The Sum of the Parts

The Coming of the Son of Man: Matthew 24:29–35

‘Straight away,’ Jesus continued, ‘after the suffering that those days will bring,
The sun will turn to darkness,
and the moon won’t give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will shake.
‘And then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven; then all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see “the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. He will send off his messengers with a great trumpet-blast, and they will collect his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
‘Learn the hidden meaning from the fig tree. When its branch begins to sprout, and to push out its leaves, then you know that summer is nearly there. So with you: when you see all these things, you will know that it is near, at the very gates. I’m telling you the truth: this generation won’t be gone before all these things happen. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never, ever disappear.’

A friend of mine is a composer. (It’s something I would like to have been myself, had things worked out differently, so I take a particular interest in what he does.) I watched one day as he worked on a particular piece he was writing. The large sheet of music paper sat there in front of him, with a dozen or more sets of lines waiting for notes to be written on them.
He was, at that moment, writing the clarinet part. He had already penciled in the violins, several staves below. There were a couple of scribbles where the brass would go, somewhere in between. He had an idea about the flute and piccolo, and a few notes in their part were already there to give an indication of what would be balancing the clarinet in the woodwind section.
I left him to it and got on with other things. An hour or two later we met for coffee, and he showed me the page. It was more or less complete. In order to make about 15 seconds’ worth of music, he had had to spend several hours writing out, one by one in turn, the individual line for each instrument. They would be heard all together, but they needed (of course) to be written out separately.
Now imagine that process in reverse. Listen to a short piece of music. It’s over in a few seconds. But now go to the orchestra and ask the instruments to play their lines one after the other. There may well be several minutes between when the piccolo begins and when the double bass concludes. What is essentially one short piece of music could be spun out over quite some time.
Reading the sort of section now in front of us demands that sort of imagination. Often in the Bible there are passages in which several things have come rushing together into one short, tight-packed chord or musical sequence. But in order to understand them, we have to take them apart and allow them to be heard one after the other. Particularly when it comes to prophecy, the biblical writers often spoke of something which sounded as though it was all one event but which they knew might well be, and we know actually was, a sequence of events, one after the other.
The tune that this passage is playing is called ‘the coming of the son of man’. In some parts of today’s church, it’s almost the only tune they sing, and I am concerned that they usually sing it in the wrong key. The orchestration is rich and dense. It needs looking at bit by bit.
Here’s a bit from the prophet Isaiah. ‘The sun will be darkened, the moon won’t shine, the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly powers will be shaken.’ What does that mean?
For Isaiah, and for those who read him in the first century, the one thing it didn’t mean was something to do with the actual sun, moon and stars in the sky. That would make a quite different tune. This language was well known, regular code for talking about what we would call huge social and political convulsions. When we say that empires ‘fall’, or that kingdoms ‘rise’, we don’t normally envisage any actual downward or upward physical movement. Matthew intends us to understand that the time of the coming of the son of man will be a time when the whole world seems to be in turmoil.
But what will this ‘coming’ itself actually be? What will Jesus’ ‘royal appearing’ consist of? Matthew takes us back, in line with so much in Jesus’ teaching, to the prophet Daniel again, and this time to the crucial passage in 7:13 (verse 30 in our present passage). They will see, he says, ‘the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven’. Now in Daniel this certainly refers, not to a downward movement of this strange human figure, but to an upward movement. The son of man ‘comes’ from the point of view of the heavenly world, that is, he comes from earth to heaven. His ‘coming’ in this sense, in other words, is not his ‘return’ to earth after a sojourn in heaven. It is his ascension, his vindication, the thing which demonstrates that his suffering has not been in vain.

What is it, then, that will demonstrate that Jesus has been vindicated by God? Three things.

First, his resurrection and ascension. These great, dramatic, earth-shattering events will reverse the verdicts of the Jewish court and the pagan executioners. They will show that he is indeed ‘the son of man’ who has suffered at the hands of the ‘beasts’ or ‘monsters’—who now, it seems, include the Temple and those who run it!—and is nevertheless then declared by God to be his true spokesman.

Second, the destruction of the Temple. Jesus, speaking as a prophet, predicted that it would fall, not as an arbitrary exercise of his prophetic powers but because the Temple had come to symbolize all that was wrong with the Israel of his day. And he had predicted the terrible suffering that would precede it. That’s why, in verse 25, he underlines the fact that he has told them about it beforehand. They are to trust that he is a true prophet. They must not be deceived by the odd things that others may do to lead them astray. And when the Temple finally falls, that will be the sign that he was speaking the truth. That will be his real vindication. His exaltation over the world, and over the Temple, will be written in large letters into the pages of history; or, as they would put it, ‘they will see the sign of the son of man … in heaven’ (verse 30).

Third, the news of his victory will spread rapidly throughout the world. What people will see is strange messengers, alone or in small groups, traveling around from country to country telling people that a recently executed Jewish prophet has been vindicated by God, that he is the Messiah and the Lord of the world. But that’s just the surface event. The deeper dimension of these happenings is that the one true God is announcing to his whole creation that Jesus is his appointed Lord of the world. Or, as they would put it, ‘he will send off his messengers’ (or ‘angels’) and ‘collect his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’. If we are to understand the biblical writers, we have to learn, once again, to read their language in their way.

All this is spoken to Jesus’ disciples so they will know when the cataclysmic events are going to happen. Watch for the leaves on the tree, and you can tell it’s nearly summer. Watch for these events, and you’ll know that the great event, the destruction of the Temple and Jesus’ complete vindication, is just around the corner. And be sure of this, says Jesus (and Matthew wants to underline this): it will happen within a generation.

That is an extra important reason why everything that has been said in the passage so far must be taken to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the events that surround it. Only when we appreciate how significant that moment was for everything Jesus had said and done will we understand what Jesus himself stood for.
But remember the composer and the music. In the long purposes of God, we who read passages like this many centuries later may find that what was said as a single statement, one short piece of music, can then be played as a string of separate parts, one after the other. I see no reason why, once we are quite clear about its original meaning, we should not then see the chapter as a pointer to other events, to the time we still await when God will complete what he began in the first century, and bring the whole created order, as Paul promised in Romans 8, to share the liberty of the glory of God’s children. As we look back to the first century, we should also look on to God’s still-promised future, and thank him that Jesus is already enthroned as Lord of all time and history.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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