The coming of the Son of Man: A response to Sandy’s first post

Discussions about the Apocalyptic Discourse have to involve timing. Obviously I have a problem with this, given how slow I am to emerge from my underworld to respond to Sandy Grant’s invitation to discuss Matthew 24. Sorry about that! Even with Sandy’s pre-warning, I have been found sleeping like a disciple in Gethsemane.

I’m glad to see the good old Apocalyptic Discourse (Matthew’s version) on the agenda. Such a tangled web of interpretive traditions so nicely summarized by Sandy’s first article. Perhaps I can follow his lead and have two bites at the cherry. Let this be my preliminary foot on the playing field, toe in the water, finger in the pie …

It is worse with me than Sandy so politely suggested. The way he set up the discussion is that there are three plates to choose from the menu, each with advantages and disadvantages. However, the strong reason I have for reading this last discourse from the mouth of Jesus as an apocalyptic preparation for his forthcoming death and resurrection is that I believe that that is how the Gospels want us to read it! That is, for me, it is not just another interpretative option, it is a matter of exegesis or ‘good reading’. The second coming and fall of Jerusalem views are not ‘options’, but bad readings! (He says, to raise temperatures immediately!)

The trouble is, when bad readings have been around for a long time, they re-set the framework in which everyone reads so that it is no longer a level playing field, no longer smooth water and no longer cherry pie. For example, people have read ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ as if Jesus is coming from heaven to earth (i.e. in the second coming) for so long, it seems impossible for them to grasp that this entails a complete misreading of Daniel 7:13-14. In fact, this requires that the misreading was done by Jesus himself! According to Daniel, the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom. Simplistically put, the direction of travel is all wrong. Daniel speaks of the coming of the Son of Man from earth to heaven, and yet this bad reading in our interpretive tradition reverses it to him coming from heaven to earth, and then blames the bad reading on Jesus (who, quite frankly, should have known better!). Put with a little more nuance, it is a vindication and reception scene (as in Jesus’ exaltation).

Then there is the misreading of the genre, or the type of speech that it is. For a very long time, Christians have been rightly interested in prophecy and fulfilment. But how does this work, and, more importantly, how does ‘apocalyptic’ work? So many bad readings assume a strict ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach in which every single detail of a supposed ‘prediction’ must come true in a ‘strictly literal’ (whatever that might mean) kind of way. This kind of thinking is hinted at in Sandy’s comment (surely drawing on other people’s views, not his own!?!)—that the reading of the discourse as being about Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘struggles to account for the command to flee’. But this supposed ‘struggle’ is only there if you are after ‘one for one’ correspondences—such as an ancient allegoriser might demand from a parable. On this view, you have to find some pregnant women, some nursing mums, and some people on roofs without cloaks, etc. etc. But if consistency is a virtue, it might be worth saying that this is not usually found in the other ‘options’. Tell me, if the ‘many’ of verse 5 arise and don’t speak the actual words “I am he̵, is anyone on any view really going to get that upset? Surely they can come and lead astray by saying some other words, or doing some other magic tricks, or by any number of ways. The point is not the strict literal detail, but the warning is against people who lead astray—just as Deuteronomy 13:1-5 spoke about. It also seems strange to press the detail when the discourse itself generalizes by saying the prayer option might actually enable the things to come during your summer holidays if you prefer it (v. 20). Apocalyptic is not in the detail, but in the grand sweep. The commands to flee portray dramatically the seriousness of the moment being spoken of and the urgency of responding when that moment arises. When you see … get out of there!

Perhaps I have already gone on too long for a blog entry. But one final preliminary: several in the discussion so far have conceded that ‘my’ reading suits Mark better than Matthew. I thank them for this concession, and therefore take it as read. But this raises the question: so what does Matthew do? Does he (assuming he knew Mark) correct Mark in his reading of the discourse, or does he adopt it? Again, the answer is one not of opinion, but of exegesis. It is therefore interesting to notice that after Jesus has risen from the dead, Matthew picks up Son of Man language when Jesus declares that he has been given all authority on heaven and earth (i.e. the Son of Man has already ‘come’, received the kingdom, and entered into his rule). The only thing left is to send out his messengers to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth, which he then does. Oh, and if we wanted to go to Luke, isn’t it interesting that Luke, the only Gospel with a sequel, speaks in Son of Man terms before the resurrection-exaltation, and, in Acts 7, it is clear that the Son of Man has already come to the right hand of God, and when the rest of Acts speaks of the ‘second coming’, it never uses the language of Daniel 7:13? No opinion, just a question of reading what is there.

But I guess my ‘devil’ is probably in the details, so I will leave the discussion to my own ‘part 2’, and crawl back to my underworld for a while.

2 thoughts on “The coming of the Son of Man: A response to Sandy’s first post

  1. Thanks Peter. I feel the force of what you say… so far. But really I’m waiting for the next post!

    The thing I found that most made me move (partly) away from the reading you suggest is the use of the trumpet and thief imagery in other New Testament authors and the <i>prima facie</i> likelihood they would have used the images in ways consistent with Jesus (as I said in my second post on the topic.)

    Unless I have been a careless blog reader, no one has really interacted with that point so far. That could be because it’s was a really weak point and I am the only one not to realise it!

    But even just for my sake, I hope your second post might address that matter somewhere.

  2. Since I have just preached on Matthew 24 over the past 2 weeks, and have been in touch with Peter about his thoughts on it, I thought I’d pass on my take on Matthew 24!

    1. I take it the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is what has just happened – nb Matt 23 JEsus says ‘Your house is left desolate’. The glory departs the temple, Jesus leaves in judgement on it (as prophesied by Malachi) and it is now a shell like the first temple after God’s glory departed, awaiting judgement.
    2. 29 – 31 are about Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation and sending of the disciples. NB Jesus says ‘immediately after the distress of those days’ – the abomination that is – these things will happen.
    3. Jesus does speak of the destruction of the temple. This is the topic he introduced in vv1 – 2; his warnings to the disciples in 4f are about the leadup to the destruction of the temple – note the echo the warnings of ch 10. All happened in the lifetime of the disciples. Jesus is effectively saying, ‘THe abomination has happened;its only a matter of time now before the temple is destroyed – it will happen in your lifetime (v34).
    3. From v36 onwards is speaking of the second coming. In fact it should be translated as the returning of the Son of Man – having received all authority from God. Reasons:
    a. Its clear the Son has come (gone) to the ancient of days in fulfilment of Dan 7 by the end of MAtthew 28 so in v 30 the ‘sign of the coming (returning) of the Son of Man’ is the going of the Son of Man to the ancient of days. I.e. JEsus death and resurrection are the sign of his return.
    b. Jesus speaks of things he knows the time for in vv4 – 34; but the topic of 36f he does not know the time for.
    c. Jesus has just said ‘heaven and earth will pass away’ which transitions the section to a new topic – when ‘that day’ (v36) will happen.
    d. ‘The coming of the Son of Man’ – referred to 4 times in these brief verses though only once in contrast in v27 of the 4 – 35 section – is the same as the Ancient of Days vindicating the saints in Daniel 7 15f. Note from Matt 25v14f that the Son of Man does the work which the Ancient of Days is said to do in Dan 7.
    e. This fits better with the various parables that come speaking about events that will happen at the haqrvest at ‘the end of the age’ (rather than the time for growing) as Jesus has made clear in the parable of the weeds in Matt 13.

    No doubt few will be convinced, but for mine it makes sense of the confusion! Jesus is predicting his death and resurrection and with it the temple is doomed; all that remains after that takes place is his return to judge.

    I don’t think we can completely dismiss the details of apolcalyptic language as easily as Peter suggests; its a very long chapter to be recorded for the application solely of the apostles (Matt 10 begins that way then broadens). Also, the destruction of the temple does have great theological significance – e.g. in Hebrews with a new priesthood comes a new law and ‘what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear’.

    No doubt most will find that confusing but that’s how it makes sense to me!

    Cheers in Jesus


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