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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