My brother took up my previous post on this issue on his own blog. I am following suit and returning the favor here.

He writes: First, note that the parables listed (about drowsiness, about delay) and the tasks given (preach the Gospel to the nations) invoke no timescale. Will the Church take a decade or centuries to “fall asleep?” When the known world is fairly small (no guess that North America even exists, for example), how long will preaching to “all the nations” take? Looking back, current theologians will say, “Obviously centuries for both,” but this is because centuries have come and gone. We’ll see below why this isn’t fair to the text.

Jim is right to point out that there is “no time scale” involved in the aspects of Matthew’s gospel that I mentioned. A specific time-scale was not the point. Rather, the suggestion is that the second Advent of Christ is going to be delayed, and apparently for long enough for a significant missionary impulse to occur. My brother highlights the fact that the “known world is fairly small” during Jesus’s period, but surely 37 years (33 ad-70 ad) is an extremely short period of time to “preach the gospel to all nations.” At any rate, the broader emphasis of the whole Gospel of Matthewseems to be on a delayed return.

My brother then writes;

If anything, [Matthew 24:36] could be seen to deny Jesus’s full divinity; if Jesus is “fully God,” how could the Father know something he doesn’t? But we leave that particular difficulty aside, and focus on the fact that Jesus uses the phrase “day or the hour,” which refers more clearly to a very-soon-coming (imagine if Jesus had said “the year or the decade” instead) than it does to a far-off-coming; at any rate, it’s hardly compelling evidence for the latter.

My brother’s worries about Matthew’s (rather high, actually!) Christology might be answered by perusing some of NT Write’s Jesus and the Victory of God, for a full scale treatment of early understandings of Christ. However, he argues that “day or the hour” might still admit us knowing the “month and the year.” Again, my brother (and I neglected to point out!) the subsequent eight verses, ending in 44: “So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Again, Jesus seems very careful to emphasize our ignorance as to the time of the Christ event as a means of exhorting us to be in constant readiness. I will submit only that the overwhelming emphasis of this passage is one of delay.

We see that the first statement simply isn’t supported in the text. The “all things” in 24:34 make little sense if they refer to the “all things” in 24:3. The “all things” in chapter three are physical objects; the “all things” in 24:34 are events (physical objects don’t “happen”). Read the whole passage for yourself, and see if the meaning is as plain as I think it is.

Allow me to clarify my point: I was not suggesting that the “all things” in 24:34 was a direct reference back to the “all things” of 24:2. That, indeed, would be foolish. Rather, the disciples very question in 24:3 suggests that they are correlate the destruction of the temple with the second Advent of Christ.

Curiously, my brother appeals to a “straightforward” reading of the text, assuming that “the meaning” is plain. This isn’t really an argument–rather, it seems somewhat naive (to be blunt) given the considerable amount of debate and disagreement this chapter has historically caused.

I would point out to my brother that the movement of the passage does not suggest strict temporal succession. For instance, after highlighting some general aspects of the age in verses 4-7, Jesus says in 8 and 9, “All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then (tote) you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” Is there a strict temporal succession between these events? It seems that there is not–rather Christians will be persecuted during the period of the birth pangs. So the NIV translates the next tote, “At that time” (10).

For an interesting take on Matthew 24, I would suggest D.A. Carson’s work, which is excellent. Carson argues that 4-28 form one “age”, of which, the only specific information we have is the destruction of Jerusalem in 15-21. The reference to “those days” in 22 refers to the whole period, as is evidenced by Jesus’s return to the more general description including refering back to the “false Christs” of verse 5. This means that what happens “immediately”, happens “immediately” after those days, the length of time is unspecified. This at least accounts for the numerous references to delay in a more natural way than yours, which has to explain them away.

Here’s what it boils down to: to accept that Jesus didn’t “really” mean what he said, you have to accept that “near” doesn’t really mean “near,” that “immediately” doesn’t really mean “immediately,” that “right at the door” means “miles away trudging through the snow,” and, most important, that Jesus’s conference with his disciples was a ruse–not just in the sense that his prophecy never came true, but in the sense that he never really meant it for them.

There, fifteen minutes, done. How’d I do?

Are you really against close readings of the text like this? This makes twice in one blog post that you have eschewed interpretation (what I consider necessary for the task of reading!) in favor of straight-forward literalistic readings of Scripture, the sort of “literalism” that is mocked by, oh, just about everyone. I am attempting to find the literal meaning of the text–I just think that it has to be done within certain canons of literary interpretation, namely that genre and context matter a lot. When those are taken in to account, sometimes the “plain meaning” of the text is not the actual meaning of the text. One thinks of people who read The Republic the first time and think it’s all about a city and that he is wife-sharing and what not as having this sort of problem.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • With the treatment he got when he was here, no wonder he postponed coming back!

  • With the treatment he got when he was here, no wonder he postponed coming back!Jon, you rule.

    Read any good UFO stories lately admist the rest of your Milton work?

  • Jim

    1. I am not against close, careful study of the text; if you closely read my posting, you’ll notice that I responded (i.e., typed up my answer) in about fifteen minutes. I had read it over the day in between, and then re-read Matthew, and mulled over it, and then sat down to write at the only moment I had time.

    2. Literalism is a form of interpretation, and so to pursue it whole-cloth is to interpret, albeit wrongly. The problem is where to distinguish between the “literal” and the “figurative,” and it involves both speaker, audience, and literary and historical context–but that does not rule out the possibility that a “literal” reading may be right. (Consider that without any regard for straightforwardness we can play a game where Jesus is merely the “Jesus of faith,” and the resurrection, if it didn’t “really” happen, contra Paul, is no cause for concern.) Jesus himself in the passage seems to switch between the two, repeatedly going into “story mode;” I am not arguing that a non-“literal” interpretation is of necessity wrongheaded, but that your evidence offered (so far) is not convincing. For example, you write: “surely 37 years (33 ad-70 ad) is an extremely short period of time to ‘preach the gospel to all nations.'” That “surely” is the very point in question.

    I’m not responding at my best (again, this time on a Saturday, it’s 5:30 in the morning and I have no time), so I’ll try to work up more coherent thoughts later, especially in response to your above posting about the date of Matthew. I think it boils down to my (unrefuted) point that the Gospels were not intended for us, and the best reading of the text will acknowledge that.

  • 1. I am not against close, careful study of the text; if you closely read my posting, you’ll notice that I responded (i.e., typed up my answer) in about fifteen minutes. I had read it over the day in between, and then re-read Matthew, and mulled over it, and then sat down to write at the only moment I had time.I’m sorry that I was ambiguous. I wasn’t referring to the amount of time you spent delaying, but your final paragraph. I summarized Carson’s position (which I find compelling) on the “immediately” of 29 which suggests that it is “immediately”, but not immediately after the destruction of the temple in AD70. This is a careful reading of the text, which you dismiss without addressing at all.

    2. Literalism is a form of interpretation, and so to pursue it whole-cloth is to interpret, albeit wrongly. The problem is where to distinguish between the “literal” and the “figurative,” and it involves both speaker, audience, and literary and historical context–but that does not rule out the possibility that a “literal” reading may be right. (Consider that without any regard for straightforwardness we can play a game where Jesus is merely the “Jesus of faith,” and the resurrection, if it didn’t “really” happen, contra Paul, is no cause for concern.) Jesus himself in the passage seems to switch between the two, repeatedly going into “story mode;” I am not arguing that a non-“literal” interpretation is of necessity wrongheaded, but that your evidence offered (so far) is not convincing. For example, you write: “surely 37 years (33 ad-70 ad) is an extremely short period of time to ‘preach the gospel to all nations.'” That “surely” is the very point in question. I made no distinction between the “figurative” and the “literal.” To characterize my position as “figurative” (like I think you are doing here is to drastically misunderstand my position. I criticized “literalism”, and yet I said that I am “ttempting to find the literal meaning of the text.” You think that the “literal” meaning is the “plain sense” of the text, and graspable via a “straightforward” reading. Your appeal that we all read the passage presumes that if we did, we would see that it is as obvious as you think. Anything that is not obvious you seem to think is “figurative.” I merely think the literal meaning is not immediately obvious.

    So, to clarify, I have offered no evidence for a “non-literal” interpretation of the text. I have offered compelling reasons to think that the “literal” meaning is not your reading. It’s clear that whether 37 years is long enough to preach the gospel to all nations is what we are (in part) debating. However, it seems highly implausible that Jesus considered this enough time, given all the language about delay and the robust ethical teachings of the entire book of Matthew. Your difficulties in handling 24:36 (which I think you have inadequately done), in addressing the “delay” language, and your reading that makes each “then” in ch.24 chronological suggest that your interpretation is misguided. If you don’t see the force of these arguments, then I would suggest taking on someone better than myself–D.A. Carson’s commentary would be a great start.

    I’m not responding at my best (again, this time on a Saturday, it’s 5:30 in the morning and I have no time), so I’ll try to work up more coherent thoughts later, especially in response to your above posting about the date of Matthew. I think it boils down to my (unrefuted) point that the Gospels were not intended for us, and the best reading of the text will acknowledge that.I understand the early posting problem. I am always trying to scratch out thoughts in a hurry, and it certainly is more difficult.

    As for your ‘unrefuted” point about the Gospels, I will attempt to refute it whenever you make it and substantiate it. I can’t find it anywhere. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place.

    However, I look forward to this argument. As a hermeneutical principal, it seems shaky, especially if you claim it for “the Gospels.” Jesus’ prayer in John 17 seems pretty explicitly for all Christians in all places in all times…….