Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Redemption's Arrival

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.  They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. – Matthew 24:30  (NET)

After speaking about the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, which is a heaven to earth movement of the Son of Man that is taken from the imagery on offer in the seventh chapter of Daniel and which is determinative for the mindset of a first century Jew, as the Son of Man goes before the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom (power and glory), Jesus says “And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet blast and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (24:31).  Because our attention has been called to Daniel’s seventh chapter, it would not be inappropriate to hear these words about the gathering of the elect amidst the falling echoes of the kingdom-of-God-laced words about the Son of Man found there in Daniel. 

Doing so, we reflect on words such as “While I was watching, that horn began to wage war against the holy ones,” who are God’s elect people, “and was defeating them, until the Ancient of Days arrived and judgment was rendered in favor of the holy ones of the Most High.  Then the time came for the holy ones to take possession of the kingdom” (Daniel 7:21-22).  It is not impossible to hear Jesus’ words about the gathering of the elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other, as an approximation of these words from Daniel, especially if Jesus is using veiled language to say that which He cannot overtly say because of the political ramifications of what would be properly construed as subversive messiah-speak (talk of kingship).  Likewise, since this judgment in favor of the holy ones occurs in conjunction with the report of the Son of Man’s actions in Daniel, why would this not be that to which Jesus is making reference here in Matthew (along with Mark and Luke)?  Indeed, it would seem incongruous to think that Jesus is referring to anything else or drawing any other connection. 

While Matthew uses language identical to Mark, Luke, though presenting the apocalyptic words of Jesus with marked differences, makes things a bit more obvious for his audience.  There we find, “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth nations will be in distress, anxious over the roaring of the sea and the surging waves.  People will be fainting from fear and from the expectation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man arriving in a cloud with power and great glory.  But when these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because you redemption is drawing near” (21:25-28).  This use of “redemption” by Luke is crucial.  Redemption, for a Jew, was equivalent to exodus.  When God delivered His people from the power of Egypt, granting them exodus, that was a redemption.  Any use of redemption would be rooted in thoughts of exodus.  Redemption is that for which is prayed in the ninth chapter of Daniel. 

When God brought the creation forth from its state of chaos, He was thought to have granted it an exodus, redeeming it from its own state of exile.  When a large contingent of the tribe of Judah was dragged off to Babylon in exile from their homeland, it was redemption for which they longed.  They looked for another exodus.  Israel, in Jesus’ day, for the most part, sought redemption from Rome--- hopeful that God would grant them another exodus, even though that exodus would not involve them leaving their land of promise.  A need for redemption, for exodus, implied conflict and oppression, and a situation from which God’s people needed to be delivered. 

Without going into details of the variety of situations to which Luke may have been referring, it is undeniable that the reference to Daniel, followed by mention of redemption, must be equated to the Danielic insistence that the elect holy ones of the Most High were gathered together (as Matthew and Mark have Jesus saying) to possess the kingdom, and to have a role in that kingdom that was being granted to the Son of Man.  We also make note of the fact that this mention of the coming to power of the Son of Man, with the gathering of the elect for redemption, takes place in concert with Jesus words concerning the fall of the Temple, which is the preface to all that Jesus has said to this point in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, the thirteenth chapter of mark, and the twenty-first chapter of Luke. 

With this said, Jesus speaks about a fig tree.  We do not need to go into any depth of detail here about the symbolism that may be at work here, though certainly the fact that there has previously been a fig tree that has figured in the Temple-related narratives of Matthew and Mark is called to mind.  This, however, would not be the case for Luke, as he makes no mention of Jesus’ words toward the fig tree and its withering away.  Regardless, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report this mention of the fig tree as part of Jesus’ discourse about the fall of the Temple.  We hear Jesus through Matthew as He says “Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also you, when you see all these things, know that He is near, right at the door” (24:32-33). 

What things?  Obviously, it is all the things that have been mentioned that will signal, for Matthew, the coming of Jesus (as the Son of Man) to the Ancient of Days and the end of the age (the end of the present age and the beginning of the age in which God rules through His Messiah).  That is, the “things” are messianic claims, wars, rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, earthquakes, the abomination of desolation, and so on.  These things are signals that “He is near, right at the door.”  These things, which are connected to the Daniel-contexted coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days are related to the fall of the Temple, for Jesus speaks of all these things while answering His disciples questions about how they could know that the Temple was about to fall, as Jesus has said it is going to do.

He, of course, is the Son of Man, and He is right at the door, ready to go before the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom.  When will this appearing before the Ancient of Days and the reception of a kingdom take place?  When the Temple falls.  That is the context, and we cannot allow ourselves to hear any of these words of Jesus in these three crucial chapters apart from that realization.  Even though this will happen, and even though most would consider the fall of the Temple to be a horrific and cataclysmic event equivalent to the sun, moon, and stars falling from the sky and the world being rocked from its foundations, signaling God’s judgment upon Israel, it is actually to be understood as the time in which God renders His judgment against those that do battle against His people, establishing His kingdom reign through the Son of Man.  We can see that Jesus here actually delivers a message of hopefulness.  Helpfully, Luke again renders Jesus’ words with slight differences, there reporting Him as saying “So also you, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near” (21:31).  

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