Fifth Discourse: Jesus in Jerusalem – the First Part of the Week Controversy (Matthew 23-25)
Matthew 23 stands out in this narrative because of its strong denunciation of various groups of Jewish religious leaders, particularly scribes and Pharisees. The prophetic tradition of announcing woe or curses (cf. Deut. 27-28) upon the enemies of God and his people stands behind these seven pronouncements by Jesus. In chapters 21-22 Jesus has already indicated that the temple will be destroyed (in my view, his use of Jeremiah 7 material points unequivocally in this direction) and that God is re-constituting his people, based on the foundation that Jesus himself creates. The current Jewish religious leadership that rejects Jesus is being rejected by God. While Jesus may have hoped this strong language would have jolted the religious leaders to a repentant endorsement of him and his message, this does not happen. It is quite possible that Matthew intends the seven woes, which begin Jesus’ final discourse, to counter-balance the Beatitudes with which Jesus introduced the SM (5:1-12).
Matthew 23, I think, is part of the final extended discourse that Jesus gives in Matthew’s narrative. For the most part the material (apart from some “woes” paralleled in Luke 11) and elements about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is special to Matthew’s Gospel. It extends from chapter 23 to chapter 25. The first part is public and is addressed to the crowds and the disciples in the temple (23:1) and the second part is private and addressed to Jesus’ disciples as they leave the temple (24:1-3). A similar move is found in the parable discourse (13). Either we need to consider Matthew 23 a separate discourse and there are then 6 and not 5 discourses in this narrative or we need to integrate chapter 23 with the next two chapters and consider them as one discourse. Both Blomberg seems to argue for one continuous discourse, not two and Nolland argues that Matthew 23 prepares the way for the discourse in Matthew 24-25. If Matthew 23 is part of the longer discourse, then we begin with material generally special to Matthew; then Matthew 24:1-44 largely parallels Mark 13 and Luke 21; and then Matthew 24:45 – 25:46 is again constituted largely of material unique to Matthew.
In Matthew 23 Jesus uses language that is very harsh in his criticism of the various groups of Jewish leaders. Some have considered this language to be anti-Semitic, reflecting attitudes in the early Christian church and its attacks on Jewish groups that are persecuting them. However, there is nothing that Jesus is quoted as saying that we cannot parallel in other Jewish documents from this same general era, wherein one Jewish group is criticizing another Jewish group. In fact this kind of language is the language of intra-Jewish religious conflict. Examples from Qumran, from the Psalms of Solomon and from earlier prophetic literature all bear this out. The response of John the Baptist to the Jewish religious leaders (Matt. 3) similarly is harsh and we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Gospel records in this matter. So Jesus’ critique in Matthew 23 stands well within the bounds of known rhetoric used within intra-Jewish religious conflict.
This chapter can be analysed in the following way:
23:1-12 Warnings about the behaviour of the Jewish leaders
23:13-36 Warnings about the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders
23:37-39 Lament over Jerusalem
23:1-12 Warnings about the Behaviour of the Jewish Leaders
Jesus addresses the crowds and the disciples while still in the temple. Whether the Jewish religious leaders are still present is unclear. Jesus has been interacting with various groups of them throughout chapter 22. It would seem unreasonable to think that they suddenly left and paid no further attention to what Jesus might be saying. However, Jesus in his teaching does not address them, but rather Jews in general and his disciples specifically. I am sure Jesus expected the religious leaders to learn what he said.
He begins by acknowledging the expertise that the scribes and Pharisees have in interpreting the teachings of Moses (v. 2). They occupy the teaching positions (i.e., Moses’ seat) in the synagogues and help the people make sense of God’s revelation through Moses. To the degree that they teach the ways of Moses, Jesus commands the crowds and his followers to listen to them and obey them. However, he warns them not to follow their practices – “do not act in accordance with their works, for they speak and do not act” (v. 3). In 15:14 Jesus had named them “blind guides.” Yet in 5:18-19 Jesus had urged his disciples to do and keep what they taught in terms of the law.
In what ways do these religious leaders fail to be models of law-keeping? Perhaps the example Jesus gives in Matthew 15:3-9 is a primary case — they use one part of God’s law to negate or annul another. Similarly in the recent discussion about divorce (Matthew 19) we again see how the plain expectation of God in Genesis 2 is overturned by the allowance given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1. These are the ways that the Pharisees teach but do not keep the law.
But Jesus goes further. By their interpretations of the law they create heavy burdens and place them on the shoulders of people to obey. Yet, they make no attempt to help these same people carry the load – shift it around so it can be managed comfortably. So while they teach in essence what Moses required, they provide no help for the people to live righteously. This seems to contrast with Jesus’ claim in 11:27-29, where he says his load is easy and his burden light.
In vv. 5 – 7 Jesus lists specific kinds of religious activities that the Pharisees do – wearing the tepillin (small leather cases enclosing small fragments of the law and worn on the left hand and forehead (Ex.13:1-10; Deut. 6:4-9)) and long tassels to remind them of elements of the law (Num. 15:37-41). Does the description in Matt. 9:21 indicate that Jesus wore such a shawl? So they are intent on reminding themselves and others of the law, but what spiritual power or ability do they propose to enable a person to do these things? They “love” the seats of prestige in banquets and the synagogues. They “love” the special greetings of recognition and the term ‘Rabbi’. In all it seems there is an inordinate love of ostentation. Why this should be the case is unclear. Do they do this as a way of calling Israel to account, publicly reminding her of her covenant responsibilities and did this degenerate into something baser? So while they make these claims and demand this respect, in the end did it help Israel respond to God’s program? Mark summarizes many of these issues in 12:38-39. Of course, Jesus has addressed the issue of religious ostentation in Matthew 6.
Jesus seems to turn his attention directly to his disciples in vv. 8-12. Again the theme of greatness protrudes into the discussion – “the one who is greater shall be your servant. Whoever lifts himself up shall be humbled and whoever humbles himself shall be lifted up.” This was the same theme that Jesus emphasized in chapters 18-20. Apparently the use of titles such as ‘rabbi’ (i.e., my great one) or ‘father’ (used of the patriarchs) or ‘tutor’, led those given such titles to make inappropriate assumptions about their worth and similarly encouraged those who applied such titles to assume certain things about their roles and privileges. While Jesus is probably not condemning the appropriate recognition of people in their respective roles (i.e., calling a male parent ‘father’ is fine), he is warning about the inclination of human beings towards pride and egoism, fostered by a sense of elitism and entitlement.
Historically it is unclear when exactly the term ‘rabbi’ came to be used of teachers within Judaism. The evidence that does exist suggests this development was occurring coincidentally with Jesus’ ministry. We should note that the term “Rabbi” comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic meaning “great” (רב) and refers to someone who occupies a high and respected position. The term רבי means “my great one.” Within Jewish circles its use in educational contexts lent it the sense of ‘teacher’. In Matthew’s case the disciples never address Jesus as Rabbi, always as κύριε (8:25; 17:4; 20:33) in distinction from Mark’s Gospel. The exception is Judas during the betrayal scene calls Jesus hrabbi (ῥαββί 26:25, 49), but even here the other disciples used kurie (κύριε 26:22).
Jesus claims for himself the unique role of a disciple’s tutor; God alone is our Father; perhaps the “one who is teacher” is also Jesus. So the Messiah is the clear teacher/tutor of those who constitute his assembly. His followers should use the resources he provides to assist one another, not to assert themselves over others. In v. 12 who is the agent in the passive verbs “shall be humbled” and “shall be lifted up?” Is it God? If so then pursuit of greatness in God’s kingdom comes through self-humbling, paralleling statements made in chapter 18.
23:13-36 Warnings about the Hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders
Jesus has used this woe-form in 11:21ff. This is the language of curse or lament, usually used in the oracles of OT prophets to denounce foreign nations or cities and declare their coming misery at the hand of God. In 11:21ff Jesus had applied this form to Galilean cities. Now he applies it to the upper echelon of the Jewish religious establishment. Their actions, whether deliberately or unintentionally, have placed them in the serious situation of divine condemnation. Jesus laments their impending misery, weeping over Jerusalem. This series of woes contrasts with Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing in 5:1-12. The religious leaders have had all of the intervening time and engagement with Jesus to move from the situation of woe, into the context of blessing, but they refuse to do so.
In vv. 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 Jesus addresses “the scribes and the Pharisees” with these woes. In v. 16 he calls this group “blind guides.” His accusations are rather staggering:
- instead of making the way into the Kingdom clear and plain, they do not enter themselves and prevent others from entering (v. 13). They prevent Israel from fulfilling God’s program for her;
- they expend great efforts to convert a person to Judaism, but in so doing they prevent such a person from entering the Kingdom (v. 14);
- their casuistry leads people to break the law, not keep it (vv.16-22);
- they neglect the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness (vv. 23-24);
- they value ritual purity more than inner purity (vv. 25-26);
- they look righteous, but are unclean, like a whitewashed tomb (vv. 27-28);
- they reject and martyr God’s true witnesses (vv. 29-32).
His condemnation is sweeping. V. 36 may be the conclusion to all seven woes. Jesus prophecies that “all this will come upon this generation.” V. 33 asks “how shall you escape from the judgment of Gehenna?” The things they will do to “prophets, wisemen and scribes” parallel the things that Jesus prophecies will happen to the Messiah (“you will kill and crucify some of them and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and hunt from city to city” (v. 34)). This is what Paul himself was involved in prior to his conversion. Jesus emphasizes that the actions of this generation mirror the actions of prior Israelite generations. The implication is that if God judged and punished those previous generations of Jewish people for their sinful rejection of his words and representatives, will he not do it again if they reject His Messiah?
23:37-39 Lament Over Jerusalem
Jesus concludes his public discourse by a direct address to the city of Jerusalem. He enumerates her most serious ways of rebellion – executing the prophets and stoning the ones God sent to her (parable of the tenant farmers in 21:33-41) – and then shares his deep desire to protect “her children,” presumably from coming judgment. He grieves because they reject all of his overtures. He has uttered the judgment, but his heart breaks because he knows that none of it is necessary if they would only respond. His tender concern is compared to the action of a mother hen protecting her chicks (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 36:7). Note the play on words – “I wished” (v. 37), but “you did not wish” (v. 37).
His final pronouncement is desolation – “your house is left to you desolate.” The word of desolation is the same term Jeremiah uses to end his Temple Sermon (Jer. 7:34 “for the land will become desolate”). Why did Jesus pronounce the destruction of the temple?
- 39 raises many questions. It repeats terminology used when Jesus’ entered Jerusalem (21:9). Is it a statement by Jesus announcing his departure and return at a point when Jewish people will acknowledge him for who he is? Is this a return in judgment or a return in blessing? Does this statement provide hope for a turning of Jewish people to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, before he returns? Is his return dependent, in a sense, on this turning of Jewish people to Jesus?
Jesus’ Prophecy About Jerusalem and the Return of the Son of Man (Matthew 24-25)
At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus announces to his disciples clearly. “You see all these things, don’t you? Truly I say to you, ‘Stone upon stone which shall not be thrown down shall never be left here.’” The language is emphatic and precise. The double-negative in Greek adds to the negative sense. The temple will be destroyed and “all these things” associated with it! This declaration triggers two questions from the disciples:
- “When will these things happen?”
- “What will be the sign of your return and the end of the age?”
The structure of the Greek indicates that there are only two questions and not three. Apparently they understand these things to be connected. Perhaps 23:39 has led them to consider the Messiah’s return in relation to these events, i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem/Temple and the end of the age. Much of what Jesus says in response is designed to disconnect these two events, i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem/temple and the return of the Son of Man. They will happen, but one does not trigger the other, contrary to what they probably thought. Within the scope of these two chapters Jesus outlines several critical aspects of God’s future plans for Israel, for the world and for the messianic community. His discourse is twice the length of the parallel passage in Mark and most of this additional material is composed of parables. Perhaps we get an insight into Matthew’s focus by considering the themes of these unique materials.
We might analyze this part of the discourse in this way:
24:4-14 General outline of the time between the Messiah’s first and second coming. Concern about being deceived.
24:15-31 Review of this same period, but with focus on the destruction of the temple, periods of severe persecution and then the return of the Messiah.
24:32-35 Relationship of these events to the lifetime of the disciples and the return of the Messiah.
24:36-25:30 No one knows when the Messiah will return and so vigilance and preparedness are necessary:
Parable of the householder and thief 24:43-44
Parable of faithful and unfaithful servant 24:45-51
Parable of the ten bridesmaids 25:1-13
Parable of the talents 25:14-30
25:31-46 Scene of the Son of Man’s judgment
Let me make several general comments. As a matter of hermeneutical process, we must start first with the context of Matthew’s narrative and seek to make sense of this discourse within that setting, before referring to other texts to seek solution to unresolved issues. Second, we have to make sure that when we do refer to other texts that these texts are in fact referring to the same matters clearly. Thirdly, we need to take Jesus’ statement (24:36) seriously, namely, no one knows the hour. I think that Jesus is careful to help his disciples discern that the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem will not trigger the return of the Son of Man, as many might conclude. The interval between the two comings of the Messiah will probably be longer and more complex than any have previously understood. Fourthly, Jesus warns his followers against deception about these matters again and again. He must have known that this aspect of his message would be twisted and distorted to the detriment of his followers more than any other part of his message. Fifthly, he emphasizes the need to be prepared and vigilant.
Today many see the events in Matthew 24-25 as all past history or all future history. Turner suggests that some segments are dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem (past) and some are dealing with the end of the age (future). I tend to agree with Turner’s perspective because I think the two questions initially asked by the disciples establish the framework of reference for Jesus’ comments.
24:4-14 General outline of the time between the Messiah’s first and second coming. Concern about being deceived.
Jesus responds candidly to the questions posed by the disciples. However, the first thing he tells them is to watch “lest someone deceive you” (v.4). We are not told who such deceivers might be. Would this include the Jewish religious leaders (“blind guides”) that Jesus has just condemned in the previous chapter? V. 5 casts this as a future danger, however and Jesus is probably thinking more in terms of his messianic assembly as it emerges and develops. We know from Paul’s writings how careful he had to be about these matters. Speculation and error became rampant (cf. 2 Thess. 2), even to the point where forged letters were being produced and circulated in Paul’s name pretending to present his views of these matters, but in fact being false documents. Peter has to bring clarification also (2 Peter). Finally, John the Apostle, writes the Apocalypse in response, I am sure, to this kind of continued speculation. I think it is hard to underestimate the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple upon Jewish and Christian eschatological speculation.
People will claim to speak with the Messiah’s authority on these matters (v. 5) and in fact claim to be the Messiah, deceiving many. Jewish and Church history is replete with examples, many unfortunately, of this very thing. Jesus then notes that history will proceed – with wars, famines, earthquakes – which are just the “beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). They remind us of what is yet to come, but in themselves are not the end. Notice how Jesus treats specifically the issue of human conflicts – these things must happen and generate great fear, but “not yet is the end” (vv. 6-7). We know again how warfare stimulates speculation about the end times. Our own recent history in North America (World War I and II) can provide many examples of such ideas – sermons preached and books written.
Within history as well, believers will be handed over for persecution and execution. Hatred against Christians will flourish. Within the messianic community this persecution will cause some “to be offended” and they shall respond with animosity and hatred. “False prophets” shall emerge within the church and deceive many. Lawlessness shall increase and the spiritual fervour of many shall weaken – grow cold. Endurance to the end (end of life or end of the age or both?) is the critical factor for salvation. The end will not come until the whole world/Roman Empire are evangelized (v. 14), “as a witness to all the nations.” Is Jesus here challenging the power of the Empire, just as he did the “gates of Hades?”
So in this section Jesus gives us a sweeping view of the spiritual struggle that will be occurring during the normal course of history. It is a generic view. His mission will continue “until the end (τέλος) shall come.” Of course, we know from records that all of these different kinds of events occurred prior to 70 CE within the lifetime of some of the disciples.
24:15-31 Review of this same period, but with focus on the destruction of the temple, periods of severe persecution, and then the return of the Messiah.
I would suggest that in these verses Jesus focuses more specifically upon the Jewish context and what will happen to the Jewish nation within history. In this he answers their first question – “when will these things be?”, i.e., the casting down of the stones.
Jesus begins with a generic “whenever” (hotan ὅταν) (v.15). The “desolating sacrilege,” i.e., a sacrilege that causes desolation, seems to point to a specific event. Matthew incorporates a specific reference to Daniel’s prophecy as in some sense explaining what this means. “Let the reader understand,” Jesus warns. [Who are the readers? Jesus’ disciples or later Christians, who reflect upon Daniel’s text, or people who are reading Matthew’s Gospel?] Daniel’s prophecy has to be understood in the light of Jesus’ teaching, not the other way around. So what is this “desolating sacrilege?” Is it some action taken by the Romans, whether the attempt to place Caligula’s statue in the temple (something that failed because Caligula perished before it could be done), or the destruction of the temple by the Roman armies in AD 70? Neither of these events works very well. The first never happened and the second was the final act of a long grueling war and there is no way the inhabitants of Jerusalem could flee when this finally occurred. The “desolating sacrilege” seems to be an event linked to the temple, but separate from its destruction and indicating that this destruction or desolation is certain to occur and when it does it is the catalyst for this terrible destruction. While in 1 Maccabees 1:54 and 6:7 it refers to the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy Judaism by profaning the temple and sacrificing swine in the temple, we have no comparable sacrilegious action in the Roman-Jewish war, prior to the actual destruction of the temple, that would correspond.
I would suggest that Jesus borrows this term from the book of Daniel, but warns his followers not to think of it strictly in terms of Daniel’s prophecy and gives new content to it. The only sacrilegious event that occurred in Judea and which sealed the destruction of the temple within a Christian frame of reference is the crucifixion of the Messiah. It is this event that Jesus has just warned in chapter 23 will lead to the desolation of Jerusalem and its house – the killing of the prophets. The sacrilege, I would suggest, is the rejection by the Jewish religious leaders of God’s Messiah and their participation in his crucifixion. Is the “abomination that causes desolation” another passion prediction (cf. the parable of the tenant farmers in chapter 21:40-44).
If we understand the execution of Jesus Messiah as the abomination that causes desolation, then we understand why Jesus warns the inhabitants of Jerusalem to flee when they see it occurring. Some might argue that the language of vv. 16-20 suggests an event that will yet occur, but not immediately – it might even be winter. But I think this can be answered if we understand this event to be the trigger that initiates destruction, but that the actual destruction will only occur after some time. The abomination itself is the warning sign that the desolation is soon to occur. No interpretation of this expression is without difficulties. So we struggle to understand what Jesus meant.
A further difficulty occurs in vv. 21-22. “A great thlipsis (pressure, oppression, persecution)” will occur. This term defines the application of pressure to something or someone, i.e., difficulty, persecution. Just what is the precise nuance is unclear. The language Jesus uses indicates that its severity is quite unusual within human history. Further, only God’s intervention “shortens those days,” otherwise “no flesh would be saved.” “Flesh” is a term meaning human being. However, God intervenes “for the sake of the elect.” Who are these people? If you believe that this ‘thlipsis’ refers to a period of tribulation marking the end of the age, then the elect would be Christians. If, however, Jesus is referring to the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and Temple, then the elect might refer to the Jewish people. God acts to prevent them from being eliminated. To be consistent with my interpretation of the abomination that causes desolation I would interpret these verses in the light of destruction caused by the Jewish war and its devastation and the elect as a reference to the Jewish people. I am not in this proposed interpretation ruling out a final period of intense persecution prior to the Messiah’s return, but would not ground it on this passage.
Vv. 23-26 I would suggest relates to the destruction of Jerusalem/temple. Jesus again warns his followers not to be deceived by false messiahs and false prophets who will be active at that time, even if they claim to work great signs and wonders to deceive the Jewish people, i.e., the elect (just as they did in Jeremiah’s day). Jesus has given advanced warning to his followers not to be deceived, even if the ‘elect’ might be, i.e., the Jewish people. Rather, the return of the Messiah will be public and spectacular – like the flashing of lightening. The presence of the Messiah will be as clear and certain as the appearance of a carcass is to vultures. We know from Josephus’ writings that in the midst of the Roman-Jewish war various Jewish factions expected God to intervene to give them the victory. It is almost as if for some the provocation of the war was an attempt to force God’s hand.
Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the return of the Son of Man. A lot hinges on the interpretation of the initial word in v.29 – eutheōs (εὐθέως). Usually it is rendered as ‘immediately’, but I wonder whether it might mean ‘suddenly’. If it has this latter nuance, then Jesus would be saying that his return occurs after the events of 70 CE, but suddenly or unexpectedly, rather than immediately. I think this works better with the emphasis in the preceding verses and also Matthew’s focus on the need for vigilance.
The language Jesus uses here is borrowed from the OT. It is the apocalyptic language of cosmic upheaval. The changes that occur with the Son of Man’s return are absolutely stupendous, affecting the entire cosmos. It does not continue as it has. Perhaps there is also association with the demonic and satanic powers, that often were identified with heavenly bodies, and their defeat by the Messiah. What is the “sign of the Son of Man” (v. 30)? Should we read it as “the sign, i.e., the Son of Man himself?” Is it his coming on the clouds that is the sign? If it is not this, then Jesus gives us no hint as to what this sign may be. Rather, he focuses on the effect the appearance of the Son of Man has upon humanity in general. The tribes of the land (or earth) may refer to Israel – they are the tribes referred to previously in Matthew. Their mourning may be in repentance or may be a response of fear, discerning the judgment that is coming (cf. Rev. 1:7). Who are the elect in v. 31? Is it Israel, repentant and saved, or the church? If previous occurrences in the chapter refer to Israel, then we probably need to interpret these verses similarly. There is no specific mention of any rapture-like experience in these verses.
The interpretation I have presented is only one of several that are possible. Most would interpret this section of Jesus’ discourse as referring to the Temple’s destruction, but then see the material that follows in reference to a period of great tribulation just preceding the return of Jesus and the elect as being followers of Jesus. I think my proposal has the advantage of greater consistency within Matthew’s narrative structure and the immediate context, i.e., applying this passage to the future of Judaism and Israel, with the elect referring to the remnant of the Jewish people who will, after Jesus’ death and the destruction of the temple, in the future respond to Jesus as Messiah. The period of great ‘tribulation’ is linked with the destruction of the temple and the terrible devastation that the Jewish people experienced, not only in Palestine but in other parts of the Roman Empire as a result. Perhaps this resonates with Paul’s construction in Romans 11:26-28 where he affirms that “as far as election is concerned they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”
24:32-35 Relationship of these events in the lifetime of the disciples and the return of the Messiah.
Jesus concludes this first part of his discourse with a parable. Using the fig tree as an example, he indicates that when its leaves sprout people in Palestine know that it is summer. Similarly, when his disciples see these things happening, they will know “that it [the abomination that causes desolation or he, the Son of Man] is near at the doors.” Additionally he affirms that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things have happened” (v. 34). If Jesus by this statement is referring to the return of the Son of Man, then he was mistaken. Further, he contradicts what he says in v. 36ff, namely that no one knows. So it seems clear that this parable warns the disciples to take action when they see certain things happening, i.e., the abomination that causes desolation in place (Jesus’ execution), the destruction of the Temple, and the great pressure brought against the elect. He urges them to act as these signs unfold, lest they be caught up on the terrible events. Perhaps the clause “whenever you see” (v. 15) is picked up in v. 33 “whenever you see all these things you know….”
Alternatively, as others propose, perhaps Jesus is saying that the return of the Son of Man is near, i.e., imminent, but not necessarily happening immediately. All the events have happened that clear the way for the Son’s return. So it could happen at any time. All is ready. However, when it will occur is God’s decision.
24:36-25:30 No one knows when the Messiah will return and so vigilance and preparedness are necessary.
The last part of the discourse builds on the theme introduced in v. 36 – “Concerning that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the son, except the Father only.” We know the end is coming, but we do not know when. Four parables underscore this reality.
I think that the expression “that day” picks up a similar phrase in v. 29 “after the pressure of those days.” Jesus says that his followers know a lot. There is also a tremendous amount of false and deceptive teaching abroad that they are also aware of. They discern its falseness because such teaching claims to know when and where the Son of Man, the Messiah has returned. Jesus says that they cannot know this because only the Father knows it and he has not revealed this to anyone, not even the Son. In his incarnation Jesus was not omnipresent nor was he omniscient. There were limitations he accepted to his divine status when he assumed humanity – he emptied himself, to use Paul’s language (Phil 2:5-8). However, note the textual omission in many manuscripts of “nor the son.” This omission may be an attempt to rescue Jesus’ omniscience.
He emphasizes the sudden and unexpected nature of the Messiah’s return by comparing it to the flood in Noah’s day. Life continued normally “until the day Noah entered into the ark” (v. 38). The people in Noah’s day may have heard about his enterprise and even heard his story of what God was about to do, but it made no difference. They carried on as if nothing was going to change. “And they did not know until the flood came and took them all” (v. 39). The suddenness and unexpectedness of it all is the point. Jesus then makes the comparison – “Thus shall be also the return of the Son of Man” – and all its attended implications.
Jesus uses several different images to express the unexpectedness – two workers in the field and one is taken and the other left; two women grinding at the mill, and one is taken and the other left (vv. 40-41). Jesus concludes that believers then must “keep vigilant” because they are not sure when “your Lord comes” (v. 42). The language of “coming” picks up on the terminology of 24:30 and 23:39, perhaps. What does the use of the title “Lord” mean here?
What does Jesus emphasize here? Faithful stewardship? But the people are all engaged in the same activity. So how are they to be distinguished? The distinction has nothing to do with their activities, but rather with their allegiance to the Messiah – your Lord.
24:43-44 Parable of the householder and thief
This short parable expresses the dilemma of the householder as he seeks to secure his goods from the thief. He does not know when the thief will come. Since he failed to provide a guard during all watches of the night, his property became vulnerable to robbery. Christians should not be so ignorant. They know the Son of Man is coming, and their responsibility it to keep vigilant because he will come “at that hour they do not think” (v. 44).
What does vigilance look like for a believer? The following parables attempt to define it.
We must conclude that all attempts to define the time when the Son of Man will return to be futile and ill-judged. No one knows.
24:45-51 Parable of faithful and unfaithful servant
Jesus now defines “the faithful and wise slave.” His ‘master/lord’ has given him the task of providing nourishment for all of the household servants at the right time. The language of v. 46 intimates that the master had gone on a journey and left the slave to carry forward this responsibility. The slave does not know when the master will return, but keeps busy, obeying the master’s instructions and so when the master returns and discovers the slave has carried forward his instructions, the master rewards his obedience. He is ‘blessed’ by the master.
An alternative scenario is offered that demonstrated the kind of service that a wicked slave would offer. He would take calculating advantage of the absence of his Lord to abuse his power, mistreat his fellow slaves and use the resources of the household to hold drinking parties for his buddies, rather than feed his fellow slaves. When the master appears unexpectedly, judgment is swift and severe. Whether he is literally dismembered or merely “torn to shreds” through verbal scolding is unclear, but certainly his lot is cast with the hypocrites in the place of fearful punishment.
Vigilance is defined as faithful stewardship conducted in the sure knowledge that the master is returning and accountability will be given. Perhaps the servant of the household is a picture of Jewish religious leaders and then later Christian leaders and how they be caring for the Messiah’s people in his absence.
25:1-13 Parable of the ten bridesmaids
This is a parable unique to Matthew. Using the comparison of a wedding feast, as ten maids wait for the bridegroom to arrive in order to accompany the bride and groom to the groom’s home where the wedding feast would occur, Jesus now looks at the opposite scenario – the delay of the Son of Man’s return (v. 5 – chronizontos (χρονίζοντος)). He also marks the action of the five maids who take additional oil as ‘wise’ (phronimos (φρόνιμος), cf. 7:24; 24:45). The emphasis is upon the preparations or lack thereof of the respective groups of maids.
When the bridegroom finally arrives at midnight, the ten maids waken. Five of them have lamps that have failed because they run out of oil. They press the other five to lend them oil, but they refuse. While they go to buy more oil, the bridegroom arrives, the procession sets off and they enter the feast, shutting the doors. When the other five maids arrive, they discover the doors shut and no entrance to the wedding feast is permitted.
What is unusual in the parable is the action of the bridegroom. He refuses to acknowledge the five tardy maids, and refuses to admit them (cf. 7:21). Preparedness is the key and this spiritual preparedness cannot be shared. There is probably no specific significance to the oil. The entrance into the bridegroom’s house and feast is seen as the desirable outcome. Jesus concludes – “Be vigilant because you do not know the day or the hour.” Some who seem to be friends of the bridegroom are not. They look like it, but they are not prepared. In the OT God is often portrayed as the bridegroom of Israel. Jesus once before in Matthew has used this metaphor (9:15f).
25:14-30 Parable of the talents
This parable emphasizes the other aspect of the slave in 24:45 – faithfulness. This one is like the slave in 24:45-51 – slaves given work to do in the absence of the master. They are expected to be productive with what the master has given them. The master is gracious with the division of his resources and gives a great amount of time and opportunity for something to be done in order to gain him profit. The excuse given by the “worthless slave” is that the master is unfair and capricious. So what is the use of even trying, since he claimed he had no idea what the master would do when he returned, a claim that the actions of the other two slaves shows to be false. However, the actions of the master prove him to be principled and generous to those who have made wise use of the gifts he has given to them.
The focus of this parable seems to be that God, the master, has given to human beings resources to expend for enlarging his glory and his kingdom. Those who love the master and devote their allegiance to him will indeed strive to add glory to the reputation of the master and prove to be good stewards of the master’s resources. The master acknowledges the good, faithful work of those slaves who have doubled their portion for the benefit of the master. Their reward is the same, note. The worthless slave has his talent repossessed and he is cast “into outer darkness,” the place of unimaginable punishment. When the Son of Man returns there will be accountability required from all.
25:31-46 Scene of the Son of Man’s judgment
The final segment summarizes what will happen when the Son of Man comes “in his glory and all his angels with him” (v. 31). He will sit on the throne of his glory – i.e., he will be exalted and his power and authority recognized by all. The judgment scene is universal with “all nations” appearing before him (v. 32). He is cast in the role of shepherd, separating sheep and goats. The sheep represent those who have lived in loyalty to the Messiah and the goats represent those who have not. This if often classified as a parable, but apart from the simile in vv. 32-33 of shepherd, sheep and goats, the discourse describes a scene of future judgment.
We discern here what faithfulness, good stewardship, and wise living mean in the previous parables, as Jesus outlines what a vigilant life looks like. The language Jesus uses is that of caring for and assisting the least of the disciples in Jesus’ name (cf. Matthew 18). These terms (episkopō, diakonein (ἐπισκοπῶ, διακονεῖν) vv. 36, 43, 44) are used elsewhere in the NT to define the kind of spiritual oversight leaders in the church are to exercise. These people are surprised to discern the many ways in which they have served their Messiah, often unawares. Loving one’s neighbour flows from a love for God. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (v. 40; 18:5). While some might want to see “least of these brothers of mine” as referring to any human being, the way this terminology is used by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel would suggest that he is referring to the least significant disciple (10:42), i.e., Jesus’ follower. There are many other passages in Scripture that speak to the Christian’s responsibility to help any one in need. Jesus here defines the kind of ‘righteousness’ that counts in the Kingdom.
The sheep inherit the blessings of the kingdom, i.e., eternal life (v. 46); the goats are sent into “eternal punishment” (v. 46). We have seen throughout Matthew’s narrative a very strong interest in the theme of judgment. What does this interest tell us about the context to which or from which he is writing? If he is developing this Gospel narrative primarily for Jewish Christians, why would such an emphasis be important for them to hear? How does this then resonate in our world today? Is Matthew’s Gospel, with all its emphasis upon judgment, for the Postmodern generation?
 Blomberg, 338-39.
 Nolland, 956.
 In the Gospels, apart from Mt. 23:7 and John 3:26 (John the Baptist) only Jesus is addressed as Rabbi, often interchanged with didaskalos (διδάσκολος teacher). Luke used epistatēs (ἐπιστάτης master).
 It is no accident that Jewish writings appear in the late 80’s and 90’s of the first century reflecting upon the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple — 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra — alongside of Josephus’ writings.
 The term oikoumenē (οἱκουμένη the human world, the organized/civilized world) can also have a more limited sense and refer to the Roman Empire. We probably find this sense in Luke 2:1 where the writer reports Caesar’s command that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (pasan tēn oikoumenēn πᾶσαν τἠν οἰκουμένην).” Perhaps this is also the sense in Acts 24:5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker, “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the Roman world (tois kata tēn oikoimenēn τοῖς κατὰ τὴν οἰκουμενήν).”
 Josephus also references Daniel’s prophecy to explain the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
 For a fuller explanation of this interpretation, please see my paper “Mark 13:14 – A Cryptic Prophecy of the Messiah’s Death?” published in 2019 on the website https://nimer.ca/about/nimer/ under the tab “Ministry Studies: Biblical and Theological Studies. NIMER stands for Northwest Institute for Ministry Education Resources.