NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 35: “The whole world, earth, and sky will pass away before My word will be proven false.”
Some scholars believe that Jesus’ reference to “these people,” in the previous verse, is actually a reference to the Jewish people and God’s promise of their unending relationship with Him. They take this from the words in Jeremiah: “The LORD says, “I will never reject the descendants of Israel. That would happen only if people could measure the sky above, and learn all the secrets of the earth below. Only then would I reject them for the bad things they have done.”1 One Rabbi asked: “Has heaven ever been measured? Is the earth tottering on its foundations? From the fact that both heaven and earth are stretched out as in the past, you should draw the proper conclusion and not be afraid.”2
One anonymous writer of the early church gives his explanation of this text: “This generation” refers both to those who suffer temptation and to those who cause it. It refers to sinners among men and to the demons who are at work in them. For neither group will cease being in the world until its consummation. For Christ said, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’3 Moreover, it is necessary that the source of temptation be preserved as long as there is faith which needs testing. It is also possible, however, that ‘this generation’ refers to those mortal Christians who would not pass over into eternal life and be made immortal ‘until’ all the events about which Christ was speaking had taken place. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ because heaven and earth were created to serve you, but my words were uttered to govern you. Both heaven and earth are subject to vanity, as the apostle said, ‘Creation is subject to vanity.’4 Truth, however, is by nature unable to deceive and can never die.”5
One thing that I stress to my students and audiences when speaking of the return of Christ, especially to resurrect the sleeping believers and transform the living ones to meet Him in the air, is not to think of it catching them unawares and in so doing expose them in a compromising situation. Rather, think of it as a possible unexpected cessation to their work here on earth for the kingdom of God. In that case, it will only find them working hard to finish their last project and complete their assigned tasks. But on this we can be sure, it will not come until we have all done what He intends for us to do. So instead of watching the calendar or looking up at the sky, we should have our eyes set on the goals set before us, and am striving with His help to reach them as soon as we can.
Verse 36: “No one knows when that day or time will be. The Son and the angels in heaven don’t know when it will be. Only the Father knows.”
This statement by Jesus that only the Father knows the exact day and time is not a new revelation. In fact, our Lord may have only been quoting what was said centuries earlier by another prophet who stated that only the LORD knows the day and hour when the Messiah will come and set foot on the Mount of Olives.6 We see this in the prayer of another apocalyptic writer who prayed to the One: “Who causes the drops of rain to rain by number upon the earth, and alone knows the consummation of the times before they come.”7
Origen, in the early church period, had this to say about knowing the day and the hour of our Lord’s return. He says: “As long as the church, Christ’s body, does not know that day and hour, the Son Himself is said not to know it in order that He may be understood to learn of that day and hour only when all of His members do. But ‘to know’ is given its own special meaning here (as is customary with sacred Scripture), for only he who remains to meet its arrival will know that day and hour.”8 We will find out a little later on that Origen seems to be talking about the moment of death for each individual, not the second coming of Christ.
Origen makes an important point here. The sudden return of Christ to whisk away all those living who believe and are serving Him to join those rising from their rest will be known only the moment it happens, and then alone to those who are ready and have been waiting. Oh yes, there will be signs that scriptures are being fulfilled leading up to that moment, but there will be no prior signal of the exact hour, even to those who await His return. So in Origen’s mind, why should the groom know before the bride knows of the appointed time for their meeting in the sky.
However, Bishop Hilary of Poitiers finds that Jesus may have been speaking for our sake, not His. He writes: “When Christ taught us that no one knows the day on which the end of time will come, not the angels and not even Himself, He removed from us any need to be concerned about its date. O immeasurable mercy of divine goodness! Since the Son said, ‘All things have been delivered to me by my Father,’9 we know that the Father did not deny Him the knowledge of this day. If anything was denied Him, He could not have said that all things were delivered to Him. But because the Son has handed on to us everything the Father gave Him and the Word of God does not contain in Himself as much assurance of the future as of things already accomplished, therefore it was established by God that the date of the end should be indefinite. Thus, He could allow us an abundant amount of time for repentance yet still keep us attentive for fear of the uncertain and so as to avoid giving anyone the idea of a particular day by expressing His will. For just as at the time of the flood, in the normal course of our life, in our activities and in our sufferings, that great day will suddenly appear.”10
This idea that the Son of God, who is one with the Father, did not know at what appointed time His return was scheduled has been a puzzle to many Bible scholars since the beginning. Some think that Jesus was basing His statement on the fact that even as the eternal Son of the Father, that for this period in His existence He had been limited physically to this earth for a specific amount of time. Therefore, since His omnipresence was restrained, then also His omnipotence and omniscience were also curbed for this short period. As such, He was speaking as the Son of Man to men, not as the Son of God. But that is more speculation than explanation. It is more likely that Jesus was saying that just as the Father appointed the instance for Him to come the first time, so only the Father can approve the time for Him to return. Therefore, Christ was identifying Himself with what He as a man was given to know on this subject, not what He as God’s Son knew about the actual date and time.
British theologian Charles John Ellicott touches on this in his commentary. He writes: “The over-eager expectations of some, and the inevitable reaction of doubt and scorn in others, both rested on their assumption that the Son of Man had definitely fixed the time of His appearing, and on their consequent forgetfulness of the ‘long-suffering’ which might extend a day into a thousand years.11 It is obviously doing violence to the plain meaning of the words to dilute them into the statement that the Son of Man did not communicate the knowledge which He possessed as the Son of God. If we are perplexed at the mystery of this confession in One in whom we recognize the presence of ‘the fullness of the Godhead bodily,12 we may find that which may help us at least to wait patiently for the full understanding of the mystery in St. Paul’s teaching, that the eternal Word in becoming flesh, ’emptied Himself’13 of the infinity which belongs to the divine attributes,and took upon Him the limitations necessarily incidental to man’s nature, even when untainted by evil and in fullest fellowship, through the Eternal Spirit, with the Father.”14
Chrysostom sees it this way: “Jesus spoke these things in order to show that He would return unexpectedly and suddenly and when many were living luxuriously. For Paul also says this: ‘When they shall speak of peace and security, then sudden destruction will come upon them.’15 To show just how unexpectedly He uses the metaphor “as travail comes upon a woman with child.”16 Although there is great interest in wanting to know all the mysterious of our Lord’s return, one thing is crystal clear: be ready.
1 Jeremiah 31:37
2 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Piska 19:5, p. 439
3 Matthew 25:41
4 Romans 8:20
5 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 49
6 Zechariah 14:1-7
7 2 Baruch 21:8
8 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 55
9 Matthew 11:27
10 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 26:4
11 See 2 Peter 3:3-8
12 Colossians 1:19; 2:9
13 See Philippians 2:7
14 C. J. Ellicott’s Bible Commentary, loc. cit.
15 1 Thessalonians 5:3
16 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 77.2