Should we want to be ‘left behind’ in Matt 24?

With the advent of Advent on Sunday (!) we make the move in the lectionary from Year C to Year A. So, after journeying through Luke all year, this Sunday’s gospel reading comes from Matthew, Matt 24.36-44. This short section of text contains some important ideas and images, but we cannot make sense of them without locating it within the broader context of Jesus’ teaching in these two chapters (24 and 25).

Our passage starts with a decisive contrast: ‘But concerning that day…’ (Greek: Περὶ δὲ), so the question is, what is this passage a contrast to? The chapter began with Jesus’ disciples admiring the temple buildings, and Jesus in reply predicting its downfall. This in turn provokes further questions from them; though the parallel account in Mark 13.4 has the disciples ask a single, composite question about when all these things would happen, in Matthew (probably written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70), they ask the question in two distinct parts:

Tell us, when will these things be,
and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matt 24.3)

The first half of the question relates to the judgement of Jerusalem and the fall of the temple; but the second half relates to Jesus’ parousia, his return at the end of this age. The preceding part of this chapter, up to verse 35, answers the first question; after his teaching about signs, wars and rumours of wars, and the darkening of the sun and moon, Jesus is absolutely emphatic:

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matt 24.34–35).

All the things mentioned up to v 35 will happen in the lifetime of the disciples. The phrase ‘But concerning…’ now focusses our attention on the second half of the disciples’ question: when will Jesus return, can we know when that will be, and how can we be prepared for it?


Jesus has referred to ‘that day’ throughout the gospel, as far back as Matt 7.22, where it refers to the final coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus also refers to it as ‘the day of judgement’ (Matt 10.15, 11.22, 24 and 12.36), and in the later parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31 onwards, we learn that the ‘Son of Man’ becomes the king of the kingdom of God and the judge who exercises the judgement of God.

The high Christology that this assumes is expressed in the following phrase about knowledge of when that day will come: no person knows, nor even the angels (who surely know heavenly secrets hidden from mortals) nor even the Son [of God], but only the Father. Alongside this high Christology is an admission by Jesus of his own ignorance and limited knowledge, something that early copyists of Matthew clearly found embarrassing, since a number of early manuscripts lack the phrase ‘nor the Son’. But this limitation is surely just part of Jesus ’emptying of himself’ that Paul describes in Phil 2.7, and the equality with and subordination to the Father finds similar expressing in the contrasting claims of John 10.30 (‘I and the Father are one’) and John 14.28 (‘The Father is greater than I’).

The lack of any warning, so that people are taken unawares, is a striking contrast to what Jesus has said about the destruction of Jerusalem in the previous section, when he urges his disciples to take note of all the signs just as they would meteorological indicators of the coming weather. But there will be no warning signs for the return of Jesus—something he has already made clear, as a contrast, in the comment in Matt 24.27 that his parousia (in contrast to the Son of Man coming to the throne of the Almighty, Matt 24.30) will be both visible to all and without warning, just as lightning is.

The comparison with the ‘days of Noah’ contains a simple logical structure which, because of assumptions we make about the passage, it is easy to miss. In the days of Noah, most people were unaware of the coming judgement, and were pre-occupied with the mundane realities of life, as if these were all that mattered. When the flood came, they were taken away, whilst Noah and has family, having taken notice of God and made ready, remained behind in the ark and stayed to repopulate the earth. In the same way, people will be pre-occupied with the mundane realities of life, as if these were all that mattered, but when Jesus returns they will be swept away in judgement. Those who follow the teaching of Jesus and have made ready will be left behind to receive and live in the coming kingdom, the New Jerusalem which will come from heaven to earth (Rev 21).

The logic of this is quite clear: in the days of Noah, it was the wicked facing judgement who were swept away, and the righteous who were left. In the same way it will be those absorbed with this life who will be swept away, whilst those who are ready for Jesus will be left behind.

Therefore I want to be left behind, and you should too. 

(There is some basis for thinking that this might be the other way around, in that the verb ‘taken away’, paralambano, is a ‘divine passive’, so that in another context it could have the sense of being taken to God. But the parallel with the days of Noah makes it clear that this is not the case here.)


The final pericope (short section of teaching) in this passage includes a threefold emphasis that we cannot know when Jesus will return, and cannot work it out: ‘you do not know…if he had known…an hour you do not expect’. The metaphor of ‘keeping watch’ (literally ‘stay awake’) cannot mean looking for signs, or keeping a ‘End Times’ countdown, or spending time speculating, for three reasons.

First, Jesus is emphatic that there will be no signs to look out for—the earlier signs all relate to the fall of Jerusalem. Secondly, in the previous verses, both those taken away and those who remain have been engaged in the same routine activities; ordinary life continues even as we live in expectation. Luther was rumoured to have said ‘If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree and collect the rent’. Thirdly, in the parable of the ten virgins in the next chapter, both groups do in fact fall asleep, and are woken in surprise when the bridegroom finally arrives. The difference is that one group is prepared, whilst the other is not.

The image of the thief in the night clearly made an impact in the early Christian community, with the phrase recurring in Luke 12.39, 1 Thess 5.2, 4, 2 Peter 3.10, Rev 3.3 and 16.15, and even the Gospel of Thomas 21 and 103. The corresponding virtue of ‘staying awake’ or alert, (Gk gregoreo, giving rise to the very Christian name ‘Gregory’) also comes in the gospels, Acts 20.31, Paul (1 Cor 16.13, Col 4.2, 1 Thess 5.6, 10), in Peter (1 Peter 5.8) and Revelation (Rev 3.2 and 16.15). This final reference gives as the best insight into what alertness means, since it is paired with ‘keeping [your] clothes on’; clothing is a consistent metaphor for the life of discipleship, lived in holiness and good deeds following the example of Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. As Dick France comments (in his NICNT commentary), readiness is an ethical rather than an intellectual quality. Being ready for Jesus means faithfully living the life he has called us to, something that will be expounded in the following parable of the servants and master.


Being ready for the return of Jesus therefore encourages us to live the life of a disciple, rather than engaging in ‘end times speculation’, in line with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and what we find in the rest of the New Testament. In practice, most Christians in history have met their Lord and judge at the end of their earthly lives, so the promise of Jesus’ coming has always had existential rather than chronological significance. But this sense of hope and expectation should shape all of our life and our prayer, as we petition God our Father that ‘your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…’

(The picture of two men in a field of wheat ready for harvest seemed particularly appropriate. Jesus uses the language of harvest both about those entering the kingdom now as they come to faith, for example in Matt 9.37 and parallels, as does Paul in Rom 1.13 and 1 Cor 9.10, and for the final judgement, for example in Matt 13.30. This latter image is also found in Rev 14.15)


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68 thoughts on “Should we want to be ‘left behind’ in Matt 24?”

  1. Thanks Ian, interesting thoughts as always.
    One phrase caught my attention: “In practice, most Christians in history have met their Lord and judge at the end of their earthly lives”.
    I know it’s tangential to the thrust of the piece, but it made me wonder who were the exceptions to the general rule!

    Reply
  2. “Life was filled with guns and war, and everyone was trampled on the floor, I wish we’d all been ready… and you’ve been left behind.” I admire Larry Norman’s prophetic concern to shake up nominal christian complacency but his theology might have been up the creek then? Even at the time I reacted against feeling so emotionally pressurised but so much else of what he did was so very refreshing.

    Reply
    • One thing we cannot do is minimise the somewhat ‘Jesus People’ message represented by Larry Norman (someone I do not at all admire), the Thief in the Night films, Gordon Jensen ‘Redemption Draweth Nigh’, Jimmy & Carol Owens ‘I Can’t Keep My Eyes off the Clouds’. Not only do these capture the immediacy, stratospheric intensity, and specific nature of the expectation one finds in Rev and Mark, but they also give due importance to the eschatological questions we all inevitably face and the uncertainty of timing too. Mostly, not even 1% due proportional importance is given to these. They are what makes the urgency of the gospel message, hell etc, fall into place and make sense. However much they may have been part of a California Jesus experience or Jesus ecstasty in origin, they are utterly accurate to the existential questions.

      Reply
      • Totally agree Christopher
        (and on Larry Norman who was a brilliant song writer but very complex man)

        Whilst I dont buy into the whole ‘left behind’ schematic, the pendulum has too far – we hear so little eschatology taught in church and much of it limp and lacking the crisis of the NT presentation. I hear more eschatological ethics influenced by the likes of Extinction Rebellion in Church than the Apostolic 2Pet3.

        Reply
        • Amen! The importance of life and death issues and of each person’s (soul’s) having only one earthly life can never be overstressed.

          The Jesus People got the immediacy and ultimate importance of all this. They can even classify as a genuine revival when one sees the born again & evangelical upsurge that happened in their wake. But I am more than ambivalent about them sociologically. Simple and wise Christians would have pointed out at the time something that to them would have seemed plain – that long hair etc can be a sign of indiscipline and flesh. When 17 to 20odd I had long hair and this certainly was a manifestation of my own indiscipline. Jesus People looked up to Larry Norman, Lonnie Frisbee, Arthur Blessitt.

          Reply
          • Indeed – just read a 3 volume autobiography of lonnie Frisbee which with proper needed editing could have been 1 volume – not sure what to make of it all but both morally indisciplined (to say the least) yet dynamically effective for a season in reaching a rebellious generation. I was impressed that Chuck Smith who founded the Calvary Chapels actually was praying for a hippee Christian to reach the California hippees n surfing crowd, and when he met Lonnie he employed him! amazing things happened – and a few years later Lonnie was instrumental in the Vineyard becoming charismatic.

            The Jesus freaks may have been a tad undisciplined and their Biblical eschatology a little unbalanced but they kept the main thing the main thing: sharing the gospel, preparing for Jesus’ return; and didnt confuse the gospel with veganism.

          • I was going to wonder if anyone had researched the ‘drop-out’ rate of the Jesus People but then thought ‘things that could have been better phrased’ and ‘don’t say 100%’.

            Whether B Graham, J Falwell, CFH Henry, Tyndale House, Fuller, R Reagan, P Robertson, C Colson etc etc should instead be credited with the 70s to 90s Evangelical Revival, or what portion of it is the work of the Jesus ‘freaks’. Michael L Brown would be one good example of a gloriously long-term saved hippie.

            On my analysis John Wimber’s Vineyard classifies as their inheritors for the 80s-90s, and illustrates again that Californian Christianity has its own great strengths and defects. Whereas Wimber’s musical sense (his first calling) as a composer was IMHO without defect.

  3. I’m not sure I agree with you on this, Ian.

    Don Carson seems to be open minded in his Expositor’s Bible Commentary: ‘It is neither clear nor particularly important whether “taken” means “taken in judgment” (cf. v.39, though the verb “took … away” differs from “taken” in vv. 40–41) or “taken to be gathered with the elect” (v. 31).’

    Robert H Mounce comes down firmly on the side you are promoting in his New International Biblical Commentary. ‘The man working in the field (v. 40) and the woman grinding meal (v. 41) will be taken away in judgment (not to safety; cf. parallel in v. 39 with those “taken away” by the flood: Knox says the flood “drowned them all”).

    You quote Dick France in your blog but in his Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew he says, ‘*Taken* is the same verb used, e.g. in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17; it implies to take someone to be with you, and therefore here points to the salvation rather than the destruction of the one “taken”.’

    My own hesitation with the interpretation favoured in your blog is the disparity between the situation of the people of Noah’s day (vv. 37–39) and that of the two men and the two women (vv. 40–41). It seems to me that we do not have to assume that both situations have to be interpreted the same way simply because of a similarity of language.

    However, it’s a great blog and very stimulating, so thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks Ian. Glad you found it interesting but wrong!

      David Haslam, a friend on FB, points out the antiquity of my reading: “the one was seized, the other was dismissed”.Thomas Haweis NT 1795.

      On Dick France, yes, he does read it the other way in his earlier commentary. In the longer one, he does also mention the earlier uses of paralambano. The question here is: what is the relation of the meaning here to the wider semantic range? After all, another important use of the word is ‘taking to oneself’ the meaning of someone’s teaching. And the verb for ‘left’ is aphiemi, which is commonly use for forgiveness of sins, so has strong overtones of salvation.

      I think the clue in France is that, in the TNTC, he emphasises the theme of judgement in both Noah and the parousia. The ‘rapture’ reading, or any reading that suggests that ‘taken’ signifies salvation, puts the register of the inference on salvation, whereas the whole point of this pericope is to be warned of coming judgement. That ties in with the repeated emphasis of ‘the day’ in Matthew, and the following parables, which are all focussed on judgement.

      And the structural parallel is ever so strong, and I find is clearer and stronger when the text is delivered aurally.

      Reply
  4. Hi Ian,

    I met you this past week at the IBR reception. I am the one who mentioned that I recently subscribed to your blog, if that helps.

    Thanks for this article. I’d like to make a few comments.

    I think you are disrupting the cohesiveness between what comes before v. 35 and what follows it. There are key cohesive ties that signal Jesus’s application in vv. 36ff that develop vv. 4–35, indicating a single parousia in view.

    1. Peri de does, to be sure, indicate a shift in topic but the context reveals that Jesus shifts from _discerning the season_ of his parousia (vv. 32–35) to _not discerning the day_ (v. 36). So Jesus gives the season for his parousia, but qualifies it with the statement that the exact day cannot be known.

    2. I think it is strained to construe that Jesus has two distinct parousias in mind, one in v. 27 and then one in vv. 37, 39. I think the dual questions in v. 3 should be constrained by the co-textual features rather, from what it seems, reading the narrative through the strictures of the questions.

    3. The cohesive flow of Jesus’s teaching contains two major sections. The first part, vv. 4–35, is characterized by _prophetic-narrative_, a sequential outline for what is going to happen before his parousia. The second part, verses 36–44ff, is characterized by _prophetic-exhortation_, giving illustrations, parables, and other devices, warning to be spiritually watchful. Thus, v. 36 (peri de) shifts to spiritual watchfulness. Thus, Jesus teaches, “this is what is going to happen” (vv. 4–35) and then “this is how you live in light of it” (vv. 36­–44).

    4. There is another reason why Jesus has the same parousia in view mentioned both in v. 27 and vv. 37, 39. The closest antecedent of “that day” in v. 36 can only be the parousia of Christ found in v. 27 (cf. vv. 30–31). The climax of Matt 24 is the coming of Christ portrayed in vv. 30–31 when the angels gather his elect. It just seems strained to force the antecedent of “that” to refer all the way back before verse 4, while an anaphoric reference is right there under our nose in the immediate context of vv. 27–34. (Incidentally, you mentioned “that day” in Matt 7:22 and, in this case, the antecedent is located in the previous verse).

    5. In reply to your paragraph, “The lack of any warning, so that people are taken unawares . . .” begs the question. The cohesive ties, as noted above, indicate rather that Jesus provides a host of warnings that will lead up to “that day.” The warnings and conditions signal to his disciples that they will discern the season, but is qualified that they will not know the exact day or hour; hence, the warnings from the similitudes and parables that those who lack discernment will be caught off guard when Jesus returns.

    6. The domestic and agricultural illustrations in vv. 40–41 (two men in the field and two women grinding grain) and the illustration of Noah in vv. 37–39 illustrate the great separation event in v. 31. I believe that the interpreter who fails to recognize that the illustrations in vv. 36–44 are linked to v. 31 misses Jesus’s purpose for invoking them in the first place—to highlight the great separation event between the righteous and the wicked.

    I might later make some comments on the other part of your post regarding the “left behind” question. But I first wanted to make a brief cohesive case that Jesus has a single parousia in mind. Thanks for your time, Ian, and for your helpful commentary.

    Regards,
    Alan

    Reply
    • Some interesting points. I look forward to Ian’s response!

      One question, how do you understand ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.’

      Peter

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      • Peter,

        I follow Brock Hollett’s interpretation on 24:34, someone who has written in response to preterism.

        The phrase “this generation” has a qualitative meaning and refers to the wicked generated offspring of the Serpent. It primarily describes a general wicked quality and character of unregenerate people. Generation is used of the godly also (think “regeneration,” “eternal generation of the Logos from the Father”, etc.). Its secondary quantitative meaning is a group of individuals alive during a limited time frame.

        Regards,
        Alan

        Reply
        • Thanks Alan.

          I have mixed, or should I say confused feelings about the correct understanding of Matthew and the equivalents in the other Gospels.

          The ‘generation’ sentence is the key I think – for those that hold it to mean the generation of the disciples, ie those to whom Jesus was speaking, inevitably have to understand most or all of what Jesus is talking about to refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 so that most of the events occur within 40 years, ie a generation. And this of course perfectly correlates with the destruction 37-40 years hence (depending of when you think Jesus’ ministry occurred, Ad 27-30 or AD 30-33).

          For those, like yourself, who believe ‘generation’ refers more generally to ‘wicked people’ then one can believe Jesus is referring to both the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and well beyond.

          My problem is, on rereading Matthew, I get the impression that although Jesus is partly referring to AD 70 (He must be as that is what initiates the teaching), He then goes beyond that to His return in judgement – I am not convinced that many of the ‘signs’ He gives can be understood in terms of AD 70, even if non-literally.

          BUT, I would tend to understand ‘generation’ with the first meaning, ie the generation of the first disciples. It seems to me that is how His disciples would have understood Him, and it is the most natural understanding of His words, particularly as at least initially He seems to be talking solely to them.

          So a quandary!

          Peter

          Reply
        • ‘The phrase “this generation” has a qualitative meaning and refers to the wicked generated offspring of the Serpent.’ I don’t think there are any lexical grounds for this at all.

          ‘This generation’ is, as elsewhere, a temporal reference. I think reading it any other way is straining to avoid the clear meaning of the phrase.

          Reply
    • Hi Alan. Nice to meet you at IBR, and thanks for the questions.

      1. ‘So Jesus gives the season for his parousia, but qualifies it with the statement that the exact day cannot be known.’ The problem with this understanding is that it ignores the fact that, prior to v 36, the only mention of Jesus parousia is in v 27, in which Jesus is explaining that these signs are *nothing to do with* the parousia, since that will come like lightning, which gives no warning.

      2. ‘I think it is strained to construe that Jesus has two distinct parousias in mind’. I don’t think he has two parousias in mind. All of the first half of the chapter builds to the ‘coming of the Son of Man [to the throne of the most high]’, his erchomenos, which is very clearly an allusion to Dan 7.13. English translations are highly misleading by not distinguishing between these two things, which are quite different from one another.

      3. ‘Thus, v. 36 (peri de) shifts to spiritual watchfulness. Thus, Jesus teaches, “this is what is going to happen” (vv. 4–35) and then “this is how you live in light of it” (vv. 36­–44).’ But that is not actually the case. There is plenty of exhortation prior to v 35, but it is exhortation to do different things, because it refers to different events.

      4. ‘The climax of Matt 24 is the coming of Christ portrayed in vv. 30–31 when the angels gather his elect.’ But the ‘coming of Christ’ here is not parousia. It is Dan 7.13 coming to the throne. You approach cannot explain why, in the first half, the disciples are exhorted to ‘look for the signs’ but in the second half they are told there will be no signs as the day will come ‘like a thief in the night’. Thieves do not give warning signs.

      5. ‘The warnings and conditions signal to his disciples that they will discern the season, but is qualified that they will not know the exact day or hour.’ That is not what the text says. It says we will have no idea when the parousia will come, in contradiction to the list of signs in the first half. In the NT ‘hour’ doesn’t mean ‘exact time’; it just means ‘time’.

      6. ‘to highlight the great separation event between the righteous and the wicked.’ I don’t disagree that an emphasis within judgement is on separation. But here’s the thing: as far as I can see, the theme of judgement and the separation of the righteous from the wicked is *totally absent* from the first half of the chapter! The emphasis there is on calamity and disaster, and the only thing you have to do to escape from that is to ‘flee’. From v 36 the focus completely shifts, and the issue now is the suddenness and separation of judgement.

      Thanks for the questions!

      Reply
  5. >All the things mentioned up to v 35 will happen in the lifetime of the disciples.<
    Clearly not.

    "See that no one leads you astray. … You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains." In other words, expect a considerable interval before 'all these things' take place – 'all these things' being the items enumerated after the interval. History bears Jesus out: the abomination of desolation has not yet occurred, we have not seen his glory like lightning flashing from east to west, the stars (asteroids) have not fallen from heaven, the elect have not been gathered from the four corners of the earth. None of these signs relate to the fall of Jerusalem, and none of them actually happened then. We are still waiting.

    In its context Matt 24:30 clearly refers to the parousia, not to his approaching the throne to receive the kingdom. Daniel 7 :13-14 describes (i) one coming with the clouds of heaven, and (ii) that person approaching (diffent word from 'come', both in the Aramaic and the Greek) the Ancient of Days and being given a kingdom. The first part refers to Matt 24:30 and Rev 1:7 and has still to happen; the second part refers to Rev 5:7-10, which has also still to happen. Whether his being given a kingdom can be construed as his coming as king (taking up his authority) is left ambiguous; the beginning of the kingdom is detailed in Dan 7:26-27.

    While it is true that by this interpretation (ii) will happen before (i), it is also true that Dan 7:13 will happen before Dan 7:11. Chapter 7 consists of multiple visions; it is not one chronological sequence.

    Matt 16:28 refers to Jesus's ascension to the right hand of his father. At that point, and still now, the kingdom of heaven has not yet become the kingdom of God on earth (Rev 11:15). I don't think the 'cloud' in Acts 1:9 can be equated with the 'clouds of heaven' (is 'of heaven' really redundant here?) in Dan 7:13, Matt 24:30 and Matt 26:64 (the Council do not witness Jesus's ascension). In context, one might reasonably take the clouds as those causing the sun to be darkened. In any case Acts 1:11 says that Jesus will come (same verb as in Matt 24:30) in the same manner as the disciples saw him go.

    Matt 24:36. 'That day and hour' clearly refers to the exact timing, not the broad timing about which Jesus was not ignorant. To imply that Jesus was not listening to the Father at this critical juncture and giving the disciples false information (his parousia being in fact much delayed and not witnessed by the generation listening to him), is contrary to John 8:28, 12:49 and 14:10 and certainly does not reflect a high Christology.

    Re the argument from Noah's Cataclysm that the righteous will be the ones left behind in Matt 24:40, I agree with Ian Macnair. The verb translated 'taken' (ESV) in v. 40 is para-lambanw, the prefix para- modifying the primary meaning of 'take' so as to mean 'take to oneself'. The verb translated 'swept away' (ESV) or 'taken away' (NIV) in v. 39, with reference to the Cataclysm, is airw, meaning 'take or carry away'. Paul points to the correct understanding in I Thes 4:17. Interestingly, 'clouds' are mentioned there too!

    Reply
    • Thanks Steven. On your points:

      ‘”All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” In other words, expect a considerable interval before ‘all these things’ take place’. But that is the opposite of what Jesus says! ‘All these things’ means all that he is talking about is merely the beginning of the new age.

      ‘the abomination of desolation has not yet occurred,’ the first generation of copyists appear to think it had, hence the addition to Mark and Matthew ‘Let the reader understand’.

      ‘we have not seen his glory like lightning flashing from east to west,’ No, because that is what the Parousia is like, and Jesus makes it clear that all ‘these’ things are NOT the parousia.

      ‘ the stars (asteroids) have not fallen from heaven,’ Except that in Acts 2.19–20 Peter *did* think that these cosmic, world-changing events has taken place. And as you know, in the ancient world ‘stars’ signified powers and rulers, as in Rev 1–3.

      ‘the elect have not been gathered from the four corners of the earth.’ Except that in the Gentile mission it was thought that this *had indeed* happened. Paul wanted to go to Tarshish to complete his preaching in fulfilment of Is 66.19 ‘And they shall declare my glory among the nations.’ And the language of people coming from every ‘tribe language people and nation’ from the ‘four corners’ is precisely how Rev 7 describes the gathering of God’s elect.

      ‘In its context Matt 24:30 clearly refers to the parousia, not to his approaching the throne to receive the kingdom.’ So how come the word ‘parousia’ is absent?

      I am not sure what version of the LXX you are reading, but mine says at Dan 7.13: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐπὶ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἤρχετο. The last word is from erchomai, so the same verb as we have in Matt 24.30. You seem to be arguing that Dan 7.13 is about Jesus’ parousia, not his ascension. If so, how come that happens in heaven rather than on earth, how do we make sense of both Mark 14.64 and Acts 7.56, along with the repeated NT emphasis that Jesus *now* has authority, and is seated at the right hand of the father, and has been given his kingdom?

      ‘While it is true that by this interpretation (ii) will happen before (i), it is also true that Dan 7:13 will happen before Dan 7:11. Chapter 7 consists of multiple visions; it is not one chronological sequence.’ OK—so you are now saying that, in order to support your reading of Matt 24, you need to chop up the narrative of Dan 7? On what grounds *in Dan 7* do you do that? It is not enough to say ‘because the diced pieces then support my reading of Matt 24’!

      ‘Matt 16:28 refers to Jesus’s ascension to the right hand of his father.’ So you are claiming that two almost identical phrases, here and in Matt 24, mean different things, even though they both clearly allude to the same verse in Dan 7.13? I struggle to find that convincing!

      ‘Matt 24:36. ‘That day and hour’ clearly refers to the exact timing, not the broad timing about which Jesus was not ignorant.’ Sorry, that is just special pleading. It is a modern imposition to think this indicates precision.

      ‘To imply that Jesus was not listening to the Father at this critical juncture and giving the disciples false information (his parousia being in fact much delayed and not witnessed by the generation listening to him), is contrary to John 8:28, 12:49 and 14:10 and certainly does not reflect a high Christology.’ Jesus is not saying that he is not listening; he is saying that he does not know. This is part of his self-limitation in the incarnation. Do you think Jesus new about quantum physics, but just decided not to tell the disciples?

      When Paul talks of meeting the Lord ‘in the air’ in 1 Thess 4.17, who do you think turns around? Jesus or us?

      Reply
      • I see ‘let the reader understand’ as Mark’s own gloss on Jesus.

        Matt, as often, reproduces Mark.

        Rev 13.18 I would see as parallel.

        Reply
      • Thanks for the detailed reply, Ian.

        There are two sets of ‘all these things’: the beginning of the birth pains (Matt 24:8) and the signs of the end (Matt 24:34). Each of the two phrases refers to the events described immediately before, viz. Matt 24:4-7 and Matt 24:9-33. A natural enough approach, surely.

        ‘Let the reader understand.’ We can only speculate who added the words: Matthew (my preference), Mark or some first-century copyist. The essential point is that it is drawing attention to a phrase in Daniel. Daniel speaks of two desecrations, the foretold ‘abomination of desolation’ committed by Antiochus IV (Dan 8:11-13, 11:32) and the still future ‘abomination of desolation’ of Dan 9:27. Jesus is saying that before he returns a second desecration will be committed similar to the one with which the Jews were familiar from history. The abomination is described in Rev 13:14-15.

        ‘… lightning flashing from east to west is not what the Parousia is like.’ Evidently we differ, but the straightforward reading of Matt 24:27 is that it describes a spectacular preternatural manifestation of the Messiah’s glory. All humanity will see it at the same time (Isa 40:5). To argue that ‘the coming’ of the Son of Man and the ‘arrival’ (parousia) are events widely separated in time seems to me forced.

        Peter’s citation of Acts 2:19-20 does not necessarily mean that he thought everything in the Joel passage had been fulfilled. He saw parallels between his time and the time prophesied (the pouring out of the Spirit, the darkening of the sun, salvation in the name of Yahweh/Jesus), but that does not mean that he believed – and expected, moreover, his hearer to agree – that there had also been ‘fire and columns of smoke’, visions, stars falling from heaven, and that the great Day of the Lord had now occurred. The Day of the Lord climaxes the wrath of God at the end of the present age (Rev 6:17, 16:14).

        In the ancient world ‘stars’ signified fixed stars, wandering stars and shooting stars. In Scripture they can be used metaphorically in the way you suggest, but one should assume a literal sense first (e.g. Gen 1:16), a metaphorical sense only if the literal sense is excluded. An asteroid falling is described explicitly in Rev 8:8 (= Joel’s ‘blood and fire’?). An angel is described in Rev 9:1. Asteroids disintegrating into meteorites are described in Rev 6:13 (Isa 34:4) and Rev 16:21 (a hail of stones each weighing 100 lb).

        I am not aware of any objective basis for equating the preaching of the gospel throughout the Empire with the gathering of the elect from the four corners of the earth. The phrase in question evokes the parable of the wheat and the tares (e.g. Matt 13:39-40). As a matter of fact, neither Paul alone nor the apostles collectively had preached in every town and city of the Empire, still less the barbarian world. Col 1:23 has always been problematic, but is recognised to be hyperbolic, like Rom 1:8. Hence the Church after Paul did not rest on its laurels, and even in the 20th century nations were hearing the gospel for the first time. As part of Rev 6-22, Rev 7 is a prophecy about the end of the age.

        Matt 24:30. I was drawing the contrast between Christ’s approaching the throne in *heaven* to receive the kingdom (‘heaven’ stressed in order to answer the question in your next para) and his later return to earth (coming and arrival seen as essentially one for this purpose).

        Dan 7:13 LXX. The second part (ESV: he came to the Ancient of Days) refers to his receiving the kingdom. The first part (ESV: with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man) refers to his coming to earth with power and great glory. As I indicated, the verb ‘come’ in the second part is different from that in the first. We don’t disagree that the first part relates to Matt 24:30. I disagree only with your interpreting the whole of Dan 7:13 as referring to Jesus’ victorious ascent to the right hand of the Father. Jesus has *authority* now, but he does not reign on earth now. That should be clear to everyone.

        ‘On what grounds in Dan 7 do you chop up the narrative in Dan 7?’ The chapter itself refers to visions plural (Dan 7:1, 7:7, 7:13). I doubt whether anyone takes the narrative as a single chronological sequence. Dan 7:10 has parallels with Rev 20:12, which takes place in Revelation after the beast is killed (Rev 19:20); in Daniel he is not killed until Dan 7:11.

        Matt 16:27 and Matt 24:30 refer to Christ’s coming in glory at the end of the age, Matt 16:28 to the Ascension. The phrases in question are not almost identical. Your argument is that Daniel 7:13 says almost the same thing twice, and Jesus in Matt 16 refers to the same event twice. I struggle to find that convincing, and Rev 1:7, as of AD 95/96, expressly refers to the later event as yet to come.

        Jesus wishes us to be clear about what to expect before he comes (cf. the number of times he warned the house of Judah before judgement in 586 BC came, and cf. Amos 3:7). That is the point of Matt 24:33. “When you see all these things, you will know that he is at the very gates.” The generation that sees the (re-)budding of the fig tree (i.e. the state of Israel) will not pass away before he comes back. Alas, similar to your defence that Peter and Paul were saying things that were not factually true though they might have believed them to be true, you are not simply saying that Jesus did not know when he was returning. Had that been the case, he should have said so rather than misleading his disciples and all subsequent generations with indirection, making out that he did know and giving detailed signs to look out for. The issue is not whether, as a man, he knew everything there was to know about the universe, but whether he was truthful in the things he did choose to speak about as one having divine authority.

        Re I Thes 4:17, I’m not sure I get your point, but the Lord descends and, along with the dead, we rise.

        Reply
        • On further reflection re Dan 7:13, I think I would prefer to see the second part as relating not to Rev 5 but to Christ, having come with clouds of heaven for his bride, returning to his father. Thus taking the point that the second part appears to follow the first – I can’t argue for a natural, sequential reading of Matthew 24 but then not to do so here.

          Reply
        • Thanks for the response. I don’t really understand an approach to the text which can claim that two parts of one verse (Dan 7.13) describes two completely different events, aeons apart. I just find it such a strange way to read texts.

          I would agree with you that the abomination in Dan 7 could relate to Rev 13. But of course that is about Roman rule in Asia, as John’s readers experience it, since Rev 12 is about the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.

          I think there are clearly some places where you haven’t understood what I am saying. You quote me as saying ‘‘… lightning flashing from east to west is not what the Parousia is like.’ But if you read my comment, I say the opposite. That *is* what the parousia is like, but that is *not* what the first half of the chapter, with all its signs, is describing. Jesus is contrasting the two.

          I don’t really know how to progress this, since we appear to have such different assumptions about what texts mean.

          For me, the bottom line is this: Jesus said ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened’. You seem to think that ‘all these things’ includes the parousia. ‘This generation’ refers to the people that Jesus is talking to.

          So how come Jesus was wrong in this, and Matthew records him as being wrong, since that generation has indeed passed away and the parousia has not happened?

          Reply
          • It is not my view that Dan 7:13 describes events aeons apart, so unfortunately you have not understood what I am saying (and vice versa – see below). His coming on the clouds of heaven is his appearing at the end of the age to gather his own (as per Matt 24:28-31). He then returns to heaven with his bride, to the presence of the Ancient of Days, until the wrath is past. Then he returns to Jerusalem to exercise his dominion over all peoples.

            >I would agree with you that the abomination in Dan 7 could relate to Rev 13. But of course that is about Roman rule in Asia, as John’s readers experience it, since Rev 12 is about the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.You quote me as saying ‘‘… lightning flashing from east to west is not what the Parousia is like.’ But if you read my comment, I say the opposite.<
            Agreed, and my apologies. Your comment went on to say, “Jesus makes it clear that all ‘these’ things are NOT the parousia.” The phrase ‘all these things’ occurs twice in the passage (Matt 24:8 and 24:33) and serves to divide the passage into two parts (vv. 4-8, 9-25). I took you to be referring to the second occurrence of the phrase. The second part foretells: (i) the climax of hatred and persecution near the end, the abomination of desolation near the end, and the appearance of his glory at his parousia, (ii) celestial portents as discussed, also associated scripturally with the end, and (iii) his coming on the clouds of heaven with great glory (IMO = v. 27) and the gathering of his elect. If you were referring to the second ‘all these things’, then these things (i–iii) all refer to events just before or at his coming/parousia. It therefore follows, in my mind anyway, that ‘this generation’ in v. 34 is the generation that sees the fig tree (= Israel) again putting forth leaves, since in Matt 24:32-34 Jesus is simply indicating when ‘all these things’ will take place in relation to Israel’s political history and thereby completing his answer to the question, ‘What will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the close of the age?’

            Your final comment clarifies the nub of our differences concerning how to read texts. As explained already, I take ‘these’ to refer to what has been described in the passage immediately preceding, since this is how demonstrative pronouns/adjectives work. The other adjective at issue is the ‘this’ in ‘this generation’ (v. 34). You take the phrase to refer to the people Jesus was talking to – a tenable interpretation in isolation but not, I submit, in context. It is at odds, furthermore, with the fact that 2000 years have passed since he spoke on the question and with his own warning that the interval between the first and second advent would be like a nobleman going to a far country and staying there a long time (Luke 20:9). In Matt 24:48 and 25:5 he gives other hints that his return would seem ‘delayed’. As you say, the interpretation leads to the view that Jesus was wrong, since his audience have indeed passed away and the parousia has not happened. That consequence itself should give one cause to reconsider.

          • Hang on! ‘The other adjective at issue is the ‘this’ in ‘this generation’ (v. 34). You take the phrase to refer to the people Jesus was talking to – a tenable interpretation in isolation but not, I submit, in context. It is at odds, furthermore, with the fact that 2000 years have passed since he spoke on the question’

            So you are saying that we must determine the meaning of the words so that it fits your timetable of events. So where do you get your timetable of events?!

            If we don’t understand what will happen by reading what Jesus actually says, I think we are lost!

            You seem to have decided what Jesus *must* have meant according to your scheme, and then decided that the words *must* mean that—against all the evidence! ‘This generation’ means…the generation Jesus was speaking to. That is what ‘this’ means!

          • > ‘This generation’ means…the generation Jesus was speaking to. <

            I've already addressed the, to my mind fatal, problems arising from this understanding of the phrase in Matt 24:34.

            The place where 'this generation' does mean that which Jesus was speaking to is Matt 23:36, where we again encounter the phrase 'all these things'. But the events here are not the end-of-the-age events set out in Matt 24:9-31 but the quite different ones of Matt 23:34-35.

            It seems clear to me – notwithstanding your disdainful efforts to characterise my reading of texts as peculiar – that Matthew is using the phrase to mark three distinct periods: (i) AD 30-70 (Matt 23:34-35), (ii) Post AD 70 to the beginning of the birth pangs (Matt 24:5-8), and (iii) the signs of the close of the age (Matt 24:9-31).

  6. Hi Ian,

    Here are my comments in response to your section concerning the question of whether the righteous or the wicked are left behind. (Later this week, I will write up a response to your last section on what it means to watch and be ready for his return).

    I view the evidence as conveying that it is the righteous who are taken, while the wicked are left behind (and for the record I am not pretribulational).

    1. The domestic and agricultural illustrations in vv. 40–41 (two men in the field and two women grinding grain) parallel the Noahic illustration. Verses 40–41 are not intended to illustrate the Noahic analogy. Rather, vv. 40–41 are intended to illustrate the great separation event depicted in Matt 24:31. In fact, _all_ of the similitudes and parables link back to the separation parousia event in v. 31 in order to amplify the warning to be ready.

    Who is “taken” in the great separation event? Matthew 24:31 states that it is the righteous (elect) who are taken (gathered) at the inception of the parousia, not the wicked. While Jesus describes the narrative from vv. 4–31, he follows up with illustrations to invoke readiness for that day.

    2. The “wicked are taken” interpretation breaks the parallelism of the illustrations. Noah’s family is described as being delivered first (“the day when Noah entered the ark,” v. 38), while judgment upon the ungodly is described second (“the flood came and swept them all away,” v. 39). Thus, to preserve the agricultural parallel, a man in the field and a woman grinding at the mill should be construed as being taken for deliverance, while the other man in the field and other woman grinding at the mill are left for judgment. To read it the other way, breaks the parallelism with the Noahic illustration, where both link back to _why_ they are being invoked for the readers—to illustrate that it is the elect being taken in v. 31 and to be ready for his return.

    3. Some translations render the action of the flood illustration in v. 39 as, “the flood came and took them [the wicked] all away.” The rendering “took” is unfortunate because unsuspecting readers who may not know the underlying Greek may assume it is the same “taken” used in vv. 40–41. These are two different Greek terms behind the English, which contain nearly opposite meanings. The English Standard Version recognizes this and accordingly replaces “took” with “swept away”: “and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:39 ESV). The Greek term in v. 39 is airō, which, in this particular context of the judgment-flood illustration carries the sense of “to take away, remove.” In contrast, the Greek term in vv. 40–41 is paralambanō, typically carrying the sense “to take into close association, take (to oneself), take with/along.” Some claim paralambanō does not always carry this intimate sense of taking in a positive sense. This is true, but misleading. Of the 49 times this term is used in the New Testament, it is used three times negatively (Matt 27:27, John 19:16, Acts 23:18). This rare negative sense is found in a specific narrow context of a prisoner being handed over to the jurisdiction of soldiers, a context not relevant to our parousia illustration.

    4. As mentioned above, vv. 40–41 contain the term paralambanō for “taken,” which conveys a positive receiving. This receiving is contrasted with the one who is “left.” The Greek term behind “left” is aphiēmi, which here carries the sense of “to move away, with the implication of causing a separation, leave, depart from.” Thus there is a Greek positive term for “taken” that is contrasted with a Greek negative term for “left.” Therefore, the notion of one who is “left” is more in keeping with the idea of separation and judgment rather than of deliverance/taken. Not surprisingly, just a few days later after Jesus gave his Olivet Discourse, he used the term paralambanō to reassure his disciples that when he returned he would take them to be with him: “And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take [paralambanō] you to be with me, so that where I am [heaven] you may be too” (John 14:3).

    Both of these teachings then are found in the same context (Christ’s return), same audience (his disciples), and same terminology (paralambanō).

    5. In the same parousia context, Jesus provides another illustration for being prepared for his coming (Matt 25:1–13). The five wise virgins who were prepared are _taken to be with the bridegroom_; the five foolish ones who were not prepared are _left out_. Therefore, the parable of the ten virgins is consistent with vv. 37–41 and, by extension, consistent with the elect being taken in v. 31.

    6. Luke gives an account of the illustrations describing Jesus’s coming: “’I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.’ Then the disciples said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He replied to them, “Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:34–37). The last statement containing the disciples’ question of “Where, Lord?” is insightful, because Jesus responds that dead bodies attract vultures, a judgment imagery representing the ungodly, not the righteous. Thus this comports better with those who are “left” for judgment than it does with those who are taken for deliverance.

    In summary, when the interpreter recognizes that the illustrations in vv. 36–44 link back to the separation parousia event in v. 31, it illuminates the meaning that the righteous will be taken (delivered) and the wicked left behind (judged). For Matthew, “taken” is a positive action and “left” is a negative action.

    I hope this helps. I am receptive to feedback, clarification, or, as my high school teacher would say, snide remarks!

    Regards,
    Alan

    Reply
    • ‘Verses 40–41 are not intended to illustrate the Noahic analogy.’ On what grounds do you claim that?

      ‘Matthew 24:31 states that it is the righteous (elect) who are taken (gathered) at the inception of the parousia, not the wicked.’ Except that Matt 24.31 is not about the parousia. The word is not mentioned. That is the whole point of the change in focus at 24.36 ‘peri de…’

      ‘Noah’s family is described as being delivered first (“the day when Noah entered the ark,” v. 38), while judgment upon the ungodly is described second (“the flood came and swept them all away,” v. 39).’ Except there is no parallel of language here

      ‘Thus there is a Greek positive term for “taken” that is contrasted with a Greek negative term for “left.”’ That’s not really true. aphiemi is also commonly use for forgiveness of sins, so it does have some positive connotations.

      ‘Both of these teachings then are found in the same context (Christ’s return), same audience (his disciples), and same terminology (paralambanō).’ Sorry you are wrong here on several counts. The events of Matt 24.30 do not mention the parousia, but the Dan 7.13 coming of the son of man to the ancient of days; and the gathering of the elect in Matt 24.31 uses a quite different word episunago. If you were right, why isn’t the same term found here? (I don’t disagree that paralambano *can* have positive connotations, but it can also mean ‘take on information’. Not every meaning of a word is present in every use.)

      ‘In summary, when the interpreter recognizes that the illustrations in vv. 36–44 link back to the separation parousia event in v. 31,…’ Except that parousia is just NOT MENTIONED in v 31!!

      Reply
  7. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t referred to the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and his belief that the “redeemed” will be happy to look down with joy at the suffering of those ‘sent’ to hell!
    How do you square the words of Paul in Colossians 1 where the word ‘all’ is used several times in relation to being reconciled to God through the cross?

    Reply
    • I’m not sure there is much reason to distinguish sharply between the timing of Jerusalem’s destruction and the timing of the son of man’s coming. The desolation of Jerusalem is “cut short,” almost certainly by the son of man. And “immediately after” the suffering of Jerusalem the son of man will come. Jesus then binds both events together (Jerusalem’s fall and the coming of the son of man) with the statement in verse 34. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” “All these things” surely refers to everything spoken prior.

      Reply
      • “See that no one leads you astray. … You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” In other words, expect a considerable interval before ‘all these things’ take place – ‘all these things’ being the items enumerated after the interval. History bears Jesus out: the abomination of desolation has not yet occurred, we have not seen his glory like lightning flashing from east to west, the stars (asteroids) have not fallen from heaven, the elect have not been gathered from the four corners of the earth. None of these signs relate to the fall of Jerusalem, and none of them actually happened then. We are still waiting.

        Reply
    • Charles Foster’s recent article about Iwerne is extremely helpful at analysing the connections between conservative evangelical views about hell and a darker side of humanity. Worth reading all of it but here is a sample:

      “The theology was banal, stern, and cruel – a set of suffocatingly simple propositions held with steely eyed zeal. Its insistence on penal substitution and nothing but penal substitution embodied and tacitly encouraged the notion that ultimate good depended on violence. Without penal substitution, John Smyth would have had no thrashing shed in his back garden.

      We loved hell, and needed it. We were glad that it was well populated – particularly by people who hadn’t been to major public schools – because that emphasised our status as members of an exclusive club of the redeemed. If hell hadn’t existed, or had been empty, we wouldn’t have felt special. We were elected – socially and theologically – and proud of it: if everyone were elected, it would make a nonsense of election.”

      Reply
      • Andrew – the powerful and tragic article by Charles Foster notwithstanding, I suspect the majority of sexual predators and sadists do not believe in hell or judgement or penal substitution. Equally the vast majority of the church for the vast majority of its existence has believed in hell and some form of substitutionary atonement, and has not practised such perversions – in which case, the case you are trying to make evaporates.

        Reply
        • Sadly Simon I suspect most of what you say is open to debate and it fails to give due attention to the tragedy that Charles Foster describes. He is also describing one of the major factors in the decline of the Church of England during my lifetime.

          Reply
          • Andrew,

            The evangelical part of the Church of England, along with the traditional catholic part, has been declining less quickly that the broad/liberal parts (see the chart from Peter Brierley’s research in Ian’s 23rd Oct post). I’m unclear as to why the steep decline of the broad/liberal part has been caused by what has been going on in conservative evangelicalism.

          • David: I think the numbers from Brierley etc are helpful but don’t tell the whole story. I think there is a steep decline in the broad/liberal tradition precisely because that constituency have given up on church because it has become so toxic and irrevelant in many ways. The large rise of spirituality has come from the broad/liberal tradition who no longer go to church.

            The conservative evangelical and traditional catholic constituencies are both tiny. A look at the Society of St Wilfred and Hilda website shows you just where the trad Catholics are. Some dioceses don’t even have con evo churches at all.
            Truro, for example, had one (Fowey) but it recently left the C of E.

            Add to that the fact that cathedrals are growing – and those represent the broad/liberal tradition very solidly.

            The reason Iwerne etc have cause decline everywhere is not so much to do with their tradition but because they have caused a lack of trust. Charles Foster’s profound article shows exactly why.

          • I still don’t get it. If the conevo constituency is ‘tiny’, then how has it had this toxicity and lack of trust which you assert? Decline has been the case for many decades. It cannot be the publicity surrounding John Smyth which emerged in recent years which has created the problem. In the 1990’s, how did the conevos affect a rural parish or an ordinary middle of the road church in a suburb to cause those attending to cease. I suspect that few of the congregation would know what an evangelical was.

            Peter Brierley’s numbers are not for conevos but evangelicals more broadly, and the traditionalists I presume are broader than ‘The Society’. Why is it that these constituencies – perhaps closer to the conevos – have not been affected so much as the broad/liberal by this toxicity and lack of trust provoked the tiny group of conevos?

            I’m not convinced. It seems to me that one possibility which unites the evangelicals and traditionalists is a seriousness about their Christianity. Perhaps it is this seriousness that opens the door a crack to (the few) abusers to exploit others. The traditionalists have had their own abuse issues, e.g. Peter Ball.

            But that seriousness is warranted if the core message being spoken by Jesus in the passage in question here is right. Judgement is coming.

          • If those evangelicals and traditionalists are so serious about Christianity why have they not reversed the steep decline you observe? What have they been doing all these decades? It’s hardly a very effective witness if they are so serious is it?

          • So under your scenario they get no plaudits for holding up their numbers better than others, but also get all the blame for any decline, even though that decline is largely ‘done’ by others. Meanwhile those others don’t have to do any work in growing their churches but can still scapegoat those who do work.

            Any takers?

          • But the con evos and trad catholic numbers are not holding up are they? As I’ve pointed out, some dioceses have neither of those constituencies. It’s the liberal or open evangelicals who are by and large holding up or growing.

            But my question still remains. If those two small constituencies take things so seriously, why haven’t they been more effective?

          • The liberals are holding up least well, or do you mean “liberal evangelical” which is a term I have not heard? Perhaps you mean “charismatic evangelical”. That part of the ‘evangelical’ division is certainly doing its bit to expand rather than contract. It is the charismatics who are doing opening closed churches, and stopping others from closing, although the conservatives are not idle in this. There is a church near me which was closed for years which has recently been reopened with a group from a conevo parish nearer the centre of the city. Friends for whom it is their local church have moved there and it seems to be going well.

            When I said ‘serious’ I was more thinking about the individual taking their faith seriously, for instance, in terms of spiritual practice, piety and moral behaviour. It is that concern which enables an abuser to say “you are a failure, you should be chastised.”

            However, it is true that in the broad evangelical camp there is a general seriousness about spreading the Good News of Jesus. Imperfect as they are, ‘Alpha’ and ‘Christianity Explored’ are promoted and seem to be used by God in his grace to draw people into the kingdom. Churches are being reopened, and even non-traditional spaces being converted for ‘church’.

            Perhaps the most significant factor is that evangelical constituency is, shall we say, the least bad at reaching young adults. If you are in your 20’s and go to church, you probably live in London, and a few large churches account for many.

            Yes, all parts of the Church of England are exhibiting decline. There are probably various cultural and social factors at play here. One is that joining in things like clubs and societies is decreasing generally.

            Andrew, if you are going to claim that the cause of the decline of the Church of England is rooted in the theology and practice of groups like Iwerne, particular in the majority of the church which has little or no exposure to that, then you need to give some proper evidence for this assertion.

            For instance, the figures are clear that there has been a significant decline from 1990 to 2000. What events, specific teaching etc. etc. from Iwerne during that period or previously can be reasonably be said to have had a ‘major’ effect on the broad/liberal church members such that they cease attending their church even though that church did not espouse this teaching etc.? Maybe some articles or letters from the Church Times might illuminate your thesis?

            Your citing the diocese of Truro as having little or no conevo presence might suggest one line of inquiry. What correlation is there between the proportion of churches identifiable as different types with the rate of growth/decline? If your assertion holds, then the most rapidly declining dioceses will be the ones with the most conevos. (Truro does not seem to be one which is growing.)

          • Good stuff. (On a subsidiary point, liberal evangelicals used to be quite a significant constituency. Think, say, Ridley Hall of the 1930s; Bryan Green; Max Warren.)

          • David: I confess I don’t entirely follow your line of enquiry but let me try to respond.

            Firstly, I don’t think it’s worth putting too much emphasis on what is going on with the Con Evo or Trad Cath constituencies. I think they are a very small part of the C of E and although not without influence, I think that influence is small. Numerically I think both have struggled because of the decision to ordain women as bishops – which has split the evangelical and catholic constituencies.

            Secondly I think the simplistic theologies that Iwerne and the like espoused created a particular anti intellectual approach. We saw it in the backlash first against John Robinson, and then David Jenkins with others in between.

            Then came George Carey with his decade of evangelism. I think things had been going better under Runcie and the Faith in the City outcomes, but all that was shelved under George. Decade of Evangelism was anything but. The cof e shrank more and more.

            Charles Foster analyses it so well:

            “The theology chimed perfectly with our politics, our sociology, and the grounds of our self-esteem. We were sheep, and delighted that there were goats. And we never, ever, read the rest of that parable. If someone was hungry, we had better, more urgent, and more eternally significant things to do than feed him. If someone was a stranger, we wouldn’t dream of taking him in: he might not have gone to a strategically significant school. If someone was in prison – well, that was the sort of thing you expected from the lower orders, not from us, and our time would be better spent evangelising stockbrokers at the Varsity Match than visiting him. And as for the Sermon on the Mount? An embarrassment, to be spiritualized into impotence. Blessed are the sleek. Blessed are those who earn. When I should have been handing out soup and blankets at a homeless shelter I was listening to fulminations about the Social Gospel (always capitalized, and apparently more deadly than rabies). Not only can one serve God and Mammon, one should: just ask the banker-prophets filling the pews at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

            Humans were denigrated: they were wholly fallen. They were therefore wholly straightforward – and their needs could thus be met by childishly simple theological formulae. Any books that pretended that there was much in humans to explore or describe were suspect. Shakespeare should have put down his pen and picked up his Scripture Union notes. Humans were made in God’s image, and since God was easy to summarise and explain, so were humans. God wasn’t the ground of being. He was a headmaster, and we liked it that way, since headmasters were one of the only things we really understood. Mystery and nuance were diabolical. To be moved by anything beautiful was unsound and effeminate. Beauty itself was a snare.”

            I’m out of time now…….. But more another time.

          • ‘Firstly, I don’t think it’s worth putting too much emphasis on what is going on with the Con Evo or Trad Cath constituencies.’ I think we all need to have a wider perspective.

            According to research on the stats, of Christians who are in church on a Sunday, only 25% are Anglican. 50% are RC, and the other 25% are non-conformist, which will largely be new churches. Most of those are ‘conservative’ theologically of one kind or another. And most of them are growing; currently FIEC nationally are growing quite fast, though they are still small; Trent Vineyard, the largest single church in Nottingham, have just started a third Sunday service, as have Cornerstone Evangelical, who have also planted a congregation in Beeston. The C of E has planted a new congregation in the city, which has grown to over 300 in just over a year. Almost all the students and young people attending church in Nottingham go to one of these.

            So, from a social and statistical point of view, all the evidence contradicts your view Andrew.

          • ” I think we all need to have a wider perspective.”

            That’s my point exactly. The wider perspective is that hardly anyone is going to church because it’s not a great place.

            As to Charles Foster’s interpretation of the sheep and goats – where on earth is he saying it *does* relate to social justice? I don’t think you are reading his article with open eyes and mind at all. Or maybe it’s touching too many raw nerves?

          • Charles says that ‘we’ (orthodox Christians) are the sheep, the ones that help the poor hungry, thirsty and so on i.e. it is about social activism. That is not a sustainable reading of the text; the ‘sheep’ are not believers, since believers will not be surprised, as they are, that they have been ministering to Jesus.

          • To be clear, I don’t think he is saying the parable is about social activism but you could always ask him.

            Salvation is not achieved by good works but by grace. But that grace will effect good works. So..the “message of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that God’s people will love others. Good works will result from our relationship to the Shepherd. Followers of Christ will treat others with kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ Himself. The unregenerate live in the opposite manner. While “goats” can indeed perform acts of kindness and charity, their hearts are not right with God, and their actions are not for the right purpose”

            As you have considered elsewhere Ian, you had previously misunderstood the parable.

          • No, he is not ‘touching a nerve’ at all. You seem to think that the only reason people get into discussion is to protect themselves, and score points off others.

            I might just think someone is mistaken because they don’t offer a rationale for their position. (I don’t even think I know who Charles Foster is).

          • Well, it is an interesting article, with a mixture of parody and insight.

            But what has it got to do with me? I never fitted the Iwerne mould, I detest authoritarianism, and I argue for the full ministry of women.

            More to the point, what’s it got to do with the proper reading of Matt 24?

          • Ian: you don’t seem very adept at following this argument so let me try again.
            David Matthews commented, in response to your post, on Nov 29 at 1029:
            “I’m surprised that someone hasn’t referred to the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and his belief that the “redeemed” will be happy to look down with joy at the suffering of those ‘sent’ to hell!”

            I responded to his comment on Dec 1 at 1346:

            “Charles Foster’s recent article about Iwerne is extremely helpful at analysing the connections between conservative evangelical views about hell and a darker side of humanity. Worth reading all of it but here is a sample:” etc….

            Nothing about abuse, or abusers. Everything about the “redeemed” being happy to look down with joy at the suffering of those “not redeemed” – which relates to Matthew 24 and David Matthews comment.

            It’s that easy.

          • Not really. The comment about Edwards has a pretty obscure connection with this passage (which nowhere mentions hell) and your article has little connection with the comment on Edwards.

          • Well we will have to disagree I’m afraid.
            Thank you – as always – for allowing disagreement on your site. It makes it far more interesting than most conservative blogs.

      • I am really trying hard to see how this teaching about the parousia relates to sexual predation.

        It couldn’t just be that you are obsessed with this subject and have to raise it at every point, regardless of its relevance…?

        Reply
        • Ian it’s really obvious if you read the article and the extraxt I posted. Nothing to do with sexual predators but everything to do with hell and judgement. Have another go.

          Reply
          • Well, your extract from the other text, focussing on the nature of hell, makes no connection with this text or my exegesis, neither of which mention hell.

            So I think my ‘obsession’ thesis has the most support!

          • Your obsession theory might have a tiny bit of traction if I had ever mentioned sexual predators before on this blog. I can’t recall that I have. So it’s hardly an obsession.
            With “hell” I was responding to another poster on Jonathan Edwards. With judgment – well the parousia and your exegesis refers to that.
            What seems more disturbing than any of this is the defence and support of Iwerne by Christopher Shell elsewhere and, by implication, by yourself here Ian. Not just odd, but deeply worrying.

          • hang on…someone commenting on my blog elsewhere has said something positive about Iwerne, so that must mean that I support abusers?

            What odd logic. If you could discuss the issues at hand, that would be great. If that’s not possible, could you please take the conversation somewhere else?

          • Actually the ‘odd logic’ is you saying I have an ‘obsession’ about a particular issue when I had not even mentioned it here or before and when the article I am referring to is not about that issue – but a particular theology which is pertinent to this thread. But if you had looked at the article and followed the argument you would have seen that.

  8. Thanks for tackling these difficult passages, Ian.

    I’ve been comparing comments on here and on the Facebook thread and find a number of points which are not clear (unless we are meant to accept the mystery of unclarity which I could do)!

    1) the place of v31 was not made clear (gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other). You have bracketed that in the pre-AD 70 part but it sounds more like the final harvesting when Christ returns.

    2) The gathering of the elect sounds similar to 1 Thess. 4:17 where the elect, dead and alive, meet the Lord in the air. This fits in with the idea of being taken in Matt. 24 :40-41.

    3) You seem to be saying that Jesus is returning to earth and those on earth are the ones left to welcome him as in Revelation 21:2. Facebook comments seem to imply that there has been no change to the earth. So the New Earth is just the old earth with moral change.

    4) 2 Peter 3:10-13 suggests that the New Earth is in fact a replacement earth and not the same one. This is also suggested in Rev. 21:1 where there is no more sea; and Rev 22:5 where there is no sun. This would tie in with 1 Cor 15:50-54 where the saints are instantly delivered from physical corruption and the spiritual body (reserved in Heaven for us) is surely designed for a new universe. We know this present universe is in corruption (increasing entropy; the sun eventually running out of fuel) so why would Christ return to this present earth?

    If we accept that this present universe is billions of years old, the timeline suggested in the above events is mind-bogglingly intriguing!

    Reply
    • ‘1) the place of v31 was not made clear (gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other). You have bracketed that in the pre-AD 70 part but it sounds more like the final harvesting when Christ returns.’ That’s because I am commenting on the lectionary reading, which starts at v 36!

      I address that in detail on the post on that passage:

      ‘This also makes sense of the final parts of our puzzle. The ‘trumpet’ is not the ‘last trump’ of 1 Cor 15.52 and 1 Thess 4.16, but a metaphor for the proclamation of the gospel which we read about in Acts, and the ‘gathering of the elect’ is the entry into God’s people of the Gentile believers. But what of the cosmic language: ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’? Note that this is to happen ‘immediately’ after the distress of those days. Well, these words from Isaiah 13.10, Isaiah 34.4 and Joel 2.31 are also quoted soon after—by Peter at Pentecost:

      In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2.17–21)
      Peter appears to understand what is going on in front of him in exactly the same words that Jesus uses in the first section of Matt 24—all happening within the life of that generation.’

      here: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-is-matthew-24-all-about/

      Your questions about the old/new earth don’t really relate to this passage…

      Reply
  9. Hi Ian,
    I always like an interesting and provocative interpretation, but I’m afraid I have too many disagreements with this one to even know where to begin – though I think you’ve highlighted one of the key problematic aspects of an a-millennialist framework. With no transition period (i.e. some form of millennial kingdom), everything must be accomplished at once, on ‘that day’ of his coming. ALL the wicked swept away, ALL the righteous transformed into resurrected beings, the New Heaven and New Earth replacing the present as a divine transformative event, with no process. That doesn’t square with so many other aspects of Scripture regarding continuity, process, renewal, restoration, healing. What do you do with Isaiah’s picture of the New Heaven and New Earth for example (65:20), where people live long lives but continue to die; the man/sinner who fails to reach 100 will be considered accursed, and people will bear children and have descendants (v23)? This doesn’t match the picture of the resurrected eternal life. So who are they?

    Revelation’s picture of God’s wrath poured out, even at its worst, never indicates that ALL humanity, or the whole earth will be destroyed (or as you say, ‘swept away’ – like in the days of Noah.) And are you then taking Noah’s flood as literally wiping out every human being on earth? Possible perhaps, but do you hold such a literal hermeneutical approach consistently for the whole genre of Gen 1-11? The expected/unexpected flood of Noah’s day is in some respects an ideal analogy for the anticipation/unknown-ness of the day of the Lord and Christ’s parousia, but there are major differences as well. ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’. They were not ‘changed’ in Noah’s day, merely saved through the catastrophe of flood, but sin continued and further salvation required. Christ’s parousia involves a transformation. For those who are not transformed, are they all immediately destroyed as your interpretation seems to indicate?

    And how can you hold consistently to such a strong differentiation in Jesus’ response in Matthew 24, where everything before v 35 refers to one thing and everything after refers to another? Too many questions to ponder with that, such as how do you interpret v.27 or 31 in the context of Jerusalem’s destruction?

    I’m not bothered about who’s left behind or not – that’s a bit of red herring with the rapture issue. But if you’re suggesting only believers will be ‘left behind’ to enter the New Heaven and New Earth, I think you’re interpreting the text from a presumptive a-millennial framework, which leads to conclusions that are very difficult to maintain in relation to numerous other Scriptures. (I hesitate to even ask what you then think Rev 20:7-9 refers to – unless you think it’s just a re-statement of the same thing that happened earlier in 16:16f – but then there’s no chronological progression in Revelation, just the same thing recycled in new words – also a problematic hermeneutical approach I believe.)

    Clearly this needs a different forum than brief written responses to even begin to delve into the complexities you raise. Nevertheless, thanks as always for leaping into places where angels fear to tread.

    P.S. Rosie suggested I ought to respond. Would be good to discuss eschatology in person sometime!

    Reply

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