In the eighth part of the series “Knowing Christ through Matthew,” Anthony Pagliarini examines what…
Knowing Christ through Matthew — Part 9: The end of the world (perhaps)
This is the ninth in a 12-part series of In Focuses dedicated to exploring some central themes and texts in the Gospel of Matthew.
It seems Jesus was wrong. At several points in Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord announces the imminent return of the Son of Man in glory. In Chapter 10, those whom he sends on mission are assured that they “will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23). A few chapters later, the demand that those who follow him “take up his cross” (16:24) is made easier to bear by the promise of what seems to be a short term of service: “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28). And on the eve of his Passion, Jesus speaks of coming woes and of the imminent arrival of the Son of Man in glory: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (24:34).
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That generation, though, has long since passed away. And so it seems the end was not so near as the Son of Man believed. Perhaps he would have done well to hear his own words: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (24:36).
I am being facetious, of course. Jesus seems mistaken, but understanding his words about the coming of the Son of Man asks for some attentive reading on our part if we are to avoid casting him as a false prophet. Let’s look more closely at each of the passages above.
Pointing to the Resurrection
After teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) and performing miracles (Mt 8-9), Jesus sends his disciples on a mission that mirrors his own. They are given authority to “cure every disease and every illness” and to announce that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (10:1, 7). And like Jesus, they are sent only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). The disciples bring almost nothing with them, stay with those who will receive them, and shake the dust off their feet at those who will not (cf. 10:9-15). The whole operation strikes us as something that will only take a short while. And sure enough, we see Jesus and his disciples together again shortly afterward picking grain on the Sabbath (12:1).
The trouble is that much of Jesus’ description in Chapter 10 of the persecution awaiting the disciples reaches into the distant future. Jesus speaks of them being handed over to courts and being scourged in synagogues, of being put to death and universally hated, and of their need to “endure to the end” (cf. 10:17-22). The mission, begun in the present, will carry on to the end of their lives. It is perhaps for this reason, as W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison say in their “International Critical Commentary” on Matthew, that the first evangelist, unlike either Mark and Luke, makes no mention in the chapter of the disciples returning from their mission. They are sent out, and they remain so. In Matthew’s framing, the disciples have not yet finished “the towns of Israel” (10:23), and so the coming of the Son of Man is not in fact past due. It will come only at the end.
This is possible, but there is another reading which I prefer (and one that will help us make sense of the other passage we have yet to tackle.) Consider why Jesus mentions the coming of the Son of Man at all. If he just means to mark the length of the disciples’ mission, anything would do: “Amen, I say to you, that you will not finish the towns of Israel before … Peter’s next birthday.” In truth, it plays a different function. Amidst a chronicle of coming persecution, Jesus’ mention of the Son of Man is not a marker of time so much as it is an assurance and a consolation. It is as though the Lord says to them, “Like me, you will be persecuted, but do not fear, even before you make it even through the towns of Israel you will see that such things have no power.” It is not the end of the world that Jesus speaks of when he mentions the coming of the Son of Man. As many have suggested, it is rather his own resurrection. It is at that moment that he triumphs over those who deliver him up to death and that he is given “All power in heaven and on earth” (28:18). What at first reads as a prediction of the end of the world is better understood as a divine assurance that even now, in the midst of all that the disciples must endure, Jesus reigns and that he is with them “until to the end of the age” (28:20).
Coming of the kingdom
Something similar is true of our second passage. As he teaches the disciples about the cost of discipleship, Jesus says that “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory” (16:27). Here also, it seems this dramatic arrival will happen in the present: “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28). One possibility is that this refers to what happens next in the Gospel, namely, the Transfiguration. There on the mountain, the disciples see the full radiance of Christ — the one who is himself the kingdom. (As St. Paul says in 1 Cor 12:27, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The kingdom of heaven is really nothing but a share in Jesus’ own life.) And there, moreover, we hear the voice of the Father who announces “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (17:5). Rather than hearing Jesus’ words as an announcement of some distant future, we might read with the tradition and understand that coming of “the Son of Man … with his angels in his Father’s glory” as something that takes place almost immediately on Mt. Tabor.
Tempting though it is, this interpretation is only half correct. Jesus announces not only that he will come in the glory of the Father but that he will come to “repay everyone according to his conduct” (16:27). Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the final judgment is depicted as a settling of accounts. We can think for instance of the parable of the talents where the master returns and repays each of the servants what it is they deserve: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy” (25:23). When therefore Jesus says that “the Son of Man will come … (and) repay everyone according to his conduct” (16:27), it is most obvious to understand this passage as a reference to the last judgment. There is no “settling of accounts” in the Transfiguration. And so again, Jesus comes to look like a failed prophet.
We can find our way through this thicket if we turn for a moment to the Book of Daniel. It is from here that the imagery of the “Son of Man” is drawn. In a vision, the prophet is shown a succession of kingdoms symbolized by different beasts and then a human — a “son of man” — who is given everlasting dominion:
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“As for the other beasts, their dominion was taken away, but they were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season. As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, he received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed” (Dn 7:12-14).
The kingship of Daniel’s son of man begins when, with splendor received from the Ancient of Days, he is given dominion over all things. So, also, is the resurrected Jesus: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to [him]” (Mt 28:18). In that knowledge, he sends out his disciples to make disciples of all the nations. And given their authority to bind and to loose (cf. 18:15-20), they realize in the present something of that future “settling of accounts.” The words of Jesus in Chapter 16:27 don’t therefore refer to the end of time. Like our earlier passage they refer to his resurrection. What happens in full at the end of time begins already in the moment of Jesus’ rising from the dead. Our passage isn’t a failed prophecy but one that came to pass and one that will come to pass again on the last day. Father John Meier summarizes this position well: “Perhaps Matthew makes a distinction between the Son of Man’s coming in apocalyptic glory to judge on the last day and his coming to his church in an anticipated [second coming] at the end of the Gospel (cf. 28:16-20). It is at that moment, after the turning point of the ages (the death-resurrection), that Jesus the Son of Man can proclaim for the first time that he has received all power over the cosmos (28:18). Then, for the first time, do his disciples see him coming with his royal power.”
Anticipating the king’s enthronement
Our last passage is perhaps the most difficult, but we know already how to read it well. The coming of the Son of man is both something that begins in the Resurrection and culminates with the last judgement. All power and authority has already been given him. He has returned in glory from the grave. Already now he exercises his authority. And yet, all of this remains incomplete. Like creation itself, the kingdom of heaven is in a state of journeying towards a perfection it does not yet possess. Said differently, we celebrate already now the feast of Christ the King while we await the fullness of the kingdom.
One passage in particular shows Matthew’s awareness of this tension. Jesus mentions “the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet” (24:15). At the time of the writing of Daniel, this referred to a statue of Zeus that was placed in the Holy of Holies by an invading general name Antioches Epiphanes IV. While the event took place in 167 B.C., it was understood by Jewish readers as a figure of future abominations.” For his part, Matthew is careful not to specify one and only one fulfillment. Desolating abomination will follow desolating abomination. And since the second coming takes place only afterwards, Matthew’s Jesus is agnostic to the day and the hour. The Son of Man will indeed come “Immediately after the tribulation of those days,” but there is no telling when that will be. “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt 24:29, 36).
What then shall we say of all of these? In each of the passages we read, we had reason to believe that Jesus was announcing his imminent return. If we understood this to mean his second-coming and thus the end of the world, then his message would be false. Jesus would indeed be mistaken for the end has not come upon us. If, however, we understand Jesus’ words as the announcement of his coming resurrection and enthronement, these passage function then in the way that they were intended, namely as a cause for hope that in the midst of the present suffering the victory of God has already begun in full: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
Anthony Pagliarini is an assistant teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
|COMING NEXT MONTH|
“Zombie Apocalypse!” — In the account of Jesus’ resurrection, St. Matthew tells us that “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Mt 27:51-52). Did this really happen? Why is Matthew the only one to mention it? Next month we will try and understand this peculiar feature of the first Gospel.