Having kicked off our Advent Begins in the Dark daily devotional series over at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, I’ve received a number of questions from readers, listeners, and congregants. I thought this question especially good and my attempt at an answer perhaps useful for others to read as well.
Here it is:
I have looked at a lot of commentary on these verses, but none of it rings true to me. These verses sound to me like Jesus was saying that the second coming was imminent — so imminent, in fact, that some of those standing there would be alive to see it.
The commentaries I have seen invoke the transfiguration or the resurrection or the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem in that day, instead of the second coming, but these don’t make sense to me.
Verse 27 says Jesus would come with angels and God’s glory and would pass judgment on people according what they have done, and then 28 says that some standing there would be alive to see it.
Is there a way to interpret this passage so that Jesus doesn’t get it wrong? Obviously, the way I’m looking at it, the Son of God was pretty far off on his timing. No second coming still.
Any thoughts would be appreciated. At your convenience. No rush. And we can do this by e-mail. I don’t need to take up your time in the office. Thanks.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions! To return a compliment you gave me, it’s clear you think deeply about scripture. I can’t promise any satisfactory answers, but I can assure you that I’d rather reply to a query like this one than negotiate the merits of real vs. artificial candles for Christmas Eve.
If I’m going to irritate everyone with my insistence that Advent is the season of the second coming, then it follows that I should be prepared to give an account of passages like the one you’ve cited in Matthew 16. As it happens, I don’t know that I’ve ever preached on this text befoer and it comes up in the lectionary’s 3-year cycle only once and then over Labor Day weekend.
Here’s some grist for your mind mill—
Matthew uses the word hekasto in vs. 27, meaning “every.” What’s imagined here by Jesus is the judgment of every human being, which by itself is a unique little word in that Matthew is the Gospel most focused on the particularlity of the Church as the New Israel and judgment typically pointed at the world for its treatment of Christ’s little ones, the Church.
Matthew begins vs. 27 with the word mellei. The NRSV begins the sentence with “For the Son of Man…” Translations are forever guilty of making the evangelists (and Jesus) sound more literate than they were, smoothing out the sentences and, inadvertently, wrinkling their meaning in the process. Here, the word mellei means “just about.” So: “Just about…the Son of Man will come…” It’s both proximate and urgent without in any way being clear or defined.
Still, you can infer from the diversity of interpretations in the tradition that the Church has been uncomfortable with the same gristle stuck in your craw; that is, the notion that his lack of return could imply that Jesus was wrong.
Augustine, for example, argued that Matthew 16 finds its fulfillment in the next chapter at the Transfiguration. Luther connected it to the Resurrection, specifically to the Risen Christ’s commission to the Church to baptize the nations into his death and resurrection. Calvin saw this passage of the coming as having come at Pentecost with the alighting of the Spirit. Some, as you indicate, see in it the Fall of Jerusalem— which, later, connects to the Transfiguration— and others see it in terms only of a second coming that hasn’t yet come.
It seems to me that there are no less than three questions behind your question:
1) Should we be concerned that Jesus may have been wrong about the timing of his return?
2) Was Jesus wrong in this instance in Matthew 16?
3) What do we make of what he says in Matthew 16 about judgment coming to us based on our behavior?
It’s called the “criterion of embarrassment” and I’ve written about it in other places. Basically, it holds that one of the reasons you can trust the witness of the NT is that contains too many otherwise embarrassing details were it made up wholecloth in order to persuade you its hero’s side. Rather than worrying about Jesus being wrong, I think this could be an instance where we’re encouraged that the scriptures are ‘right’ in the witness they give us. That is, the fact that Matthew was willing to commit to papyrus a statement of Jesus already proveably wrong by the time of publication indicates not Jesus’ unreliability about timing so much as Matthew’s reliability when it comes to his testimony.
Another way of thinking about your dis-ease with Jesus getting it wrong: Luther called it a “theology of glory” against which he cast his “theology of the cross.” Reading Genesis 1-3, Luther saw in Adam our desire always to go looking for a better god with different words than the God who has spoken to us (in his Son). We’re hard-wired, which is to say we’re Sin-compelled, to look for a god who conforms to our (glorious) conceptions; whereas, the God of the Bible generally and Christ particularly loves to “hide himself among his opposites.” While I don’t think Jesus is wrong here in Matthew 16, I think it’s okay for him to be wrong. A God with broken timetables isn’t really any different than a God broken, like stale bread, upon a cross.
But you may wonder next:
Mustn’t Jesus’ teachings be reliable and true?!
Remember, all of the Gospels are written from the vantage of Easter’s surprise.
What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative is not that Jesus taught and said them.
What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative for us is what God did with him.
With the crucified Jesus.
God raising the otherwise accursed Jesus from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ faithfulness, it’s the only thing that makes Jesus’ teachings and sayings of any bother. Our faith, in other words, is grounded not upon what Jesus said or did but upon what God did with Jesus, which then makes what Jesus said and did worth our attention— truth be told, prior to Holy Week nothing much that Jesus said or taught was novel or earth-shattering.
When you narrow the definition of the Gospel back its original parameters (Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification), it’s not as troubling that maybe the human Jesus got his schedule wrong. I’m okay with Jesus being wrong, in other words, because it’s God raising him from the dead alone that makes him— from the hinsight of the empty tomb— right.
Having not preached— and, thus, not having thought deeply about— this text I was planning to leave you with only the above response. But, re-reading the latter half of Matthew’s Gospel, I’m not so sure that St. Augustine’s interpretation should so easly dis-satisfy us.
Full disclosure— I believe the apostolic message of Paul, which chronologically precedes the four Gospels should determine our reading of those Gospels. Another way of putting it, Paul in his letters says what Jesus did in the Gospels, making Jesus the first Christian so to speak. So Jesus’ statements of judgment here in Matthew 16 should be read in light of Paul’s Gospel announcement that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Augustine was someone who most definitely did read the Gospels in light of the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostle Paul. And while I’m not bothered by the notion of Jesus being “wrong” I don’t think that’s the case in this text.
I think Augustine was— is— right. And I think it’s in keeping with the Gospels theme of the Day of Judgment moving from John the Baptist’s message of “not yet but very soon” to Jesus’ announcement that it’s “already arrived and still to come.”
The very next verse, after Matthew has Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming in glory, Matthew tells us Jesus took Peter and James up a high mountain where he was transfigured before them, in glory. Peter and James (“there are some standing here…”) see Jesus with Elijah and Moses. But Peter and James are commanded not to heed them but to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah respectively represent the Law and the Prophets. The Law was the means by which God’s People achieved holiness and the Prophets called the People back to the Law. At Sinai, the people promised “all this we will do and more” inviting God’s judgment if they failed to follow. The prophets predicted God’s judgment because they had failed. Thus, the Transfiguration depicts visually what John says at the beginning of his Gospel that “the Law came with Moses but grace and truth have come with Jesus Christ.” In other words, the incarnation itself is the arrival of a kind of judgment; the grace given through Christ is a not so tacit acknowledgement that we could accrue no righteouness on our own through the means given by way of Moses or Elijah. So judgment has already come to the disciples before they’ve tasted death because they’re in the presence of the Judge who has come to be judged in their place.
The NT’s understanding is that the crucifixion itself is the primary Last Judgment upon Sin and sinners— the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The cross is the place where sheep and goats are gathered at his right and left, some mourning for him and others jeering at him, neither group— not even his mother that side of Easter— comprehending who he was and is (“when did we see you naked…?”). So I think the first step is to submit Matthew 16 to Matthew 26-7– the Gospels should be read like movies, the end determines how we interpret the stuff at the beginning and end. We can’t just go about picking passages at random to answer the questions we impose upon a text that maybe isn’t trying to answer those queries. And, as we say at baptism, the cross is where we’re repaid the wages of sin. In him, we die to Sin with him; such that, now, for those of us in Christ, clothed with his own righteousness, any notion of a Last Judgment looks more like the Father’s prodigal feast where— still well within the family— may end up being an asshole elder brother, so offended by grace to our kin that we stay outside nursing our grudge. Or, as Robert Capon said, “Hell is the lonliest bar in the universe,” which is a fun way to say that any judgment for the justified is premised on how we relate to the Judge. To quote the Pharisee and the Publican—Do we give thanks that we are in fact exactly like other people and yet we’re loved? If not, then, as Malachi says in an Advent reading, God’s judgment will not be condemnation but it will be purgation, for God is a refining fire.