Matthew 24-25 are so painfully confusing for us because they are a Jewish discussion of Jewish issues, using categories and images from the Hebrew Scriptures. We are not in the habit of thinking of Jesus and Christianity as Jewish. And we don’t know our Old Testament much at all. So we are hopelessly lost in these chapters.
But for Jesus’ disciples, this was home territory. Like any discussion among experts, much of it could be conducted in shorthand. This makes the teaching extremely dense.
So we have to come as outsiders to listen to insiders talk. The first problem to overcome is our assumption that we are well equipped to understand this teaching, and that we can do so within our own non-Jewish categories.
It would take a long study to unpack everything compressed into these chapters. But if we did, we would find that it all makes good sense, and makes good sense within Matthew’s narrative, too, as it reaches its climax.
What we will try to do is to notice a few of the salient features of the discussion, and use these to give a ‘decoded’, plain english outline of the chapter. Ambitious enough?
Jesus is retelling the story of Daniel, especially the visions in the second half of that prophetic book. Daniel foresaw a time of terrible conflict and suffering:This one shall be different from the former ones… He shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High… and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time. Daniel 7:24-25
Jesus retells this story, and it is the story of Israel, the story of the Maccabees etc, the story every Jew knew only too well: the story of their long suffering:
“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” Matt. 24:9
You disciples, says Jesus, will carry on that story, you will be the bearers of the sufferings and hopes of Israel. You will see arise the time of worst anguish which Daniel foretold:
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Daniel 12
Those times Daniel foresaw are coming soon:
For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut off, no flesh would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut off. Matthew 24:21-22
Implied is that Michael the great prince will soon lead his people through that time of worst suffering. It will involve intimate betrayal and the falling away of many who seemed faithful. And the time is near. But there will be an end to it, it will be followed, as in Daniel, by glory.
It was this glory the disciples presumably had in mind when they had initially asked, what would the sign be of Jesus’ parousia, or ‘coming’. They are meaning, the sign of his arrival as king, in glory and power. How long till he stops doing the ‘poor fisherman’ routine? Jesus warns them against false Messiahs, and gives them what they ask for: he tells them the sign of the true Messiah’s arrival. That sign will be in the heavens:the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven…and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. Matt 24:29-30
Jesus reshapes the disciples’ question about his ‘coming’, so that it is Daniel’s Son of Man who is coming. And the place he is coming to is of course the throne-room of God, as in Daniel’s vision. That is where Jesus’ coronation will take place. So when the disciples see these signs in the sky, they should realise that the moment of coronation has arrived:
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Matt 24:32-33
They’d better watch out for the signs, because these eschatological realities are coming, not at some distant future point, but very soon, in their own lifetime:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 24:34
When that coronation occurs in heaven, it will be felt on earth. It will be felt one way in Israel, and a different way in the rest of the world:
‘all the tribes of the land [of Israel] will mourn…And he will send out his messengers with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.’ 24: 30-31
Everyone is going to be caught unprepared for that coronation day, so the disciples are going to need to stay alert. It will happen when they are least expecting it:
Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 24:44
Well, that’s the message. Then we get to see it played out in the following chapters, in the events of Jesus’ passion.
A time of great and intense conflict begins immediately after this teaching:
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 26:3-4
Jesus then declares ‘the time is at hand’ (26:18), i.e. the time he has been prepping them for. He quotes Zechariah 13, to warn his disciples that he will lead the way in suffering, and they will later have to follow:“You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
In Zechariah the prophecy goes on: ‘And I will turn my hand against the little ones.’ Jesus is saying that the time of worst suffering, ‘the time of trial’ is about to begin for him and also for them.
Then Jesus is betrayed by a close friend and his ‘faithful’ disciples fall away from him. The time is beginning.
Once Jesus is arrested, it’s all on, the whole program. Jesus states that his Messiahship is about to begin, for he will now be enthroned:Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 26:63-4
For anyone who is listening, the Son of Man is just about to arrive!
There follows the terrible ordeal of abuse and humiliation to which Jesus is subjected. It goes on and on. Finally he is nailed up on a cross.
At this point we see the signs Jesus prepped his disciples to watch out for: dramatic signs in the heavens, for all to see.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon…The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 27:45-51
These are the signs of the arrival of the Son of Man. Were you watching? He is at the very gates!
The disciples are so thrown by the crisis of suffering, they hardly notice about the signs. It is left to others to bury Jesus, and to learn of his resurrection. The twelve are totally unprepared, in disarray. And so it is at the time when the disciples are least expecting it, are convinced Jesus has failed, at that hour the Son of Man is being enthroned in heaven!
For Messiah’s days of suffering have in fact been cut off after just three days – and so there is salvation for ‘flesh’, i.e, for his chosen ones.
Then Jesus appears and announces the news to his disciples: it has all taken place: he has come as Son of Man in heaven and has actually received the kingdom and the authority:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” 28:18
On this basis he sends out his messengers to the four winds to gather in his chosen ones:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. 28:19-20
Everything has happened, the whole program Jesus outlined in ch.24. Well, almost: the full effects of his coronation will be felt over time. In particular, his disciples still need to do their suffering, announce their message in the world – and the nation of Israel is due to be in grief. The disciples suffering and mission we learn about through the rest of the NT. Israel’s grief we learn about from history: it came in 70 AD, when the temple and the nation were destroyed.
For anyone who understood Jewish categories, Jesus in ch. 24 was making himself as crystal clear as he could be. He was simply explaining that the eschatological hope of Israel was reaching its great climax and fruition then and there in Jerusalem at that Passover.
Tomorrow: the parables of the Son of Man, Matthew 25.