Climbing the Mount of Olives II.2: Reading the Sign of Your Presence in Matthew

In the previous article in this series, we explored the use of the word “aion” in Matthew in some depth, especially in the phrase “consummation/end of the lifetime/age” or “synteleia of the aion”. Here we will pull together a shorter analysis and reflection on the prior phrase from Matthew 24:3, “the sign of your presence/arrival”* (to sēmeion tēs sēs parousias, τo σημεῖον τῆς σῆς παρουσίας). After studying the phrase, we will pull Matthew 24:1–3 together as a smaller whole in light of this analysis. The reading of these three verses holds our reading of the rest of the discourse in itself, in some sense, because the whole discourse is an answer to this question. In this way, Matthew 24–25 grows from these phrases like a sprout from a seed. Our reading will, too.

Here is the text that we will pull together in a synthesis at the end of this discussion, so that we can then branch out further from there:

As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming (presence/arrival, parousia, παρουσία) and of the end of the age?”

In studying “the sign of your presence” we will need to dig into the phrase in its context and cotext. We’ll also need to grasp the concepts and realities that the phrase points toward. In the broadest sense, we’ll discuss the interpretation of signs, exegetical method, appearances, and various understandings of the presence and/or arrival of Jesus, and we will consider the particular senses of these general insights that could be available to Matthew’s author(s) and readers. Sometimes this will get a bit technical. The discussion will also be highly reflexive and self-referential, because this entire project can also be understood as a quest for the signs of your presence, Jesus. Whether you care to address Jesus personally in that way or not, reading Matthew necessarily involves looking for signs of the presence of Jesus in Matthew, and through Matthew, in our world. Understanding the phrase in a practical way therefore invites us to cultivate a lot of self-awareness about what we are doing here, even as we are doing it.

Our historical analysis of the phrase and our reflexive self-awareness about sign reading are meant to work together synergistically. Recall from our outline of Matthew that our method here pairs apocalyptic reading with historical reconstruction. We won’t abandon that method here, but will continue to apply it. This means that we will read the text in a way that is revelatory for us today, and this ultimately comes out of efforts to read the text well in its historical context.

When we reflect on signs and presence, part of what is revealed is that we all continue to be readers of signs and seekers of presence today, insofar as we are learning about our universe at all. Or more precisely, reading our world (including its texts) so that we can understand what is happening around us involves the interpretation of signs.

Beyond this, I also suspect that we’re all looking for signs that point us toward some hopeful, assuring, justice-bringing reality that can address our broken orders at a variety of scales, including personal, sub-national, national, international, global and universal. The brokenness that runs through the cosmoses is plain for any of us to see, unless we willfully blind ourselves by turning our heads away. This blindness can be a coping strategy, even a helpful one at times. It really is very hard to look at the intensity of suffering and evil in the world and not turn back: to read the signs around us and follow through on their implications for us and for our societies is genuinely difficult work. In this upside-down world, it might even be that a certain kind of perfection, a perfect love offered freely, precedes the illumination that can give us the courage to begin a process of purging the greed and violence from our hearts and from the hearts of our groups. Becoming unblinded is so hard that it is always a wonder when it happens. But we need that kind of wonderous sign, however rare it might be, because if we persist in our blindness, it will ultimately destroy us. And so I hope that for all of us there comes a time when we can no longer work the fields of Abraham and turn our heads away. If we have been given the strange gift of the courage that is needed to open our eyes and read the signs here, I think we’ll eventually notice that Matthew has thought rather deeply about the complexities of signs and presence and arrival. We will need to do the same, if we hope to keep up with the gospel’s author.

So where do we go from here? Given the “your” in our central phrase, it might be advisable to address Jesus more directly and deliberately before we begin in earnest. This might seem weird to you, but it’s even weirder for me to talk about someone who I think is here with us, as if he isn’t even in the room. So please indulge me in at least one little prayer, compressed dramatically into its early end.

Benediction

By your grace, Son of Man and Son of God, please help us to go out from here and interpret the sign of your presence in Matthew.

Definitions and Outline

For all of my public piety there, I don’t need you to be pious to appreciate the discussion I’ll offer. To structure our explorations, it will help to clearly articulate two distinct meanings that we might attach to this phrase: “reading the sign of your presence in Matthew”. Consider these two definitions of the phrase:

① “Reading the sign of your presence, in Matthew” is reading the text of Matthew in an effort to learn something about Jesus.

This reading of the phrase holds the interpretive enterprise of reading Matthew, at least for anyone who is reading Matthew with an interest in its subject, who is Jesus. The various quests for the historical Jesus, too, can aptly be described as an effort to interpret the signs of the presence of Jesus in Matthew. After all, the goal of the historical quests is to find something in these texts that points us back to Jesus. For all of us, secular or not, neither or both, this question remains central to any reading of Matthew: how do we know that we’ve found the real Jesus, potently present in his historical effects, including those effects that presumably include the text of Matthew? What are the signs of his presence?

② Reading “the sign of your presence” in Matthew is the practice of reading the phrase “the sign of your presence” in the book of Matthew.

In Matthew this phrase is centrally concerned with the disciples’ ability to detect the Son of Man’s enduring nearness, as opposed to the arrivals of worldly, imperial imposters. This doesn’t mean that Matthew rejects the idea of a Second Coming or makes it impossible. However, it does mean that any Doctrine of a Second Coming that someone hopes to develop, in the wake of Matthew, must be held within Matthew’s much greater compatibility with the Doctrine of The Enduring Nearness. This is a tendentious definition, so I’ll argue for it directly in the relevant section.

Our analysis will explore each of these definitions in substantially more depth as we weave back and forth between revelatory reading and plausible historical reconstruction, both definitions deeply and perichoretically dancing with each other along the way, distinct but deeply intermingled. In short, we’ll be moving through ② to ① in the next pair of articles. In this article, we will cover ②.

But before we get to those reflections, let’s situate our discussion in the context of contemporary scholarship. There’s going to be some methodological throat-clearing and a light review of the scholarly literature before we get to the actual reading. If that really isn’t for you, feel free to skip this next part.

(0) Some Methodological and Epistemological Throat-Clearing

Matthew 24:1-3 contains a particularly important pair of opening phrases when it comes to contemporary scholarly debates about the reading of Matthew 24–25. These phrases are “the consummation of the life/age” and “the sign of your presence/coming”. If “aion” is the seed that breaks open to generate our reading of the Mount Olivet Discourse, this pair of phrases is the node where the sprout that has broken out first splits in two. How should we interpret the sign of this splitting sprout?

Influential and excellent commentators like R.T. France and Joel B. Green argue that “the sign of your parousia/presence/coming” bears one quite specific meaning, while “the end of the age” has a highly distinct meaning that is addressed at other points in the discourse. For them, the end of the age is basically ‘eschatological’ (meaning that it is concerned with the conclusion of fleshy history), while the other phrase isn’t necessarily so ‘eschatological’. On this reading Matthew’s Jesus parses the disciples’ question as two distinct questions, as if Jesus took them to be asking him, “What will be the sign of your coming? And also, while we’re at it, we have a second question that is really quite different. When will be the end of the age?”

Other excellent and influential commentators, such as Dale Allison, argue that we shouldn’t impose such a precise division on the text, either here at the start or in the rest of Matthew 24.¹

The debate is of fundamental importance to our project, because if we don’t know where the question(s?) point(s?), we’ll probably misunderstand the answer as well. It’s hard enough to parse (one?) question(s?) pointing. Just imagine how hard it is to read a whole text while keeping those double books. This is part of the reason we spent a lot of time deciphering “the end of the age” in the previous section. Similarly, now we’re going to try to decipher “the sign of your parousia” so that we can also read these phrases together as a single sign, split sprout-like, that points us to the point of Matthew 24–25.

Here my proposed reading is more in line with Allison’s sensibilities, insofar as I avoid imposing a clear division on these two items. By extension I’ll also avoid imposing a similar division on Matthew 24–25 as a whole. However, I part ways with Allison insofar as I will offer a deeply consilient reading that I believe Matthew’s Jesus organically offers up to us, if we let him. The basic argument is that we don’t need to separate “the synteleia of the aion” out as a phrase that addresses the end of history. Instead, it can powerfully refer to the death and resurrection of Jesus as an event that encapsulates history across spatial and temporal scale: here the end of his own aion prefigures the ends of various aions, especially the aion of Judah and the aion of each human soul. The prophetically paired ends of the prototypical personal aion and the prototypical national aion are precisely what enable aionic copies to be comprehended and generated through seedlike words, especially at national and personal scales. Once we are reading “the synteleia of the aion” in this richly layered Greco-Hebrew way, we no longer need to diffuse the force of the “end” and separate it from the “sign of your presence”. This, in turn, helps us connect both phrases deeply to the death and resurrection of Jesus and of Judah, in a similarly paradigmatic sense. This amounts to an especially appropriate and satisfying reading of the text by our method, which prizes consilience.

Still, some people will understandably object that if we go looking for consilience we will find it, and that I’ve therefore stacked the deck in favor of my view. At its most extreme, someone might overreach to the point of suggesting that I’ve simply assumed my conclusion. While that would be a ridiculous claim, a more minimal version of the charge is eminently understandable. In response, we might pause to note that physicists can also be blamed for seeking consilience and finding it. After considering that for a moment, my full rejoinder is that consilient reading is basically just reading well, and I do hope that our goal is to read the text well, even if our task is necessarily a gentler one than the work of physicists. It is more biological, and in its way the problem of vivisection places more severe limits on our knowledge than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In cutting up a living being you kill it, and the dim halflight of a vivisection remains a particularly limited and partial way of knowing a living being. Charges of partiality, then, might belong precisely on the other (severed) foot. For all of my defense of consilient reading, I will throw these potential critics some bones as well as stones, all offered in a friendly way. This will help us see whose house has more glass, and whose has more class. (Theirs does, to be sure.)

My more literary-historical approach to reconstruction faces methodological resistance from some scholarly quarters, and might also be dismissed as “doing theology” while pretending to do historical reconstruction or historical exegesis. This charge implies that the type of reading I’ll offer is especially speculative, or is biased toward Christianity, or isn’t grounded in supposedly concrete historical facts, or is mere apologetics. The implication can easily be that the real work of the very serious historian is concrete, but consilient reading isn’t. One charge might be that we’re naive to try to read Matthew 24–25 as a whole, because Matthew is actually just a hodge-podge that rather incoherently pulls together other texts. Or someone might similarly point out that actually [insert the latest speculative reconstruction of the situation of the text’s authorship here]. To be clear, I think that the history of the text and the history around it are important to study, and this project has substantially engaged with some of the lively and important research in these areas. My failure to engage in more of it is only a testament to my limitations, and not to any basic hostility to that voluminous and impressive body of research. The issue I’m addressing here is specifically about the relationship between historical speculation and literary and conceptual research, oriented toward consilient reading. I think that these critiques suffer from an illusion of concreteness, an unwarranted concreteness-by-association. This, in turn, leads to confusions about which tasks are more speculative and which tasks are actually better grounded in the available evidence.

Let’s look at this illusion of concreteness closely until it dissolves. A lot of fascinating scholarship involves speculations about concrete/fleshy realities, including the history of the text itself (redaction criticism and text criticism) as well as the history around the text. Speculation about concrete things can seem less speculative because the object of speculation is more concrete, and this can disguise these speculative claims in a shroud of alluring concreteness. For example, someone might tell you the year that Matthew was written, or that its writer must have been a scribe with access to Temple archives, or that the Mount Olivet discourse was demonstrably modified from the Markan version and that this change shows us Matthew’s hidden theological agenda. True or not, warranted or not, these sorts of claims have an appealing concreteness to them, and rhetorically this can make the conclusions seem less speculative. There are also loyalty tests that appeal to illusory concreteness on both conservative and liberal sides of the academy, maybe because the appeal to concreteness mirrors the hard posturing that can settle in on all sides. Depending on the clique someone hopes to join, one might need to show a tough willingness to stand up to the libs/trads with the ‘hard facts’ of the matter. In both systems of loyalty tests, appeals to concreteness often form the rhetorical core of the test, forming the tough shell that silently points toward everyone’s insecurities. I’m only interested in those kinds of loyalty tests insofar as I aim to fail them wherever I can, in the interest of discourse. I’m allergic to them, and I’ll intentionally flunk human loyalty tests because I hope to avoid the many perils of passing them. I’m not sure if this is a virtue, but I do hope you understand the sort of unreasonable person you’re dealing with: I’m the kind of idiot who really only cares about truth, so I’m pretty cautious about incurring even the shadow of a reputation in any of the various cliques.

What needs to be said instead is fairly simple: the object of speculation doesn’t determine the degree to which a claim is speculative, in terms of how confident we can be in a finding. For example, we could have a very precise discussion about the possible organic chemistry of aliens in other galaxies, and what kinds of materials they might then use for their roads on such planets. This would remain enormously speculative even if we really got into the weeds on organic chemistry and its relationship to possible construction materials. Nonetheless, a prolonged focus on the question would tend to make us feel more convinced of our speculations due to a variety of cognitive biases, including the sunk cost effect and the bias that “what you see is all there is”. This, in a nutshell, is what a lot of the 19th and 20th Century history of critical Biblical scholarship looked like: one person after another confidently offered highly concrete and highly speculative proposals, many of them mutually incompatible, until in time people began to see through the illusion. Speculation remains speculation, however concrete its claims. Meanwhile, largely but not entirely outside of the realm of scholarship, fundamentalists and creation ‘scientists’ unleashed their own illusory systems of concreteness, conflating fleshy reading with the serious reading of Scripture. This forms its own system of loyalty tests, an epistemic capture system that is largely impervious to reason or evidence. It turns out that boldly asserting that you have gotten to ground and that you stand on the side of reason and truth doesn’t mean you’ve actually done it, after all. Often it is the still small voice on the sidelines, failing all of the politicized loyalty tests, that is slowly and gently advancing our understanding. Broad fame is rarely the reward for the real work of discourse, especially in this field, because the truth makes us all uncomfortable eventually. If truth is going to be noticed by anyone around here, it must dazzle gradually until it seeps through our blindness.

In contrast to these illusions of concreteness, it is worth arguing that simply reading the texts carefully can lead to far more warranted inferences than the more elaborate work of reconstruction. There is still something to be said for sturdy little conceptual bricks. Even if the text is a sign pointing toward something that isn’t very concrete at all, this can be a minimally speculative exercise. For example, why did I suddenly start talking about aliens in a discussion on Biblical exegesis? Let’s exegete the previous paragraphs, as an object example of consilient reading. It is relatively obvious that I drew an analogy between an analysis of alien chemistry, and the analysis of the Biblical text and the earliest followers of Jesus. Here we might pause to note that in a Platonist context, analogy is at the center of what defines deep and abiding spiritual insight into the real. It should also be reasonably clear that I wasn’t drawing a broad analogy, but was instead using an extreme illustration to demonstrate that we can be extremely speculative about something that is extremely concrete. Yes, even literal concrete on some distant planet. It would be silly to try to debunk my argument by complaining that people aren’t aliens, for example, and that the analogy breaks down at various points. Of course it does, and a general one-to-one correspondence isn’t the point. That sort of objection betrays a basic lack of reading comprehension and a failure to understand where the sign of my analogy is pointing: the analogy memorably illustrates the general principle that we can be extremely speculative even about things that are extremely concrete. This is the invisible thread that binds the two sides of the analogy, for all of their many differences.

My reading of my own writing is pretty highly warranted and minimally speculative, even though it depends on a rather fine distinction between two invisible entities: broad analogies and narrow ones. It’s also a good reading even though the broad/narrow distinction isn’t explicitly present in the discussion of aliens and their roads. Still, its implicit presence should be strongly felt by any generous reader looking to read the discussion coherently as a whole. Now it isn’t as if we can literally point to a concrete analogy, let alone measure a “narrow analogy” and a “broad analogy” like we’d measure molecules. Analogies are invisible structures in the mind, structures of meaning that would traditionally and properly be called spiritual. Even if we were to write out illustrative examples of broad and narrow analogies, the writing would only be a sign pointing to that invisible conceptual architecture that is ‘perceived’ or at least grasped with the mind. A written ‘example’ of an analogy is only an analogy in the same way that the word ‘cat’ is a cat. Even if we can identify neural correlates of analogies, we have only identified neural correlates and not the concepts themselves, because concepts have a necessarily experiential aspect to them. Grasping a particular analogy, as well as the concept of “analogy” in general, is an intellectual or conceptual experience. In spite of this lack of a concrete object, and even as strangely self-referential as this discussion is, the textual analysis was hardly speculative at all. If you’re looking for highly speculative claims around here, you’ll have to consider the organic chemistry that might unfold beneath distant suns, or perhaps the exact reason for differences between Matthew and Mark’s versions of the Olivet Discourse. What is much more knowable is something invisible: you can know what I was up to with my analogy.

To be utterly clear, I’ll reiterate that I think that speculation about the history of the text’s composition, and its composing community, are important. Allison offers some of the best historical work about the history of the text of Matthew that is available, and he is both insightful and appropriately humble at many points. Getting from the earlier overconfidence of critical scholarship to the current state of increased humility has been the hard work of the last century, as various critical theories have ground each other down, and as narrative and literary analysis have elbowed their way back into the discussion. For many, this has broken the illusion of concreteness. As happens in academia, the slow wearing away of these mountains of arrogance has often been resented by the old guard, and progress in the field has generally proceeded one death at a time. And still, plenty of traces of that old overreach remain. Those traces also include the positive contributions that those bold, blustering, and often viciously barbaric pioneers have made. So while my posture is hardly as controversial today as it once was, it still needs to be reiterated that the text is not primarily a sign of the presence of its redaction history, nor is a text like Matthew primarily there as a sign pointing to its originating historical community. The text can gesture intriguingly in that direction, much like a road sign also points backwards to the society that built it. Still, the text of Matthew isn’t best read through the lens of a tendentious reconstructed history, confidently asserted. Rather, our knowledge of the text and our knowledge of history spiral along together, hopefully in the right direction, in an ongoing process of mutual testing, learning, and development. I think that this process is nicely summarized in the word “reading”, which is a practice of interpreting signs in a consilient way.

Reconstruction of the history of the text and the history around the text are of limited and, perhaps more importantly, limiting help: the historical disciplines can help us set limits on what may have been plausible readings of the text in its original context. This limit-setting can be liberating in a variety of ways, especially when the expansion of limits warrants fresh, historically plausible readings. Plenty of good readings were once wrongly and imperiously placed beyond the pale of proper historical research, but have become conceivable and admissible as a result of further study. For example, a lot of this project relies on the recognition that Greek and Hebrew thought had been mingling for centuries before the New Testament was written, and this means that older dichotomies between “Jewish thought” and “Greek thought” can’t constrain our reading in the way they once did. This removal of bad old limits corresponds precisely and historically to the removal of lines once drawn around the Jewish ghettos in Germany, because even today some of the most important scholarly materials and references (such as the TDNT) were developed with the help of some rabidly antisemitic German Biblical scholars. The removal of these bad old limits and their replacement with new ones doesn’t tell us that the text must have been intended in ways informed by this Greco-Hebrew synthesis at every point. There was substantial variation between people in different places, classes, times, and in distinct networks of political allegiance. And of course there were also variations within the groups that we’ve very roughly indicated with these variables. So in all of this, the work of marking boundaries through historical study is often a matter of expanding our limits in ways that break down old and shoddy barriers. Even when this process carries us farther from the illusion that we have the answer, we can become better at discerning the real range of plausible answers.

In all of this the work of reading Matthew continues to be, most fundamentally and enduringly, the work of reading the literary whole that Matthew presents to us. It remains an effort to decipher a dense network of signs, especially in terms of the presences and the comings and goings that they point us toward. And in all of this, the work of reading Matthew continues to offer major contributions to our understanding of the Second Temple period. It isn’t that we do the history (which is concrete, and so can be nailed down) and then move into the fuzzy work of interpretation, including theological interpretation. Instead, we all shamble forward together, or not at all.

The upshot is that textually grounded literary inferences about Matthew’s overall meaning are often far less historically risky than speculations about possible histories of the text and the composing community. Why? Because the material priors of the text itself are often nearer at hand and less contested, and because the connections among the parts within Matthew are known to be some of the tightest connections around. We have a reasonably clear sense of the range of manuscripts of Matthew available, and the manuscript tradition converges substantially on a very large share of the text. This provides an opportunity to do a lot within the boundaries of a broad and well-grounded consensus. We also have a lot of samples of a lot of the key words and phrases and narrative forms, and a lot of the elements of narrative and storytelling are intuitively accessible to people across cultures. Children around the world are able to appreciate Aesop’s fables, or the account of reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, for example. This suggests that when we are working with narrative, we are dealing with human universals that warrant inferences about ancient humans. Of course, the interpretive task remains substantially speculative, but the point is that the text is one of the most dense and knowable bases for analysis that we have available. So against illusions of concreteness, it needs to be said that consilient reading is often the more grounded and basic historical task that is present to us. The fact that even this remains substantially underdetermined shows how very humble and generous we ultimately need to be in all of this. There are, of course, much worse things that we can learn from the Bible than gentleness.

To this, we can add that in ancient terms, spiritual readings were often considered more certain and durable. I think the ancients were on to something, and we should appreciate that their view has more in common with science than we often realize. Today we find again and again that a logical model (something long associated with spiritual insight) can predict the general shape of observations and events, even when the particular occurrences are not determinable. In ancient terms, you say much the same thing like this: we can know spiritual truths with more confidence than we can know the flesh. Today’s statisticians, for example, understand the general spiritual structure of data better than they can understand the flesh that is held within their models: that is to say that they can predict the general features of a set of samples, even when we they can’t predict exactly what will happen with an individual sample. Especially when we look at social data that makes generalizations about a nation or a political party based on a sample of individuals, for example, it is important to remember the uniqueness and unpredictability of each human soul, even when we can have powerful insights about the emergent social wholes, like parties and nations.

While not strictly analogous, we can fruitfully compare this to what is involved in spiritual reading in general, especially the soulful kind we aim for here. If you want to penetrate through these letters and words and sentences to the spiritual reality behind them, you have to let the letters function as a sign pointing to a deeper, more enduring, more general teleological reality behind the letters. You need some writing-generator like me who can generate and delete and re-write all kinds of words, and whose teleological orientation explains the emergence of the text in the first place (or at least, it explains it teleologically). So in parsing why I started talking about aliens, it helped to understand my goals and intentions, and even what orients me beyond my own proximate and conscious goals. This underlying reality that gives rise to the text must be more basic than the letters and words themselves, because it has to be there prior to the text (both temporally and logically) in order to explain the text’s emergence from my mind and into a visible form. Really, it is a spiritual wonder to be able to write and read anything at all, to ‘ensoul’ something of my spirit and of Spirit in general, in a particular textual whole. Do we take reading for granted because it is a common miracle, a constant sign pointing us toward the presence of divine image-bearers somewhere along the line? I think so. But whether you agree on that or not, I have clarified that spiritual realities aren’t necessarily known in a particularly speculative way. To speak of spiritual things in Matthew is not to break from the historian’s task and fall into theology, and it isn’t to postulate absurdities, and it isn’t a move from the real to the unreal. Rather, if we properly understand the ancient understanding of spirit, we will see that spiritual insight is necessary to any reading at all, and is especially necessary when reading a text like this.

For all of that, I’m a big fan of the quest for the historical Jesus, and the fleshy Jesus, as well as the endless search for the whole social world behind Matthew’s Gospel. I hope that more consilient readings can also help us speculate about the possible histories behind the text more fruitfully and humbly, and I’ve done plenty of that here. The basic problem is that I don’t think we can get through a text to what lies behind it, historically, if we haven’t even properly gotten in front of it first. If we haven’t read a text well in the first place, appreciating the variety of possible consilient readings it presents, then it becomes all too easy to prooftext it and then build a fanciful and speculative history on the basis of those prooftexts. Prooftexts then give way, all too readily, to concrete illusions: misreadings suddenly sprout into unwarranted claims about an imagined ‘concrete reality’, and we end up with confident claims that are little more than shadows of our dubious readings. This problem afflicts both fundamentalist and ‘critical’ literalists who fall for these illusions of concreteness.

For example, in the Schweitzerian interpretive tradition texts like Matthew 24–25 are often read as indicating a general expectation throughout the early church of an imminent Second Coming that would bring history to its close. This universal expectation was supposedly disappointed, and so the early church quickly had to scramble for excuses. There is precious little evidence that anything like this happened, but on the basis of a tendentious reading of the texts it is presumed that it must have happened. Objections to this ‘hard truth’ are then taken to indicate an unfortunate apologetic tendency among the benighted Christian plebes, because they are supposedly ignoring the ‘concrete facts’ which are actually just unverified shadows cast by their contested reading of the material. It seems to be at least worthwhile to consider the possibility that from the start, some Christians may have read the apocalyptic genre incompetently, while others sought to “let the reader understand” how the genre was actually meant to work. Maybe these wise souls provided a more enduring and encompassing and scalable mode of thinking that helped the early Jesus followers establish the most enduring and massive social movement in history. And maybe Matthew was just such a wise thinker, perhaps writing at a crucial moment sometime in the vicinity of Judah’s fall. We will have to turn to the text of Matthew itself to see if it might support this sort of claim.

More of that, and in more detail, soon enough. But to start, I need to finish clearing my throat.

Ultimately, I think we have far better grounds to modify our understanding of Matthew 24–25 in light of Matthew 26–28, for example, than we have for modifying our reading on the basis of a more speculative redaction and composition history. Similarly, we should read as much of the literature surrounding Matthew as we possibly can, but the more proximate cotext within Matthew itself must remain especially important for our interpretation. Matthew can cite apocalyptic literature without following it at every point, and apocalyptic is already a far more flexible and generative genre than it is sometimes given credit for being. We should seek consilience between Matthew and the surrounding literature, but not at the expense of Matthew’s own consilience as a work. So for example, it is textually ridiculous to suggest that the Enochian literature controls the meaning of Matthew 24–25 because both texts are examples of the same genre of “apocalyptic literature”, but that Matthew 26 has relatively little to tell us about what Matthew means by signs because it is not “apocalyptic literature”. On the contrary, my emphasis on trying to read consiliently is little more than the bold suggestion that Matthew should especially be read in the light of Matthew. So for example, the last occurrence of the word “sign” in Matthew 26 is perhaps a bit closer to Matthew 24–25 than Enoch. This final sign is a profoundly ironic one: it is the kiss by which Judah signals his betrayal of Jesus to the Romans. It is sign from man to men, but also a sign to us about the gentleness of Jesus, as that cruel kiss marks the Temple-King for death right there at the First Communion.

In this study of signs and presence, we’ll give special attention to this sort of immediate cotext, even as we also consider apocalyptic literature more broadly. Especially with Matthew’s Gospel, a text that engages with so much literature while dramatically re-interpreting it around the figure of the non-violent king, we need to be extremely hesitant to suggest that “apocalyptic” has been brought into the text without similarly transforming it within this Messianic undistortion field. So as we proceed up the Mount of Olives we’ll continue to attend to the text in front of us in its literary context, being careful not to crush the text under the weight of tendentious literary classifications and speculative historical constructs.

We might also situate our approach within our contemporary commentary tradition like this: I hope to find deep points of synthesis between the valuable work of figures like Allision, Keizer, Wright, Ramelli, Hart, Richter, and France. But to do that I’ll need to problematize the divisions within and between the various camps. Only by breaking down their shared walls can we uncover more of their common ground. This is the maternal Aufhebung of limits. When all of those stones have been thrown down and lifted up in new ways, I think we will be able to see that we’ve missed some opportunities to see profound coherences that are present within Matthew 24–25. These deep and rich associations reflect and embody the profound consilience of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. Then we can gather the pieces all scattered and lost, and become repairers of the breech, building this time with soft hearts instead of concrete barriers. Hopefully we can expand our horizons to include readings that may seem fresh to us, but which were plausibly already available to the original author(s) and competent hearers of Matthew.

II.2.A Reading “the sign of your presence” in Matthew is the practice of reading the phrase “the sign of your presence” in the book of Matthew.

a. Reading “the sign” in Matthew: the sign of Jonah

What does it mean to try to read a sign? At least in the context of Matthew, the language of a “sign” emphasizes certain aspects of reading that are always present, but which are often ignored because they’re easily taken for granted. Like language in general, signs point beyond themselves to something else. But because of the distance between a sign and wherever it points, there’s a risk that we might foolishly miss the point. This risk also speaks to an enticing possibility: if we are wise, we’ll correctly understand the sign, and this will therefore give us information that we otherwise wouldn’t have. The ‘distance’ between a sign and whatever it signifies may be a distance in space, or time, or it may merely be a conceptual distance. For example, properly interpreting a sign might mean that we finally understand what has been happening right in front of us. If a spouse or a church is cheating on us or abusing us, properly interpreting a sign might mean that we suddenly behold the hard truth that was right there all along. As we’ll see when we review the use of “sign” in Matthew, the Gospel’s usage highlights just these characteristics of signs: they point somewhere particular, and some people get the point while others miss the point.

This much is clear about signs in general, in the New Testament. How does Matthew’s Gospel, in particular, use the word?

At least outside of Matthew 24, all of the uses of the word “sign” in Matthew fit together in a coherent and deeply connected way, slowly elaborating the significance of the gospel’s single central sign. What would it mean if we were to read Matthew 24’s use of “sign” and especially “the sign” as if it fits into the general pattern of usage throughout the book? Rather plainly, it would mean that we associate the sign with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that everything is held within this singular sign.

As we review all of the occurrences of “sign” outside of Matthew 24, notice how consistently this language points to the cross, and how explicit it is that this is the only sign that will be given to the wicked generation. Also consider the importance of generational language in Matthew 24, along with the many other points of contact; sign and ‘this generation’ occur together again and again throughout the text:

Matthew 12:38–50:

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The ubiquitous connection between the body of Jesus and the Temple pervades Matthew, and is also evident here. Solomon was, of course, the builder of the First Temple. In Matthew, Jesus claims that he is (in himself) building a much greater Temple than Solomon’s, and that the scribes and Pharisees would do well to listen to his wisdom more eagerly than the Queen of Sheba listened to Solomon. And yet they will refuse to hear and heed him at all.

The house here might be consiliently read as a reference to the Temple after the Holy Spirit’s departure. Alternatively, we might read this as a personal-scale application of a point that also pertains to the national scale: when the Holy Spirit is not present, even in a room/soul that is tidily kept and pleasant in appearance, it turns out that room is only made up for more of the agents of the Slanderer. All of this should also be read in light of the rest of Matthew 12, which we covered in great detail in the previous article because of the importance of “aion” to this chapter. Jesus is, here, inverting the charge made against him earlier in Matthew 12: no, the Spirit of Beelzebul isn’t in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit is in him. In contrast, the Holy Spirit who brings wisdom and truth to those who will receive Her is not filling his slanderous accusers. And so all of the tidiness in the world is just more leaves on a dying tree, and more whitewash on a moldering tomb. The broader matrix of meaning connects this deeply to national and Temple themes, even if the application here is at a personal scale that is held within the national scale. The personal scale is subject to national phenomena insofar as a person is subjected to the nation.

Following this reflection, Jesus then draws in his jarring discourse about who his family is, and how they are defined by faithfulness rather than blood. This links tightly to the core themes of EXTENDED FAMILY, TIME and GOVERNANCE that make up the matrix of meaning that we’ve discussed everywhere in this study. The upshot is that Jesus is identifying his family structure as a spiritual one, rather than a fleshy one, and is therefore establishing a fundamentally different sort of “dynasty”: a distributed and egalitarian one. In this way, the sign of Jonah is made to rest gently in our matrix of meaning about intergenerational governance, like a spiritual seed set in the clay of the human heart. Whether the scale in view is directly or indirectly national, we see Jesus moving here from personal scale to national through the standard mechanism of extended family. Here as elsewhere, we see the basic connection between the death of Jesus and the fall of Judah’s Temple, mediating personal to national scales, that rests at the core of Matthew’s entire gospel.

Matthew 16:1–12

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Here we see an explicit call-back to Jonah and the very same sign that was discussed in Matthew 12, which is the only sign that is to be given. The singularity of the sign being offered to the generation is reinforced by the repetition of the same answer here. They keep asking for signs, and he keeps telling them that there will only be this one sign.

The conversation then turns to the sign of leaven, and the disciples are shown to be misunderstanding their teacher’s bread-related metaphor. Our outline of Matthew goes into more depth on the centrality of bread to Matthew’s Gospel, and here we see leavening emphasized within the broader symbolic system. We’ve also already explored the harvest imagery surrounding seeds and bread that is so central to “the synteleia of the aion” in our long excurses on aion. Within and surrounding all of this, it seems especially fitting to consider the importance of unleavened bread for Passover, a theme that we’ve explored extensively in those essays as well.

The spiritual leaven that Jesus emphasizes here also corresponds deeply to the notion of a spiritual family from Matthew 12, by way of this broader discussion of seed and bread. The discourse is recognizably spiritual in the many senses of the term: it involves analogical comparisons of deep invisible structures, and it involves multiplication by words and communication rather than fleshy reproduction. It therefore involves the proper understanding of signs in their capacity to point and lead the wise to these powerful and encompassing spiritual realities that structure and order flesh into souls. If anyone wonders if Matthew’s Jesus understands the invisible latticework of concepts toward which a sign like the word “leaven” can point, this profound and artful play with “the sign of Jonah” and “the sign of leaven” should help settle the matter. Notice, as well, that the sign of unleavened bread is also the sign of Jonah: both signs point directly to the one sign, which is the cross and resurrection. The one sign that holds all the others is therefore the Aion of the Messiah.

The central point of the cross, that the Messiah’s reign proceeds without violence, will also be emphasized with our final mention of “sign” in Matthew. There in Matthew 26 we will violently and dramatically move from the personal to the national scale, and so the passage directly addresses an obvious and ubiquitous question that is posed whenever people encounter this strange notion of a non-violent government. What does it do when the violent come to crush it? Matthew’s use of the word “sign” answers this while also emphasizing this singular sign of Jonah, the death of Jesus, but in a richly ironic way.

Matthew 26:47–56

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

The sign that Judas (also representing Judah in its faithlessness) gives to the Romans is intimately and agonizingly and ironically linked to that very same sign of Jonah. This final occurrence of “sign” signifies the kiss of death that leads to the death of the Messiah. While it is, in Judah’s mind, a clever sign from man to men, Jesus doesn’t leave it there. The text uses Judas’s sign in the distinctively Christian form that we might call “cruciform irony”: the wicked sign of Judas is taken up and transformed by Jesus into his own chosen sign, just as the brutal and cruel Roman cross becomes the central Christian sign. It is all saying the same thing: in this Messiah, death is overcome by passing through torture and death to the other side, emerging victorious over death and sin themselves. His disciples will do the same, and so the kingdom endures and flourishes and grows and thrives without doing violence, even when violence is done to them. Its power is enemy love, and it doesn’t have to persuade each enemy for it to work. It requires resurrection power, seed power, bread power, the power to find life even through death.

As in all of our other uses in Matthew, this instance of “sign” indicates the singularity of the sign that is offered, and that the sign is the cross and resurrection. By extension, the death of Jesus signifies the death of Judah, even as the sign that Judas gives to the Romans will lead him to his own remorseful death. And the rise of Jesus then, by extension, signifies the rise of all of Israel, which holds fallen and divided Judah within the twelve that Jesus chose.

The theme of the sign, which is the sign of Jonah, is as clear as just about anything can be. It is repeated. It is explicit. It is consistent across all of these uses. It coheres with the broader narrative at countless points, and coheres with the countless references layered throughout the text. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all of the intertextuality at work here, but I hope we have already included enough to illustrate the point.

Insofar as a commentator fails to make note of this when considering “the sign” in Matthew, they are missing one of the most obvious and foundational points that there is to make about Matthew and the language of “the sign”. When we get to the later occurrences of “the sign” in Matthew 24 I’ll argue in more detail that the pattern that is set throughout the Gospel carries through beautifully there as well. This argument will rest substantially on our standard of consilience, and will draw on the power of “the sign of Jonah” to relate directly to the discussion of a corpse as the sign there.

For all of the clarity with which the sign points to the cross and resurrection throughout Matthew, the theme is also paired with the warning that those who are asking for a sign are missing the signs that are already present. Somehow, Matthew’s Jesus still has our number after all these years. The sign is as plain as can be, like a coming storm. And we, and they, still miss it.

So how do readers sometimes manage to miss this, clear as it is, even though we’re warned that we’re going to miss it? It is one of history’s greatest magic tricks, one that the text has been pulling on plenty of commentators and readers for millennia. I think the lion’s share of the answer is simple: those who commit to the Covenant on the Mount see it easily enough. However, that’s a hard teaching. The Gospel of Jesus is extremely bright, which is why it is hard to look straight into it, even if the idea of staring at the sun is simple to grasp. So we get a very long and narratively incoherent tradition of training people to be faithless to the Covenant on the Mount, because it is incompatible with Empire and especially Empire in the church. And so commentators have built a variety of enormous edifices to cover up their interest in missing the point. Textual vivisection becomes the order of the day, not because of what can be learned as the life passes from the narrative, but precisely because the death of meaning is useful. Why do we call him Lord, Lord and not do what he says? Because on some level we aren’t yet ready to have our souls conform to his cruciform soul. And so we as the church have often failed to read the text as a consilient whole, especially starting in the wicked generation after Constantine. And so for generations false teachers have trained others to do the same.

b. Reading “your presence” in Matthew

Our second key term here is parousia, and in the most basic sense it means “presence” or “arrival”.² Which meaning does Matthew have in view here? As usual, I think the best answer is “both”. Or more precisely, I think that if “parousia” is being used as a pun, then it makes excellent sense of the available evidence in this pun-rich cultural context. We might even offer a nice rule of thumb that has broad application in Hebrew and Greco-Hebrew literature: where you think the text seems blatantly contradictory, first look to see if you’re missing a pun. If we do that here, then we will notice that the contradiction we’ve explored between “the Second Coming” and “the Enduring Nearness” fits perfectly with a pun between “arrival/coming” and “presence”. Just as that Second Coming must be held in this Enduring Nearness (see II.1.D for that discussion), arrival must be held in presence.

I don’t think we can read Matthew’s Gospel very consiliently at all unless parousia is carrying both senses. How else are we supposed to make Matthew 28 fit with Matthew 24? Beyond this, I also think a nicely nuanced reading holds “arrival” in the broader meaning of “presence”. We might describe the pun like this: Jesus is talking about “presence (with a subtle ring of arrival)” although the disciples may have meant “royal arrival in violent power (with a subtle ring of presence)” because they didn’t understand the One whose presence was there with them. Like the Pharisees, they asked for a sign without understanding that they would “only” receive the sign of Jonah, the greatest in their history. The blindness of the disciples is, of course, one of the central themes throughout all the Gospels. Matthew and the whole genre make regular use of the dramatic irony that arises in the gap between the disciples’ lack of understanding, and the comprehension of a competent reader. This pun perfectly encapsulates the dramatic irony that reflects the cruciform irony of Matthew 21–28, nicely compressing the furiously and seriously ironic heart of the whole Gospel into a single multivalent word: parousia. We’re all late on the uptake.

The key to the pun’s subtle power lies in the capacity of “presence” to hold “inaugural presence”, and the power of “inaugural presence” to hold both ritual and political implications of “arrival”.

What does it mean for the meaning of “inaugural presence” to be held in “presence”? This: first, notice that “presence” presumes that someone is here and that they haven’t left, while “arrival” presumes that someone is absent, because otherwise they can’t arrive. The sense of “arrival” therefore depends on an extension from the more basic sense of “presence”, because an inauguration of presence is an arrival, especially a regal one. In this sense, “arrival” can sometimes hold the more special and narrow implication of “the very start of your presence” and is therefore held within the more general meaning of presence. In other words, the meaning of “presence” is broader than the more specified “start of presence”, and so “start of presence” is held within the larger semantic range of “presence”. We could draw the relationship compactly like this: Parousia = [presence = [arrival and/or enduring presence]].

When we understand it in this way, we might also speculate that this suggests an etymology, starting with “presence” and then adding the specialized sense of “start of presence” by extension from that, presumably through routine usage in that particular way. The BDAG’s careful documentation of known usage suggests that this theory is correct: “presence” comes to carry a secondary meaning of “arrival” in certain contexts by extension from this more general meaning.² We might also say that from the shoot of “presence” there sprouts an organic, formal, discernable but also ultimately rather unclear distinction between “arrival” and “presence”. Matthew’s Gospel is leaning into this subtle ambiguity. This play of opposites has certain similarities to the way that night, being held in day, becomes part of a day.

Based on this, I avoid “coming” as a translation of parousia at a basic level because it emphasizes the movement towards a moment of arrival, but “arrival” precisely names the first moments of presence in a way that accords with “parousia”. I also avoid it for its secondary associations with a “Second Coming” which imposes a particular later theological development back on more protean language. I affirm the Second Coming, to be clear, but also think that the doctrine is best interpreted in light of Scripture. More to our immediate point here, I also think that we need to avoid the danger of anachronistically imposing later calcified readings of doctrinal positions on this earlier text, and then on the doctrinal language by extension. If we do that, we miss the text’s original range of meaning.

Why does this subtle shift matter? Because we then step back from presuming a Second Coming, and talk more basically about the Future Presence, as Matthew does. This is helpful not only because it enables us to identify fresh opportunities for consilience, and because it carefully heeds the language itself, but also because it can help us consider the development and implications of an idea of a Second Coming. We might start by noticing that a Future Presence far more subtly ‘contradicts’ the Enduring Nearness that Matthew 28 emphasizes. The disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3 becomes more redolently ambiguous if it is read as, “What will be the sign of your presence?” and not, “What will be the sign of your Second Coming?” On either translation, the disciples are asking for future signs of a future nearness and power. But as Matthew’s close reveals, this future presence must be held in this enduring nearness, or else Matthew’s Jesus is a liar. The whole text of Matthew 21–28 works together beautifully if Jesus takes them to be asking, in an expanded sense, “What signs will let us know that you remain with us in the future, for all of our days until the end of the Lifetime?” And over the course of Matthew 24–28, in word and deed, Jesus answers: “These signs will reveal my presence for all the days. Celebrate my Passover and remember me, so that you hear and heed my teachings that are fulfilled in it. Baptize under the authority of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Train people to hear and heed the Covenant on the Mount, and all that I’ve taught you. Then you will know that I am present with you all the days of your lives, and all the days of the lifetime of the universe.”

The overlapping duality of parousia makes it especially apt for Matthew’s purpose, if it includes an invitation to think more deeply, philosophically, and transformatively about the stock apocalyptic imagery that it draws into the maelstrom of Matthew’s sign of Jonah. If this isn’t what Matthew is doing, I think it is difficult to account for the whole text that we have. However, if this is what Matthew is doing, then it powerfully and simply accounts for the whole, allowing Matthew 28:20 to synthesize Matthew 21–28 beautifully, as a synthesizing conclusion should. And Matthew, of course, understood what was involved in a proper synteleia.

So what if “parousia” is meant to play with both “presence” and “arrival”, in a way that is generative, thought-provoking and playful? This simple return to the language ends up according deeply with theological interpretations like the one offered by Albrecht Oepke in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.³ Oepke was a member of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. His nuanced and authoritative discussion of “parousia” provides an account of the word’s meaning and development, provided in full below. Without going into all of the nuances here, I’d draw special attention to the way parousia has both political and divine associations in its context. “Parousia” can describe when a divinity is present in power through ritual or liturgy: it relates to the theophany that corresponds to theurgy. And the word can also describe the royal arrival, again in power, of a political authority. There are important touch-points between this and the Passover observance in Matthew 26, which introduces the relevant ritual context in which the divine presence arrives in and through the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Oepke’s analysis also helps us notice the many important touch-points with the political genre of apocalyptic, which reveals spiritual truths especially as they relate to large scale political events. Parousia, as both presence and arrival, therefore pulls together political and liturgical elements in a way that critically (in both senses) engages with the Temple as the liturgical and political center of Judah.

If we instead just impose “Second Coming” on the original language, it warps the work of reading. This can then recoil on the text to make it enduringly obscure. It becomes natural to ask, “Why does Matthew contradict the Doctrine of the Second Coming that is affirmed here in Matthew 24 with his conclusion? Obviously, this is a stupid hodge-podge of a text that is desperately scrambling for excuses.” This obstructs the relatively straightforward and consilient reading of Matthew’s apocalyptic narrative, and turns the text into a dead doctrinal manual that requires much assent while granting little insight. In its original context, Matthew moved its readers from obscurity to clarity over the course of the passion narrative. It was an apocalyptic and revelatory text. Imposing later theological accretions on the text creates shoddy walls, blocking off the living semantic play of the original. Ultimately, we end up being unable to appreciate the profundity and importance of the Second Coming, as it emerges in its own right, in time.

The process leaves us with an enduring obscurity even as the Christian tradition also records the memory that it promised something revelatory (apocalyptic). This new obscurity then recoils again, now reshaping our whole understanding of apocalyptic literature itself, draining it of its quite explicit flexibility as a way of spiritually (and therefore very practically) commenting on politics.

This tradition of misreading, like the tradition of stubbornly and heedlessly misreading the Covenant on the Mount as an impossible goal, catastrophically collapses the texts into incoherence. “Apocalypse” is not seen as a means of commenting on the situation in Greece or Rome by arguing that restorative justice will ultimately be done, as resurrection follows death. Instead, it is commonly imagined that apocalyptic demanded an imminent fleshy Jesus flying around on clouds and literally slicing people up with a sword sticking out of his mouth. Because the political cartoons didn’t suddenly and literally leap off of the page, it is imagined that the early church was embarrassed and had to scramble for new ideas. More sophisticated variants demand that all apocalyptic envisions something like a universal cosmos immediately remade of starstuff, or something along those lines. This also misses the genre’s capacity for nuanced spiritual-political discussion.

For all of these fascinatingly divergent readings of the genre, it is reasonably transparent at many points. For example, Jesus is depicted wielding a sword in his mouth in Revelation 19:15. I have frequentently heard people argue that this supposedly proves that Jesus will be violent in his Second Coming. In my experience this is a common reading in evangelical and Catholic circles in the US today, and I think these sorts of readings reveal the absence of even the most basic practices of Christian discipleship: they quite literally do not know the Jesus of scripture. Understandably, I’ve found this blindness masquerading as orthodoxy to be especially prevalent in military circles. Of course, those who suffer from it are often especially zealous for their ersatz orthodoxy. After encountering this sort of thing repeatedly, I’ve become convinced that it is urgently important the the church, at socially relevant scale, offers a clear and confident counter to this widespread and normalized anti-Christian mode of reading our sacred texts. Disagreement on many points is warranted, but the enemy-loving way of Jesus is one fo the most utterly clear things that the text communicates. If even this is unclear, then we might as well pack up and go home and abandon Biblical interpretation altogether, because everything else must also be utterly inscrutable and irredeemably subjective as well. It should be clear to any follower of Jesus that the sword coming from his mouth accords with his foundational Covenant on the Mount, and precisely skewers the whole idea of violent divine governance: the destructive power of Jesus, as the image makes clear enough, is in his words, which are the sword that brings the dividing power of judgmental discernment from his mouth. Ephesians, too, uses the imagery of the sword in this way. The image is hardly obscure, especially in the context of the rest of early Christian literature and the well-established non-violence of the early church. And yet because of the enduring satanic influence of imperial court Christianity, which needed to remake the faith in the image of Empire, the obvious and natural function of the texts is lost. In cases like this, obscurity is manufactured. The issue is not that the texts are actually so obscure at every point, but because clarity here is inconvenient.

I suspect that this sort of spiritually motivated blindness, motivated by the spirit of Empire, eventually turns into the theory that the parousia of Jesus was delayed. This, then, forces the church to scramble and come up with excuses for the failure. But the timing of this scrambling has been misplaced, insofar as it is projected onto the early church. In the historical record, there is little evidence of such a thing. However, there is abundant evidence that new patterns of excuse-making and radical revisionism came much later, when Augustine and others had the financially rewarding but unenviable task of justifying this absurdity: that Christian violence in the service of Empire could be an example of Christian faithfulness. As Kreider documents so well in Patient Ferment of the Early Church, the early agape feasts of the church reminded the community of the non-violent, reconciling, solidaristic and patient way in which the kingdom of Jesus functioned. By practicing it, in its original catechetical context, the reign of Jesus spread insofar as authentic faithfulness to his Covenant spread. When partaking of the Eucharist the community resolved disputes, administered restorative justice, and committed to follow the training that was expressed through his exemplary death and rise. It was, in fact, a way of non-violently governing a community, which is why it was able to spread throughout the Empire, and why Constantine hoped the Christians Bishops might help him administer justice throughout the Empire. (The bishops tended to consider this an annoying hassle, as documented in Constantine and the Bishops.)

Although competent Christian teachers understood how to read and use their sacred texts for Christian discipleship from very early on, as Kreider shows, it is also clear that there were all kinds of confusions and disputes in the early church. Eventually, in certain academic circles in the 20th Century it became popular to suggest that the church faced a crisis when the promised parousia (Second Coming) didn’t materialize. It remains a popular position in certain quarters, although it is also routinely challenged and has been thoroughly reassessed. By the close of the 20th Century standard academic references were downplaying the supposed problem of the delay of the parousia in the first generation of the church.⁴ To be clear, there is evidence that some people in the early church may have had a fleshy expectation of an imminent arrival of Jesus riding around on literal clouds, and there is evidence that early teachers pushed back against these kinds of incompetent readings. However, it is very difficult to explain the emergence of Christianity, its success against all odds, and the textual evidence that we have, if there weren’t enough competent reader-leaders from the start.

The non-comprehension of the disciples that marks the Gospels, as well as the notes around Daniel that readers should “let the reader understand”, indicate a pedagogical intent that would move people from obscurity to revelation, and from incompetence to competence in their reading. This corresponded with competence in their practice of the faith: for example, they were able to in fact renounce violence and in fact love their enemies, even when persecutions came, because they were confident in the real and enduring spiritual power of the Way of Jesus. Daniel is an especially important apocalyptic text precisely because it is essentially a manual that can train a minimally competent and willing reader to understand how the genre of apocalyptic works; repeatedly, it first offers images and then it explicitly decodes them, offering the proper political mode of interpretation and demonstrating the flexibility of the genre. Taken together, all of my points so far indicate that the church’s teachers understood that its teachings initially seemed obscure, but that willing students could be trained to understand them in reasonably straightforward ways. We might say that the delay of the presence of Jesus was ideally a fleeting process in the education of a disciple, one which was resolved by hearing about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and then experiencing his presence in baptism, community discipleship, and the breaking of the bread. The confused disciples that pepper the Gospels rhetorically teach us to be unlike them, using the device of dramatic irony to make the intended audience shout (at least inwardly), “How have we missed the sign of his presence! He is risen indeed and is here with us in the breaking of the bread! Let’s follow his example, and his life will be manifest in our lives, which will imitate his prophetic and kingly and priestly path in accordance with his law of love, the Covenant on the Mount.” The literature must have been produced by people practiced in plank removal: it was the product of teachers who gently mocked themselves. It shows that they understood by their own experience how difficult it is to see the simple, but hard, insight that this Jesus of the House of Bread hides in plain sight.

It is very hard to make sense of the text of Matthew unless any confusions about “the delay of the Second Coming” are being resolved within it. In light of Matthew 21–28, insofar as an experience of the Enduring Presence of Jesus was delayed it was first a problem in the process of disciple-making, where some people were unable to practice the way of enemy love well, which went along with failing to read allegorical and spiritual literature properly. After all, to understand the sword of the spirit is to understand the power of words over blades. And what fool would choose the weakness of steel over the spiritual power of the true Word? On this reading, within the text of Matthew the real problem of the delay of the parousia, such as it was, is profoundly and thoroughly addressed, provided we actually read it.

This discussion raises a series of questions about Paul and his own formation as a disciple. It is beyond the scope of our explorations here to get into this too deeply, but some brief notes are due. Two broad types of reading of Paul are compatible with my view here, and I’d like to sketch both options without committing to either. I suspect that at the end of the day, a fuller investigation would leave us filling in the sketch I draw here.

Option 1: Paul’s eschatology may have developed over the course of his life in a way that can be traced in his letters. The assortment of letters that we have may illustrate a disciples’ journey into wisdom, coming with the attendant capacity to read in a competent Christian way. If we wanted to advance this reading, we might start with uncontested and late Pauline letters, like Philippians. In its brevity and clarity about death, we might see a mature expression of his faith. We might even read it as something like a death poem, completing the rest of his work. On this reading, as the end of his own aion drew near, the meaning of the Aion became clearer for Paul as it does for so many of us. We might also note that in Romans and in 1 Corinthians, Paul seems (at the very least on the face) to approach eschatology with a strong emphasis on its inclusivity; as I argue elsewhere, Romans and 1 Corinthians both provide much stronger support for a view of universal salvation (apokatastasis) than hell’s prooftexts provide for a doctrine of endless torment. The point here is not to defend Christian universalism (I am not a universalist), but to illustrate the relevance of research in that domain for our historical understanding of Paul’s eschatological vision and its possible development.

Option 2: Alternatively, we might also argue that Paul understood spiritual realities and spiritual reading from the start of his ministry. Indeed, the flesh-spirit distinction is absolutely central to his entire mission, and it seems to have played an integral role in his conversion experience and his understanding of Christianity. Given all of this, it seems reasonable to suggest that Paul understood his own use of apocalyptic language and imagery competently from the start, and that we are simply misreading texts like 1 Thess 4:17 in a fleshy way that Paul (provided he was the author) would have found hilarious. N.T. Wright argues this case eloquently, although his particular approach is contentious, and his understanding of the flesh-spirit distinction is woefully deficient.⁵ Still, it isn’t too hard to imagine a synthesis of Wright’s inaugurated eschatological insights with David Bentley Hart’s better understanding of the philosophical register of ancient speech: against Wright it needs to be said that for Paul, the spiritual was more real and substantial than the flesh, not less.⁶

In light of this, a lot of Wright’s polemics against supposed “gnosticism” turn out to suffer from the very “gnostic modernism” that he is often eager to construct in his attacks on the traditional understandings of Christians. What I mean is this: gnosticism depends on a radical duality of flesh and spirit, denigrating one while elevating the other. Where Wright’s polemics functionally treat the flesh as real and the spiritual as illusory, he partakes of a duality that is the mirror image of the gnosticism he constructs. The Christian vision is precisely concerned with breaking down this duality through the soulful integration of the two sides into coherent wholes, such as you and me. Wright’s anti-gnosticism is therefore assimilated to gnosticism, as each night is assimilated to each day, and both end up being soulless in the end. And so Wright continues to dwell in the day of the gnostics, even though their sun has set, not yet perceiving the sign of the Day of the Lord. He is very close, but his enemy-hating polemics stemming from his failure to practically center the Covenant on the Mount leave him dwelling in that gnostic day, even as it looks to him like the setting of the gnostic sun. Nonetheless, Wright’s positive contributions remain invaluable.

Ultimately, I think that the most consilient and apocalyptic reading of Paul will synthesize the best of Wright and Hart, while moving past the various Feindbilder (propagandistic images of the enemies) that animate their own systems of strident animosity. The result is a reading of Paul that sees him as an ancient writer in the broad Greco-Hebrew tradition of Philo of Alexandria, who was therefore able to understand the power of spiritual realities to structure flesh and light and the weight of glory into souls at personal, national and international scale, across time and even beyond time. This mode of reading was not incidental to his self-understanding or his missionary successes, but was an essential element of his training, as it should be an essential element of our own practices of training in wisdom. This is how ancient people learned to think and communicate across scale, and it is how we can understand their wisdom about scale in the texts. Texts like Thess 4:17, then, can be both substantial and spiritual, and they can speak to the hyper-real, invisible structure of reality without a naive expectation of a reductively fleshy reading. Even today, science advances by developing general analogical models that powerfully hold a wide range of observations. For all of the differences in vocabulary and style, I think they are fundamentally the same sort of thing; in ancient terms, scientists today continue to seek the invisible spiritual structures that can hold and explain the disparate observable phenomena we encounter in our lives. Science is soulful.

Just as I draw on Wright while correcting his philosophical blindness with respect to Paul, we can do something similar with his work on Daniel and Matthew. So, for example, one of Wright’s distinctive contributions here is his argument that the presence of the Son of Man must be understood in light of his essentially irrefutable observation that in Daniel 7 the movement of the Son of Man on the clouds is a movement to the Ancient of Days rather than to us. The basic point is as plainly correct as anything in this field can be, and the text is also explicit that this symbolic elevation in the political cartoon actually represents his acquisition of power and authority. Also note that this is the passage that contains our unique, triple-olamic phrase. In the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures, it alone expresses the greatest possible extent and wholeness of time that ‘olamic language can express. Daniel 7:13-14:

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

14 To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Matthew 24 is clearly playing with this text and image, according to the view of all commentators that I’m aware of. At the same time, we should hold open the possibility that Matthew 24 modifies this vision and is discussing a downward spiritual movement to us. Such a divine parousia, in the original context of Matthew, could have easily been understood to manifest in the life of the ekklesia centered on the bread and the cup and the new birth of baptism, because these practices spiritually transformed participants who understood their profound meaning into communities of faithful disciples. To interpret the image in a fleshy way would be a violation of the most basic elements of the genre, constantly reinforced throughout Daniel by the pattern of exposition. Could Paul have thought this way as well? Of course. There is evidence throughout Paul’s writings that the spirit-flesh distinction was very much alive to him, and that he understood the spiritual to be the hyper-real but invisible structure of reality itself.

So either as an exemplar of a disciple moving into competent reading, or as a competent reader from the start who we have misunderstood, Paul and the Pauline literature can fit nicely with my reading of Matthew. I hope to turn to the Pauline corpus with an eagle eye before the end of this generation. But this will have to do for now.

So while we don’t need to follow Wright at every point, and really should diverge sharply when it comes to his misunderstanding of ancient philosophy, his political grounding of the text is very helpful when it comes to contextualizing Daniel 7. It helps us see that the text is talking about the dramatic arrival of the Son of Man in his victory against a particular Empire, which would establish the most enduring government conceivable, breaking the authority of the other empires even as they persisted for a time. Regardless of whether Matthew 24 simply appeals to this upward movement, or pointedly reverses it, we can less contentiously note that Daniel 7 rather plainly envisioned history continuing after the Son of Man’s signal victory. See Daniel 7:11–12 for that moment of victory, not over all the empires, but over the great fourth beast: the Greco-Roman Empire, to Second Temple Judahites.

(Incidentally, I’m Daniel and I was born on 7–11 and this is my favorite verse in the Bible. Based on this remarkable coincidence, I can understand if you conclude that I’m a fiction that is too good to be true, much like some might start to expect the same of Jesus once they appreciate the literary density of Matthew. For my part, I’ve come to think that truth is stranger than fiction, and that a life is full of beautiful details that can be artfully drawn out and drawn together to make a point.)

Much as Daniel 7 anticipates a continuation of fleshy history, fleshy history also continued after Alexander the Great’s parousia, which was followed by his parousia in many other places as his conquest proceeded from nation to nation to nation. This provides a helpful bridge between Daniel’s apocalypse and its actual social and political spiritual context. The spiritual realities behind Alexander, in an ancient context as well as in an informed contemporary context, were understood as the wordlike and breathlike invisible realities that supervened on souls and flesh to enable the empire in the first place.

Beyond this, of course, it is absolutely crucial to point out that Jesus is engaged in a fundamentally different sort of governmental project. His government is not rooted in the capacity to control and punish: its power does not derive from those worldly orders or cosmoi. Rather, it derives from a much deeper and more powerful order, the divine spiritual order of love that even empowers us to love enemies. This is what heaps coals on our opponents’ heads, and it is the only real punishment we as Christians can mete out. It is nonetheless extremely uncomfortable and very unappealing to go up against a nation whose ‘soldiers’ are devoted to the organized, systematic and strategic deployment of enemy love. This is a power that has gone toe to toe with Empire repeatedly, and has won repeatedly. Christian martyrs, like Jesus, continue to conquer Empire to this day when they follow his way. Baptized and trained, they reveal his enduring presence in history. By his blood alone, and in his sign alone, do we conquer. Non-violently. To abuse his cross and his Eucharist to justify Empire is to take his name and his signs in vain, and so become agents of the anti-Christ. This doesn’t reveal his presence, but instead unveils his absence in the hearts of the imposters. The mouth reveals the secrets of the heart (Matthew 12:34, Luke 6:45).

And this brings us to this strange apocalypse right here, in the middle of somewhere.

On the recent Jonah-ish parousia of Pope Francis

We have done our reconstructive homework. Now let’s do some apocalyptic reading of our own world, and the signs of our time.

With the reign of Jesus understood to be inaugurated through the prophetic announcement of the reign of God, we might turn back to the sign of prophet Jonah. If the sign of Jonah was his death and rise from the belly of the chaos-monster of the sea, what was the parousia of Jonah? It was his much-resisted presence in Nineveh. The resistance, it must be noted, came from the side of God’s chosen prophet Jonah and not from the side of the people of Nineveh. Jonah is a tale of plank removal, first and foremost on our own peoples’ part. Unlike the church throughout so much of our history, Nineveh (in this telling at least) quickly repented in sackcloth and ashes. The account speaks to the perennial hope of the Kingdom’s arrival. First, it speaks the wild dream that some (like Saul of Tarsus) will respond appropriately to the call of God, accepting God’s call on them to speak the truth. And then, contrary to any reasonable expectation, it turns out that some (like Paul the Benjaminite) will even respond to the sign of Jonah with genuine repentance and transformation. At least we can hope that our own many Ninevehs will finally be drowned in the waters of baptismal repentance, even in history.

As I write this, Pope Francis has reluctantly (like Jonah) come to repent for the Church’s abuses in our genocidal residential schools. The Vatican originally refused the offer to repent that was offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the topic. However, as corpses were exhumed from a mass grave, the Roman Eagle turned in its widening gyre and took note. Well I thought it was an eagle, but maybe it was a vulture there above the sacrificed children. Either way, such creatures gather, in time, where the corpses are found. What must be said clearly and unequivocally is that the indigenous children targeted for spiritual and physical genocide were Christ there, and the Roman Catholic Church was, indeed, in anti-Christ.

In this way, the parousia of Pope Francis on my continent carries the themes of Jonah inward and forward: it is our own planks that we are, in time, agonizingly blessed to reluctantly remove. It is complex, but I’m grateful for the our brother’s presence here right now. In coming down to join us here, his name has at last moved, Saulish, from Pope to true. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do. The hope must be that our brother’s parousia marks more than a publicity stunt, and is the start of a process of deep spiritual transformation and repentance, one which must include the structural transformation of the church’s institutions of governance as well as its practices of catechesis and liturgy. We would do well to start by calling all the Fathers our brothers, seeing who among them will accept the superior and faithfully Christian title.

Having grown up in South Dakota under the shadow of the same Catholic genocide system that our brother is now repenting over, this is kicking up so much for me. I’ll close this tiny apocalypse, still unfolding, with the journal entry that I wrote a year and a month ago as the bodies were coming up.

This one really hits home. I grew up a couple hours from Chamberlain, South Dakota. The Guardian reports that at the ‘civilizing’ Native schools there, priests from the Order of the Sacred Heart engaged in the routine and systematic sexual abuse of children.

My dad worked at Sacred Heart hospital in Yankton, and we went to Sacred Heart Church in my childhood. The same order was active in both places.

My childhood priest there was a pedophile and a right-wing culture warrior. I was never personally subjected to any of that, because we never got too close. My mom never trusted him.

Some of those skeletons have been exhumed. But still the favors go around, as the sick pleasures of power continue to corrupt. In 2010, as the Guardian article states:

~~~

Just days before the survivors were set to go to court in 2010, the then Republican governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds (now a US senator), signed a bill into law prohibiting anyone 40 years or older from recovering damages from institutions responsible for their abuse, except from individual perpetrators themselves. The act crushed the lawsuit, effectively shielding the Catholic church from any responsibility or accountability.

The bill was written and proposed by Steven Smith, a Chamberlain attorney who, according to the Argus Leader, was representing the Priests of the Sacred Heart, the founders of St Joseph’s Indian school, in several sexual abuse cases at the time. Smith accused the survivors of being motivated by money and costing the church undue expenses in legal fees. The lawsuits were a “ticket out of squalor” for the survivors, Smith told the Huffington Post in 2011.

~~~

The Order of the Sacred Heart was also involved in slavery, by the way.

I carry the smells and bells and sense of unease from that place with me. It always felt like something was wrong there, and that feeling was right. It is a big part of why, for me, the current reckoning with the alliance between empire and white US evangelicalism can’t start or stop with the recent history of Protestant betrayals of Jesus. I’m struck by the way the recent Jericho/MyPillow March, headlined by the low-brow conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the middle-brow conspiracy theorist Eric Metaxas, featured an ecumenical array of slanderers, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, united in attacking others falsely. The roots of the present evils in church life, the patterns of churches letting Empire into their hearts, runs deep. There is an awful lot of vile ichor in there that needs to be cleared away. Senator Mike Rounds servicing the Order as Steve Smith so righteously denied people a “ticket out of squalor” shows why this past hasn’t even begun to be past. The work of working out how we got here is of enormous importance, especially insofar as it helps us make way for the enormous weeping, gnashing of teeth, repentance and reparations that are due.

In speaking these searing words, I feel the presence of Christ and his Kingdom here. May apologies give way to true repentance: an actual, fundamental change in direction. If it doesn’t, then we will utterly destroy ourselves and so many more, in time.

c. Reading “the sign of your presence” in Matthew

We’ve learned something about reading “the sign (of Jonah)” and “your presence” in their historical context, and in the immediate context of the Gospel of Matthew. Now let’s see if we can read them both together at the same time, in their original context. Can we see these two as sprouts, each so full of life and potential meaning, as part of a greater stem? I hope so.

To see the deeper unity from which the two parts grew, in the most basic way we need to bring together the Sign of Jonah with a liturgical-political parousia. Whatever could that be? Most consiliently, it is the event that was symbolically prefigured by the Eucharistic meal that Jesus sets for his disciples in Matthew 26. For those who have been trained to follow the command of Jesus to commemorate it, the meal continues to communicate that prototypical generation’s singular sign to us. The Generation to which Jesus appeared and died in the flesh then becomes the soulful prototype, one that we begin to enter into whenever we also take the bread and the wine together, in memory of him. A soulful prototype becomes the basis of a typological allegory, which contrasts well with a strictly spiritual allegory. What is the difference, exactly? A strictly spiritual allegory doesn’t draw on embodied prior referents, and can simply appeal to invisible general notions like “squares” and “triangles” and “virtue”.

Typological allegory carries a similar capacity for generalization, but insists on the embodied and practical basis for this copying. Typological allegory depends on teachers who become soulful prototypes, models for their students. It is therefore more demanding of its teachers, requiring that they be practical exemplars. The copying involved in soulful prototyping requires the kind of whole-body training that must be caught in community and witnessed in practice first, because it can’t simply be taught conceptually. Jesus couldn’t have been Jesus the Messiah if he had simply talked about the cross and expounded its implications without ever going to it. Christian praxis has been effective through the millennia, even when it has been marginalized within our own churches by the ersatz ‘Christianity’ of the anti-Christ, because of these lived typological allegories. Faithful Christians keep the fire alive insofar as they hear and heed the Covenant on the Mount, even if and when Christ is betrayed by faithless leaders at the top. So even where anti-Christ seizes the commanding heights of institutional authority in the church, it remains a hollow thing compared to the lived praxis of enemy love, of grace, of solidarity with the poor, and the hard work of repentance and reconciliation. This isn’t to excuse the routines of betrayal, or to enable them, or to minimize their devastating effects. These betrayals have led to genocide and slavery and the systematic, perpetual rape of children at global scale: they are to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Instead, these observations are here to encourage trenchant and enduring resistance against these abuses by encouraging those who do resist through their own faithful presence, as a response to God’s faithful presence among us. Communion is powerful, in part, because it is part of a system of soulful bodily training that brings together dense spiritual symbolism and fleshy physical practice. Properly received, this kind of resistance to the co-optation of the signs of our faith is what communion is always training us into. Improperly received, communion is communal death by hypocrisy: the Eucharist gives to any Empire built on it the curse-gift of fragile feet of clay.

Ah, but now I’m speaking apocalyptically. Could the early church that gave rise to Matthew’s Gospel have read Matthew in this way as well? Yes. Some version of communion is already explicitly attested from our earliest church documents, the letters of Paul. So we might pause and interrogate what communion was understood to be, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel. Is the Lord’s Supper really the sign of this Jonah-Messiah’s presence? The question itself is ambiguous in a punning way. What’s the question again? Are we asking if communion is a sign pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus, or are we asking if it is the physical sign that communicates that his presence is there? Yes. In these questions, both crammed punningly in the ambiguity of the first question, plenty of people will hear later debates on the topic of the “real presence in the Eucharist”. We should hear those echoes, along with their many implications for ecclesiology, eschatology and so much else. But my hope here is to say something even more simple, basic and fundamental than all of those later discussions. And that is this: the Last Supper and First Communion are intimately linked with each other in the most fundamental sense, so that neither is intelligible without the other. We can even set aside questions about whether everything in the universe is ultimately intelligible or not. As an intelligible social and historical phenomenon, at the very least, this mutual meaning-making, this circle of signification, is rather transparently necessary for parsing Matthew’s Gospel in a consilient way. Otherwise, why does chapter 26 follow chapter 25 and lead into chapters 27 and 28? My point here is still simply about the text, the Bible as literature, and these questions remain intelligible even if we are all just living in the Matrix. (We will seek to see past this in the next section, but for now we are still in ②, speaking as robustly as we can across contested metaphysical priors.)

Similarly, this Last-First meal is also intimately linked with the death-resurrection of Jesus, and all of our pairs here are equally unintelligible except through their mutual articulation of each other as (at least reported) human events and as the event of the text of Matthew. This means that the basic praxis that constitutes the ekklesia in history, the faithfulness to the commands of Jesus that creates this communal commemorative meal (and so much else), must always already bring these elements together in the Sign of Jonah with its theurgic divine parousia and its elevation of its enemy loving King. If there is anything intelligible to talk about here, it is that.

Much of what I have to say throughout this study is simply and powerfully expressed in the Didache. So I’m grateful for the chance to turn to it here. The text has considerable overlap and resonance with Matthew. It emphasizes the key themes of the Covenant on the Mount, understood in the Mosaic way that we have interpreted it throughout this study: it sees the foundational teaching as a divine pronouncement that covenantally articulates the way that leads to life, as opposed to the way that leads to death. It is beyond dispute that there is some relationship between the Didache and Matthew’s Gospel, but the particular relationship is a tantalizing mystery. The Didache may be one of the very earliest Christian texts, and Matthew’s Gospel may depend on it in part.⁸ Alan Garrow argues for a very early date in the article footnoted below. He also advances the intriguing theory that the Didache could be the Apostolic Decree of 48 AD, with Matthew drawing on it directly. Dale Allison, on the other hand, argues for a common source behind both Matthew and the Didache. (See footnote 1.) While the problem remains underdetermined at this granular level, the underlying connections are enough for me to build on here. Commentators generally agree that something of the core of early Christian belief breathes and moves between these texts, all hinging on the Covenant on the Mount, baptismal and communion practices, and eschatological warnings about the coming anti-Christ.

Significantly, the Didache also has what may well be our earliest reference to Sunday as The Day of the Lord. Recall that festival weeks like Passover bound two sabbaths together as well, and this may have provided a sense that a recurring “8th Day Passover” week after week broke the normal sense of time with these new, permanently recurring festival. After the trinity of 14’s in Matthew genealogy, we are finally led into The Passover over the generations/lifetimes over the course of the gospel. An early dating of the Didache provides especially strong support for the connection we are drawing between liturgy and eschatology. However, this connection is hardly necessary for our broader point. There is ample warrant to suggest that a profound connection between eschatology and liturgy was available to people in the immediate historical context of Matthew, and an abundance of material gestures toward this close semiotic bond.

Here, I’ll draw these signs together in a soulful way by exploring a fascinating interaction between communion, the narrative of the Canaanite dogwoman, and the language surrounding dogs and bread in the Didache. For this we will draw on our discussion of 15:1–28, in our Matthew outline. The discussion is revelatory in its own way, I believe. At the same time, by activating heated contemporary controversies, it can also help us perceive an ancient controversy that may play its own role in informing our understanding of the relationship between the Didache and Matthew. As usual, the contemporary apocalypse is plainly warranted as a consilient reading of the text; this, at least, is quite knowable. And also as usual, the historical argument is more distant, requiring more humility and less certainty of us, even if it feels more concrete at moments.

But before we turn back to Matthew 15, here are the sections of the Didache that are of special relevance to our reading of “the sign of your presence”. Chapters 9–10 and 14–16. (Oh, and while we’re considering the Didache’s simple and portable liturgy, also notice the theme of ingathering winds in the liturgical context of communion, here. This provides additional warrant for the reading we will offer of that imagery later in Matthew 24:31, seeing a liturgical fulfillment of the text that is therefore capable of social and spiritual reproduction, as all whole organisms are.)

In regard to the Eucharist, you shall offer the Eucharist thus: 2First, in connection with the cup, ‘We give Thee thanks, Our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy son, which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus Thy Son; to Thee be glory forever (into the ages, εἰς τοuς αἰῶνας).’ 3 And in connection with the breaking of bread, ‘We give Thee thanks, Our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou hast revealed to us through Jesus Thy Son; to Thee be glory forever (into the ages, εἰς τοuς αἰῶνας). 4 As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountain tops and after being harvested was made one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom, for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.’ 5 But let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except for those baptized in the name of the Lord, for it was in reference to this that the Lord said: ‘Do not give that which is holy to dogs.’

1 But, after it has been completed, give thanks in the following way: 2 ‘We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which Thou hast caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus thy Son; to Thee be glory forever. 3 Thou, Lord Almighty, has created all things for Thy name’s sake and hast given food and drink to men for their refreshment, so that they might render thanks2 to Thee; but upon us Thou hast bestowed spiritual food and drink, and life everlasting through Thy Son. 4 For all things we render Thee thanks, because Thou art mighty; to Thee be glory forever. 5 Remember, O Lord, Thy Church, deliver it from all evil and make it perfect in Thy love and gather it from the four winds,5 sanctified for Thy kingdom, which Thou hast prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory forever. 6 Let grace come, and let this world pass away, “Hosanna to the God of David.” If anyone is Holy, let him come; if anyone is not, let him repent. Marantha.7 Amen.’ 7 But allow ‘prophets’ to render thanks as they desire.

And on the Lord’s Day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your offences, so that your sacrifice may be pure. 2 But let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. 3 For it was said by the Lord: ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice, because I am the great king’; and also: ‘and my name is wonderful among the Gentiles (ethne/nations).’

1 Elect, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, humble men and not covetous, and faithful and well tested; for they also serve you in the ministry of the prophets and teachers. 2 Do not, therefore, despise them, for they are the honored men among you, along with the prophets and teachers. 3 And correct one another, not in anger but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. And let no one speak with anyone who has harmed his neighbor, nor let him be heard until he repents. 4 Offer your prayers and alms and do all things according to the Gospel of our Lord.

1 ‘Be vigilant’ over your life; ‘let your lamps’ not be extinguished, or your loins be ungirded, but be prepared, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come. 2 Come together frequently, and seek what pertains to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, unless in the last hour you shall be found perfect. 3 For, in the last days, false prophets and seducers will increase, and sheep will be turned into wolves, and charity will be changed into hate. 4 For, as lawlessness grows, men will hate one another and persecute one another and betray one another, and then will appear the Deceiver of the world, as though he were the Son of God, and will work signs and wonders; and the world will be delivered into his hands, and he will do horrible things, which have not been done since the beginning of the world. 5 Then shall all created men come to the fire of judgment, and ‘many will be scandalized’ and perish; but those who persevere in their faith will be saved6 from the curse itself. 6 And then will appear the signs of the Truth: first, the sign of confusion in the heaven; second, the sign of the sound of the trumpet;9 and third, the resurrection of the dead — 7 not the resurrection of all men, but, as it was said: ‘The Lord will come and all His saints with Him.’ 8 Then shall the world see the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven.⁹

Here the reference to dogs invites us to consider how the narrative around the phrase in Matthew 15:1–28 invites a powerful rejoinder to the Didache’s exclusive use of the language. Matthew’s Jesus does indeed make the statement that the Didache’s Jesus says here, ‘Do not give that which is holy to dogs.’ However, in Matthew the Canaanite woman doesn’t accept this. She successfully responds to Jesus, and so she perennially inspires the Didache’s readers to consider the same kind of effective response to the Didache here. The result is that the narrative in Matthew 15 reframes the Didache’s usage in a way that reverses the apparent intent. Recall that the Canaanite woman, through clever verbal intercourse, does receive the gift of life from Jesus after all: as the King of Judah who represents Judah, Matthew’s Jesus gives this Tamar-like “dog” her share of healing. Rev. Amy Richter’s work connects this back to the Enochian and apocalyptic theme of the Watchers, an angle which also draws in apocalyptic literature and its power of political commentary. (Everything enters the maelstrom of Jonah’s sign.) For all of the similarities with the story of Tamar and Judah, Jesus also redemptively transforms the narrative type. Tamar had to dangerously, unpleasantly but righteously “steal” the life-giving seed that what was rightfully hers from her father-in-law. This Canaanite woman receives the breathlike word-seed that brings healing to her family, but without the scandal or the abusive backdrop. Her daughter is given the gift of life with a word from the Word, much as a communion participant partakes of Christ. With her chutzpah and self-advocacy, she lifts her daughter to her proper place at the table, as Matthew’s Jesus gladly and graciously yields to the power of her words.

We might also pause here and note that we also find Rahab and Boaz in Matthew’s genealogy. This story provides another redemptive transformation of the same themes. So Matthew’s Jesus has a heritage that already includes this notion of intergenerationally redemptive stories, and then stories that redeem those stories further. If we read Matthew in this way, then its Jesus is carrying forward that tradition of narratives that transformatively hold up other traditions, a maternal Aufhebung that mirror’s the Canaanite woman’s own.

In the same way, Matthew 15 redemptively holds the words that the Didache prooftexts here, either as rejoinder or as prooftext betrayed. So as a matter of historical reconstruction, it is worth considering the possibility that Matthew’s narrative of the Canaanite woman could be in discourse with the Didache. Maybe it was a rejoinder to the use of this line. Or maybe the Didache prooftexts the story blindly, missing the broader context as so many of our own Biblical commentators do today. In this case, the Didache ends up being satisfyingly caught on its own hook, for those who know the original narrative and its arc. I find this kind of incompetent reading plausible as well. If I had a talent for every person who has cited Luke 22:36 to justify buying weapons, apparently without ever having read the rest of Luke 22, I could probably buy my way into heaven. The violent, filled with hubris, never see the end of the story: eye for eye, live by the sword and die. However we take the interaction between Matthew and the Didache, these observations should encourage us to consider how Matthew’s author might have viewed the openness of communion and table fellowship in general.

So we should also notice that Matthew’s Jesus invites Judas to his table in Matthew 26: the prototypcial communion that Jesus practices is open to sinners, even as the effect for the deceiver at the table is ultimately a chaotic and horribly self-destructive penance on one side, and the death of Judah’s King on the other. This, in turn, anticipates Judah’s own self-destructive path towards a futile war with Rome.

So maybe Brother Francis, in his complete normalization of the state of exception in a way that functionally welcomes all to communion, has understood the relationship between Matthew and the Didache better than the Church usually has throughout its history. What if we are all the Canaanite woman, just trying to get to communion before they close the door? Maybe it is by this exception alone that any of us can participate in communion. Or if that papal teaching is too spicy of a suggestion for some, we might also consider the possibility that Matthew’s gesture towards inclusion was of the same sort that Garrow sees in the Didache itself: maybe Matthew’s point is strictly that the uncircumcised (such as the Canaanites) and the non-kosher were to be included through baptism. That reading requires the insertion of more assumptions, and so it lacks some elegance. Still, I’m happy to throw a bone to anyone who is willing to come to this table to talk.

Even if we do functionally adopt the kind of radically open communion that Brother Francis commends, I think it is important and helpful to note that our brother’s routine exceptions by way of the practical suspension of canon law remain exceptions. The normal order in which baptism and communion are to follow each other are found here in the Didache, and Brother Francis also preserves this logic even in the breach, even as Matthew 15 preserves the Didache’s claim even in its maternal Aufhebung. The exceptions still prove the rule. So in the rest of this reflection on Matthew 24:3 I’d like to drink deeply from that normal order of these extraordinary means of grace, an order which is certainly centered in the Didache.

To begin mapping this order onto our apocalypse, I would suggest that baptism corresponds most closely to “the end of the aion” because it is a symbolic experience of death and rebirth. The sign of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal then follows it, as the supper of the lamb follows baptism in the normal sacramental order of the Didache’s community. Following the church’s basic liturgical logic, then, “the synteleia of the aion” is not what follows the “sign of the parousia” (contra France and Green). They have gotten the order backwards, although this is perfectly understandable in this chiastic realm where intention and sign teleologically reach their synteleias.

In this way, the Didache’s normal liturgical order communicates the basic narrative arc of the Gospels: first death, then rebirth to a feast in the presence of the King. Ah, but the Last Supper and First Communion are then the aion out of joint: it is already anticipatory even while Jesus is present as a whole fleshy person, even as he commemorates his death in preparation for the synteleia of his aion. The point is that in this chiastic circle of signification, the order of things becomes all bound up together, sign and signified, life and death, feast and the consummation of life. So the standard liturgical order of baptism and then communion preserves a basic order that serves as a starting point, even as perichoretic swirling proceeds from this basic establishment. In the basic sense, then, we must back up a bit. Recall that in Matthew, first comes baptism (Matthew 3) and then comes the Last Supper (Matthew 26), but then there comes the end of the lifetime that baptism promised and warned about. And then there is the feast of the lamb, as Jesus is with us all of the days until the end of the Lifetime. So it is that baptism normally precedes our daily communions which then precede our deaths, which will be marked by enemy love if we die them faithfully after all.

The disciples, of course, failed to hear what the Messiah was really saying, at least until his demonstrative soul had gone before them. Death is hard to face at any scale, and solidaristic trainers are needed for any army at all, even a non-violent one. But after the end of the aion, the arriving presence can be perceived in and through the signs: he will be with them all the days until the end of the Aion that holds each aion within it. How? In part, at least, by virtue of typological allegory, soulful prototype, and social synecdoche. The blood droplets of the martyrs are the seeds of the church, and all of it is semiotically held in each sip of communion wine.

We will build on this set of associations more as we move forward, including in the perichoretic network of signs and presences that also corresponds to the flexibility of the ordering of the Holy Spirit’s presence and baptism in Acts. More on that in time.

For now, I’ll summarize the point of this reflection like this: “the sign of your presence” in Matthew draws together the Sign of Jonah with the liturgical, spiritual and political arrival of Jesus at every scale. At the scale of the local parish and on the temporal scale of the recurring, time-breaking, eight-day week, the normal experience of time becomes the regular inbreaking of the future reign. From within this spirating and spiralling Messianic time, the anti-Empire of Jesus moves from the Nation to the nations as disciples form communities that train in faithfulness to his Covenant.

Or as the Didache puts it:

For it was said by the Lord: ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice, because I am the great king’; and also: ‘and my name is wonderful among the Nations.’

And with that, we carry on up the mountain.

[*] Our reading of Matthew sees both “arrival” and “presence” at play in parousia, and it also sees both divine and political aspects to presence. I avoid using the word “coming” as the general translation, for reasons discussed in the body of the article. I also avoid “appearance” because it centers ontology rather than movement, and I think that parousia centers movement over ontology. Despite these issues, the language of “appearance” is highly evocative in English and is worth contemplating as a possible translation: when the presence of Jesus arrives to us, in a revelatory way in the aionic practice of communion, we might also draw on the language of “appearance” in English to explore this. The political connotations of this kind of arrival-parousia also fit nicely with “appearance” in the sense of “an important person making an appearance”. However, there’s a problem with “appearance”. In English it can also carry connotations of “mere appearance” (as opposed to the underlying reality) and this centers connotations that aren’t centered in the word “parousia”. We might avoid the subtle connotation of “mere appearance” with the mildly elevated and unfamiliar use of the word “appearing” in the disciples’ question, giving us this: “What will be the sign of your appearing?” Although slightly infelicitoius, this language helps my thesis some, and it can be massaged in ways that don’t necessarily beg the question of “real presence” in communion. But I have still chosen to avoid it because even in its negation, “appearance” frames things in a substantially different way than Matthew’s language of parousia. I take the dynamic of “parousia” to concern nearness and distance more fundamentally than it concerns questions of appearance, whether ‘mere’ or more ontologically ambitious.

[1] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 326–333.

THE END OF THE AGES

(24:1–35)

(i) Structure

The first large portion of Jesus’ eschatological testament, which begins as a dialogue but soon turns into a discourse, runs to v. 35 (cf. Mk 13:1–32) and contains several subsections. There is first an introductory scene in which Jesus predicts the temple’s destruction (vv. 1–2). This in turn provokes the query concerning the timing of things to come, to which Jesus first responds with warnings and predictions about eschatological tribulation:

Vv. 3–8: the beginning of the woes

Vv. 9–14: the intensification of the woes

Vv. 15–28: the climax of the woes

These three sections become progressively longer and move from the world at large (vv. 3–8) to the church (vv. 9–14) to Judaea (vv. 15–28), a movement which implies that the end events are focused in the Holy Land (cf. 8:11–12).

There follow vv. 29–35, which depict God’s eschatological victory in the coming of the Son of man (vv. 29–31), continue with the parable of the fig tree (vv. 32–3), and end with two asseverations, the first about ‘this generation’ (v. 34), the second about Jesus’ authoritative speech (v. 35).

I. Narrative introduction (1–2)

A. Observation of disciples (1)

B. Jesus’ response: the destruction of the temple (2)

II. Things to come (3–36)

A. Disciples’ question (3)

B. Jesus’ answer (4–36)

i. The period of tribulation (4–28)

a. The beginning of the woes (4–8)

b. The intensification of the woes (9–14)

c. The climax of the woes (15–28)

1. The abomination and flight (15–19)

2. The terror of those days (20–2)

3. Where? (23–8)

ii. The parousia (29–35)

a. The coming of the Son of man (29–31)

b. A parable (32–3)

c. Two concluding asseverations (34–6)

1. ‘This generation will not pass’ (34)

2. ‘My words will not pass’ (35)

(ii) Sources

Vv. 1–3, 4–9, 13–14, 15–25, 29, 30c–1, 32–3, 34–5 all have close Markan parallels and are usually accounted for on the theory of Markan priority. Vv. 26 (in the desert or the inner rooms), 27 (the lightning), and 28 (the body and the eagles) closely resemble Lk 17:23–4 and 37 and so have their source in Q. This leaves unaccounted for vv. 10–12 (scandals, false prophets, cold love), 30a (the sign of the Son of man), 30b (the mourning), as well as the addition of the trumpet in v. 31. Although most now attribute vv. 10–12 to redaction—perhaps as a sort of substitute for Mk 13:9–13, which Matthew moved to chapter 10—we are unpersuaded. Wenham, Rediscovery, pp. 256–9, offers reasons for finding material pre-Matthean tradition; and the way in which Matthew’s new material splits Mk 13:13 asunder (contrast Mt 10:22) coheres with this view.

We are encouraged in this judgement by Didache 16:3–6, which has parallels to both vv. 10–12 and 30–1:

Matthew 24

Didache 16:3–6

v. 10: ‘many will stumble’

v. 3: ‘many will stumble’

v. 12: ‘lawlessness is multiplied’

v. 4: ‘lawlessness increases’

v. 12: ‘love will grow cold’

v. 3: ‘love will be turned into hate’

v. 30: ‘and then will appear the sign of the Son of man’

v. 6: ‘and then will appear the signs of truth; first, a sign of a spreading out (ἐκπετάσεως) in heaven’

v. 31: ‘with a great trumpet call’

v. 6: ‘a sign of a voice of a trumpet’

That these parallels are confined to non-Markan clauses is striking and suggests at this point a common source for the Didache and Matthew (cf. Kloppenborg (v)). Our own guess is that, in composing chapter 24, Matthew drew upon a small apocalypse akin to what appears in Did. 16:3–6.

This conclusion differs from Wenham, Rediscovery, who argues that Matthew, Mark, and Luke used a lengthy, pre-synoptic apocalypse which may have belonged to a pre-synoptic Gospel. We concur that Mark adopted a coherent apocalypse: Mark 13 is not his collection of previously scattered sayings (cf. p. 332). We also agree that a form of that apocalypse may have been known to Paul and the author of Revelation, and even concede the possibility that Luke 21 reflects a non-Markan version of that same tradition. But we are not persuaded of this for Matthew 24. The many agreements are inconclusive evidence for such.

(iii) Exegesis

This large, esoteric section presents Jesus as seer of the eschatological future. This, however, is nothing new: throughout Matthew Jesus prophesies the last things. But even though chapters 24 and 25 in several particulars repeat earlier material—the reader already knows of false leaders (cf. 7:15–23), of the persecution of disciples (cf. 10:21–39), of the coming of the Son of man (cf. 16:27), and of the angelic harvest (cf. 13:49)—the result is not redundancy but clarification through augmentation.

Much of the traditional end-time scenario is untouched. There is, for example, no account of either the resurrection or the eternal state. Obviously Matthew 24 is not a detailed blueprint (cf. the chronological imprecision). Interest is elsewhere—(i) in supplying the true ending of the Messiah’s story so that the whole can be rightly grasped; (ii) in foretelling and therefore making bearable Christian suffering; (iii) in nurturing hope by showing how a good future can issue from an evil present; and (iv) in encouraging battle against moral languor.

Beyond these generalities the meaning of many individual verses is disputed, as is the meaning and reference of the whole (a situation largely due to the lack of any direct answer to the question in v. 2 about the temple—a lack inherited from Mark). One approach holds that much or most of Matthew 24 is fulfilled prophecy. According to France, Matthew, pp. 333–6, vv. 3–35 have to do with the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred within Jesus’ ‘generation’, vv. 36ff. with the parousia whose date is unknown. Brown (v) argues similarly, although for him v. 32 is the point at which eschatology proper appears. Already Theophylact, ad loc., offered a like analysis, but he found the transition in v. 23. John Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae, ad loc., even contended that the entire chapter concerns AD 70.

We are unpersuaded. The eschatological reference of vv. 6–13, 21–2, and 27–31 is scarcely to be doubted in view of (i) the many Jewish, Christian, and Matthean parallels (cited below), (ii) the dependence upon the eschatological prophecies of Daniel, and (iii) the absence of clear indications to the contrary.12 Further, the addition of ‘nor on a Sabbath’ (v. 20) strikes us as odd if after the fact (see below).

A second opinion, which holds that chapter 24 is purely eschatological, is favoured by (i) the thoroughly eschatological nature of the language, (ii) the linguistic unity of the discourse,14 which argues against referring different sections to different events, and (iii) the ‘immediately’ of v. 29; for if Matthew wrote much after AD 70, he could not have thought the parousia would follow immediately upon the destruction of the temple, which in turn makes it unlikely that vv. 15ff. depict that destruction.

The chief objection to this approach—that if the discourse is purely eschatological, there is no direct answer to the question about the temple—falls to two observations: (i) the event was past and so the answer was known to all; (ii) Matthew elsewhere leaves narrative ends dangling (see e.g. 1, p. 107).

We add a third point. The commentators assume that, if Matthew wrote after AD 70, the prophecy of the temple’s destruction would inevitably have been seen as fulfilled. But v. 15 implies that the temple will yet play a rôle in history. Did Matthew, like other ancient Jews and (probably) the author of Barn. 16:3–4, expect the temple to be rebuilt (and then destroyed again) before the end? It is also possible that he took Jesus’ prophecy literally and knew that the temple had not been entirely reduced to rubble (‘at least the southern portion of the Temple enclosure was spared’17). Before AD 135 Jews had access to the remains of the temple and, although cult activity had probably ceased, the site no doubt continued to attract pilgrims and devotion. That it was not obliterated and forgotten is demonstrated by Hadrian’s erection of ‘a temple of Jupiter on the site of the Temple of God’ (Dio Cassius 69:12:1–2)—an act of humiliation otherwise pointless. A future desolation was thus thinkable.

A third option urges that our text refers to both the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia and holds them in close chronological sequence. So Plummer, p. xxxii, suggesting a date for Matthew between AD 70 and 75. Favouring this is the local nature of vv. 15ff. (‘those in Judaea’) and the ‘immediately’ of v. 29. V. 34—‘all these things’ will come upon ‘this generation’—can also be regarded as supportive. But most recent commentators have rightly preferred a later date for our Gospel; see 1, pp. 127–38.

A fourth approach also thinks of both AD 70 and the end of the world. Unlike the third, however, it finds not a chronological sequence—first the destruction of the temple, then (soon) the end—but a single prophecy with two fulfilments. Already Ephrem the Syrian reported: ‘It is said that he [Jesus] was speaking of the punishment in Jerusalem and at the same time referring to the end of this world’ (Comm. Diat. 18:14). According to Meier, Matthew, p. 283, vv. 14–22 refer simultaneously to AD 70 and the future. We are reminded of the Antiochean school’s notion of theoria, according to which the OT can prophesy two things at once. That some such idea was not foreign to our text’s age is clear from Jewish apocalypses such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, which use past events (e.g. Jerusalem’s first destruction) as transparent ciphers for contemporary events (e.g. Jerusalem’s second destruction).

Our own view holds that vv. 4ff. are a depiction of the entire post-Easter period, interpreted in terms of the messianic woes. This means that the discourse, which freely mixes experience with topoi, concerns the past, the present, and the future. What has happened will continue to happen and only get worse: ‘the mystery of lawlessness is already at work’ (2 Thess 2:7). Whether the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is directly referred to in vv 15ff. or is instead indirectly included in the tribulations of vv. 15ff. we are uncertain. But if the former, AD 70 does not exhaust the significance of vv. 5ff., which plainly envisage eschatological events to come. So the answer to the disciples, two-part question in v. 3 is this: the temple will be destroyed during the tribulation of the latter days, which runs from the first advent to the second; and after that tribulation the end—whose date cannot be known—will come.

There are other old Jewish and Christian texts which interpret the present and immediate past in terms of the messianic woes—the Testament of Moses, portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4 Ezra, Mark, and Revelation.

The minor differences between Mt 24:1–36 and Mk 13:1–32 are noted in the verse-by-verse commentary. Here we observe the following major changes: in Matthew (i) the discourse is not addressed to four named disciples (so Mark) but to disciples in general; (ii) most of Mk 13:9–13 is missing (see Mt 10:17–22); (iii) there is material from Q, namely, vv. 26–8 (cf. Lk 17:23–4, 37); (iv) there is additional new material without close Markan parallel (vv. 10–12, 30a, 30b, 31a) which others attribute to redaction but which we assign to a non-Markan source, M (see p. 327); (v) this new material contains several important expressions: ‘parousia’, ‘end of the age’, ‘the sign of the Son of man’; (vi) the OT source of the phrase in Mk 13:14 is now explicit (‘Daniel the prophet’, v. 15); (vii) the prayer in v. 20 mentions the sabbath (contrast Mk 13:18); (viii) the addition of the non-Markan material in 24:37ff. more than doubles the length of the discourse.

While it alludes to many OT texts, Matthew 24, like Mark 13, draws especially upon Daniel. The following parallels are more or less clear:

Matthew 24

Daniel

temple destroyed

v. 3

9:26

time of the end

v. 3

12:6–7

rumours of war

v. 6

9:26; 11:44

persecution of saints

vv. 9–11

7:25; 11:33

abomination

v. 15

8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11

time of tribulation

v. 21

12:1

Son of man on clouds

v. 30

7:13

While it is too much to say that Matthew 24 (or its main source) is a midrash upon Daniel, the clear allusions and the explicit citation of ‘the prophet Daniel’ (v. 15) are proof that, for Matthew, the end-time scenario will fulfil the words of Daniel and Jesus simultaneously.

The question of the origin of the discourse is problematic. Our own conviction is that while Jesus probably prophesied the temple’s demise, used the language of eschatological tribulation to foretell persecution for his followers, and took up Dan 7:13 to announce his own vindication, Mark 13 is not the growth of a day but, like the books of the Hebrew prophets, a repository of varied materials; so it cannot be simply attributed to Jesus or denied to him. One must evaluate the parts, not the whole—which means one must attempt to reconstruct the history of the tradition.25

It seems likely that, at an early date, sayings of Jesus, items from catechetical paraenesis, and traditional Jewish (including OT) topoi were combined to produce a small eschatological discourse. This perhaps took place ca. A.D. 39–40, near the time that Caligula gave the order to set up a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple. A form of this discourse—which in our judgement contained something close to Mk 13:5–8, 14–21, 22–3, 24–7—was probably known to Paul. It was later enlarged, again with sayings from different sources, some no doubt from the Jesus tradition, shortly before AD 70, under the impact of the trouble in Judaea. This accounts for the addition of 13:9–13. It was this fuller form that Mark took up and enlarged (whence vv. 1–4, 28–31, 32–7). The fuller form also, in our judgement, lies behind portions of Revelation and Jn 15:18–16:33. (John’s verses also belong to Jesus’ final discourse.)

A good case can be made that dominical sayings lie behind at least Mk 13:2, 12, 26, 28–9, 30, and 32. But many dispute attribution to Jesus of even this seemingly minimal amount.35

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 780–781.

παρουσία, ας, ἡ (πάρειμι; Trag., Thu.+)

① the state of being present at a place, presence (Aeschyl. et al.; Herm. Wr. 1, 22; OGI 640, 7, SIG 730, 14; Did.; cp. Hippol., Ref. 7, 32, 8 ‘existence’) 1 Cor 16:17; Phil 2:12 (opp. ἀπουσία). ἡ π. τοῦ σώματος ἀσθενής his bodily presence is weak i.e. when he is present in person, he appears to be weak 2 Cor 10:10. — Of God (Jos., Ant. 3, 80; 203; 9, 55) τῆς παρουσίας αὐτοῦ δείγματα proofs of his presence Dg 7:9 (cp. Diod S 3, 66, 3 σημεῖα τῆς παρουσίας τοῦ θεοῦ; 4, 24, 1).

② arrival as the first stage in presence, coming, advent (Soph., El. 1104; Eur., Alc. 209; Thu. 1, 128, 5. Elsewh. mostly in later wr.: Polyb. 22, 10, 14; Demetr.: 722 Fgm. 11, 18 Jac.; Diod S 15, 32, 2; 19, 64, 6; Dionys. Hal. 1, 45, 4; ins, pap; Jdth 10:18; 2 Macc 8:12; 15:21; 3 Macc 3:17; TestAbr A 2 p. 78, 26 [Stone p. 4]; Jos., Bell. 4, 345, Vi. 90; Tat. 39, 3).

ⓐ of human beings, in the usual sense 2 Cor 7:6f. ἡ ἐμὴ π. πάλιν πρὸς ὑμᾶς my coming to you again, my return to you Phil 1:26. — RFunk, JKnox Festschr. ’67, 249–68.

ⓑ in a special technical sense (difft. JWalvoord, BiblSacr 101, ’44, 283–89 on παρ., ἀποκάλυψις, ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ (and the Antichrist). The use of π. as a t.t. has developed in two directions. On the one hand the word served as a sacred expr. for the coming of a hidden divinity, who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power, or whose presence is celebrated in the cult (Diod S 3, 65, 1 ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ π. of Dionysus upon earth; 4, 3, 3; Ael. Aristid. 48, 30; 31 K.=24 p. 473 D.; Porphyr., Philos. Ex Orac. Haur. II p. 148 Wolff; Iambl., Myst. 2, 8; 3, 11; 5, 21; Jos., Ant. 3, 80; 203; 9, 55; report of a healing fr. Epidaurus: SIG 1169, 34). — On the other hand, π. became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, esp. of kings and emperors visiting a province (Polyb. 18, 48, 4; CIG 4896, 8f; SIG 495, 85f; 741, 21; 30; UPZ 42, 18 [162 B.C.]; PTebt 48, 14; 116, 57 [both II B.C.]; O. Wilck II, 1372; 1481. For the verb in this sense s. BGU XIII, 2211, 5. — O. Wilck I 274ff; Dssm., LO 314ff [LAE 372ff]; MDibelius, Hdb. exc. after the expl. of 1 Th 2:20). These two technical expressions can approach each other closely in mng., can shade off into one another, or even coincide (Ins. von Tegea: BCH 25, 1901 p. 275 ἔτους ξθ´ ἀπὸ τῆς θεοῦ Ἁδριανοῦ τὸ πρῶτον ἰς τὴν Ελλάδα παρουσίας). — Herm. Wr. 1, 26 uses π. of the advent of the pilgrim in the eighth sphere.

α. of Christ, and nearly always of his Messianic Advent in glory to judge the world at the end of this age: Mt 24:3 (PSchoonheim, Een semasiolog. onderzoek van π. ’53); 1 Cor 1:8 v.l.; 15:23; 2 Th 2:8 (on the expr. ἐπιφάνεια παρουσίας s. FPfister, Pauly-W. Suppl. IV ’24, 322); 2 Pt 3:4; 1J 2:28; Dg 7:6; Hs 5, 5, 3. ἡ π. τοῦ υἱοῦ τ. ἀνθρώπου Mt 24:27, 37, 39 (cp. the suggestion of retribution SIG 741, 21–23; 31f). ἡ π. τοῦ κυρίου 1 Th 4:15; Js 5:7f. ἡ π. τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ 1 Th 3:13; cp. 2:19. ἡ π. τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ 5:23; 2 Th 2:1 (on the use in 1 and 2 Th s. RGundry, NTS 33, ’87, 161–78); 2 Pt 1:16 (δύναμις w. παρουσία as Jos., Ant. 9, 55; cp. Ael. Aristid. 48, 30 K. [both passages also b above]). — This explains the expr. ἡ π. τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμέρας the coming of the Day of God 2 Pt 3:12. — EvDobschütz, Zur Eschatologie der Ev.: StKr 84, 1911, 1–20; FTillmann, D. Wiederkunft Christi nach den paulin. Briefen 1909; FGuntermann, D. Eschatol. des hl. Pls ’32; BBrinkmann, D. Lehre v. d. Parusie b. hl. Pls u. im Hen.: Biblica 13, ’32, 315–34; 418–34; EHaack, E. exeg.-dogm. Studie z. Eschatol. über 1 Th 4:13–18: ZST 15, ’38, 544–69; OCullmann, Le retour de Christ2 ’45; WKümmel, Verheissg. u. Erfüllg.2 ’53; TGlasson, The Second Advent ’45; AFeuillet, CHDodd Festschr. ’56 (Mt and Js). — On delay of the Parousia WMichaelis, Wikenhauser Festschr. ’53, 107–23; EGrässer, D. Problem der Parousieverzögerung (synopt and Ac), ’57. — JATRobinson, Jesus and His Coming, ’57.

β. in our lit. prob. only in a few late pass. of Jesus’ advent in the Incarnation (so TestLevi 8:15; TestJud 22:2; Just., A I, 52, 3, D. 14, 8; 40, 4; 118, 2 ἐν τῇ πάλιν παρουσίᾳ; Ps.-Clem., Hom. 2, 52; 8, 5; Orig., C. Cels. 6, 68, 5; Hippol., Ref. 9, 30, 5) τὴν παρουσίαν τοῦ σωτῆρος, κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, τὸ πάθος αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν IPhld 9:2; PtK 4 p. 15, 33. But 2 Pt 1:16 (s. α above) can hardly be classed here.

γ. Sense α gave rise to an opposing use of π. to designate the coming of the Antichrist (s. ἄνομος 4; Iren. 3, 7, 2 [Harv. II 26f]; Orig., C. Cels. 6, 45, 5) in the last times οὗ ἐστιν ἡ π. κατʼ ἐνέργειαν τοῦ σατανᾶ whose coming is in keeping with / in line with Satan’s power 2 Th 2:9. KThraede, Grundzüge griechisch-römischer Brieftopik ’70, 95–106. — New Docs 4, 167f. DELG s.v. εἰμί. M-M. EDNT. TW. Spicq. Sv.

[3] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., “Παροργίζω, Παροργισμός,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 857–871.

παροργίζω, παροργισμός → 382 ff.

† παρουσία, πάρειμι → ἐπιφάνεια. → II, 666, 4–684. → ἥκω, II, 926, 29–928, 25. → ἡμέρα, II, 943, 21–953, 27. → μαραναθά, IV, 466, 13–472, 10.

Contents: A. The General Meaning: 1. Presence; 2. Appearing. B. The Technical Use of the Terms: I. In Hellenism: 1. The Visit of a Ruler; 2. The Parousia of the Gods; 3. The Sacral Meaning of the Word in Philosophy. II. OT Presuppositions for the Technical Use of the Terms in the NT: 1. The Coming of God in Direct Self-Attestation and in the Cultus; 2. The Coming of God in History; 3. The Coming of Yahweh as World King; 4. The Coming of the Messiah. III. Progress and Regress in Judaism: 1. Palestinian Judaism: a. Expectation of the Coming of God; b. Expectation of the Messiah (and other Saviours); 2. Hellenistic Judaism: a. Greek Translations of the Bible; b. Philo; c. Josephus. IV. The Technical Use of πάρειμι and παρουσία in the NT: 1. The Historical Place of the Concept of the Parousia in the NT; 2. The Detailed Development of the Concept: a. The Synoptic Jesus; b. The Primitive Community; c. Paul; d. Deutero-Paulinism: e. The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude; f. Revelation; g. John’s Gospel and Epistles; 3. Theological Summary. V. πάρειμι and παρουσία in Ecclesiastical Usage.

παρουσία, an abstract term based on πάρειμι, is found from Aesch., first in a very general sense. It is formed from παροντ-ία as ἐξουσία is from ἐξοντ-ία and γερουσία from γεροντ-ία.

A. The General Meaning.

1. Presence.

πάρειμι, “to be present,” is used of persons (Jn. 11:28) and also of impersonal things, e.g., evil in Prv. 1:27; τὰ παρόντα, “possessions,” Hb. 13:5 (cf. 2 Pt. 1:8 vl.). παρουσία denotes esp. active presence, e.g., in legal documents (BGU, IV, 1127, 37; 1129, 27; P. Gen., 68, 11 f.; P. Masp., 126, 15; P. Oxy., VI, 903, 15), of representatives of the community, 1 C. 16:17; Paul himself, Phil. 2:12; ἡ παρουσία τοῦ σώματος, 2 C. 10:10 (opp. letters); also income, Plato Comicus Fr., 177 (CAF, I, 650), or troops, Thuc., VI, 86, 3.

2. Appearing.

πάρειμι, “to have come,” 1 Macc. 12:42, vl. 45; 2 Macc. 3:9; Mt. 26:50; Ac. 10:21; 17:6, or “to come,” Lk. 13:1. παρουσία, “arrival,” Thuc., I, 128, 5: τῇ προτέρᾳ παρουσίᾳ, “during the first ‘invasion’ ”; so also 2 Macc. 8:12. Of the arrival of Titus (2 C. 7:6 f.) or Paul himself (Phil. 1:26). The absence of the word from the LXX in the books originally written in Heb. may be explained by the fact that the Semite speaks more concretely.

B. The Technical Use of the Terms.

I. In Hellenism.

1. The Visit of a Ruler. There is no sharp distinction between profane and sacral use. When Demetrius Poliorketes entered Athens after driving out Demetrius of Phaleron (307 B.C.), he was greeted by a paean which even an ancient author felt to be insipid flattery, Athen., VI, 62–63 (p. 253d–f) == Diehl2, II, 6, p. 104 f. As the greatest of the gods of the city draw near (πάρεισιν, line 2), he is present laughing (πάρεστι, line 8). The other gods hold aloof or do not exist: σὲ δὲ παρόνθʼ ὁρῶμεν, line 18. He, the θεὸς ἀληθινός, is to bring peace and destroy the sphinx. παρουσία, which at every simple meal denotes the presence of the gods, is used technically for the visit of a ruler or high official, 3 Macc. 3:17. In general, however, the technical use arises first through the addition of a gen. or pronouns or verbal phrases: παρουσία τῆς βασιλίσσης, Ostraka, 1481, 2; Germanicus: εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν παρουσίαν, Preisigke Sammelbuch, I, 3924, 3 f.; of Ptolemy Philometor and Cleopatra: καθʼ ἃς ἐποιεῖσθʼ ἐν Μέμφει παρουσίας, P. Par., 26, I, 18.

The customary honours on the parousia of a ruler are: flattering addresses, Menand. Rhetor. (Rhet. Graec., III, 368), tributes (Ditt. Syll.3, 495, 9. 84 f.), delicacies, asses to ride on and for baggage, improvement of streets (P. Petr., II, 18a, 4 ff. [258–253 B.C.]), golden wreaths in natura or money (Callixeinos in Athen., V, 35 [p. 203b], 2239 talents and 50 minas), and feeding of the sacred crocodiles, P. Tebt., I, 33. These and other honours had to be paid for by the population of the district favoured by the parousia of the king or his ministers, and if voluntary gifts were not enough a forced levy was made, which led to much complaint, Ditt. Or., 139, esp. line 9. Understanding rulers repeatedly tried to make redress (P. Tebt., I, 5, esp. lines 178–187; Preisigke Sammelbuch, I, 3924), but with little success (CIG, III, 4956). The imperial period with its world ruler or members of his household, if it did not increase the cost, certainly invested the parousia of the ruler with even greater magnificence. This could be done by the inauguration of a new era, inscr. of Tegea: ἔτους ξθʼ (69) ἀπὸ τῆς θεοῦ Ἁδριανοῦ τὸ πρῶτον εἰς τὴν Ἑλλάδα παρουσίας, or a holy day in Didyma: ἱερὰ ἡμέρα τῆς ἐπιδημίας τοῦ Αὐτοκράτορος, or by buildings: Hadrian’s gate in Athens, the Olympieion in Delos: νέα Ἀθηνᾶ Ἁδριανά, or by the minting of advent coins, e.g., in Corinth on the coming of Nero: Adventus Augusti, or the like. Hadrian’s travels produced such coins in most provinces.6 That the parousia of the ruler could sometimes be a ray of hope for those in trouble may be seen from the complaints and requests made on such occasions, e.g., that of the priestesses of Isis in the Sarapeion at Memphis (163/162 B.C.) to the “gods” Ptolemy Philometor and Cleopatra, P. Par., 26, 29.

2. The Parousia of the Gods. This applies esp. to the helpful parousia of the gods in the narrower sense. Aesculapius heals a woman who has a miscarriage on her way home: τὰν τε παρουσίαν τὰν αὑτοῦ παρενεφάνιζε (declared), Ditt. Syll.3, 1169, 34. Diod. S., 4, 3, 3 depicts the cultic παρουσία of Dionysus in the Theban mysteries, which took place at three year intervals. Ael. Arist. in a dream experiences the παρουσία of Aesculapius Sorer at the same time as a temple warden. Though this raises his hair on end, it causes tears of joy and lays on him an inexpressible burden of knowledge, Ael. Arist. Or. Sacr., II, 30–32 (ed. B. Keil [1898], II, 401).

3. The Sacral Meaning of the Word in Philosophy. In philosophy, too, παρουσία increasingly takes on a sacral sense. Plato still uses it in the profane sense as a synon. of μέθεξις, “participation,” Phaed., 100d. It is not particularly prominent in Stoicism, and the same is true of πάρειμι, though this is common in Epict. Things are different, however, in Hermes mysticism and Neo-platonism. In the former παρουσία is still neutral, Stob. Hermes Excerpt., IVa, 7 (Scott, I, 404, 19 f.). But the sacral sense shines through plainly when Nous says of its dwelling with the righteous: ἡ παρουσία μου γίνεται -αὐτοῖσ̈ βοήθεια, Corp. Herm., 1, 22. Acc. to Porphyr. Egyptian priests exorcised demons by the blood of animals and lashing the air, ἵνα τούτων ἀπελθόντων παρουσία τοῦ θεοῦ γένηται. In Iambl. Myst. the word is common and always sacral, cf. V, 21 of the invisible “presence” of the gods at sacrifices, or III, 11 in spontaneous ecstasy; cf. also III, 6 of the parousia of divine fire. V., 21 reminds us vaguely of descriptions of the parousia in the NT: before the παρουσία (coming) of the gods when they wish to visit earth, all subject powers are set in motion and precede and accompany them. II,8: the ἀρχάγγελοι emit a radiance which is not intolerable for the better. αἱ τῶν ἀγγέλων παρουσίαι make the air bearable so that it does not harm the priests.

II. OT Presuppositions for the Technical Use of the Terms in the NT.

Since Semitic forms of speech are more concrete, there are no words for “presence” and “coming” in Heb. For the verbs “to be present” and “to come,” however, there are several other terms in addition to אָתָה and בּוֹא, → 864, 21. These all have a predominantly secular sense, though they can sometimes have a numinous echo. The word of the seer comes (1 S. 9:6), the time (appointed by God) is present, the end is near (Lam. 4:18). evil comes (Prv. 1:27), the day of recompense (Dt. 32:35) or of Yahweh (Jl. 2:1) comes, and the year of redemption will also come (Is. 63:4). In particular God is everywhere present (Ps. 139:8); He is there when His people cry to Him (Is. 58:9). The OT saint can also experience the coming of God more specifically as follows.

1. The Coming of God in Direct Self-Attestation and in the Cultus.

These are closely related. Places of grace become cultic sites and vice versa, Gn. 16:13 f.; 28:18; Ju. 6:11–24; 2 S. 24:25, also 1 S. 3:10; 1 K. 8:10. This is reflected already in primitive history and the stories of the patriarchs, cf. Gn. 4:4; 8:20 f.; 15:17. Later the — older — idea of coming in the cultus is attested first (c. 950 B.C.?) in the Book of the Covenant, Ex. 20:24, 26; → 255, 14–21. The cover of the ark is, at least from the time of P, the chariot throne of Yahweh, so that the entry of the ark is His coming, 1 S. 4:6 f.; 2 S. 6:9, 16; 2 Ch. 8:11. Ps. 24:7 ff. might well be a song for such occasions. אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, “the tent of meeting,” should be mentioned in the same connection. Yahweh, however, is never tied to specific media in His self-declaration. He can come in dreams (Gn. 20:3; 28:13), in more or less veiled theophanies (Gn. 18:1 ff.; 32:25 ff.; Ex. 3:2 ff.; 24:10 ff.; 34:6 ff.; Ps. 50:3), in the cloud (→ IV, 905, 5–18, 905, 31–906, 2), and esp. also in visions at the calling of the prophets (Is. 6:1 ff.; Jer. 1:4 ff.; Ez. 1:4 ff.), in the storm, in the quiet breath (1 K. 19:12 f.), in His Spirit (Nu. 24:2: Ju. 3:10; 11:29; 1 S. 11:6; 19:20), with His hand (1 K. 18:46), in His Word (Nu. 22:9; 2 S. 7:4; 1 K. 17:2 etc.) etc.; cf. also the common נְאֻם יהוה, Am. 6:8; Is. 1:24.

2. The Coming of God in History.

The Song of Deborah extols the victory over Sisera as a theophany, Ju. 5:4 f. The coming of Yahweh means victory over the enemies of Israel (Egypt, Is. 19:1; Assyria, Is. 30:27; the nations, Hab. 3:3 ff., 13). For His apostate and disobedient people, too, esp. its rebellious members, His coming is terrible, His anger fearful (Am. 5:18–20; Zeph. 1:15–18; 2:2; 2 S. 24:15 f.; Jer. 23:19, 30 ff.; Mal. 3:5; → 398, 1–409, 3). To the fore, however, is His appearing to bring freedom from tyranny (Ex. 3:8; Ps. 80:2), to conclude the covenant (Ex. 19:18, 20). The liberation from exile is regarded as almost an exact equivalent of the redemption out of Egypt, Is. 35:2, 4; 40:3 ff., 10; 59:20; 60:1; 62:11. The coming age of salvation leads to the eschaton.

3. The Coming of Yahweh as World King.

Within the story of Moses Yahweh is lauded as king in Jeshurun, who came from Sinai and shone forth from Seir, to whom none is like (Dt. 33:2, 5, 26ff.). In the Balaam songs the name of a god Melekh is perhaps transferred to Yahweh, Nu. 23:21. In the Song of the Red Sea Yahweh is called King “for ever and ever,” Ex. 15:18. The more the concept of Yahweh’s kingship expanded, the more all existing demonstrations of it were felt to be provisional. At the end of the days (בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, Is. 2:2; Mi. 4:1 etc.; analogously בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, Is. 2:11; Jer. 4:9, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, Jer. 3:16, 18, בָּעֵת הַהִיא, Is. 18:7; Mi. 3:4, הִנְּה יָמִים בָּאִים, Is. 39:6), Yahweh will enter into His kingship in full power and majesty. This is prefigured in the festival of Yahweh’s enthronement. Then the promises of salvation, which progressively increase after the exile,16 will be fulfilled. In Tt. Is. the prospect of the coming of Yahweh as world king is combined with the cosmic perspective of the creation of a new heaven and earth, Is. 66:15, cf. v. 22 and 65:17. All creatures will rejoice before Yahweh, Ps. 47; 93; 95–99. Universal peace will reign among men and beasts, Is. 2:2–4; 11:6–9. All suffering will be overcome, Is. 65:21 ff. Happiness and rejoicing will hold sway, and from Gentile lands glorious gifts and the dispersed will be brought as offerings to Yahweh, Is. 60:1 ff.; 66:10 ff., 20.

4. The Coming of the Messiah.

The anointed one sent by Yahweh may take His place. In this connection בּוֹא is first used in Gn. 49:10. Courtly style, which gives evidence of foreign influences, contributed much to the transcending of the empirical. Expectation of a hero and a prince of peace18 involves no self-contradiction, for world peace is the goal of the Messianic war. In the OT, however, the main function of the Messiah is not to conquer but to execute peace, Zech. 9:9 f. The discipline of Yahweh religion prevents the hope of salvation from becoming a selfish fantasy. The coming is in the first instance regarded as a coming in history, though not without eschatological impulses. Da. 7:13 is the starting-point of a new development. In contrast to the beasts (the world empires) from the abyss, we have the man (the people of God). The ref. is not yet to the personal pre-existence and historical parousia of the Messiah. It is understandable, however, that the ensuing age should put the personal interpretation to the forefront and take from the text both the concept of pre-existence and also the colours in which to portray the parousia. One should not overestimate the significance of the Messiah in the OT and the later period. In the Ps. the whole emphasis is on the coming of Yahweh.

III. Progress and Regress in Judaism.

In Judaism the progressive uprooting of the cultus and the increasing elimination of the direct revelation of God even in present history strengthen the orientation of religion to the future. On the other hand, Hellenistic influences retard or spiritualise eschatology. There is only a relative distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism.

1. Palestinian Judaism.

a. Expectation of the Coming of God.

Apocalyptic is saturated by close expectation of the end. Concealed or direct refs.22 are made to God’s coming. Sometimes παρουσία is used (→ infra and n. 23), though it is hard to say whether the original is the noun מֵטִיתָא, which came to be used in Syr., or a verbal expression (Test. Jud. 22:2: καὶ ἐν ἀλλοφύλοις συντελεσθήσεται ἡ βασιλεία μου, ἕως τοῦ ἐλθεῖν τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, [ἕως τῆς παρουσίας θεοῦ τῆς δικαιοσύνης]). In an undoubted interpolation Ass. Mos. 10:12 has a phrase which is still original: usque ad adventum illius (God). Slav. En. Longer Redaction 32:1; 42:5 distinguishes between God’s first coming in creation and a second or final coming, but it also uses the term half numinously of the return of Enoch to the earth, 38:2f. Wis. 5:17–22 (→ 297, 21–26) has a vivid depiction of God’s parousia in full panoply, cf. also Ass. Mos. 10:1–7; Sib., V, 344–360, where ref. is also made to His thundering voice. Cf. also Eth. En. 1:4, 9; 25:3. Ps. Sol. 15:12 esp. refers to judgment.

The Rabb. have fewer direct refs. to God’s coming, but He is still the Goel of Israel, Tanch. במדבר (Buber), 16 (7b): In this world I have made you banners (דְּגָלִים) …, but in the future world I spring in (מְדַלֵּג play on words) … and redeem you (Cant. 2:8).” Pirqe of R. Eliezer, 11 (6c)26 of the final world ruler: “We shall see him eye to eye, as is written in Is. 52:8.” This is usually set in the Messianic time, seldom in the other world, and the concept is predominantly spatial. The idea is more that of manifestation than coming. The main theme is the coming of the righteous individual to God.

b. Expectation of the Messiah (and other Saviours).

Up to 70 A.D. there is a confused interrelating of political Messianism, expectation of the Son of Man, and hope of the other aeon. But the idea of coming is still a vital one. Whether 4 Esr. consciously distinguishes between the parousia of the Messiah who dies after 400 yrs. (7:28ff.) and that of the Messiah who remains (12:31ff., cf. 11:37) is not wholly clear. S. Bar. 30:1 has παρουσία in the Gk. (Syr. מֵטִיתָא, “arrival”). But the text is incontestably a Chr. interpolation. In the vision of the clouds the ref. of the lightning (53:8ff.) to the Messiah (72:1f.) is originally intended (an isolated par. to Mt. 24:27). Parousia notions are esp. combined with the Elect and the Son of Man (→ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου), cf. Eth. En. 38:2; 49:4; 51:3; 52:9; 62:5 ff.; 69:27, 29; 71:16 f. Similar colours are used in 4 Esr. 13 to paint the coming of the man out of the sea who flies with clouds. Test. S. 6 f. has undergone Chr. revision, similarly Sib., V, 256, though Sib., V, 414 ff. may be Jewish.

Judaism speaks also of the coming of other saviours more or less akin to the Messiah, e.g., Abel, Enoch, Michael (→ I, 7, 35–8, 3; line 11 f.; n. 24), Elijah (→ II, 931, 5 ff.), the priest king to whom all the words of the Lord are to be revealed. His star will rise like that of a king, and he will radiate light and knowledge (Chr.?). There will then be peace on earth, and the spirit of understanding and glory will rest on him. He will open the gates of Paradise, and the Lord will rejoice over His children, Test. L. 18. The appearing (παρουσία) of the priest king, for whom a Maccabean (John Hyrcanus?) might have served as a model, but to whom eschatological expectations were transferred, is “highly esteemed as a prophet of the Most High” (munus triplex), Test. L. 8:15. → profhvth~; ÆAdavm I, 141 ff.; Μωϋσῆς, IV, 848 ff.; Ἠλίας, II, 928 ff.; Ἐνώχ, II, 556 ff.; Ἰερεμίας, III, 218 ff.; Ἰησοῦς, III, 284 ff. (Joshua as Taheb also → I, 388, 22 ff.).

Rabb. Judaism rejects apocalyptic and asks: “When will the Son of David come?” b. Sanh., 98a. He is expected at a time of great tribulation and dereliction (→ ὠδίν), ibid., 97a, 98a; Sot., 9, 15. On the other hand, the cleansing of the people from sin is regarded as a precondition. His coming is awaited with fear. One might not see him, or at most sitting in the shadow of the dung of his ass, b. Sanh., 98b. → υἱὸς Δαυίδ.

2. Hellenistic Judaism.

a. Greek Translations of the Bible.

πάρειμι occurs in the LXX, in Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion, over 70 times, mostly for בּוֹא, also אָתָה, Ώ̓ and הִגֵּה, Aram. מְטָה and קְרֵב aphel. It thus means “to come,” and this affects παρουσία accordingly. The context sometimes gives it numinous overtones (→ 861, 9 ff.), though it is never technical. παρουσία occurs only in works originally written in Gk.:33 Jdt. 10:18; 2 Macc. 8:12; 15:21; 3 Macc. 3:17, always in a profane sense. But the very occurrence of the word is significant. Hell. Judaism took it from its environment. That it also found its way into religious usage may be seen from Test. XII (→ 863, 4 f.). The technical sense does not seem to have been normative at first. But one may assume that it soon exerted an influence.

b. Philo

It might be accidental that παρουσία does not occur in Philo35 In his world of thought, however, Hell. influences almost completely obliterated the expectation of a coming of Yahweh or the Messiah, let alone other saviours. There is in Praem. Poen. c. 16 (91–97) a single ref. to the coming man (Nu. 24:7) who will bring universal peace, and tame man and beast (95). This ideal has, however, a Hell. flavour.

c. Josephus.

Jos. uses the verb for God’s presence to help,37 παρουσία being the Shekinah, Ant., 3, 80 and 202. Elisha asked God to display His δύναμις and παρουσία to his servant, 4 Βασ‌. 6:17; Ant., 9, 55. God also revealed it to the pagan governor Petronius, Ant., 18, 284. Hellenism does not exert such a strong levelling influence on the Palestinian Jos. His rejection of apocalyptic is Rabbinic, and politically opportunist. The temporally limited (Ant., 10, 267) prophecy of Da. concerning the son of Man he refers in non-Zealot fashion to Vespasian (Bell., 6, 313) if not to the period of Antiochus Epiphanes (Ant., 10, 276; 12, 322). In Da. 2 the iron represents the Roman Empire, Ant., 10, 209. Jos. was not ready, however, to ascribe eternal duration (κρατήσει εἰς ἅπαντα?) to this. He cleverly avoids interpreting the stone of Da. 2:34, 44 f., regarding it as his task simply to record the past and what has taken place, Ant., 10, 210. The referring of the Messianic hope to Vespasian, though not revoked, is only penultimate. In the background there is expectation of another ruler who on his coming will begin to rule the world from Jerusalem and give dominion to the Jewish people. Without apocalyptic passion, however, this belief loses all formative power. A Hell. layer of microcosmic eschatology emerges. The concept of the parousia is in ruins. The Chr. interpretation of Da. 7:13 is even more remote from Jos. than the interpretation of the Zealots.

IV. The Technical Use of πάρειμι and παρουσία in the NT.

1. The Historical Place of the Concept of the Parousia in the NT.

Primitive Christianity waits for the Jesus who has come already as the One who is still to come. The hope of an imminent coming of the exalted Lord in Messianic glory is, however, so much to the fore that in the NT the terms are never used for the coming of Christ in the flesh, and παρουσία never has the sense of return. The idea of more than one parousia is first found only in the later Church, → 871, 1 ff. A basic prerequisite for understanding the world of thought of primitive Christianity is that we should fully free ourselves from this notion, which, so far as the NT is concerned, is suspect both philologically and materially.

In the NT generally παρεῖναι is not a tt. Only in certain passages does it take on the familiar (→ 861, 9 ff.; 864, 22 f.) numinous quality, though now with ref. to Christian data, so more or less in Jn. 11:28; 1 C. 5:3; 2 C. 13:10 with a personal subj., Jn. 7:6: Col. 1:6; Hb. 12:11; 2 Pt. 1:12 with a non-personal. Hence in what follows our concern will be only with the noun.

παρουσία as a tt. for the “coming” of Christ in Messianic glory seems to have made its way into primitive Christianity with Paul. The older designation ἡμέρα τοῦ κυρίου or the like (→ II, 945, 1–947, 3; 951, 6–953, 5) occurs in the Synoptists and Jn., and is also used a dozen times or so in Paul as compared with 7–8 instances of παρουσία (1 C. 1:8 vl.; 15:23; 1 Th. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Th. 2:1; 2:8). In the Past. παρουσία is replaced by → ἐπιφάνεια, which is even more influenced by Hellenism. In the Gospels we find it only in Mt., who has it 4 times in the apocalyptic discourse or its setting. Jn. has the word only at 1 Jn. 2:28, but we find it 3 times in the strongly Hellenising 2 Pt. (1:16; 3:4, 12) and twice in Jm. (5:7f.). These data leave us in no doubt as to the historical place of the technical use of παρουσία in the NT. The term is Hellenistic. In essential content, however, it derives from the OT, Judaism, and primitive Christian thinking.

2. The Detailed Development of the Concept.

a. The Synoptic Jesus.

Apart from the actual occurrence of the word, the whole thinking of Jesus is permeated by ideas of parousia. This is true in all strata of the Synoptic tradition. It is already apparent in Mk., at least from the time of the exchange at Caesarea, Mk. 8:38 and par.. To His Jewish judges Jesus holds out the threat of His coming even during their lifetime,44 Mk. 14:62 and par.; Lk. emphasises only the session at the right hand of God. If Q warns against seeing in Jesus an apocalyptist or even a fanatic,45 this is unintelligible apart from the concept of the parousia. The same is true of passages peculiar to Mt. (25:1–13, 14–30 [?], 31–46) and Lk. (12:35–38, 49 [?]; 22:29f. [?]). So far as can be seen, the parousia concept is one of the original stones in the Synoptic tradition concerning Jesus. It is present in fully developed form in the parousia address in Mk. 13 and par., which, strongly influenced though it is by Jewish and primitive Christian apocalyptic, has crystallised around genuine dominical sayings.48 Here all the Evangelists distinguish between the judgment on Jerusalem and the parousia. How far Jesus Himself made this distinction, how far He even made a clear distinction between His resurrection and His parousia, it is no longer possible to say with certainty. He does seem to have envisaged an interval between the first and the definitive restoration, a time of the community. Otherwise there would be no space for the conversion of the Gentiles, and such conversion without the preaching of repentance would be contrary to His basic principles. He probably thought His parousia was imminent. This is supported by many sayings which are hard to interpret in any other sense and which can hardly derive from the theology of the community, Mk. 9:1 and par.; 13:24–30 and par.; 14:62 and par.50 etc. The tremendous tension which permeates Jesus’ whole world of thought would also be inexplicable otherwise. If Jesus also enjoins endurance (Mt. 24:13 and par.; 24:22–27 and par.; 25:1–13 etc.), there are pastoral reasons for this, and it also corresponds to the basic attitude of NT eschatology, that of both concentrated and extended expectation at one and the same time, → 868, 10 f. Mk. 13:32 and par.52 does not stand in contradiction to this. It simply contests Jesus’ knowledge of the exact time, and condemns human attempts to calculate it, though without giving any right, historically speaking, to interpose thousands of years at will. Jesus, however, undoubtedly divests Jewish eschatology of its political and literal character. He sets the active and ethical element in the foreground, Mt. 25:14–30 and par.; 25:31–46.

b. The Primitive Community.

Though the word does not occur in Ac., and the primitive community perhaps had no equivalent for it, the central significance of belief in the parousia is incontestable. Apart from the Synoptic Gospels, Ac. itself bears witness to this. 1:11 gives us the original interpretation of the Easter faith. Christ is expected from heaven, 3:20f. → I, 387, 16 ff., esp. 391, 24 ff. The parousia of the world ruler is found mostly in the kerygma, 10:42; 13:33 intimated by Ps. 2:7; even 17:31. “Son of Man” is a title of Jesus in the primitive community, though it occurs only once at Ac. 7:56. It is impossible to say for certain whether the standing at the right hand of God simply denotes majesty or is a position of readiness either to receive the martyr or for the parousia. Activity with a view to the parousia is certainly included.

c. Paul.

In Paul there is the first palpable beginning of a christology which includes pre-existence, but this does not alter in the slightest the emphasis on the future. Paul always uses παρουσία with the gen. It is used of men (1 C. 16:17; 2 C. 7:6 f.; 10:10; Phil. 1:26; 2:12), once of antichrist (2 Th. 2:9), elsewhere of Christ (1 C. 15:23; 1 Th. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Th. 2:1, 8; 1 C. 1:8 vl.). Technical significance is not attached to the word (more to ἀπάντησις? → I, 380, 25–381, 5). Both lexically and materially it is important in the Thessalonian Epistles. Once again expectation is both concentrated (1 Th.) and extended (2 Th.), → 867, 14 f. The reason, however, is pastoral, and no contradiction is involved. Paul rejects all attempts at calculation, 1 Th. 5:1 ff.; 2 Th. 2:2. There are colourful depictions of the parousia not only in 1 Th. 4:13–18 and 2 Th. 1:7–2:8, but also in 1 C. 15:22–28, 50–55. Paul believes that he and most of his readers will experience the parousia, 1 Th. 4:15; 1 C. 15:51. Even in 2 C. 5:1–10 there is no shift of attention to the interim period and microcosmic eschatology, → II, 318, 1–321, 10. Romans is fully orientated to the older concept, 8:19, 23; 13:11 etc. Only with the prospect of martyrdom does the σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι receive greater stress, Phil. 1:23. But this does not mean that hope of the parousia is abandoned, Phil. 3:20 f.; 4:5; Col. 3:4; Eph. 4:30. Though possession of salvation is now seen to be inward and spiritual, this hope is still the indissoluble core.

d. Deutero-Paulinism.

In the Past. the synon. → ἐπιφάνεια is once used for the manifestation of Christ in the flesh, 2 Tm. 1:10: cf. 1 Tm. 3:16. This paves the way for a similar use of παρουσία and adventus later (→ 870, 35–871, 20). The older expectation survives, but already there is the beginning of establishment in the world, 2 Tm. 3:16; Tt. 2:12 etc. 1 Tm. 4:1 and 2 Tm. 3:1 are weaker statements than one finds in Pl. Neither word nor subject seems to be present in Hb. The focus here is, not the coming Christ, but Christ already come and perfected by suffering, 10:7; 9:11; 4:14; 2:10 etc. The coming reign of God is replaced by the entry of believers into rest (4:11; 9:27; a microcosmic eschatology). 2:8b is more of a protest and a transition than a reference. Nevertheless, the concept lives on, 12:26; 9:28; 10:37, 13; 6:2. There is need to endure and to be prepared, 10:25. The thought of a double parousia is to be found already in Hb. In spite of Gl. 4:4 and R. 8:3, the ἐκ δευτέρου of 9:28 is not Pauline.

e. The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude.

Jm. 5:7 f. (originally of God’s coming?) is a ref. to Christ’s parousia. 1:12 and 2:12 could be taken microcosmically. Expectation of the parousia is much more dynamic in 1 Pt., though the term does not occur: πάντων τὸ τέλος ἤγγικεν, 4:7. The Messianic tribulation has already come upon the world, and primarily upon the community, 4:13, 17; 5:8, 10. The idea of a first advent of Christ at the end of the times is to be found in 1:20. The descent into Hades is also presented as a parousia in 3:19; 4:6, → n. 43The decisive → ἀποκάλυψις Ἰηστοῦ Χριστοῦ is immediately at hand, 1:5, 7, 13. In the light of it believers are strangers and sojourners, 1:17; 2:11. In Jude there are only weak traces of the earlier expectation.

2 Peter meets doubt by reinterpretation. The message is not a fable, 1:16. Mockers (3:3f.) are wrong. As once the world perished by water, so it will perish by fire, 3:5ff. But for the longsuffering God a thousand years are as a day, 8f. The day will come like a thief. Believers should hasten towards the παρουσία τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ (vl. κυρίου) ἡμέρας, 3:12. In the first instance παρουσία has here the general sense of “coming” or “arrival,” but there is a suggestion of the technical meaning too.

f. Revelation.

The word does not occur in Rev., but from the ἐν τάχει of 1:1 and ὁ καιρὸς ἐγγύς of 1:3 to the ἔρχου κύριε Ἰησοῦ of 22:20 the book is full of ardent hope of the parousia. The dreadful Messianic afflictions, depicted in visions, issue in lofty portrayals of the parousia in 14:14–20 and 19:11–16, and this in turn is followed by further eschatological events to give us the fullest sketch we have of primitive Chr. eschatology. The time-sequence, which seems to lead to a doubling of the parousia, should neither be taken too literally nor dismissed as a mechanical theory of recapitulation. The decisive factor is the prophetic aim of impressing the eschatological hope upon the harassed community by increasingly urgent depictions.

g. John’s Gospel and Epistles.

Patent in Rev., the Jewish element is in the other Johannine writings interfused with so many syncretistic trends that the question arises whether eschatology, and with it the concept of the parousia, have not been abandoned altogether. Both are found (1 Jn. 2:28; 3:2; Jn. 21:22 f.), but are they alien bodies? Johannine religion is a religion of timeless possession. Jesus gives His people eternal life in time, 6:68; 17:3; 14:9; 11:25 f.; 5:25. The κρίσις takes place now, inwardly, 5:24; 3:18; 12:31; 9:39; 1 Jn. 3:14; Jn. 3:17; 8:15; 12:47; 5:45. The victory has been won, 1 Jn. 5:4. In this flood all eschatological concepts seem to be lost for ever. Similarly, in the Parting Discourses the coming of the risen Lord, the coming of the Spirit and the coming at the end of the days flow into one another. Nevertheless, we constantly find genuine eschatological expressions: ἐσχάτη ἡμέρα, which is peculiar to Jn.: [11:24]; 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 12:48; ἐσχάτη ὥρα, 1 Jn. 2:18 twice.

It is no more possible to eliminate this “contradiction” critically than to reduce it to a Jewish remnant or a concession to community thinking.64 It is also impossible to refer everything to the eschatologically conceived coming of the Logos in the flesh as the parousia of Him who is eschatologically sent. This involves as its basis an axiological view of eschatology which is not compatible with the Johannine understanding. Deeply rooted in John’s world of thought is the fact that there is much unrealised eschatology as well as realised. For all the revelation, the judging and saving work of Christ has about it much that is concealed and provisional. So, too, does the believer’s experience of salvation. This demands consummation when death has been definitively defeated, and indeed after a cosmic eschatology. Without this, realised eschatology would be untrue. Hellenisation is not the whole story. Research has begun to concern itself with the Jewish and primitive Christian foundations of Johannine theology.67 Johannine religion, too, is set in the tension of possession and hope. It is characterised only by a stronger inwardness which puts the accent more firmly on possession. Thus φανεροῦσθαι becomes an alternative for παρουσία, 1 Jn. 2:28; 3:2; cf. Col. 3:4.

3. Theological Summary.

As in the individual writings, so in the NT as a whole the concept of the parousia defies exact systematisation. Powerful antitheses exist. Jesus and Paul take a middle line, John and Rev. are at the extreme edges. Thus the NT itself urges us to consult the significance rather than the letter. Jesus rejected Jewish particularism. Even Rev. parts company with Judaism in its universalism and its encouragement to passive resistance, 13:10. The sensual element is reduced, fully so in Jn., and in the Synoptists, Paul and even Rev. at least to the degree that the external fulfilment is not awaited for its own sake but as an accompanying circumstance leading to full fellowship with God. The strict preservation of transcendence overcomes any abstract opposition between the present and future aspects of God’s rule. If παρουσία is not used for the incarnation, it becomes increasingly clear that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus — invisibly and for faith — the turning point of the aeons has been passed. The parousia is the definitive manifestation of what has been effected already as an eschatological reality. The NT itself prepares the way inwardly for the crisis which threatens with the delay of the parousia, so that this is fairly easily surmounted. The parousia, in which history is anchored, is not a historical event, nor does it merely give history its goal and meaning. It is rather the point where history is mastered by God’s eternal rule. The significance of the NT parousia concept is that the tension between nonfulfilment and fulfilment, between this world and the world to come, between hope and possession, between concealment and manifestation, between faith and sight, should be resolved, and that the decisive contribution towards this has already been made in Christ. Cf. the bibl.

V. πάρειμι and παρουσία in Ecclesiastical Usage.

παρεῖναι is mostly used in its lit. sense in the earlier writings of the Church, and it has no theological role, though Just. Dial., 54, 1 says that Christ is present in believers and will be present (παρέσται) at the second parousia. παρουσία is used in the profane sense (the coming of Danaos to the Peloponnese), Tat. Or. Graec., 39, 3. The technical eschatological sense of παρουσία occurs in the post-apost. fathers only at Dg., 7, 6 and Herm. s., 5, 5, 3, cf. also Act. Thom. 28. In Ign. Phld., 9, 2 there is ref. to the earthly coming of Jesus: The Gospel has as its chief content τὴν παρουσίαν τοῦ σωτῆρος … τὸ πάθος αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν. In Just. the term occurs only infrequently for the coming in power and glory (Dial., 49, 8; 31, 1; 35, 8; 51, 2). It is used more often for the earthly coming (Dial., 88, 2; cf. 120, 3; Apol., 48, 2; 54, 7). Mostly the two are set in juxtaposition as δύο παρουσίαι, πρώτη and δευτέρα, ἄδοξος and ἔνδοξος παρουσία (Apol., 52, 3; Dial., 14, 8; 49, 2, 7; 53, 1; 54, 1 etc.). There is a hint of the idea of the coming again of Christ (Dial., 35, 8; 118, 2). The eschatological emphasis is stronger in Iren. In the Gk. of Haer., I, 10, 1 (MPG, 7, 549) — if we are to read τὴν ἔλευσιν with the Lat. — he seems to be distinguishing between ἔλευσις and παρουσία. But in the Lat., which is all we have for the other passages, he speaks repeatedly of the twofold coming, IV, 22, 1 and 2 (MPG, 7, 1046 f.); 33, 11 f. (1079 f.), illustrated by the twofold coming in Gethsemane. Hippolyt. speaks similarly of δύο παρουσίαι, ἄτιμος and ἔνδοξος. On the other hand, Cl. Al., in his 41 refs. to the παρουσία, almost without exception has the earthly life in view. Here παρουσία occurs frequently without gen., Strom., III, 12, 90, 4; VI, 17, 159, 9. In Strom., V, 6, 38, 6 the ref. seems to be to the discernible presence in the Church (αἰσθητὴ παρουσία). Once in an obscure context, perhaps under alien influence, we find the ancient formula of a twofold coming, Ecl. Proph., 56, 1. The eschatological sense seems to be almost forgotten. We are pointed in the same direction by a Pap. Fr. from Cairo72 which in line 10 calls Jn. the Baptist the forerunner of the παρουσία of Christ. This complete de-eschatologising is, however, the exception. The further history of the term in the West comes to be connected esp. with the word adventus. Later an adventus triplex or quadruplex was distinguished. Liturgists and preachers sought such distinctive formulations as adventus ad homines, in homines, contra homines, or in carnere, in mentem, in morte, in maiestate.

[4] Christopher Rowland , “Parousia,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 168–170.

E. Delay of the Parousia

A question which always arises when the doctrine of Parousia is discussed is the issue of the problem caused for Christians of the nonfulfillment of the expectation. This theory is one which has been extraordinarily influential within biblical exegesis over the last century or so. The classic theory associated with Schweitzer (1931) and Werner (1957) which ascribes the emergence of orthodox Christian doctrine as part of the response to the problem caused by the delay has been subjected to critical scrutiny over the years (also Grässer 1957). There is little doubt that the explicit evidence for the delay of the Parousia being a problem within primitive Christianity is not as large as is often suggested; 2 Peter 3 is in fact a rather exceptional piece of evidence (Käsemann 1964). Other passages which are often mentioned in Matthew and Luke, for example, have to be set alongside other indications which point in the opposite direction. But while one would want to question the view that the delay of the Parousia must have been a problem, it would be wrong to dismiss some of the issues which this particular theory has highlighted. Early Christianity may have dealt with nonfulfillment of its grandiose hopes by intensifying those hopes such as we find, for example, in the vigorous expectation which is to be found in the pages of Matthew’s gospel (Bornkamm 1963). The departure of apostolic figures may have caused a crisis of confidence within nascent Christianity. The apostle Paul’s theology and self-understanding cannot be properly understood without reference to his expectation of the partial presence and imminent expectation of a new age. For example, the mission to the gentiles and probably also the collection for the saints in Jerusalem may have been linked with the framework of an eschatological drama in which Paul is a crucial actor. Thus it would be appropriate to consider the effect of Paul’s departure on that doctrinal construction in which Paul’s role was so important.

The issue can be illuminated by reference to Karl Mannheim’s (1960) discussion of the utopian or, to use Mannheim’s terms, “chiliastic mentality.” One aspect of this type, he argues, is the way in which the present moment becomes the Kairos, the moment to take decisive action. The utopian then takes it upon himself:

to “enable the absolute to interfere with the world and condition actual events” (p. 192) … the present becomes the breach through which what was previously inward bursts out suddenly, takes hold of the outer world and transforms it (p. 193) … the chiliast is always on his toes awaiting the propitious moment … he is not actually concerned with the millennium to come; what is important for him is that it has happened here and now … the chiliastic mentality has no sense for the process of becoming; it was sensitive only to the abrupt moment, the present pregnant with meaning (p. 195).

That sense of destiny which probably undergirded Paul’s self-understanding and his activity actually enabled his thinking to cohere as an expression of the outlook of one who believed himself called to be an agent in the dawn of the new age, the means by which the gentiles became fellow heirs of the commonwealth of Israel. Once that sense of being part of the “propitious moment” disappears, however, the understanding of present activity as an integral part of that drama and its relationship with the future consummation of the divine purposes gradually disappears also. When that happens it does become more difficult to see that future consummation as anything other than an article of faith rather than a goal in which present activity forms an indispensable part in “interfering with the world and conditioning actual events.”

Something similar may be found in the appendix to the gospel of John. One issue which is touched on in the closing verses of the chapter is the problem posed by the death of the Beloved Disciple. John 21:23 indicates that there was an expectation current among the members of the community that this disciple would not die before the return of Jesus. Now that he has, a question mark has been placed about the future coming of Jesus; the sense of being part of a “propitious moment,” the “present pregnant with meaning” have been replaced by bewilderment in the face of the departure of a figure who had hitherto been the key to the ongoing story of the community. Indeed, the outlook of the community and its view of its future have been deprived of their eschatological significance. Accordingly, the basis for that view is questioned and the tradition on which it is based is subjected to scrutiny.

Early Christianity had ample resources for dealing with the nonfulfillment of their hopes, particularly from within precisely that vehicle of expression of that hope. The apocalypses are interested in the world above where God’s reign is acknowledged by the heavenly host and where the apocalyptic seer can have access to the repository of those purposes of God for the future world (Rowland 1982 and 1985). Thus the apocalyptic seer can glimpse either in the heavenly books about the mysteries of eschatology or be offered a preview of what will happen in human history in the future. In most apocalypses that experience of a disclosure of the heavenly mysteries is reserved for the apocalyptic seer, but it was perfectly possible to extend that privilege to a wider group. It is that which we find in different forms in the Hōdāyôth (1QH) and the Odes of Solomon both of which offer the elect group a present participation in the lot of heaven and a foretaste of the glory which is to come. The identification of the ecclesia of the elect with Christ in the heavenly places is stressed in the letter to the Ephesians (1:21; cf. 3:5ff), so that the present life of the Church becomes a glimpse, a foretaste of the kingdom of God, just as the Spirit enables the believers to regard the present as a participation “in the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5) (Lincoln 1981).

The privilege granted to the apocalyptic seer of glimpsing the glory which is to come can be paralleled also in aspects of Paul’s understanding of apostleship. See APOSTLE. The presence of the apostle whether in person, co-worker, or through letter represented the presence of Christ confronting his congregations (Rom 15:14ff; 1 Cor 4:14ff; 1 Cor 5:3ff; Phil 2:12). When he finally reaches Rome he promises that his coming will bring blessing (Rom 15:29). Like the Risen Christ who stands in the midst of his churches, in Rev 1:13ff the apostle of Christ comes as a threat and a promise: a threat to those who have lost their first love or exclude the Messiah and his apostle; a promise of blessing at his coming for those who conquer. The direct commission from God not from other men to be an apostle of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:1) is central to Paul’s role. That has set him apart like Jeremiah before him. He is no ordinary mortal sent by the God of Israel but one in whom the presence of the Messiah dwelt, as bearer of the marks of his death (Gal 6:17; 2 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; Phil 3:10) (Funk 1967).

We saw in examining the Synoptic discourses that there is in fact very little attempt made to sketch the character of the liberation which draws near. The sketch of the ideal society or the ideal world is lacking, a mark of either a lack of any political realism or of a merely utopian fixation. But we should attempt to assess the significance of such an absence, for it would be wrong to suppose that the early Christian writings are devoid of any hope for a better world. Rather they prefer to hint at their conviction that one is coming without being too precise about what it will involve. It is the language of myth and metaphor which is to the fore rather than the offering of any detailed political manifesto. The point is made by the markers in the book of Revelation itself. The reader is reminded at the start of the vision of the Rider on the White Horse that discourse of a very different kind is being used here. The reference to the open heaven is a sign that we have to do with attempts to evoke rather than to describe exhaustively what is to come. It is about what is beyond in the sense that it is both future and different from the patterns of society currently offered. To speak of it, therefore, demands a language which is both less precise and yet more potent and suggestive, a language which after all is what is appropriate when one sets out to speak of that which is still to come.

The book of Revelation offers a timely reminder in its own form about supposing that its preoccupation with eschatological matters offers an opportunity to avoid the more challenging preoccupations of the present. Thus, the vision of hope inaugurated by the exaltation of the Lamb is set within the framework of the Letters of the Seven Churches. Even if we can discern a preponderance of “religious” issues in these letters (warnings against false teaching, suspicion of false prophecy, loss of an initial religious enthusiasm), we should probably regard the issues being touched on here as typical of a complacent second generation religious movement which is making too many accommodations with the surrounding culture and which needs to be brought back once again to its countercultural affirmation in the light of its witness to the new age. Thus the promise of a part in the New Jerusalem is linked with present behavior. The readers of the Apocalypse are not allowed to dream about millennial bliss without being brought face to face with the obstacles which stand in the way of its fulfillment and the costly part to be played by them in that process: they have to wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, and avoid being marked with the mark of The Beast.

Similarly the eschatological discourse in the Synoptic Gospels must not be separated from the narrative of Jesus’ proclamation and inauguration of the reign of God. It is that context which is necessary to prevent the discourse about the future becoming the goal of the narrative. Discipleship involves sharing the way of the cross of the Son of Man as he goes up to Jerusalem. What is offered to the disciple is the sharing of the cup of suffering of the Son of Man rather than the promise of sitting at his right hand and his left when he reigns on earth. It is not that this request is repudiated but, as the eschatological discourse makes plain, there can be no escape from the painful reality of the present witness with its need to endure the tribulations which precede the vindication. That is the challenge which faces those who wish to live out the messianic narrative in their own lives; no short cuts to the messianic reign are to be found here.

Within the NT the promise of his coming is found in different forms and functions in various ways. In 1 Thessalonians, that classic proof-text of the rapture of the saints, the concern is reassurance. However numerous may have been the words of the Lord known to Paul relating to this episode the piece chosen by him is intended to reassure the elect that even those who die before the coming of the Messiah will not forfeit the right to share in the privileges of that messianic period. We are told nothing of what will happen after the rapture; but in 1 Thessalonians that is not important, as the point of quoting the word of the Lord is to reassure rather than to provide information about what will happen hereafter. As such this passage, fragmentary as it is, conveys little of the threat to and struggle to be undergone by the disciples of Jesus which we find when we read the parallel passages in the wider contexts of Mark 13 and Matthew 24–25. Despite the similar promise to the elect in Mark 13:26 that they will be gathered by the returning Son of Man that deliverance is on the other side of the period of great tribulation from which they are not exempt and which promises real risks of apostasy (cf. Rom 8:19ff). Similarly in Rev 19:11ff the coming of the Messiah is a threat even to the elect. In Rev 1:13ff the Risen Christ may stand among his churches but frequently finds himself on the outside knocking at the door (Rev 3:21) and reproving those who have lost their first love (2:4f). All the inhabitants of the earth run the risk of falling for the illusion of greatness created by the Beast and its agents and finding that the same apocalyptic light which lights the way to the wedding feast of the elect shines with anger on the wicked (Jacob Boehme quoted by Bloch 1972: 182).

[5] David Witthoff, ed., The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[6] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 136.

2. Coming, appearing, revealing, royal presence

We still speak, in our culture, about the sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’, even though we know that in fact it is we, or at least our planet, who are moving in relation to the sun rather than the other way round. In the same way, the early Christians often spoke of Jesus ‘coming’, or ‘returning’; indeed, at least in John’s gospel, Jesus himself speaks in that way. But the larger picture they use suggests that if we are to understand them properly that language, common and even credal though it is, may not be the most helpful way today of getting at the truth it affirms.

In fact, the New Testament uses quite a variety of language and imagery to express the truth that Jesus and his people will one day be personally present to each other, as full and renewed human beings. It is perhaps an accident of history that the phrase ‘the second coming’, which is very rare in the New Testament, has come to dominate discussion. When that phrase is identified, as it has often been in North America in particular, with a particular view of that ‘coming’ as a literal downward descent, meeting half-way with the redeemed who are making a simultaneous upward journey, all sorts of problems arise which are avoided if we take the New Testament’s multiple witness as a whole.

The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return. I have argued this position at length and in detail in my various books about Jesus and don’t have space to substantiate it here. Let me just say two things, quite baldly.

First, when Jesus speaks of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’, he is not talking about the second coming, but, in line with the Daniel 7 text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering. The ‘coming’ is an upward, not a downward, movement. In context, the key texts mean that, though Jesus is going to his death, he will be vindicated by events that will take place afterwards. What those events are remains cryptic from the point of view of the passages in question, which is one good reason for thinking them authentic; but they certainly include Jesus’ resurrection on the one hand and the destruction of the Temple, the system that has opposed him and his mission, on the other. And the language, significantly, is precisely the language that the early church used as the least inadequate way of talking about the strange thing that happened after Jesus’ resurrection: his ‘ascension’, his glorification, his ‘coming’, not to earth, but to heaven, to the father.

Second, the stories Jesus tells about a king, or master, who goes away for a while and leaves his subjects or servants to trade with his money in his absence, were not originally meant to refer to Jesus going away and leaving the church with tasks to get on with until his eventual second coming, even though they were read in that way from fairly early on. They belong in the Jewish world of the first century, where everyone would at once ‘hear’ the story to be about God himself, having left Israel and the Temple at the time of the Exile, coming back again at last, as the post-exilic prophets had said he would,5 back to Israel, back to Zion, back to the Temple. In their original setting, the point of these stories is that Israel’s God, YHWH, is indeed coming at last to Jerusalem, to the Temple—in and as the human person Jesus of Nazareth. The stories are not, in that sense, about the second coming of Jesus, but about the first one. They are explaining, albeit cryptically, Jesus’ own belief, that what he was doing in coming to Jerusalem to enact both judgment and salvation was what YHWH had said in scripture that he would do in person.

These two historical moves, about the ‘son of man’ sayings and about the parables of the returning master or king, have left me open to the attack, particularly from American readers, that I have thereby given up believing or teaching the second coming. This is absurd, as the present chapter will make clear. The fact that Jesus didn’t teach it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Similarly, the fact that I have written books about Jesus without mentioning it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it; when a football commentator goes through a whole game without mentioning cricket, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it exists, or that he doesn’t rate it highly as a sport.) Jesus was having a hard enough time explaining to his disciples that he had to die; they never really grasped that at all, and they certainly didn’t take his language about his own resurrection as anything more than the general hope of all Jewish martyrs. How could they possibly have understood him saying something about further events in what would have been, for them, a still more unthinkable future?

Of course, when Jesus came to Zion as Israel’s rightful Lord in the first century, that event did indeed point forward to his eventual return as the rightful Lord of the whole world. This means that, if we are careful what we are doing, we can read the parables I’ve mentioned in this new way if we so desire. The reason we need to be careful, though, is because they don’t quite fit. Nowhere in the New Testament does any writer say that at Jesus’ final coming there will be some of his servants, some actual believing Christians, who will be judged in the way that the wicked servant was judged for hiding his master’s money in a napkin.

Nor will it do to say, as some have said who have grasped part of the point but not worked it through, that the events of AD 70 were themselves the ‘second coming’ of Jesus, so that ever since then we have been living in God’s new age, and there is no further ‘coming’ to await. This may seem to many readers, as indeed it seems to me, a bizarre position to hold, but there are some who not only hold it but eagerly propagate it, and use some of my arguments to support it. This results from a confusion: if the texts which speak of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’ refer to AD 70, as I have argued that (in part) they do, this doesn’t mean that AD 70 was the ‘second coming’—because the ‘son of man’ texts aren’t ‘second coming’ texts at all, despite their frequent misreading that way. They are about Jesus’ vindication. And Jesus’ vindication—in his resurrection, ascension and judgment on Jerusalem—requires a still further event for everything to be complete. Let me say it quite emphatically for the sake of those who have been confused on the point (and to the amusement, no doubt, of those who haven’t been): the ‘second coming’ has not yet occurred.

So: if the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching do not refer to the second coming, where does the idea come from? Quite simply, from the rest of the New Testament. As soon as Jesus had been vindicated, raised and exalted, the church firmly believed and taught that he would return. ‘This same Jesus who has gone from you into heaven’, said the angel to the disciples, ‘will return in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.’ And, though Acts doesn’t often refer again to this belief, clearly the whole book takes place under this rubric. This is what the disciples are doing to make Jesus’ lordship known in all the world against the day when he will come once more to renew all things.7

But of course the primary witness is Paul. Paul’s letters are full of the future coming or appearing of Jesus. His worldview, his theology, his missionary practice, his devotion are all inconceivable without it. Yet what he has to say about this great event has often been misunderstood, not least by the proponents of ‘rapture’ theology. It’s almost time to address this directly, but first a word about another major and often misunderstood technical term.

Scholars and simple folk alike can get led astray by the use of a single word to refer to something when that word in its original setting means both more and less than the use to which it is subsequently put. In this case the word in question is the Greek word parousia. This is usually translated ‘coming’; but literally it means ‘presence’—that is, ‘presence’ as opposed to ‘absence’.

The word parousia occurs in two of the key passages in Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:15 and 1 Corinthians 15:23), and it is found frequently elsewhere in Paul and the New Testament. It seems clear that the early Christians knew the word well, and knew what was meant by it. People often assume that the early church used parousia simply to mean ‘the second coming of Jesus’, and that by this event they all envisaged, in a quite literal fashion, the scenario of 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 (Jesus coming down on a cloud and people flying upwards to meet him). Neither of these assumptions is in fact correct.

On the one hand, the word parousia had two lively meanings in non-Christian discourse at the time. Both of these seem to have influenced it in its Christian meaning.

The first meaning was the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing. People would suddenly be aware of a supernatural and powerful ‘presence’, and the obvious word for this was parousia. Josephus sometimes uses this word when he is talking about YHWH coming to the rescue of Israel. God’s powerful, saving presence is revealed in action, for instance when Israel under King Hezekiah was miraculously defended against the Assyrians.

The second meaning emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is ‘royal presence’: in Greek, parousia. In neither setting, we note, obviously but importantly, is there the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud. Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time universe.

Now supposing Paul, and for that matter the rest of the early church, wanted to say two things. On the one hand, supposing they wanted to say that the Jesus they worshipped was near in spirit but absent in body, but that one day he would be present in body, and that then the whole world, themselves included, would know the sudden transforming power of that presence. A natural word to use for this would be parousia.

On the other hand, supposing they wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the true Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their shoes and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And supposing they wanted to say that, just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth (the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. Again, the natural word to use for this would be parousia. (This was particularly significant in that Paul and the others were keen to say that Jesus was the true Lord and that Caesar was a sham.)

Now these things are not just suppositions. This is exactly how it was. Paul and the others used the word parousia because they wanted to evoke these worlds. But they evoke them within a different context. For neither the first nor the last time, the Jewish storyline and the Greco-Roman allusions and confrontations meet like two tectonic plates, throwing up the craggy mountain range we call New Testament theology. The Jewish storyline in question was, of course, the story of the Day of the Lord, the Day of YHWH, the Day when YHWH would defeat all Israel’s enemies and rescue his people once and for all. Paul and the other writers regularly refer to ‘the Day of the Lord’, and now of course they mean it in a Christian sense: ‘the Lord’ here is Jesus himself. In this sense, and in this sense only, there is a solid Jewish background for the Christian doctrine of the ‘second coming’ of Jesus.11 Of course, there could be nothing stronger, because pre-Christian Judaism, including the disciples during Jesus’ lifetime, never envisaged the death of the Messiah. That is why they never thought of his resurrection, let alone an interim period between such events and the final consummation, during which he would be installed as the world’s true Lord while still waiting for that sovereign rule to take full effect.

What happened, it seems, was this. The early Christians had lived within, and breathed and prayed, that old Jewish storyline. In the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, shocking and unexpected though they were, they grasped the fact that in this way Israel’s God had indeed done what he’d always intended, though it hadn’t looked like they thought it would. Through this they came to see that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, was already the world’s true Lord, and that his secret presence by his Spirit in the present time was only a hint of what was still to come, when he would finally be revealed as the one whose power would trump all other powers both earthly and heavenly. The Jesus-story thus created a radical intensification and transformation from within the Jewish story; and the language that results in describing the Jesus-event that is yet to come is the language that says, in relation to the future: Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t.

Parousia is itself, in fact, one of those terms in which Paul is able to say that Jesus is the reality of which Caesar is the parody. His theology of the second coming is part of his political theology of Jesus as Lord. In other words, we have the language of parousia, of royal presence, sitting in a typically Pauline juxtaposition with the language of Jewish apocalyptic. This would not, I think, have presented many problems for Paul’s first hearers. It has certainly created problems for subsequent readers, not least in the last century or so.

This is so especially when we read 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17:

The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord.

The point to notice above all about these tricky verses is that they are not to be taken as a literal description of what Paul thinks will happen. They are simply a different way of saying what he is saying in 1 Corinthians 15:23–27 and 51–54, and in Philippians 3:20–21.

We had better get those other passages straight in our minds to start with. In 1 Corinthians 15:23–27 Paul speaks of the parousia of the Messiah as the time of the resurrection of the dead, the time when his present though secret rule will become manifest in the conquest of the last enemies, especially death. Then in verses 51–54 he speaks of what will happen to those who, at Jesus’ coming, are not yet dead. They will be changed, transformed. This is clearly the same event as he is speaking of in 1 Thessalonians 4; we have the trumpet in both, and the resurrection of the dead in both; but whereas in 1 Thessalonians he speaks of those presently alive being ‘snatched up in the air’, in 1 Corinthians he speaks of them being ‘transformed’. So too in Philippians 3:21, where the context is quite explicitly ranging Jesus over against Caesar, Paul speaks of the transformation of the present lowly body to be like Jesus’ glorious body, as a result of his all-conquering power.

So why does Paul speak in this peculiar way in 1 Thessalonians, about the Lord descending and the living saints being snatched up in the air? I suggest that he is finding richly metaphorical ways of alluding to three other stories which he is deliberately bringing together. (Paul was good at richly mixed metaphors: in the next chapter, 1 Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labour, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armour. As the television programmes say, don’t try that one at home.)

We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don’t normally provide you with advance photographs of what you’ll find at the end of the road, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pointing in the right direction. They are telling you the truth, the particular sort of truth that can be told about the future.

The three stories which Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This ‘raising up on the clouds’, which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.

Putting these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors, enables Paul to bring in the third story, to which we have already alluded. When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

These two verses in 1 Thessalonians 4, then, have been grievously abused by those who have constructed out of them a big picture of a supposed ‘rapture’. This has had its effect not only on popular fundamentalism, but on a fair amount of New Testament scholarship, which has assumed that Paul really meant what the fundamentalists think he meant. Only when we put together the several different things that he says on the same topic does the truth emerge. This is a typical piece of highly charged and multiply allusive rhetoric. The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed. That, as we shall now see, is pretty much what the rest of the New Testament says as well.

Note, though, something else of great significance about the whole Christian theology of resurrection, ascension, second coming and hope. This theology was born out of confrontation with the political authorities, out of the conviction that Jesus was already the true Lord of the world who would one day be manifested as such. The ‘rapture’ theology avoids this confrontation, because it suggests that Christians will miraculously be removed from this wicked world. Perhaps that is why such theology is often gnostic in its tendency towards a private dualistic spirituality, and towards a political laissez-faire quietism. And perhaps that is partly why such theology, with its dreams of Armageddon, has quietly supported the political status quo in a way that Paul would never have done.

Before turning away from Paul, notice a significant pair of passages. First, at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul suddenly writes a phrase in Aramaic: Marana tha. It means ‘Our Lord, come!’, and goes back (like the word Abba, ‘father’) to the very early Aramaic-speaking church. There is no reason why the Greek-speaking church would have invented a prayer in Aramaic; we must be in touch at this point with extremely early and pre-Pauline tradition. The early church was from the beginning praying to Jesus that he would return.

Second, a very different passage in Colossians 3. Here we have in a nutshell Paul’s theology of resurrection and ascension, as applied to present Christian living and future Christian hope:

If you’ve been raised with the Messiah, seek the things that are above, because that’s where the Messiah is, sitting at God’s right hand. Think about the things above, not about the things below; for you died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah appears [hotan ho Christos phanerōthē], the one who is your life, then you too will appear with him in glory.

This is clearly in the same ballpark as the other texts we’ve been looking at. But notice the key thing: that instead of ‘coming’, or the blessed word parousia, Paul can here use the word ‘appear’. It’s the same thing from a different angle, and this helps us to demystify the idea that the ‘coming’ of Jesus means that he will descend like a spaceman from the sky. Jesus is at present in heaven. But, as we saw earlier, heaven, being God’s space, is not somewhere within the space of our world, but is rather a different though closely related space. The promise is not that Jesus will simply reappear within the present world order, but that, when heaven and earth are joined together in the new way God has promised, then he will appear to us—and we will appear to him, and to one another, in our own true identity.

This is, in fact, remarkably close to a key passage in the first letter of John (1 John 2:28; 3:2):

Now, children, abide in him; so that, when he appears [ean phanerōthē], we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his presence [parousia] … Beloved, we are now God’s children; and it has not yet appeared [oupō ephanerōthē] what we shall be; but we know that when he appears [ean phanerōthē], we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.

Here we have more or less exactly the same picture as in Colossians, though this time with ‘appearing’ and parousia happily side by side. Of course, when he ‘appears’ he will be ‘present’. But the point of stressing ‘appearing’ here is that, though in one sense it will seem to us that he is ‘coming’, he will in fact be ‘appearing’ right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world, but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call ‘heaven’. This world is different from ours (‘earth’), but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves. One day the two worlds will be integrated completely, and be fully visible to one another, producing that transformation of which both Paul and John speak.

Of course, Paul and John are not the only writers to mention all of this. The Revelation of St John the Divine also speaks of the coming of Jesus; and here we find the word ‘come’ itself. The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’, and the closing prayer of the book, as with 1 Corinthians, is that the Lord Jesus will come, and come soon. The same theme is scattered elsewhere in the book. There is no space here to look at these in detail, or indeed at the relevant passages in the other, smaller, New Testament books.17 Famously, 2 Peter 3 is the one place in the New Testament where the issue of delay is addressed head on; and it’s worth noting that those who reckon this a problem are precisely, in context, those who are arguing for a rather different, non-historical, form of Christianity.

What we have here, with minor variations, is a remarkably unanimous view spread throughout the early Christianity known to us. There will come a time, which might indeed come at any time, when, in the great renewal of the world which Easter itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present, and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers. This expectation and hope, expressed so clearly in the New Testament, continues undiminished in the second and subsequent centuries. Mainstream Christians throughout the early period were not worried by the fact that the event had not happened within a generation. The idea that the problem of ‘delay’ set out in 2 Peter 3 was widespread in second-generation Christianity is a modern scholars’ myth rather than a historical reality. Nor was the idea of Jesus’ ‘appearing’ or ‘coming’ simply part of a tradition that was passed on uncritically without later generations really tuning in to what it was saying. As with the ascension, so with Jesus’ appearing: it was seen as a vital part of a full presentation of the Jesus who was, and is, and is to come. Without it the church’s proclamation makes no sense. Take it away, and all sorts of things start to unravel. The early Christians saw this as clearly as anyone since, and we would do well to learn from them.

But it is now high time to look at the second aspect of the appearing or coming of Jesus. When he comes, according to the same biblically grounded tradition, he will have a specific role to play: that of judge.

[7] David Bentley Hart, The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients. (University of Notre Dame: Church Life Journal)

[8] Alan Garrow. The Didache: what lies beneath (logos.com). https://academic.logos.com/the-didache-what-lies-beneath/

[9] Francis X. Glimm, “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 178–184.

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.