Here is a teaching I gave to my students on the strange chapter 24 of Matthew.
This is a teaching I gave on an exchange that Jesus had with the Pharisees, in which they tried to “entangle him in his words”. Jesus, in turn, outwits and entangles them in their words!
In Matthew 24, after his parables and woes of judgment against the leadership of the Jews, the Pharisees, Jesus begins a long and complicated discourse on “the end of the age” (Mt 24:3).
This discourse, at least in recent years, has popularly been taken to be about the end of the world; or, the Second Coming. What I want to suggest in this post is that this was never in the mind of Jesus when he gave this teaching, and more than that, the disciples would not have understood this teaching to be about his second coming. Rather, this prophecy is about the destruction of the temple in AD 70. How can we know?
First, the context of the preceding chapters, going back to chapter 21. The chapters before this begin with Jesus’ self-presentation as Messiah in chapter 21. Immediately following this, Jesus goes into the Mosaic temple to cleanse it of the corrupt money-changers who were selling sacrifices for profit (21:12-17). Following this, we are told that Jesus curses a fig tree for “not producing fruit” (21:19). The fig tree was a long-used metaphor for Israel: Israel was supposed to produce fruit through the Mosaic ministry given to them by YHWH; instead they became corrupted, legalistic, selfish. After this, Jesus launches into a number of parables renouncing the Jewish leaders and their sinfulness, at the end of which he tells the Pharisees that they will be replaced by a “people producing fruit” (21:43-44). This fruit-producing people is almost certainly a reference to the disciples, who were chosen to be a new leadership of a renewed Israel through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. All of this leads up to Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees, and a prophecy of impending doom in Matthew 23. Jesus finishes this series of woes with the warning that “your house is left to you desolate” (23:38). The house to which Jesus refers is unquestionably the temple. All that being said, the entire context is judgment against Israel — particularly the Pharisees — and a prophecy of the destruction of the temple with its sacrificial system.
Second, the context of the immediately preceding verses tells us what the chapter is about: chapter 24 starts off with the disciples pointing out the “buildings of the temple” (24:1). Jesus answers them, saying: “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be throne down”. Immediately after this, it is the disciples, and not Jesus, who ask about the ending of the age (24:3ff). Presumably, there is some connection between the topic of the temple and the end of the age, yes? It is odd that Jesus would prophesy the destruction of the holy temple, and the disciples would then change subject! Even more suspect, after this question of the end of the age, Jesus proceeds to tell them about various frightening “signs” that will take place before the revelation of “the abomination of desolation” who will stand “in the holy place”, referring to the temple. Whoever the abomination of desolation is, they will in some way desecrate the holy place, and presumably destroy it. All the signs point to a connection between the temple and the end of the age.
Third layer of context is found in the verses following the prophecy. After prophesying the coming of the abomination and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds (24:30), Jesus clarifies that all of this dramatic prophecy will happen within the disciples’ “generation” (24:34). Put another way, the disciples will experience all that Jesus had prophesied. This was never meant to be taken as a distant event in the future.
Putting all this together, it makes total sense to see Jesus’ warning of judgment as referring to AD 70. This is when Titus and the Roman armies not only destroyed Jerusalem, killing literally hundreds of thousands of Jews, but they also destroyed the epicenter of the Jewish religion: the temple and the holy of holies. Jesus referred to this event as a judgment of God on Israel and the fruitlessness of their ministry. What we must understand is that the destruction of the temple was in quite a literal sense the end of an age; the temple was the place where God met with man. Nowhere else did the divine presence, the Kavod, dwell, except in the holy of holies. And because of this, many Rabbis understood the temple to be the beginning of a renewed Eden. It was in the holy of holies that God and man were, in a sense, perfectly united. Redemption had in its own way been accomplish in the center of the temple. Without the temple, God was once again inaccessible. Man was once again lost, barred from the garden, left to wander on his own.
Joseph Ratizinger explains it this way:
For Judaism, the end of sacrifice, the destruction of the Temple, must have come as a tremendous shock. Temple and sacrifice lie at the heart of the Torah. Now there was no longer any atonement in the world, no longer anything that could serve as a counterweight to its further contamination of evil. What is more: God, who had set down his name in the Temple, and thus in a mysterious way dwelt within it, had now lost his dwelling place on earth. What had become of the Covenant? What had become of the promise? (Jesus of Nazereth: Holy Week, 32-33)
The words “end of the age” are appropriate. The destruction of the temple signaled the end of an age of atonement: God and man were once again separated. The Kavod had been lost by Israel as it had by Adam. Adam, as primordial priest, lost the divine presence by grasping for power. And likewise, the Pharisees lost the Kavod by grasping for power. This was not properly the end of the world, but certainly the end of the Mosaic age of atonement. We can anticipate then the significance of this end: the temple was done away with to make room for the coming of the age of the Messiah. And the Messiah, who in himself was the perfect union of God and man, a fruitful and faithful High Priest, would bring about the renewal of the entire earth by the giving of himself as sacrifice and atonement. Eden would be restored across the entire world.
OK then, but there is still a nagging question: what do we make of the cosmic “signs of the time” to which Jesus points in Matthew 24? All of what I have said lines up with the destruction of the temple and the replacement of that temple in the person of Christ except for these cosmological signs: Jesus refers to wars, earthquakes, sun and moon being darkened, and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds. How can this have occurred in AD 70?
What we must recognize here is that Jesus, in giving these dramatic descriptions, stood in a long prophetic tradition of using cosmological signs as metaphor for the falling of powerful nations and the judgment of God. So often in the prophetic literature, the fall of a nation was described in terms of the falling of sun, moon, stars. Even more, the destruction was signaled by the coming of God in the clouds.
For instance, Isaiah 14 describes fallen Babylon as “fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” (Is 14:12). Ezekiel 32:7-8 describes the fall of Egypt, saying,
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord God.
These are cosmic images used to describe the fall of powerful nations. In fact, this is how both Isaiah and later Jesus describe the fall of Satan, as a star falling from heaven.
Beyond this, the prophets often speak of the judgment of God as “riding on the clouds”. Isaiah 19:1 speaks of God coming to judge Egypt, saying: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them”.
What is Jesus doing then in Matthew 24, but continuing in the traditional language of the prophets. The Son of Man is coming in the clouds to judge Jerusalem by the hand of Rome. The Mosaic age is being done away with as unfruitful and corrupted; and a new age of the Messiah is enacted by the cross and resurrection.
This is a teaching on Matthew 21:23-32 about Jesus’ parable on the two sons. Click here to listen:
At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.
First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:
Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)
Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.
Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,
a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)
This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!
But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:
The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)
This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)
Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).
But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not
recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).
In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image.
But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:
What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)
Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again.
Athanasius continues his line of logic:
In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)
In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!
I am reading through the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov’s seminal work The Lamb of God. And I decided that I would (try to, at least) blog through this work. The work itself is Bulgakov’s Christology, or what he calls the divine-humanity. The question he asks throughout is: how is the divine humanity possible? Or, put another way: how is the union of God and man in Christ in reality even a possibility?
I want to begin with a few posts outlining Bulgakov’s highly important introduction. This introduction, which is quite long — a whopping nearly 90 pages — is a captivating survey of the patristic Christology. He surveys how the earliest church understood Christ’s divine humanity, which he understands as a long process of positive and negative development. He is surprisingly critical of much of the early fathers of the church, particularly of Cyril of Alexandria and the great Athanasius. I must admit that I was a bit put off by some of his negativity, especially of Cyril; but I must also admit that much of his critique was quite valid.
Bergakov begins the introduction by surveying Apollonarius’ theology. I want to devote this first post to Bulgakov’s recommendation of Apollonarius as the first theologian to actually articulate a Christology. That Bulgakov recommends Apollonarius may seem surprising by some, especially because his Christology is historically deemed as heretical. However, he starts there because, as he says, Apollonarius “was the first to pose the problem of divine-humanity” (p 3). Bulgakov goes so far as to say that the epoch of Christology “originates with his problematic” (p 3). What he means here is that Apollonarius was the first to pose just how God and man, by definition two differing beings, can fit together in the one person of Jesus Christ. Bulgakov explains:
Apollonarius was the first to consider a fundamental problem of Christology: What is the divine-humanity? Or, how is the incarnation possible? What does it presuppose? Apollonarius went beyond the naive physical notions of his predecessors, who were satisfied with the soteriological postulates of the incarnation and the affirmation of the fact of the latter. He began to analyze this fact, and from this analysis, Christology was born (p 4)
Bulgakov makes an important point: Apollonarius was the first to ask how it is that Jesus is God and man at the same time. How do they fit together in a unity which makes logical sense? Strictly speaking, before Apollonarius, the Fathers were content with saying things like “God assumed a human nature” or “the divine Son became a man”. This is Bulgakov’s problem with many of Athanasius’ schematics. While Athanasius was a great defender of the faith against Arianism (that the Son was a lesser demi-god), he still did not articulate how the Son was both God and man. And, while the Chalcedonian definition is creedal and therefore a “non-negotiable”, even that is minimal in its affirmation: the Son is consubstantial with God the Father and man. But, again, what does that mean? Apollonairius was the first to posit a solution to the problem.
Bulgakov explains this problem more in depth:
What meaning an we attach to this becoming (genesis) of the Word, who in himself possesses divine unchangeability but who assumes flesh, “becomes incarnate and is in-humanized” (these two notions being equated according to the Nicene Creed)? The flesh denotes the body and thus refers to man’s creaturely corporeality, which is opposed to the noncreaturely spirituality of Divinity. The in-humanization is thus defined, first of all, as the assumption of a body. We find this doctrine in particular in St. Athanasius: to express the doctrine of the incarnation, he is content to use the notions of soma (body) and sarx (flesh). Strictly speaking, there is no Christology here. (p 8)
What Bulgakov means here is that this isn’t really a postalizing about how the Son is incarnate: it’s just stating the matter! Apollonarius, whether for ill or good, was the first to give some sort of explanation.
But what was Apollonarius’ Christology? Before explaining, it is first important to note that Apollonarius’ intention in his Christology was to protect the unity of the God-man. Christ, as Apollonarius says, “is not two persons, as if one God and the other man” (p 5). Christ is one person somehow containing two natures. Another thing Apollonarius set out to do was to protect the unchangeability of the divine nature. God does not become anything, nor can he. So how can the unchangeable God become man? With these two boundaries set, Apollonarius set forth a Christology. Bulgakov explains:
According to [Apollonarius’] theory, the Logos [the Son] replaced, in the human essence of the God-man, the supreme principle of man, which Apollonarius calls (in the language of Hellenistic philosophy) pneuma or nous and which corresponds to the hypostatic spirit in man’s nature. (p 8)
Put another way, when the divine Son became united to the human nature, the divine nature replaced something within the human nature, thus “fitting” together in one person. To the historically astute, this articulation inevitably paves the way for monophysitism, the thought that the union of God and man in Christ creates a third single nature. This is not how Apollonarius understood it, however. In his mind, this articulation protected the unity of the God-man and the unchangeability of the divine nature.
It is also important to acknowledge that it is unclear what exactly Apollonarius meant by the terms pneuma or nous. In some places in his writings it seems like he means man’s soul or spirit. But in other places it seems like he means man’s intellect: “How does God become man without ceasing to be God if God does not take the place of the intellect of man?” (p 11). Bulgakov also notices importantly that Apollonarius believed man to be composed of three parts: body, soul, spirit. This means that Apollonarius almost certainly still understood Christ to have a human body and soul. So then, what part of the human nature did the divine replace, and how does it all fit together into a unity? There is confusion on this, but Bulgakov explains:
Apollonarius’ conception is …interpreted to mean that Christ assumed an incomplete human essence, namely body and soul, but without the human reason, which is replaced by divine reason. That is precisely how Apollonarius’ theory was interpreted by his contemporaries and his opponents, by St. Gregory the Theologian and in part even by St. Gregory of Nyssa. (p 13)
Bulgakov argues that this is not necessarily how Apollonarius meant it. His language was very imprecise, and he could have meant nous to be another part of the human person. In any case, the early church rejected Apollonarius’ Christology because they understood him to mean that the divine Son assumed a human nature devoid of human intellect or the human mind. If that was the case, it meant that the Son assumed an incomplete human nature. And this is of course where St. Gregory of Nazianzas’ famous saying came from: “Whatever is not assumed is not healed”. If Christ had not assumed a complete human nature — including the human mind — than the human nature as such is not fully regenerate, and thus salvation is not possible for mankind.
While agreeing with the church on this, Bulgakov makes this general observation before moving on in his introduction:
[Apollonarius’] errors did not find adherents in dogmatics; on the contrary, it was the positive aspects of his doctrine that were adopted and endure in dogmatics. In this sense there is an essential difference between Apollonarius and Arius, with whom he is sometimes compared with reference to Christology: Although Arius did awaken the dogmatic consciousness, gave rise to the homoosian movement, and was indeirectly responsible for the Nicene Creed…, his proper doctrine represents a direct rejection of the truth, pure falsehood without any ambiguity. In contrast, in Apollonarius’ doctrine everything has a double meaning; everything is a mixture of truth and error. In this respect he does not greatly differ from certain fathers who are honored as teachers of the Church…
But the access into historical dialectic Christology lies through Apollonarius’ theological doctrine, and this constitutes his enduring historical significance and, of course, his great achievement in behalf of the church. (p 18-19)
It is a bit odd to find Bulgakov speak so highly of this heretical Christology; and yet, I cannot disagree with Bulgakov. Apollonarianism was the first achieved Christology. Apollonarius meant to makes sense of Christ as one person, as a unity, yet being composed somehow of two natures. In the next post we will move to St. Cyril of Alexandria and his opposition to Apollonarius.
One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.
They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.
Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.
While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).
Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?
The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.
Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!