The Advent of Vigilance

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Tes...Matthew 24:37-4437 For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 In (those) days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. 39 They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be (also) at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. 42 Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. 43 Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. 44 So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

This text is part of the fifth discourse in Matthew (24:1-25:46), which centers on the coming of the Son of Man – and that does not necessarily imply “end times” as in end of the world. The theme for the 1st Sunday in Advent for all three years is preparedness – in the everyday of life as well as for the end of life. What is common to all times is the victory of the reign of God.

Matthew’s Perspective of the End Time. Eugene Boring (Matthew, 457-58) notes Matthew 24 is not an “eschatological discourse” that presents Matthew’s or Jesus’ doctrine of the end, but is part of chaps. 23-25, whose aim is pastoral care and encouragement. Although he has included the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 into this larger framework, Matthew (affirms but) reduces the significance of apocalyptic per se, subordinating it to other, more directly pastoral concerns. Matthew’s focus is judgment and warnings on Christian discipleship oriented toward the ultimate victory of the reign of God represented in Christ.

Matthew focuses on this by a variety of pictures that are sometimes at odds and sometimes in agreement. No one picture can do justice to the transcendent reality to which it points. There are basically two types of pictures:

  1. In the first of these, the risen Christ is present with his church throughout its historical pilgrimage and mission. Matthew affirms the transcendent lordship of the living Christ. This is expressed in pictures of Christ’s continuing presence with his church through the ages, a major theme of Matthean theology (see 1:23; 28:20). In such a framework, there is no need or room for an ascension in which Christ departs, a period of Christ’s “absence,” and then a “return” of Christ, for the risen Christ never departs (cf. the last words of Matthew’s Gospel).
  2. In a second type of picture, the transcendence of the living Christ is pictured in a different way that had already become traditional in early Christianity—that of the departure of Christ at the resurrection/ascen­sion and his return at the parousia.

In the first picture, Christ continues to be present; In the second, Christ is absent from this world during the period between ascension and parousia. Only this second picture can speak of a “return” of Christ; only the first can speak of Christ’s “presence.” Each has its valid theological point to make, but they cannot be nicely resolved. Matthew inherited and adopted both pictures. He affirmed them both. The modern tendency is to interpret the relationship of these two fundamental pictures to neat, manageable concepts, such that, e.g., Christ is now present “spiritually” but will return “physically” at the parousia.

Inconsistent pictures such as these are a theological advantage, pointing beyond each way of conceiving the transcendent lordship of Christ to the reality itself that cannot be simply or neatly represented. Matthew takes each way of talking about Christ’s transcendent lordship with utmost seriousness as repre­senting the reality. Christ is already present/Christ will come again. The final scene pulls these two together, but not in a conceptually neat way; the Son of Man who comes in glory at the end (25:31) is already present, not only in the high moments of inner-church life, but especially as the one who is met in the encounter with the poor and needy (25:40, 45).

Did Matthew expect the parousia to occur soon? As encouragement to his persecuted community, Matthew repeats as his own conviction the message of the first Christian generation that the end would come in their own time (16:28; 24:34; cf. 1 Cor 15:51-52; 1 Thess 4:15; Rev 1:3). As the first century drew to a close, this did not mean for Matthew that he devised a historical view that allowed for an indefinite “delay of the parousia.” In Matthew’s view, by his time there had already been a delay, which meant that the time of the end was closer than ever. By twice repeating the statement that some of Jesus’ contemporaries would still be alive when the parousia occurs (16:28; 24:34), even near the end of the first century, Matthew affirms that the end is even nearer than previously thought.

The repeated references to “delay” (e.g., 24:48; 25:5) represent the contrary view, apparently in the air in Matthew’s church, but always expressed by unfaithful characters in the story, never by the narrator. Matthew’s own concern is to oppose this view, since it breeds complacency (cf. 2 Pet 3:3-13). Rather, Matthew’s point is that he and his community already live in the time of the final tribulation; the days have been shortened (24:22), so the end will come soon—and may come at any time.

Near expectation is not incompatible with his emphasis on discipline and structure in the community. Matthew’s conviction about the nearness of the parousia is not a speculative interest in calculating the time of the end, but a pastoral concern: He wants Christians to be ready by using the intervening time responsibly (24:39, 42, 50; 25:13).

Matthew expected the near parousia, and it did not occur. Although the church through the centuries has devised numerous ways to rescue Matthew from this error and explain texts that seem to affirm it in ways more agreeable to later perspectives,  it is more in accord with the nature of Scripture and the integrity to which the interpreter is called to allow Matthew to express his faith in his own apocalyptic terms, including its mistaken temporal elements. Matthew will not be forced to become a modern man, and the contemporary reader can still be grasped by the apocalyptic message in all its urgency and compelling power.

With these paradoxes of perspectives in mind, what might Matthew’s gospel say to contemporary readers?

  • Such pictures can be heard as an affirmation of Jesus’ and Matthew’s radical monotheism—living our own lives in faith in the one God whose kingdom (reign) is presently often hidden, but ultimately prevails.
  • The eschatological age has begun. To confess that the Christ has come, and that he is Jesus of Nazareth, is to say that there will be no further, supplementary revelation until this same God who is definitively revealed in the meekness and suffering love of Jesus is revealed at the end as the One and only God.
  • Matthew’s pictures of the threat of false messiahs as the end approaches should not be heard in our time as specific predictions of deceitful figures to arise. They can still speak to our own time of the urgent danger of accepting other values as ultimate and other means of redeeming our lives and world than the way revealed in Jesus the Messiah.

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