Coming with the clouds (Matthew 24:30)

Armies give power to emperors, but only one ruler has the backing of the clouds of heaven’s hosts.

“You shall not pass!” That might be your worst fear if you’re facing an exam. You’ll hear it very differently if you recognize the image of Gandalf confronting the balrog in Lord of the Rings. In Matthew 24, Jesus tapped into images familiar to those who were living the Jewish story, images we completely misunderstand if we don’t make the connection.

Here’s an example:

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Shaking the powers (Matthew 24:29)

The coming of the son of man is the fall of the superstars from where they had no right to be.

Matthew 24:29–30a (my translation)
29 Immediately after the anguish of those days, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ 30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven …

If you’re now picturing the space/time universe collapsing into a black hole, please know that Jesus wasn’t the picture in Jesus’ mind. The NIV misleads us to think of literal stars by calling them “heavenly bodies,” whereas Jesus was talking about the powers of the heavens (αἱ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν) being shaken.

As the quotation marks suggest, Jesus was using imagery from the Old Testament — Isaiah 13 to be specific.

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The coming of the son of man (Matthew 24:26-27)

If God gives authority to the son of man, “the coming of the son of man” is all about the restoration of God’s reign over the earth.

This might be the crucial phrase in Matthew 24:

Matthew 24 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (NIV)

The western church has often taken this to mean the end of the age, when the Messiah comes to resurrect his people. Based on that interpretation, graves traditionally face east: that way the dead will rise to face the Messiah when he resurrects them.

Is that what Jesus meant? Or was he talking about his own resurrection, the day the son of man came from the dead to receive the kingship?

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Messiahs and their prophets (Matthew 24:23-25)

Be on your guard against those who proclaim anyone else as God’s anointed.

Matthew 24:23-25 (my translation, compare NIV)
23 Then, if someone tells you, ‘Look! Here’s the Anointed’ or ‘Here!’ — don’t believe it! 24 For pseudo-messiahs and pseudo-prophets will be raised up providing great signs and wonders in order to mislead the chosen if possible. 25 Look, I’ve pre-warned you.

What’s a false prophet? People often say, “Someone whose prophecy didn’t come true.” There’s some truth there, but that isn’t definitive. Prophecy isn’t primarily about prediction. Even where it contains a prediction, you may find yourself misled long before the prediction fails to materialize. That’s more an effect that a definition. A true prophet is someone who speaks for God, while a false prophet claims to speak for God when they’re not. It’s an issue of authority: whether they’re speaking the word of the Lord.

That’s why Jesus connects fake christs with false prophets. A false prophet promotes a false messiah. They speak for a power other than God, a leader other than God’s anointed ruler for the earth. That’s precisely what Jesus said: false prophets are pointing to someone other than Jesus when they say, “Look! Here’s the Anointed!”

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The tribulation and Jesus’ kingship (Matthew 24:9-30)

Good news! Jesus’ kingship resolves the oppressive pain in God’s world. See if Matthew 24 makes more sense as gospel rather than as charts for the end of the world.

I don’t know if you noticed, but our first two posts on Matthew 24 asked you to listen to the conversation Jesus had with his disciples about his kingship a few days before his crucifixion. It’s not always heard as a flowing conversation. Some readers treat it as if Jesus was using jargon to differentiate periods of future history.

Here’s what I mean by treating Jesus’ words as jargon:

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The fall of the Jerusalem temple (Matthew 24:15-28)

After providing pastoral support to his followers, Jesus spoke plainly about the horrors of Jerusalem’s demise and the fall of the temple.

Jesus expected the Jerusalem temple to be destroyed? The temple hierarchy maybe, but the literal temple buildings? The disciples wondered if they’d heard him right.

Matthew went to great lengths to set the scene for this discourse. Arriving in Jerusalem as king, Jesus’ first act was overturning the temple (21:12-13). He called the leaders in God’s house bandits in a den — the phrase Jeremiah used to explain why God abandoned his house, leaving it (and the city) vulnerable to destruction (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus says the second temple was occupied by murderers who were about to complete what their ancestors started — killing the one God sent them (23:32-36). What hope has a city that won’t heed the warnings of its king? (23:37)

Tragically, the second temple and its city sealed its fate (23:38). The time for warnings is over. Jesus walks away (24:1).

But the disciples can’t leave it at that. They call Jesus back, drawing his attention to the temple buildings (24:2). This is not a picture of country-hick tourists gawking at something they’ve never seen. Like Jesus, they’ve all been there every year for the festivals. Like Korah’s sons, they feel the attachment to this place: How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty (Psalm 84:1). This house is where their heavenly sovereign said he would dwell among them … to meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites (Exodus 25:8, 22).

Surely Jesus can’t just walk away like that, leaving the city to its fate?

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The end: where are we headed? (Matthew 24:1-14)

What did Jesus say about the end? Here’s the two things we need to know.

Oh, my! There’s so much speculation and dispute over what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. “Signs of the end” is the label it often gets, inviting curiosity about how the world will end.

Jesus did not believe the world would fall apart in the end. He expected that, despite all the conflict and disasters, the world would reach its goal under his leadership — the end it was designed for.

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The power of life and death (Matthew 23:25-39)

Jesus’ rant against the Pharisees (Matthew 23) ends up revealing the struggle between life and death for the world. It’s the most detailed explanation he ever gave of the meaning of the cross.

The gospel is good news of peace. The world’s problems can’t be resolved while people take power over others. At every level — domestic violence, community oppression, cultural genocide, international war — the heart of evil is people claiming power over others, power enforced by death (or at least the threat of death). We won’t be at peace until we stop grasping power, and honour the One to whom it belongs.

That’s how Jesus announced it in Jerusalem. He shamed those who had taken on the role of community leaders, labelling them pretenders who were blocking God’s reign (23:13). He accused them of plundering (harpagē) without restraint (akrasia) (23:25). That unusual pair of words also turns up in Josephus’ description of Antiochus IV seizing Jerusalem: he plundered it and slaughtered people excessively, overwhelmed by an unrestrained craving for revenge (Wars 1.34). It’s true: those who grasp power plunder the community and destroy the sheep because they’re not answering to anyone (Ezekiel 34; John 10:7-11).

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Why did Jesus shame Jerusalem’s leaders? (Matthew 23:13-32)

Hypocrisy: the shame of acting as if you’re in charge when that honour is reserved for God’s Son. That’s how Jesus used the word in Matthew 23.

Asked to describe his music career, James Morrison began, “Well, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet.” Tall poppies promoting their own honour don’t go down well in Australia. We honour those whose actions speak, like the 500+ firefighters fighting a blaze just a few kilometres from my home (Feb, 2021). 86 homes have been lost, but no lives. You guys are our heroes.

We react instinctively to honour or shame people. Check your social media account to see who you’ve honoured or shamed. Honour/shame is a big deal in our culture, and an even bigger deal in many others.

But when it comes to the gospel, Christians often think in terms of guilt/innocence rather than honour/shame. We’re guilty (sinners), yet God declares us innocent (justification), so that’s good news for us. That is a part of what’s going on, but the gospel addresses so much more than individual guilt. It’s good news for the world that’s being restored to God’s sovereign authority (the gospel of the kingdom), through his anointed (the gospel of the Christ) who is Lord of all (the gospel of the Lord). Ultimately, the gospel is about honour (the glory of God). The gospel brings God’s honour to the realm that has not always honoured him.

Try reading Scripture from that angle and you’ll see fresh things. When Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, was he assigning them personal guilt, or was he undermining their honour in the eyes of the community? There may be some of both, but what was Jesus’ primary intention? Guilting them, or shaming them?

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Leadership is supporting people, not social climbing (Matthew 23:1-12)

Leadership: it’s all about who you’re serving.

On Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the crowds love him, but the leaders feel threatened. After silencing his enemies, Jesus turns to the crowds and explains the reason for this conflict. What he says about the leaders isn’t pretty.

We shudder at the word hypocrite. Who wants to be accused of duplicity? It’s hard to defend against the accusation that my inner intentions don’t match my actions. But that understanding of hypocrisy reflects our culture of individualism, where personal authenticity is the greatest virtue. There’s a bit of that in Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, but that wasn’t his main concern.

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Woe there: how did Jesus treat his enemies? (Matthew 23)

Warnings of a dangerous path, not wishes for disaster. That’s what Jesus meant by “Woe.”

If you think Jesus deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, you might be shocked by the way he addressed his enemies. Should we follow his example? This post helps you put his declarations of woe (Matthew 23) in context.

Jesus was approaching the capital to be recognized as king. That’s how the people called it: the son of David, coming in the name of the Lord to save his people (see on 21:9). But their joyful news sent shock waves through the powerful people of the city.

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David’s Lord (Matthew 22:41-46)

Understanding the Bible is all about understanding the relationships. Jesus shows us how with his puzzle about the people in Psalm 110:1.

My wife loves relationships movies. She’s not looking for action scenes, spy plots, or superheros bringing everybody to heel. She loves stories that explore how people relate.

I think that’s how Jesus heard the Bible. Academics can focus on the form and structure of the text or making theology systematic, but for him it was all about relationships.

Matthew 22 gives example after example where his interpretation was relational:

  1. God’s people live because I AM. Knowing Scripture means knowing God, his life-giving power (see on 22:29-32).
  2. Loving God and loving people — those relationships are the whole Bible (the Law and the Prophets) (see on 22:34-40).
  3. To understand a Psalm, explore the relationships between the people (22:43-45).

Now, I know this isn’t how we usually read Scripture. Jesus’ approach sounded just as foreign to the Pharisees as it does to us. Can we learn the relational hermeneutic Jesus used? In this post, we’ll take the third example (based on Psalm 110) as our tutorial.

Notice the question Jesus asks:

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Loving God and people (Matthew 22:34-40)

What’s the most important thing God ever told us to do? The answer describes kingdom life, what the king intends for his community.

The fight is on!

Jesus is in one corner. Opposing him is a tag team of Israel’s leading fighters. They’ve stopped fighting each other to bring down the people’s champion. Three rounds:

  1. Pharisees lead the attack by testing his support for Caesar. Jesus sends them back in their corner: give Caesar the currency in his name, but he’s not the ultimate authority (22:15-22).
  2. Next, Sadducees take a swing at his resurrection hope, but Jesus finds their vulnerability. They failed to factor in God’s power, the I AM, the life-giving Being (22:23-33).
  3. Then an unnamed hand gathers reinforcements to bring down God’s anointed.

This fight is the final week of Jesus’ life. It’s building towards the final assault on God’s anointed. He’s been in this fight since he was born, when Herod gathered together all the ruling priests and scribes of the people to investigate this king of the Jews (2:4). Now the leaders are gathered against him by an unspecified hand (same verb, passive voice):

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The God who raises the dead (Matthew 22:31-32)

“I am the God of Abraham” proves the resurrection?

Like you, I want to understand Scripture better, so we can live it well. It matters, because we’re living in God’s story. One way to learn is to watch how Scripture handles Scripture (i.e. intertextuality informs hermeneutics).

For example, in Matthew 22:31 Jesus quotes this text to convince his opponents about the resurrection:
Exodus 3:6 I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

Huh? How does that verse prove the resurrection? I might have gone for something like this:

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Can there be a resurrection when our relationships are so messy? (Matthew 22:23-33)

What’s permanent? At best, I have a couple of decades left to understand what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. Life is brief. What’s beyond?

Nothing, according to some. It’s over when we die. That’s what Sadducees believed back in Jesus’ day. They were aware that others were dying to meet their loved ones in the afterlife, but even in this life relationships are complicated. We lose friends when they break up with us or move away. Even the most treasured and stable relationships end when death takes someone. People remarry. So, what relationships survive into the afterlife?

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Should Christians pay tax?

Should Christians pay tax? Short answer: Yes, even though it isn’t God’s ideal for us.

When Jesus said, Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21), he was not promoting two kingdoms. Jesus did not believe the physical world should be run by humans, with the spiritual world run by God. God’s Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).

So, if we’re giving him our allegiance, should we be paying tribute to other rulers also?

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That taxing question (Matthew 22:17-22)

No, Jesus wasn’t promoting two kingdoms with divided loyalties.

Matthew already told us this was a trap. Pharisees and Herodians buttered Jesus up to ask this:

Matthew 22:17-22 (my translation, compare NIV)
17 “So, tell us what you think: should we pay tribute to Caesar or not?”
18 Aware of their evil intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you play actors? 19 Show me the tribute coin.” They offered him a denarius. 20 He says to them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Return Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
22 His response astounded them. They took their leave and departed.

If you don’t understand what this question meant in his culture, you might misunderstand Jesus’ answer. We often separate life into two domains: the physical world includes the country where you pay taxes to your rulers, and the spiritual world includes the church where you pay tithes to God. This separation of the physical and spiritual worlds (church and state) has been so common in recent centuries that it has a name: the “two kingdoms” view.

That’s not the Bible’s framework. Earth is not divided into two domains, with God ruling part of life and humans ruling the other. God is sovereign over everything, and the problem with the world is humans resisting his commands, controlling each other through violence, taking power into our own hands (Genesis 1 – 11). God did not tell the Hebrews, “You’re to live in two kingdoms, serving Pharaoh and me.” He told Pharaoh, “Release my people so they may serve me.”

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Personal identity and social influence (Matthew 22:15-18)

Are you your own person, or what people want you to be? How did Jesus navigate this struggle?

How do you balance remaining true to yourself with pleasing and influencing others? Few questions are more relevant today. It’s not a big issue in the Bible, but there was this time when Jesus overtly faced this struggle.

Matthew 22:15-18 (my translation, compare NIV)
15 Then the Pharisees put their heads together to trap him with his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians to say, “Teacher, we know you’re authentic, and you teach God’s way with authenticity. You don’t care what anyone thinks or look for people’s approval. 17 So, tell us what you think: should we pay tribute to Caesar or not?”
18 Aware of their evil intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you play actors?”

Just wow! Reading this, I feel like I could learn more from Jesus than from years of psychological research. Sure, Matthew has summarized a longer conversation, but how did Jesus gain such anthropological insight?

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