked about.

I certainly agree with that statement. But, more times than not, this thought is tied to the previous one about Israel starting again in 1948. The meaning of such an interpretation is that the generation that saw Israel re-established in 1948 would be the generation who would see the “Second Coming of Jesus.” This is populated by a lot of books, including (but not limited to) “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and the very popular “Left Behind” novels. But, again, as we have seen, Jesus was not talking about the “Second Coming” and/or the “end of the world.” Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem that his contemporaries would experience. Moreover, consistently throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the term “generation” always referred to Jesus’ contemporaries (see for example, Matthew 11.16-19; 12.41-42).

What about the “passing away of heaven and earth?”

These, of course, would be seen as poetic images of authority. As we’ve noted before, the desolation of the cosmos was often used as a way of expressing the fall of a nation. From that point of view, then, we can see that Jesus told his disciples that Jerusalem would “disappear” (i.e., the Jerusalem they knew would disappear) but his words would be fulfilled. That is, he was a (the) true prophet.

Finally, although Jesus had been giving the disciples certain “signs,” i.e., things that pointed to the coming judgment, the exact moment was not known beforehand, not even to Jesus (v.36). This is crucial because it kept his first-century followers in an expectant mood. They were continually looking at their world for the predicted signs. And, if the signs were adding up, they would know that the fall of Jerusalem would be soon, right “at the door” (v.33).

Once more we see that each paragraph has dealt with Jesus answering the disciples initial question about when the Temple would be destroyed. However, the next section seems to deal with the “Second Coming.” We will look at this next time. Click here for the next post in this series.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC