Jesus in the First Three Gospels by Millar Burrows
Millar Burrows was for many years Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. He received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a PhD. in biblical languages, literature and history from Yale University. He is widely known as the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is a contributor to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, published by Abingdon. Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 14: Last Public Teaching and the Apocalyptic Discourse
Mark ends the series of controversies with the statement, "And the great throng heard him gladly." The KJV translates this, "And the common people heard him gladly," converting a reference to a particular occasion into a general assertion about the attitude of the common people toward Jesus. All three evangelists indicate that a large crowd heard what Jesus said and was pleased with it.
And now Jesus turns to them directly (Mk 12:38-40: Mt 23:1-12; Lk 20:45-47). Matthew (vv 2-5) characteristically gathers together and inserts some material that appears at other points in Luke and some things not recorded by Mark or Luke at all. In Mark and Luke, Jesus first warns his hearers against the scribes, whom he accuses of making themselves conspicuous and pretending to be very devout while they "devour widows’ houses." Of course this was not true of all the scribes. Jesus recognized humility and sincerity in some of them; but the least worthy members of a group are often most conspicuous, and it was these that Jesus castigated.
In Matthew the Pharisees are included with the scribes as the objects of Jesus’ denunciation (23:2), which begins in a moderate vein but becomes extremely bitter. The scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, "sit on Moses’ seat" (that is, the teacher’s seat in the synagogue), and what they say is to be followed. Their conduct, however, is not to be emulated, "for they preach, but do not practice." They will not so much as touch with their fingers the heavy burdens they lay on the shoulders of others. Luke gives this as a part of the table talk when Jesus dined with a Pharisee (Lk 11:46). It is the sort of thing that Jesus may have said repeatedly, but the settings provided here by Matthew and Luke are both almost certainly artificial.
The saying that follows in Matthew (23:5) resembles one in Mark and Luke (Mk 12:38; Lk 20:46). Instead of the long robes mentioned there Matthew says, "they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." The phylacteries were little boxes attached to the forehead or wrist, containing pieces of parchment with texts from Exodus (13:16) and Deuteronomy (6:8). The fringes were no doubt the tassels prescribed by the Law (Num 15:38; Deut 22:12). Jesus himself wore the customary tassels (Mt 9:20: Lk 8:44; cf. Mk 5:27) and probably a phylactery.
In all three Gospels Jesus speaks of the scribes’ predilection for public attention and respect. Matthew adds (23:7-10), "and being called rabbi by men"; and this introduces an important passage. The disciples, Jesus says, are not to be addressed as rabbi, because they have only the one teacher, and they are all brothers. They are not to address any man as father, for they have the one Father in heaven. And they are not to be called masters, for they have one master, the Christ. The Greek noun here translated "master" (literally "guide" or "leader") is used nowhere else in the New Testament.
After this Matthew has a saying that Mark and Luke have already used and all three use again (Mt 23:11; cf. 20:26-27; Mk 9:35: 10:43-44: Lk 9:48; 22:26): "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant." Matthew also gives here another oft-repeated statement (Mt 23:12: cf. 18:4; Lk 14:11: 18:14): "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Then Matthew proceeds in prophetic style (Mt 23:13-51; cf. Is 3:9, 11; Hab 2:6-19) with a series of seven "woes" (eight if 14 belongs to the original text). Variants of six of these appear in Luke’s account of a meal at a Pharisee’s house (Lk 11:42-52), preceded (vv 39-41; cf. Mt 23:25-26) by an accusation that corresponds to Matthew’s fifth woe. Three of Luke’s woes are directed against the Pharisees and three against the lawyers. Evidently neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s collection is a record of an actual discourse. Whether Jesus ever delivered such a prolonged diatribe is an open question.
All but one of Matthew’s woes begin, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites." We have considered the charge of hypocrisy before. The first woe (Luke’s sixth) accuses the scribes and Pharisees of shutting the kingdom of heaven against men (Mt 23:13: Lk 11:52). Luke reads, "You have taken away the key of knowledge." Matthew’s second woe (23:15), not recorded by Luke, reflects an intense missionary activity in Judaism in the first century which ceased not long after that. The third woe in Matthew (23:16), also lacking in Luke, imputes to the Pharisees and scribes a faulty sense of proportion, manifested in their rules concerning the validity of oaths. The passage recalls the earlier discussion of what defiles a man (Mk 7:1-23; Mt 15:1-20); it also reflects Jesus’ reverence for the temple as God’s dwelling (I Kings 8:27) and for heaven as his throne (Mt 5:34).
The fourth woe, Luke’s first (Mt 23:23; Lk 11:42), charges the Pharisees with exacting tithes on spices and herbs but neglecting "the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith." The three weighty matters recall what Micah says God requires of man (6:8). "Justice" echoes Micah’s "to do justice," but "mercy" is not an exact translation of "to love kindness" (literally, "love of steadfast love"). "Faith," though commonly taken here to mean "faithfulness," may reflect "walk humbly with your God." In the next clause, "these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others," the demonstrative "these" refers to what is nearest in the context, the weightier matters of the law: that is, "justice and mercy and faith" should have prior attention, but the minor duties should be done too. The nail is driven home by a typical example of Jesus’ trenchant humor (Mt 23:24): "You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" We have seen the same kind of ridicule by grotesque exaggeration in other sayings. Perhaps it reduced the tension when Jesus spoke, making the people laugh and deflating the self importance of the Pharisees.
In the next woe (Mt 23:25-26; Lk 11:39-41), given by Luke as a direct accusation, the piety of the Pharisees is made to appear absurd by another vivid metaphor: they are represented as carefully washing a cup or plate on the outside and leaving it dirty inside. In the two forms of this saying we find one of the clearest instances in the Gospels of different Greek expressions representing the same or similar Aramaic words. The verb translated "cleanse" in Matthew probably stands for an Aramaic verb that was very close, if not identical, to the one translated in Luke "give alms." The expressions translated "those things which are within" (Luke) and "the inside" (Matthew) are probably also different renderings of the same Aramaic.
The same idea is conveyed even more forcefully in Matthew’s sixth woe, which is Luke’s third (Mt 23:27-28; Lk 11:44). Jesus compares the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes to "whitewashed tombs" (KJV "whited sepulchres"), outwardly beautiful, but within "full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness." (Luke’s version is less impressive: "You are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it.") Palestine is full of ancient tombs, many of them made during the Roman occupation. They not only contained the bodies of the dead, but in time were occupied by bats and rats or used by wandering shepherds to shelter their flocks. One who explores any of them will retain a vivid memory of the accumulated filth.
Matthew’s seventh and last woe, Luke’s fifth (Mt 23:29-3 1; Lk 11:47-48), depicts the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees as building tombs and monuments for the prophets and righteous men killed by their fathers, and claiming that they would have had no part in such deeds. Building tombs for the prophets could be a sincere repudiation of sins of previous generations, but Jesus does not recognize it as such in his contemporaries.
The language of the next two verses in Matthew (32-33) is so violent that Jesus seems to be beside himself with rage. "Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers," he says; "you serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" Luke does not have this outburst. John the Baptist had said to some of those who came to be baptized (Mt 3:7; Lk 3:7): "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" These words sound more like John than like Jesus, though we must beware of letting our judgment be warped by the traditional "gentle Jesus, meek and mild."
In Matthew (23:34) Jesus continues, "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town." Instead of this, Luke reads (11:49), "Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute’" — a curious anticlimax, probably the result of condensation. What is meant here by the Wisdom of God is uncertain. Some scholars believe that there was a book, now lost, that was entitled "The Wisdom of God," and that Luke here quotes from it. Others hold that "the Wisdom of God said" means simply, "God said in his wisdom": or that Wisdom is here personified as in the current wisdom literature. Why Luke should do this, however, remains unexplained. To say that he was following a source other than Matthew’s only pushes the mystery back one step.
What Matthew’s "I said" means is no less obscure. It seems to imply that Jesus himself, before his incarnation, sent the "prophets and wise men and scribes." That might be natural in the post-apostolic church, but it would be quite without parallel in the Synoptic Gospels. Also possible in a later generation would be a conception of the risen Lord of the church speaking thus of the Christian missionaries and teachers. In some way the later situation of the church, during and after the split with Judaism, has colored the tradition of what Jesus said. Matthew’s language, however, remains within the circle of Judaism. His version of what will be done to the envoys also indicates the kind of persecution that Jesus elsewhere warns the disciples to expect (cf. Mt 10:17, 23). One is reminded of the treatment of the owner’s agents in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mk 12:2-5 and parallels).
These things will happen, Jesus continues in Matthew (23:35-36), "that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation." Luke’s form of the saying (11:50) is somewhat different and omits "the son of Barachiah." If we had only Matthew’s record, we might suppose that Jesus’ knowledge of Old Testament history was imperfect. The event referred to occurred in the reign of Joash, and the Zechariah who was stoned to death was a son of the priest Jehoiada (2 Chron 24:20-21). Zechariah the son of Barachiah (Bereehiah) was the prophet associated with Haggai some three hundred years later (Zech. 1:1: Ezra 5:1; 6:14). The confusion need not be attributed to Jesus, however, or to Matthew. It was probably introduced into the text by an early copyist.
More serious misgivings are aroused by the implication that Jesus’ contemporaries will be punished for crimes committed in previous centuries. Men’s acts often have consequences for innocent persons, which may accumulate until they burst in a flood. In that sense the blood of the prophets might have been said to "come upon" the Jews of Jesus’ day. That, however, is obviously not what is meant here. Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees, not because of what their fathers did, but because they are no better than their fathers.
These bitter denunciations, like similar statements already examined, are far too sweeping to be fair to the Pharisees or the scribes en masse. It may be that Jesus, frustrated by their opposition, felt that as a group they were guilty of such faults. The evangelists, however, especially Matthew, probably colored their reports too highly, betraying their own resentment toward Jewish leaders of their day who rejected aid persecuted Christians.
Matthew now gives Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, which comes at an earlier point in Luke (Mt 23:37-39; Lk 13:34-35). To what has already been said about it we may add that it ends with the same quotation from Psalm 118 that was shouted by the crowd at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Thus Matthew’s order of presentation makes Jesus seem to ignore the fact that he has already been hailed in these terms (Mt 21:9). If it was only people from other places who so acclaimed him then, however, the meaning here may be that the citizens of Jerusalem have yet to do so.
When Jesus says, "You will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he . . .’" (Mt 23:39), tie word "again" represents a Greek phrase meaning literally "from now" (KJV "henceforth"). According to the subsequent narratives, Jesus remained in the vicinity of Jerusalem, observed the Passover in the city, and expected to be betrayed and put to death there. Matthew probably understood the statement as a reference to Jesus’ death, after which the people of Jerusalem would see him no more until he returned in glory. What Jesus meant by these words, if he used them, is an unsolved problem.
In Mark and Luke the charges against the Pharisees are followed by the story of the widow’s mites (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4), which Matthew omits. The Greek word rendered "copper coins" (KJV "mites") designates the smallest coin then in circulation, worth only one sixty-fourth of a denarius. If the denarius was a day’s wage for a farm laborer (cf. Mt 20:2), the widow’s offering was only what a man might earn in about fifteen minutes. It was all she had, however, and Jesus rated it more highly than the "large sums" that the rich "contributed out of their abundance."
It is a strange picture that we are given of Jesus during these first days in the temple: arguing freely with Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees; parrying more or less subtle attempts to lure him into statements that could be used against him; answering sincere questions and approving good answers to his own questions; pronouncing fiery invectives against influential teachers who opposed him; lamenting the failure of Jerusalem to respond to his challenge; and then calmly pointing out to his disciples the tiny but sacrificial offering of a poor widow. Luke briefly summarizes (21:37-38): "And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him." After the excitement of the arrival at Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, it all seems very peaceful, relaxed, undramatic. Yet the tension was there under the surface: the leaders’ fear of a popular uprising if they tried to silence Jesus by force; their futile efforts to trap him in his speech; the crowd’s evident satisfaction when he put his opponents to confusion. What creates the impression of a mild confrontation is his own unruffled calm, his contempt for subterfuge, his fearlessness for himself.
After the things done or said in the temple, the Gospels proceed with what Jesus said one day when he left the holy place to spend the night on the Mount of Olives (Mk 13:1-4; Mt 24:1-3; Lk 21:5-7). As they went out, the disciples called his attention to the great buildings in the sacred area and the huge stones of which they were made. Jesus replied that the time was coming when not one stone would be left on another. This was literally fulfilled about forty years later, though a few parts of the enclosing wall still remain, including the "Wailing Wall" on the western side and a section of the southeastern corner. Other portions have been uncovered recently.
When they reached the top of the Mount of Olives, "Peter and James and John and Andrew" asked Jesus when his prediction would be fulfilled, and what would be the sign that it was about to happen. In Mark and Luke the question refers only to the destruction of the temple; Matthew, however, reads, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?"
What now follows is commonly known as the apocalyptic discourse (Mk 13:5-37). In Matthew it constitutes the last of the five major discourses (24:4-51: 25:1-46). Luke has already used much of the material that Mark and Matthew have here. His version of Jesus’ reply (21:8-36) is consequently shorter than Mark’s. In all three Gospels the burden of what Jesus says is the "Messianic woes." meaning the calamities and trials that will precede the appearance of the Messiah. Nowhere in the whole discourse is the destruction of the temple mentioned.
The first paragraph is a warning against premature expectations of the end (Mk 13:5-8: Mt 24:4-8: Lk 21:8-11). False Messiahs will lead many astray. There will be "wars and rumors of wars," but "the end is not yet." There will be earthquakes and famines; Luke adds other catastrophes. In Mark and Matthew the paragraph ends. "this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs."
The second paragraph of the discourse warns the disciples that they will be persecuted (Mk 13:9-13: Mt 24:9-14: Lk 21:12-19, cf. Mt 10:17-21: Lk 12:1 1-12). The situation contemplated is that which the church was to face later: being delivered to councils, flogged in synagogues, and haled before governors and kings to hear testimony, with the assurance that the Holy Spirit will speak through them.
In Mark the paragraph ends, "But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Mk 13:13: Mt 24: 13: Lk 21: 19: cf Rev 210. 26). The expression "be saved." used in Acts and the epistles as it is now in evangelical Protestantism, has not yet acquired such a specific meaning in the Gospels but refers to deliverance from any kind of harm or calamity. Twice in Matthew it is used of saving a person from drowning. Frequently with reference to deliverance from a physical or mental affliction it is translated by KJV "heal" or "make whole." In a few places being saved has a theological meaning, but it is never sharply defined.
The noun "salvation" does not occur at all in Mark or Matthew. Luke has a related Greek noun twice (2:30; 3:6: cf. Is 52:10) and a more common word four times (1:69, 71 , 77: 19:9), the reference being once to "knowledge of salvation . . . in the forgiveness of their sins." The last appearance of the word (19:9) is in the story of Zacchaeus: "Today salvation has come to this house." This is the only place where "salvation" appears in a saying of Jesus.
Having omitted Mark’s previous statement (13:10) about preaching the gospel to all nations, Matthew now adds (24:14), "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come." To the troubled church of later generations, wondering why the Son of man had not come, this paragraph says. "Not yet! You still have before you the mission of proclaiming the gospel to the world" (cf. Mt 28:19-20).
Before this, where Mark (13:13) has "And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake." Matthew reads (24:9) "by all nations." In his second discourse, where he used part of this passage (10:17-21), the preaching to the nations would have been inappropriate for the mission of the twelve in Galilee or Judea; yet in the verse there about standing before governors and kings "to bear testimony before them" (v 18: cf. Mk 13:9) he added "and the Gentiles." The same Greek word is unfortunately translated "Gentiles" there and "nations" here (Mt 24:9, 14).
The third paragraph of the discourse (Mk 13:14-20; Mt 24:15-22; Lk 21:20-24) continues the description of the Messianic woes. Mark and Matthew begin by referring to the "desolating sacrilege" (KJV "abomination of desolation") which will be "set up where it ought not to be" (Mark), "standing in the holy place" (Matthew). The allusion, as Matthew notes. is to the book of Daniel (11:31; 12:11; cf. 9:27). There the expression refers to the desecration of the temple in 167 B.C. by Antiochus Epiphanes, whose forces "erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering" (I Macc 1:54). The Hebrew term is a barely disguised imitation of the name of a pagan god. Baal Shamayim (Lord of Heaven), who was identified with the Greek Zeus Olympios. Antiochus called the Jerusalem temple "the temple of Olympian Zeus" (2 Macc 6:2). The desolating sacrilege on that occasion must have been an image of the god or a small altar for his worship.
In the apocalyptic discourse the expression has a new application. In AD. 40 the Roman emperor Caligula commanded that an image of himself be set up in the temple at Jerusalem. His death prevented the execution of the order, but meanwhile there was much excitement among both Jews and Christians. The reference to the desolating sacrilege in the Gospels was almost certainly written in this emergency. The first readers would not have needed the admonition, "let the reader understand," but for the disciples who heard Jesus the allusion would have had no meaning. This clause, with much of what precedes and follows it, must come from a later writer. The discourse may include some authentic sayings of Jesus; indeed it may include portions of a pre-Christian Jewish apocalypse. As a whole, however, it is a Christian composition. It had already been erroneously attributed to Jesus before it was incorporated in the Gospel of Mark, where Matthew and Luke found it.
Instead of the allusion to Daniel, Luke has here (21:20), "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." This suggests a later edition of the discourse, changing its application from the crisis of AD. 40 to the siege and fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple thirty years later. Thus the discourse as a whole would be connected with Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed. There is nothing, however, here or elsewhere in Luke, that cannot be found in woes on wicked cities in the Old Testament. Luke either knew that Jerusalem had fallen or was convinced that it was doomed, but what he wrote does not prove that it had already fallen.
According to Mark and Matthew, when the readers see the desolating sacrilege, "those who are in Judea" must flee for safety to the mountains (Mk 13:14-15: Mt 24:15-18). Luke (17:3 I) has already used this; now (21:21) he changes the picture from house and field to beleaguered Jerusalem. Before the Roman siege of Jerusalem the Christians in the city fled, not to the mountains but to Pella in the Jordan valley.
In all three Gospels the paragraph proceeds with an expression of pity for pregnant women and those nursing babies in the time of distress (Mk 13:17: Mt 24:19; Lk 21:23). Mark continues (13:18), "Pray that it may not happen in winter." Matthew adds (24:20), "or on a sabbath." Luke omits the sentence.
More about the coming tribulation follows (Mk 13:19-20; Mt 24:21-22; Lk 2 1:23-24). Mark and Matthew stress the unique severity of the afflictions. Luke’s picture is one of war, with death by the sword and captivity among the nations, and again Jerusalem is at the center of it, trodden under foot by Gentiles "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." The conception of a period of foreign occupation and oppression of the holy city as a part of the divine plan was not new. Perhaps it was the only way to preserve faith in God at a time when all the hopes of his people were dashed to earth by the Romans as they had been by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. (cf. Is 63:18; 64:11; Rev 11:2). The "times of the Gentiles" are often compared with the time of Israel’s hardening "until the full number of the Gentiles come in," as conceived by Paul (Rom 11:25); but there is no suggestion of the salvation of the Gentiles here in Luke. The idea is rather that the desecration and desolation of the holy city were a part of God’s judgment on the wicked and a trial of his saints as by fire (cf. Zech 13:8-9; Mal 3:1-4).
For those who see in Scripture a detailed blueprint of future events, cut up into small bits and scattered throughout the Bible like pieces of a picture puzzle, the times of the Gentiles offer an irresistible challenge to their ingenuity and imagination, stimulated by tempting parallels with events of our own day. The worst thing about this kind of interpretation is that it misses the real point and purpose of prophecy. Jesus rebuked his contemporaries for demanding signs from heaven and failing to discern the signs of the times (Mt 16:1-3; Lk 12:54-56). Like the Old Testament prophets, he predicted the fall of Jerusalem because he saw it as the inevitable result of acts and attitudes already evident.
The next paragraph in Mark and Matthew (Mk 13:21-23; Mt 24:23-25) is omitted by Luke, perhaps because it is similar to what he has previously recorded (cf. Lk 17:20-23). In language and ideas it belongs with its context in the apocalyptic discourse. The disciples must not believe anyone who says, "Look, here is the Christ," or "Look, there he is!" There will be false Christs and false prophets who will show such signs and wonders as might lead even the elect astray.
Matthew inserts here a paragraph that in Luke is a part of the passage about the days of the Son of man, and with it a statement about eagles or vultures, which Luke has later in that passage (Mt 24:26-28; cf. Lk 17:23-24, 37). The point of the paragraph is that the coming of the Son of man will not be a local phenomenon, which one will have to go out to the wilderness or into an inner room to see. It will be universal and unmistakable, "as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west." The statement about eagles or vultures in this connection apparently means that there will be no question where the event occurs; it will be manifested as clearly as the location of a carcass is shown by the vultures wheeling above it. The fact that Matthew and Luke quote this paragraph at different places, and Mark does not have it, suggests that it was not originally a part of the apocalyptic discourse. It may be a genuine utterance of Jesus even though the discourse is a later composition.
Matthew has here (24:27) the noun translated "coming" (parousia), which he used in the disciples’ question as they left the temple with Jesus (v 3). Its basic meaning is "presence" (literally "being beside"). It is so translated twice in Paul’s epistles, both referring to the apostle himself (2 Cor 10:10; Phil 2:12). It also, however, means "arrival" or "coming," and is used by Paul in this sense too (I Cor 16:17; Phil 1:26). Once he uses it of the coming of the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:9). A papyrus document found in Egypt indicates by this noun an expected visit by the king. In the Epistles the word often refers to Jesus’ coming from heaven. Matthew, however, is the only one of the evangelists who uses it at all, and he has it only four times, all in the apocalyptic discourse. Elsewhere in the Gospels "coming" represents a form of the common Greek verb meaning "come."
The next paragraph (Mk 13:24-27; Mt 24:29-31: Lk 2 1:25-28) tells of the coming of the Son of man, which will be preceded by convulsions of nature and extraordinary celestial phenomena recalling what the prophets said about the "day of the Lord." Luke adds several details to those given by Mark. How literally such portents were meant to be understood we cannot tell: but in Acts (2:16-21), when Peter says on the day of Pentecost, "this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel," he quotes not only the verses about the outpouring of the Spirit but also those about the "wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath" (Joel 2:28-32), though there is no indication that the sun was actually "turned to darkness, and the moon to blood" on that occasion. Apocalyptic literature is so full of symbolism that the line between what is literal and what is figurative is often indiscernible.
The climax is reached with the appearance of the Son of man (Mk 13:26; Mt 24:30; Lk 2 1:27), "coming in clouds with great power and glory." The picture is obviously a reflection of Daniel 7, where, after four beasts representing successive world empires have come out of the sea (vv 3-8, 17), a human figure ("one like a son of man"), representing "the saints of the Most High," comes "with the clouds of heaven" and receives universal, everlasting dominion (vv 13-14, 18, 27). Here the vision is avowedly symbolic. In the Gospels the Son of man is an individual person, but how literally his coming in (or on) a cloud (or clouds) is to be understood is another question.
Mark and Matthew say that the Son of man will send out angels (Matthew adds "with a loud trumpet call"), and "gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mk 13:27; Mt 24:31; cf. I Thess 4:16). Instead of this Luke reads (21:28), "Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
A brief paragraph now follows (Mk 13:28-29; Mt 24:32-33; Lk 21:29-31) to the effect that as the first new leaves and softening branches of the fig tree show that summer is near, so "these things" show "that he is near, at the very gates." How this is related to what has gone before is not clear. If people have already seen the Son of man coming with power and glory, do they still need to be told that he is near? Perhaps these verses belong somewhere else, though the evangelists agree in reporting them here. Instead of "he is near, at the very gates," Luke says, "the kingdom of God is near."
Mark probably received this discourse as a separate composition, accepted it as a record of what Jesus had said, and fitted it into his narrative at what seemed the most appropriate place. If verses 5-29 are removed, verse 30 appears as the direct answer to the disciples’ question in verse 4. To their expression of wonder at the temple buildings and the great stones used in their construction Jesus replied in effect, "Yes, but solid and permanent as they seem, they will all be thrown down." The disciples ask in dismay when this will be, and he says, "Before this generation passes away" (cf. Mk 9:1 and parallels). Many of that generation, including some of his disciples, must have lived to see this come true.
The prediction is followed by a solemn assurance that even when heaven and earth are no more, Jesus’ words will endure (Mk 13:31; Mt 24:35; Lk 21:33). The same things are said in the Sermon on the Mount about the law (Mt 5:18: Lk 16:17). Yet even while claiming that what he has said will be fulfilled within a generation, Jesus warns that no man or angel or even the Son knows the exact time, but only the Father (Mk 13:32; Mt 24:36: cf. Acts 1:7). This is the only place in Mark where the expression "the Son" is used (cf. Mt 11:27; Lk 10:22). Instead of trying to calculate the time or looking for signs. the disciples must be attentive and watchful (Mk 13:33).
In Mark the apocalyptic discourse ends with a parable about an absent householder whose servants must be prepared for his return at any moment (Mk 13:34-36). Matthew and Luke omit this, but both have similar material at various other places (cf. Mt 25:14; Lk 19:12). The parable begins like Matthew’s parable of the talents, and the closing exhortation resembles several sayings quoted by Matthew and Luke in connection with other parables (Mt 24:42; 25:13; Lk 12:38, 40). Instead of Mark’s parable Luke has here an exhortation apparently addressed to the people at large (Lk 21:34-36). This concludes the apocalyptic discourse in Luke.
Matthew is not yet ready to bring his last major discourse to an end. He continues with sayings that Luke has used earlier (Mt 24:37-4!; Lk 17:26-27, 34-35). The rest of the discourse emphasizes the element of surprise in the coming of the Son of man (Mt 24:42-44; cf. Mk 13:34: Lk 12:39-40). Picking up the idea of Mark’s concluding parable, Matthew proceeds with another passage used earlier in Luke. warning the disciples against being like a householder unprepared for the coming of a thief.
Luke has at this point (12:41) a characteristic editorial transition. Peter asks, "Lord, are you telling this parable for us, or for all?" As in Matthew, the passage continues with a blessing on a faithful and wise servant who will be put in charge of all his master’s possessions, and a warning that one who uses his master’s absence to abuse his fellow servants will be punished (Mt 24:45-SI; Lk 12:42-46).
Matthew gives next (25:1-13) what is commonly known as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. At some points this resembles an exhortation in Luke to be like servants who are ready for their master’s return from a marriage feast (Lk 12:35-38), but the principal characters here are ten girls waiting for the bridegroom to arrive for the feast. In the bridegroom’s delay we can hardly fail to see a reference to the delay of Jesus’ return from heaven (cf. Mt 24:48; Lk 12:45). Five of the girls will be admitted to the marriage feast, but to the rest, who failed to bring sufficient oil to keep their lamps burning. the bridegroom will say, "I do not know you" (cf. Mt 7:23: Lk 13:27). The most distinctive note in this parable is the suggestion that those who are unprepared cannot count upon the foresight and faithfulness of others to get them into the kingdom.
Another parable about servants whose master is away from home now follows (Mt 25:14-30: Lk 19:12-27). This is the parable of the talents, which we have examined together with Luke’s parable of the pounds. Then Matthew’s discourse reaches an effective conclusion in the dramatic scene of the final judgment by the Son of man (Mt 25:31-46). Often quoted and highly valued because of the stress on service to "the least of these my brethren," this passage is notable also for the fact that it conveys a social message in an apocalyptic envelope. How far Jesus accepted and how much he used apocalyptic concepts and imagery is still open to argument, but that his gospel was both social and eschatological is certain.
The account begins, "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne." The Son of man’s glory and the angels are mentioned elsewhere (cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26-27 and parallels; Mt 10:32-33: Lk 12:8-9). Another saying refers to his glorious throne (Mt 19:28). The apocalyptic book of Enoch also says that the Son of man will sit on his glorious throne to judge the world (Enoch 62:3, 5).
Only here (Mt 25:34) is the Son of man called "the King," but the idea is implicit in references to his kingdom (Mt 13:41; 16:28; 19:28). Those who are counted as sheep and placed at the King’s right hand are summoned to receive a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. In Daniel 7 "judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom" (vv 22, 26-27).
The gathering is by nations, but the dividing is by individuals (the pronoun "them" is masculine); and the judgment is based on individual conduct. The expression "all the nations" may go back more or less directly to the book of Joel (3:2), where God says, "I will gather all the nations"; but there the judgment is to be on the foreign nations that have oppressed Israel. Here the word translated "nations" might better be translated "peoples." Sometimes it means "Gentiles," but certainly in Matthew the meaning is not that only the Gentiles will be judged.
Mercy is the quality by which men will be judged (cf. Mt 6:12, 14-15: Mk 11:25-26; Lk 11:4). Those who have not been merciful will be committed to "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41). It is assumed that men have had their opportunity and made their choice in this world and must now face the eternal consequences. The last of Matthew’s five discourses ends (v 46), "And they will go away into eternal punishment. but the righteous into eternal life."
The idea that what is done to one of the least of his brethren is done to Jesus has inspired many devout legends and has been a potent stimulus of mercy to the unfortunate. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the Synoptic Gospels or perhaps in the whole New Testament. If Jesus said this, he may have meant only that he aligned himself with the poor and afflicted and felt every wrong done or service rendered to them as though it had been done to him. The statement readily lent itself to a more mystical understanding, however, when the memory of the human Jesus dissolved more and more into the worship of the heavenly Christ, still evoking an extraordinary warmth of personal devotion.
If this judgment scene represents even approximately an actual utterance of Jesus, it leaves no room for doubt that he expected to pronounce judgment at the end of the age — unless, of course, he meant by the Son of man a person other than himself.
By way of transition to the last part of the narrative. Matthew (26:1) uses his regular formula, "When Jesus had finished these sayings. . ." Luke (21:37-38) gives the brief summary that we have already quoted. Mark (14:1) simply continues the story a without a break.