October 23, 2012

Understanding the Little Apocalypse: Three things to remember about Matthew 24


Matthew 24 (along with its parallels), like other Jewish apocalyptic, is remarkably difficult to get a handle on. Much could be said about it. With this post, I want to raise three points that should be near the beginning of any effort to interpret this challenging passage.
  1. Everything Jesus says is his answer to the question raised by the disciples in 24:3. And their question is primarily looking for a bit of explanation with regard to Jesus' apparently surprising prediction that that the temple will be destroyed (24:1-2). This means that the passage should be read as the context indicates; namely, Jesus is answering a question about the timing of the destruction of the temple. The signs and symbols should be taken first to point to this reality. Whatever else they may or may not point to, the destruction of the temple is the thing that gets this little apocalyptic discourse started.
  2. Sometimes "coming" does not mean "second coming". The disciples compound their question about the destruction of the temple with a question about Jesus' "coming" and about "the end of the age." I tend to think that these are three aspects of a single event. That is, when the temple comes down, Jesus will be vindicated both as true prophet and God's anointed king, which will likewise bring an end to the present evil age and usher in the age to come, the age of God's kingdom as manifest in the rule of the Messiah. Let me explain. When we read the word "coming" in the Bible, our default interpretation is to take it to mean the second coming of Christ. But consider the plausibility of the disciples raising a question about what we think of as the second coming of Jesus. Were these men expecting Jesus to be crucified and killed by the Romans? No. Were they expecting him to be buried in a tomb only to be resurrected by God on the first day of the next week? Once again, the answer is no. They certainly were not. Thus, if they were not expecting his death and resurrection, we can likewise infer that they were not expecting him to go off to heaven for an unknown and rather lengthy period of time only to return again sometime later. The idea of crucified messiah was not on their radar. Neither was the idea of a messiah who disappears for more than two millennia in order that he may come again a second time. Their question could not have possibly meant that. They must have meant something else when they asked bout the "sign of your coming". The question is: What?
  3. The "end of the age" does not mean the end of time or the end of the world. Jewish thinking in Jesus' period was commonly characterized by the idea that history was divided into two periods of time. There was "the present evil age", which referred to the period during which the Jewish people were under the rule of foreign oppressors (which was, at that time, the Roman Empire). This evil age would come to an end when God delivered his people from their oppressors. The evil age would give way to the second period of time known as "the age to come". This coming age would be marked by the rule of God's anointed (Messiah) king and the flourishing of God's people. When the disciples ask about the end of the age, they are not asking about the end of history; to the contrary, they are asking about the end of Roman oppression and the beginning of an age in which they enjoyed God's forgiveness, freedom, and blessing.
There are unhelpful interpretations of Matthew 24 aplenty. I suggest that we can guard against straying down such an abominable path by keeping these three things in mind. As indicated, there is much, much more to be said. But these three items must be the starting point to interpreting the "little apocalypse".

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