Good Question: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet that the embarrassed church had to re-work into something different?

[draft: Aug 12/2012]

(This is a different question than 'Was Jesus a Failed Messiah?')


Hi Glen (sic) Miller,

I recently discovered your excellent site when I was looking up arguments to go against an atheist with, and I was and am impressed with the high level of research and time that you put into each of the hard questions you tackle. So when I came across a blog post on a forum that really bothered me, I felt that you may do the best job of refuting it.

My apologetics question is basically, "Was Jesus a Failed Eschatological Prophet?" This is not just asking about a few verses, but about the purpose of Jesus' ministry and its "apparent" unfulfillment. Numerous references by Jesus (and other New Testament writers) to a nearing of the end times have always bothered me in the back of my mind, but this blog post (which I will copy in its entirety here) really shakes my faith. It basically tries to show that the thrust of Jesus' message was that His end-times kingdom was coming very soon, and all his followers like Paul and John believed this. Then when this didn't come true, the church distanced itself from the end times, such as in the last Gospel, John, where its message focuses more on eternal life than the apocalypse. I had originally came across this post in a forum because I was bothered with Jesus' statement in Matthew 26:64 that the high priest would see Jesus coming in the clouds of heaven. Yet this post I found was much broader in its attacks on Jesus and the New Testament message.

By the way, I did search your topics list to see if you addressed this issue, and your article to a Finland reader ( was very helpful. I do not ask that you repeat your responses from that article, but only I wish that you would answer some of the other arguments mentioned in the blog post that has been bothering me, which is below (I apologize for the length of this post -- but I'm truly troubled by it):


PART TWO==================== (See Part One for series header)



Do the passages in the Gospels which portray 'urgency' teach that the end of the world was going to happen within that generation?

Of course, if there are no passages which actually teach that the end of the world was going to happen within that generation, then any 'urgency' passages would not be able to carry that proof-load either. Urgency and imminence are often coupled--throughout the Bible (especially in contexts of avoiding impending judgment)--but it is watchfulness and unexpectedness that are coupled in the eschatological words of Jesus.


If you look at a list of passages on 'watchfulness' (and/or 'preparedness'), for example, this pattern is obvious:


Luke 12.35: Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.


Mark 13.32: But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”



Matthew 24.37: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.


Notice two things about these passages: (1) they come from all three of the Synoptics without any development/change of content or tone; and (2) the unexpectedness of the Return demands alertness and perseverance (obedience, faithfulness, patience, purity). It is the uncertainly of the Return that creates the moral imperatives--NOT some alleged 'certainty' of it (within 40 years).


Even Matthew's view that the end is near leads to watchfulness:


"Matthew believes that the end is near. He takes over the text of the Gospel of Mark with practically no changes—an indication that obviously the near expectation was not a problem for him, although twenty years may have passed since the writing of the Gospel of Mark. To be sure, it is not the decisive starting point for his parenesis. What is most important for him is not the nearness of the time that, in the sense of an “interim ethic,” requires one to make a “final dash to the finish line”; it is rather its uncertainty that leads to constant “watching” (v. 42*). " [Luz, U. (2005). Matthew 21–28: A commentary (H. Koester, Ed.). Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (209). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.]


We should also note that this same preparedness/unexpectedness connection is also made in explicit 'delay' sayings of Jesus--often in the same discourse with the above ones.


So, Matt 24.45ff immediately follows the 'stay awake' passage, and emphasizes perseverance (implying patience and consistency of behavior):


Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (Mt 24:45–51).


And Matthew's Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids follows that:


Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  (Mt 25:1–13).



So, the imminence motif (which is at least 50% an 'unexpectedness' motif) is linked to the imperatives of preparedness, constancy, moral reform, and stewardship. There is no explicit link between these calls to reform and loyalty and a 'time forecast' of the Return.


So, how would we understand various 'urgency' passages--as possibly based on a possible expectation of a 40year-window?



How about Matthew 10.23 ( the 'until the Son of Man comes' passage), which we have already looked at.


It does not say anything about 'hurrying to evangelize', but rather 'hurry to flee'! Since this is the first Sending-of-disciples passage we have, there is no evidence in the text or context that it had any urgency to the near-term mission trip (i.e. to the Galilean towns) nor to the interim mission of the Church to the Jews nor even to some far-term mission to the Jew in the intense period before the Parousia. This passage just doesn't have any bearing on the question, actually.


The only 'time element' in it is that the (future) disciples will not run out of places to flee before the Lord returns--His statement amounts to a 'protection' clause:


"In this work they would suffer persecution, vv. 17–22. But persecution would not become so universal that a city of Israel could not be found as a refuge before the Son of Man came." [Allen, W. C. (1907). A critical and exegetical commentary on the gospel according to S. Matthew. International Critical Commentary (106–107). New York: C. Scribner's Sons.]


"A Jewish tradition that may have been in circulation in Jesus’ day warns that in the time of final tribulation, Jewish people persecuted for their faith would have to flee from one city to another. The disciples may have understood his words in these terms. Jesus’ point seems to be that they will always have someplace to which they can escape, and some will survive to the end no matter how severe the persecution is (24:22)." [Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mt 10:23). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


"The latter (interpretation) leads more naturally to a reassurance that places of temporary refuge will not have run out before the time of stress is dramatically brought to an end by the coming of the Son of Man. The latter is to be preferred [Nolland, J. (2005). The Gospel of Matthew: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (427). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]


In fact, Matthew omits an 'urgency indicator' that is included in Luke's allegedly later version:


"The former could involve a justification of the fleeing as a maximising of mission possibilities in light of the strictly limited time available (but Matthew has not made use of the symbol of urgency provided in Lk. 10:4—‘greet no one on the way’)". [Nolland, HI:NIGTC, at Matthew]


This would be contrary data to the blogger's position--since it is the later tradition which makes the earlier tradition 'more urgent', instead of less so.






How about Jesus' command to leave all to follow Him? Could this be due to an explicit teaching by Jesus that the world would end before the disciples would die?


Hard to see this being the case for a couple of reasons.


First, Jesus was not uniform on this point at all. He refused to let other willing believers 'abandon all' and follow Him.


So, for example, the demoniac at Gadara is described in all three Synoptics. But in Mark (the earliest?) and Luke (the latest?), the healed person--a potentially powerful witness to the power of God in Jesus(!)--wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus sent him home instead:  


As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mk 5:18–20).


Cf. also:


Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”  (Mk 8:25–26).


Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. (Mt 12:15–16).



Second, the 'secrecy motif' in Mark/Matthew argues against this too:


And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 45 But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter. (Mk 1:40–45).


They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. 41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. 43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mk 5:38–43).


And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  (Mk 7:32–36).


And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district. (Mt 9:27–31).


All of these would be powerful witnesses of God's power in Messiah Jesus, but none of them were told to 'drop everything and follow me'. That was reserved for a select few.


Third, 'leaving everything' was actually not part of Jesus' message (certainly not to the masses). His phrases were 'take up your cross and follow me', "renounce everything", and 'deny yourself'.


We only have two references of Him talking about 'everything'. One was in the 'test' of the Rich Ruler, in which Jesus actually suggests selling everything (not just 'leaving' or 'renouncing'). And Jesus ties the action to eternal rewards ("...and you will have treasure in heaven"), not to some 'time is running out' motif. There is not a hint of imminent eschatology in any of the three Synoptic accounts of this. Jesus points out that such self-sacrifice results in rewards in 'this time' and 'in the age to come'.


All the data we have about the followers of Jesus seems to indicate that nobody actually was expected to 'sell everything and give to the poor'. Zaccheus the tax collector was commended for giving half, the women who followed Jesus supported Him 'out of their means', and the disciple-homeowner of the Upper Room obviously held his property--for the Lord's use. And, as He was suffering on the Cross, he entrusted the care of His mother Mary to the Beloved Disciple John--and John obviously still has a 'house' to take her into (John 19.27)


This can be also be seen in the second relevant 'renunciation' passage, Luke 14.27ff:


Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. [ (Lk 14:25–33). ]


That this renunciation is internal (like 'hating your own life') is fairly clear from the passage and the history:


"The Essenes devoted all their property to the community; some radical Greek philosophers espoused the same kind of teaching. But the rest of early Judaism and, even more, Greco-Roman society at large rejected such fanaticism; Judaism stressed giving to charity but not divestiture of possessions. Jesus’ disciples did not become propertyless but shared all that they had (Acts 2:44–45; cf. comment on 12:12). Nevertheless, Jesus would sound like one of the radical teachers, because he claims that anyone who values possessions more than people—and so holds onto them rather than meeting known needs—is not being his disciple." [Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Lk 14:33). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


"Jesus has applied his illustrations so now he introduces another cost of discipleship. Discipleship is more than “hating” family or bearing a cross: one must also distance oneself from materialistic attachment to the world. The use of (houtōs, in the same way) makes the comparison. The disciple is to renounce possessions... A disciple’s attachments are potentially the most destructive thing for discipleship. This verse expresses positively what is required, in contrast to the negatively formed statements of 14:26. Hating family and self equals renouncing all possessions, that is, all earthly attachments. The will to renounce all possessions and to ally oneself totally to Jesus is the essence of discipleship. Jesus is first. He is the one object of focus. Persevering with Jesus means being attached to him, not to possessions. The force of this radical call is “all are called to be prepared for it although it will not be a reality for all” (Schweizer 1984: 241). If Jesus offers what he says he offers, then there can be no greater possession than following him. Jesus seeks to lead people in doing the Father’s will, offering to the disciple the treasures of heaven. Luke–Acts notes specific fulfillments of this promise and attitude (Schneider 1977a: 321–22; Luke 5:11, 28; 12:3; 14:26; 18:22; Acts 2:44–45; 4:32). One is not really an effective, worthy disciple without this attitude (Luke 14:26–27). The one who comes to Jesus is to realize this standard. Jesus is not a minimalist when it comes to commitment. It is not how little one can give that is the question, but how much God deserves." [Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (1289–1290). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.]


"It is likely that Acts 2:44; 4:32 portray, rather than a literal disposal of all of one’s assets, Luke’s notion of how this commitment should manifest itself in the ongoing life of the church. The important thing in the present context is the need to be disencumbered (as in v 26) in order to have the necessary freedom to live out the reality of discipleship. In Luke’s understanding, preoccupation with property and wealth has a disastrous effect on the possibility of coming to terms with the discipleship demands of Jesus (cf. 6:24; 8:14; 16:14). In the structure of Luke’s thought, disencumberment from wealth is the third of the necessary resources for discipleship, to be added to “hate” for one’s family and the carrying of a cross." [Nolland, J. (1998). Vol. 35B: Luke 9:21–18:34. Word Biblical Commentary (764). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


Thus, this call to allegiance and constant obedience is related to Who Jesus is, rather than when He might return. Renunciation of all things does not deprecate their value (which would be the case if they were to be imminently destroyed), but rather deprecates the value of attachment to them--when compared to attachment to God-in-Christ.


Of course, the disciples 'left all' and followed Jesus, but this did not mean that they actually SOLD  all their belongings and severed all attachments [cf. Peter's mother-in-law, the mother of the James/John of Zebedee, the apostles who traveled with their wives (1 Cor 9.5), Jesus' own ministry to His mother at the Cross, the women disciples who supported Jesus out of their own means (Lk 8.3), etc.].



The theme of the call to discipleship is the call to God-centeredness rather than self-centeredness (a form of idolatry). Self-denial and renunciation of all things is due to the allegiance to God-in-Christ, not to some eschatological time-scheme.


[I guess I should also point out that this renunciation passage (of all things) only occurs in Luke--it is not present in the earlier, allegedly-more-apocalyptic Mark or Matthew... contra the hypothesis under consideration.]



There are just no links in these 'urgency' passages to some prediction of imminent return. It IS in the context of 'eventual return' (i.e., for rewards and re-assignments), but the time element is simply not there.


How about Jesus' statement that even burying parents was a lower priority? Could this be due to an explicit teaching of a within-40years Return?


Again, the data is wrong for the hypothesis (timing-wise) and irrelevant to the hypothesis (content-wise).


The passage in question does NOT occur in Mark--it is only in Matthew and Luke. The timing is wrong for the hypothesis.


And even the content is not 'eschatological' in any sense.


Here's the passage from Matthew and Luke:


Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead. (Mt 8:18–22).


As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:57–62).



·         Matthew does not even mention the Kingdom of God in this passage--it is strictly about following Jesus.

·         Luke mentions the KoG as something to be proclaimed, not anticipated per se. It was about spreading the message about the demands/offering of the Kingdom, not about the imminence of the arrival of the Kingdom.


This call by Jesus is highly radical, and can only be explained by reference to Christ as the Temple of God--IMO.


The Law (and its later elaborators) specified high family commitments, and Jesus consistently placed Himself above family (e.g. this passage, the 'who are my brothers and my mother?' passage, the 'must hate family to be true disciple'), even though much of the verbiage is good Semitic hyperbole.


Jesus affirmed filial responsibility--even arguing with the religious leaders about it:


"Jesus will later rebuke the Pharisees and teachers of the law for not rightly honoring father and mother (15:1–9), so he is not advocating the contravening of the Old Testament prescription."  [ZIBBCNT]


So, something else is at play in the passage.


Some think the disciple's question to be an avoidance or delay-tactic:


"But K. E. Bailey, drawing on the insight of Arabic commentators and on his own experience of cultures and idioms of the Middle East, insists that such a scenario results from a “western” reading of the text and is culturally impossible. If the father had just died, the son could hardly be out at the roadside with Jesus; his place was to be keeping vigil and preparing for the funeral. Rather, to “bury one’s father” is standard idiom for fulfilling one’s filial responsibilities for the remainder of the father’s lifetime, with no prospect of his imminent death. This would then be a request for indefinite postponement of discipleship, likely to be for years rather than days. In that case Jesus’ reply would be less immediately shocking—the man’s proposed “discipleship” was apparently not very serious." [France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (329). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.]


"One of an eldest son’s most basic responsibilities (in both Greek and Jewish cultures) was his father’s burial. The initial burial took place shortly after a person’s decease, however, and family members would not be outside talking with rabbis during the reclusive mourning period immediately following the death. It has recently been shown that what is in view here instead is the secondary burial: a year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box in a slot in the tomb’s wall. The son in this narrative could thus be asking for as much as a year’s delay. ... Nevertheless, Jesus’ demand that the son place him above the greatest responsibility a son had toward his father would have sounded like heresy: in Jewish tradition, honoring father and mother was one of the greatest commandments, and to follow Jesus at the expense of not burying one’s father would have been viewed as dishonoring one’s father (cf. Tobit 4:3–4)." [Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mt 8:21). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


And it may be that the religious leaders of Jesus' time had already started 'watering down' the priority of God over all-else (including family and nation)--and needed such a corrective:


"Lord, first let me go and bury my father (8:21). Burial of the dead supersedes other religious obligations in Israel, even for the priests, who were allowed to be defiled by touching the dead if it was for a family member (Lev. 21:2). The obligation to care for the dead comes implicitly from the command to “honor your father and mother,” which is among the greatest commandments; this was made explicit in later Jewish practice. Surprisingly, the practice began to supersede other religious obligations: “He whose dead lies unburied before him is exempt from reciting the Shema, from saying the Tefillah and from wearing phylacteries” (m. Ber. 3:1). The Talmudic interpretation carries it even one step further: “He who is confronted by a dead relative is freed from reciting the Shema, from the Eighteen Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah” (b. Ber. 31a)." [Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 1: Matthew, Mark, Luke (60). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]



But the closest point of reference for such a claim regards the High Priest (and its lay counterpart in holiness, the Nazirite):


"Indeed, this (burying a parent) was required of a son by the Torah implicitly in the commandment to honor one’s father and mother and hence explicitly in later Jewish tradition (cf. Gen 50:5; Tob 4:3; cf. Sir 38:16; m Ber. 3:1, where burial of the dead supersedes other religious duties; in Lev 21:2 priests are allowed the defilement of touching the dead in the case of close family members); indeed, not to do so would violate the command of God. Yet Jesus in his response denies the legitimacy of such a delay. It is tempting for this reason to understand θάψαι τὸν πατέρα μου, “to bury my father,” in the sense of “look after him until he dies” (for evidence that the phrase could have been understood in this sense, see K. E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980] 26–27), but this too is required by the Torah. In fact, so important is the commitment to honor one’s parents that to fail in any of the following responsibilities is to be untrue to the Torah: to bury a father who has just died, to participate in the six days of official mourning after such a death, to look after one who is sick and perhaps near death, and to provide for an aging parent who may yet live many years. From the standpoint of the call to discipleship, the longer the delay involved the more reasonable Jesus’ negative reaction becomes (cf. 15:4). But the call to discipleship is for Jesus an absolute one that need not satisfy any normal canons of responsibility: “Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus’ call in this case supersedes even strict obedience to the commandment of the Torah. For a similar exception pertaining to high priests and Nazirites, see Lev 21:11, Num 6:6–7 (for an analysis of its radical character, see E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985] 252–55). Jesus’ response to the disciple is “typical of the shock-tactics with which Jesus’ radical demand is presented” (France, 161). Hengel finds hardly any logion “which more sharply runs counter to law, piety and custom” (14). Nothing can come before (cf. πρῶτον, “first”) discipleship to Jesus in the cause of the kingdom. ... Be that as it may, the clarity of the point remains that the disciple is not to let himself or herself be distracted by anything, however legitimate in itself." [Hagner, D. A. (1998). Vol. 33A: Matthew 1–13. Word Biblical Commentary (217–218). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


The prohibition on the High Priest and the Nazirite was clear: not even filial duty could come between one 'separated unto and for God'. Here are the two passages in the Hebrew Bible:


10 “The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes. 11 He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother. 12 He shall not go out of the sanctuary, lest he profane the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him: I am the LORD.  (Le 21:10–12, for the High Priest).


All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body. 7 Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. 8 All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD.  (Nu 6:6–8, for the lay Israelite--man or woman--as Nazirite)



Others have noted the connection between these cases and Jesus' words:


"Belkin (1940: 83) cogently suggests that Jesus applied the high priest’s absolute prohibition of mourning to his disciples: “To another (disciple) he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 9:59–60). Whereas Jesus, in keeping with Scripture and in the tradition of Philo (Laws 1.114), claims that the high priest must remain totally free from obligations and desires to mourn, the rabbis, as indicated above, relented by allowing the high priest to mourn for his close kin, provided that it did not interfere with his official duties." [Milgrom, J. (2008). Vol. 3A: Leviticus 17–22: A new translation with introduction and commentary. Anchor Yale Bible (1817). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


And this restriction is connected with access to the presence of God (in the sanctuary) and with absolute separation/dedication/commitment to God:


"During the time of mourning for a close relative, the high priest is not permitted to leave his dwelling place in the sanctuary. That is, he is to stay at his post so that he may be on duty for the benefit of the whole congregation. His obligation to God surpasses his family responsibilities. [Hartley, J. E. (1998). Vol. 4: Leviticus. Word Biblical Commentary (349). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


"The instructions then addressed the high priest, who was held to an even higher standard than regular priests (21:10). He was distinguished from them by receiving anointing oil on his head (8:12), while his sons received it only on their clothing (8:30), and also by his special uniform (8:7–9). His contact with the dead was even more restricted than it was for others. They could not shave their hair or beard in mourning (21:5), while he could not even show less drastic indications of mourning—that is, he could not let the hair hang free without the priestly head covering or tear his special clothes (cf. 10:6). While ordinary priests could attend to the dead body of their closest kin (21:1–2), the high priest could not even be in the presence of a corpse (cf. Num 6:6–7), even that of his closest blood relatives, his parents (cf. Luke 9:59–60). This shows a gradation of sanctity, moving from common folk, who could tend their own dead, through the priests, who could only attend to their near kin, to the high priest, who could not approach the dead. This parallels the access to the sanctuary—with commoners able to enter the outer court, the priests into the Holy Place, and only the high priest into the Most Holy Place." [Baker, D. W. (1996). Leviticus. In P. W. Comfort (Ed.), Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Volume 2: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (P. W. Comfort, Ed.) (160–161). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.]



This 'restriction' had nothing to do with 'urgency' or eschatology--it flowed immediately from the authoritative presence of God and from the relationship of the human to this God.


This--in the case of Jesus' words--implies that He saw allegiance to Himself as identical to allegiance to the Father (a common theme in the gospels), and therefore at the highest possible level of sanctity--irrespective of eschatology. This was about the present Incarnation, and not about the future Eschaton.


And this theme of God-over-family is not new with Jesus at all. It is present in Mosaic times, Hellenistic culture, and was even predicted (as a source of conflict) for Messianic times.


"Behind the saying lies the expression of Levi’s devotion to the Torah expressed in Dt. 33:9 (cited in 4QTest. 15f.; cf. Lv. R. 19:1 in Grundmann, 302f.; cf. Schulz, 448f.). [HI:NIGTC, Luke's passage on 'hating' family]


And of Levi he said, “Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your godly one, whom you tested at Massah, with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah; who said of his father and mother,  ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers and ignored his children. For they observed your word and kept your covenant.  (Dt 33:8–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


For their loyalty to God--over family--the Levites were awarded the privilege of 'evangelizing' (i.e. spreading the Word of God--Torah to Israel)--a little like our passage in the gospels, btw:


"By loyally carrying out God’s laws, the Levites showed no favoritism even to their own families. It is not clear whether this refers to the occasion mentioned in verse 8 or to the golden calf incident, when the Levites followed Moses’ order to execute the guilty, whether son, brother, neighbor, or kin (Exod. 32:27–29). For the principle itself, compare the commandment to turn in enticers to idolatry, even close relatives and neighbors (13:7). ... Because of the devotion they showed to God’s precepts, the Levites shall have the privilege of transmitting His laws to Israel (essentially a measure-for-measure reward) as well as conducting His worship." [Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah Commentary (324). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]



"The point here is that where there is hate no “ties that bind” limit one’s freedom of action (cf. 9:59, 61). There is likely to be an allusion to Deut 33:9 with its link in turn to Exod 32:27–29, where the Levites demonstrate that they are on the Lord’s side by carrying out the required slaughter with a single-mindedness that disregarded their own family ties. Hommel (ZNW 57 [1966] 1–23) is surely right to compare the strand in the Greek philosophical tradition reaching back to Socrates that, in the name of a single-minded devotion to truth, devalued family loyalties and concern for one’s own bodily life and its needs (see Epictetus, Diss. 3.3.3–5; Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.2.49–55). .. Luke’s added “and even his own life” makes it quite clear that neither psychological hostility nor sectarian separation is in view." [Nolland, J. (1998). Vol. 35B: Luke 9:21–18:34. Word Biblical Commentary (762–763). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]





It is heightened in our passage by the prophetic 'intensity' of Jesus, as one who was authorized and empowered to 'declare all foods clean' , to 'work' on the Sabbath, and to touch unclean bodies Himself--as a means to impart life to the dead.


"M. Hengel, Leader 8–15, explores at length the “break with law and custom” involved in Jesus’ demand. See also A. E. Harvey, Jesus 59–61, who interprets the incident in the light of God’s instructions to certain prophets not to observe normal conventions of mourning (Jer 16:5–7; Ezek 24:15–18) and takes it as indicating “an exceptional demand signalled by the arrival of a prophetic figure empowered to authorise even serious dispensations from the demands of law and custom.” Harvey, following Hengel, also draws attention to the rather cryptic account of the call of Elisha in 1 Kgs 19:19–21; he thinks it likely that Elijah refused permission for Elisha to say goodbye to his parents before following him (so also M. Hengel, Leader 16–18), but if Elisha did first return home (as the passage most naturally reads, and as it was apparently understood in Jesus’ time [Hengel, 16]) the parallel would be even more significant: Jesus does not allow his potential disciple even the basic “family leave” which Elisha could take for granted." [France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.]


And the Greek terms used are echoes of the contrast between following YHWH or following false Gods. Jesus applies this principle to HIMSELF--as God's authorized delegate:


"To come after Jesus is the same as to follow him (9:23; Mt. has ἀκολουθέω ὀπίσω; cf. Black, 195). The phrase is used in the OT of going after false gods and walking in the ways of Yahweh (Dt. 13:4; 1 Ki. 14:8; 18:21; 2 Ki. 23:3; H. Seesemann, TDNT V, 289–292; cf. J. Schneider, TDNT II, 669). Jesus, however, calls men not to follow God but to follow himself in the path of self-denial: cf. Dt. 13:4, where following after other gods and total love for Yahweh are contrasted. Davies, 422f., however, sees the background in the rabbinic technical terms for following a rabbi as his servant (cf. Mk. 15:41). This seems less suitable in the present context, where serving a rabbi would be an anticlimax after the thought of utter self-sacrifice." [Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (593). Exeter: Paternoster Press.]



And, as in the case of Levi in Mosaic times, allegiance to God could prove divisive in families. Second Temple literature refers to Micah 7.6 in the same way that Jesus does.


Micah 7 points out that evil will penetrate even the closest of human relationships:


Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.

2 The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net.

3 Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together.

4 The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand.

5 Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms;

6 for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.

7 But as for me, I will look to the LORD;  I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.


"The prophet described a scene of social anarchy in which the most basic relationships between family and friends have disintegrated. Jeremiah described a similar situation that would surely bring divine punishment (Jer 9:4–5, 9). Jesus made reference to 7:5–6 to describe the terrible social conditions into which he sent his apostles (Matt 10:21, 35–36)." [Patterson, R. D., & Hill, A. E. (2008). Cornerstone biblical commentary, Vol 10: Minor Prophets, Hosea–Malachi (343). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.]


Second Temple literature refers to Micah 7.6 (and related themes) in a number of places, describing the situation during the intertestamental times and the Messianic age:



Jubilees 23.16ff (Charles):


Then they shall say: ‘The days of the forefathers were many (even), unto a thousand years, and were good; but, behold, the days of our life, if a man has lived many, are three score years and ten, and, if he is strong, four score years, and those evil, and there is no peace in the days of this evil generation.’ 16 And in that generation the sons shall convict their fathers and their elders of sin and unrighteousness, and of the words of their mouth and the great wickednesses which they perpetrate, and concerning their forsaking the covenant which the Lord made between them and Him, that they should observe and do all His commandments and His ordinances and all His laws, without departing either to the right hand or the left. 17 For all have done evil, and every mouth speaks iniquity and all their works are an uncleanness and an abomination, and all their ways are pollution, uncleanness and destruction.


Mishnah m. Sota 9.15 (Neusner)


With the footprints of the Messiah: presumption increases, and dearth increases.

The vine gives its fruit and wine at great cost.

And the government turns to heresy.

And there is no reproof.

The gathering place will be for prostitution.

And Galilee will be laid waste.

And the Gablan will be made desolate.

And the men of the frontier will go about from town to town, and none will take pity on them.

And the wisdom of scribes will putrefy.

And those who fear sin will be rejected.

And the truth will be locked away.

Children will shame elders, and elders will stand up before children.

For the son dishonors the father and the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house (Mic. 7:6).

The face of the generation in the face of a dog.

A son is not ashamed before his father.

Upon whom shall we depend?  Upon our Father in heaven.



"Ellis 1974: 183 notes that the image from Micah was applied to messianic times in Judaism: 1 Enoch 99.5; 100.1–2; Jub. 23.19; 2 Bar. 70.6; 1Q14 [= 1QpMic.] 20–21. M. Soṭa 9.9 applied the remark to the martyrdom of a rabbi, so the text was used as a common description of opposition. Division is also found in Luke 14:26; 17:34–35; Mark 10:29–30." [Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.]


Here are two of the passages Ellis pointed to:


Enoch 100:1-2 (Charles):


And in those days in one place the fathers together with their sons shall be smitten and brothers one with another shall fall in death till the streams flow with their blood.

2 For a man shall not withhold his hand from slaying his sons and his sons’ sons, and the sinner shall not withhold his hand from his honoured brother: From dawn till sunset they shall slay one another.



Enoch 56.7 (Charles):


But the city-of my righteous shall be a hindrance to their horses.

And they shall begin to fight among themselves,

And their right hand shall be strong against themselves,

And a man shall not know his brother,

Nor a son his father or his mother



"The division of close friends and families indicates great crisis in a nation, such as civil war. The passage recalls Micah’s description of the social disintegration in Israel leading up to the Assyrian conquest, when “a man’s enemies are the members of his own household” (Mic. 7:6). The rabbis interpreted this Old Testament passage with reference to the great time of crisis before the coming of the Messiah, when “children shall shame the elders, and the elders shall rise up before the children.” Similar images appear elsewhere in Jewish literature." [Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 1: Matthew, Mark, Luke (432). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]




But this, again, is nothing new--the Hebrew prophets created such division with THEIR messages of impending judgment. What was imminent for them--as for Jesus and His disciples--was judgment upon Israel, not the Final Days.


And this is part of Torah:


If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. 9 But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. 10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you. (Dt 13:6–11).


The JPS commentary on this explains:


do not assent or give heed Verse 4 says only “do not give heed” to a prophet or dreamer. The additional verb here reflects the fact that family and friends can exert sustained pressure, and greater effort is required to resist their importunings.


show him no pity or compassion Do not spare him, as you might be tempted to do out of love. The danger to public welfare posed by these instigators requires the stifling of normal feelings: “harshness toward these [instigators]… is compassion toward the world” (Torah Temimah).


do not shield him By keeping his proposal secret.


take his life On the face of it the text seems to be calling for summary execution of the instigator caught in flagrante delicto, much as Phinehas executed Zimri and Cozbi during the Baal-peor incident (Num. 25). However, this is not consistent with verses 13–19 and 17:2–7, according to which even those who actually worshiped other gods are executed only after a thorough investigation. Presumably, then, our verse means “not only must you not protect your loved one [v. 9], but you, as witness, must take part in his execution” (cf. 17:7), or: “see to it that he is executed” by reporting the incident to the authorities and taking part in the stoning that will follow their investigation. The investigation is not mentioned here because the present paragraph does not focus on the role of the court but on the duty of the person approached by the instigator. ... In place of “take his life,” the Septuagint reads “you must report him,” contrasting with “do not shield him” in the preceding verse. This reading avoids the suggestion of summary execution and is consistent with clauses in ancient Near Eastern treaties that require people to report plots against the king. However, since this clause introduces “Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death,” the Masoretic text’s “take his life” may be preferable. The requirement to report the instigator is implicit in “do not shield him” or in “take his life.”

According to 17:6, at least two witnesses are required to convict a person of worshiping another god. The present law gives the impression that, in the case of secret instigation, the testimony of the person approached by the instigator would suffice. Conceivably instigation to idolatry was regarded as so serious a threat to public safety that normal judicial safeguards had to be set aside. It may be, however, that the text is elliptical, since, as noted, it focuses on the duty of the person approached by the instigator and not on judicial procedure. Halakhic exegesis required the original witness to induce the instigator to repeat his proposal in the presence of two other witnesses before the case could be prosecuted.


[Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah Commentary (132–133). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]




Now we should be clear that there IS a very definite urgency in the ministry of Jesus, but it is basically the same kind of urgency present in the prior prophets: if Israel does not respond to YHWH's overtures of loyalty to them (e.g. in the warnings and promises of God's prophets), then they will experience judgment. Israel is/was called to respond--QUICKLY--to the warnings of the prophets--before it was 'too late'. But Israel did not--so they were evicted from the land into Assyrian captivity. Judah did not--so they were evicted from the land and went into Babylonian captivity. First generation Jewry did not--so they were evicted from the land by the Romans...



But there are a couple of ways in which the warning/rejections/judgment cycle of Jesus was different from those before Him.


·         First, this was an escalated level of warning. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants indicates that Jesus--as the Son of the Landowner--was the final messenger to the Wicked Tenants. Judgment was to follow, even though previous mistreatments of messengers were not punished fully. The Tenants would be evicted from the farm, and management of the farm would be given to a 'nation/people which would yield the proper fruit in its seasons' (Matt 21.41-43). As such, this looks like a 'final' warning to God's covenant people. [But it it's not--Paul in Romans 9-11 points out that God still has a future for Israel.]


·         Second, the promised blessings to Israel--if they would respond--were much greater than those promised in the Mosaic covenant. Obedience to YHWH in the Mosaic code would result in peace and fruitfulness in the Land--under current conditions of life (Deut 28). Obedience to YHWH in accepting the Messiah would result in the hyper-blessings of the Year of Jubilee for all (and 'times of refreshing'--Acts 3.20), the complete forgiveness of the New Covenant, the spiritual power for life in the promised Holy Spirit (also in the New Covenant promises), large-scale healings, and Israel's spiritual leadership role to the world ('a kingdom of priests').


But warnings of eschatological events are given to people--they are intended to AVERT eschatological disaster and to ACCELERATE eschatological blessings.


Prophetic warnings are often stated in unconditional terms, but they are still fundamentally conditional--judgment can be averted and blessings can be accelerated.


A great example of this is Jonah. He marches through Nineveh with a bald statement of seemingly unconditional judgment:


Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  (Jon 3:4–10).


Or the passage about Micah of Moresheth in Jeremiah 26:


Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.” 17 And certain of the elders of the land arose and spoke to all the assembled people, saying, 18 “Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts,


 “ ‘Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,

      and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’


19 Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster upon ourselves.”


This is in keeping with the principle described by God in Jeremiah 18:


"If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’"  (Je 18:7–11).


Thus, even warning statements by Jesus about 'this generation' or 'before XYZ' (if connected with judgment) could be naturally understood as conditional--and not a hardline prediction.


Indeed, several of Jesus' statements toward the end of His earthly ministry look like they are lamentations over the now-confirmed-by-rejection impending judgment, and that His Return for Blessing has been postponed by Israel's failure to accept Him:


O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Mt 23:37–39).


And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.(Lk 19:41–44).


And this was the same response of sadness experienced by the earlier prophets--in similar contexts:


"A uniquely Lucan unit closes the Jerusalem journey narrative with a tone of sadness. Once again using ἐγγίζω (engizō; cf. 19:29, 37), Luke notes that Jesus drew near to Jerusalem. The drama of the slow approach signals the importance of the coming events. Upon seeing the city, Jesus weeps. These are the tears of one who knows that the people have already turned their backs on God’s messenger. Much like a parent watching a child make a foolish decision, Jesus mourns a city sealing its fate (cf. 13:34). His crying recalls similar reactions by the prophets (2 Kings 8:11; Jer. 9:1 [8:23 MT]; 14:17; κλαίω with ἐπί in Gen. 50:1; Num. 11:13; Judg. 11:37–38; Fitzmyer 1985: 1258). Jesus is not indifferent toward the nation. The term for tears (κλαίω, klaiō) is strong, referring to full sobbing or wailing (Plummer 1896: 449–50; BAGD 433; BAA 881; see the exegesis of 7:38). [19:42]  Speaking “a searing oracle of doom” (Tiede 1980: 80), Jesus mourns because Jerusalem has missed the nature of the times, which held the potential for a restoration of peace. In the travel narrative, Jesus constantly warned against the possibility of national failure (most directly in 13:31–35 and 11:50–51). This lamentation is like Jeremiah’s (Jer. 9:2 [9:1 MT]; 13:17; 14:7) and shows the combination of pain, anger, and frustration that rejection causes in one who serves God (Nolland 1993b: 931). The note of sadness is introduced with a “contrary to fact” second-class condition that is not completed: “If you only knew … , but you do not.” The idea to be supplied is, “It would have pleased me if you had known the things that made for peace” (Fitzmyer 1985: 1258; Isa. 48:18). The reference to peace (i.e., peace with God) summarizes the essential characteristic of the gospel message (Luke 1:79; 2:14; 7:50; 8:48; 10:5–6; 19:38; Acts 10:36; Foerster, TDNT 2:413; Marshall 1978: 718). The opportunity has come and gone. ... Peace was hidden from the city’s (i.e., the nation’s) eyes (Ps. 122:6; Jer. 15:5; Grundmann 1963: 368). Blindness results from failure to respond, and darkness remains. In contrast to peace, destruction comes, as the next two verses will make clear. The cost of sin is great. What they had potentially is about to be taken from them (8:10). Judgment will result in death and darkness (Oepke, TDNT 3:973). Like the prophets of old, Jesus finds no joy in rebuking sin and declaring its dire consequences." [Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (1560–1561). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.]



Allision notes this in his contribution to the New Interpreters Bible Dictionary (s.v. "Eschatology of the New Testament):


"The numbers in Dan 9:24-27 and 12:7-12 imply that there is an eschatological calendar and that God has set a date for the end. Several extracanonical apocalypses leave the same impression. Biblical prophecies, however, often present themselves as contingent, or conditional upon this or that human response (Jer 12:14-17; 18:5-11 ). This explains Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days, which fails to come to pass because the people of Nineveh turn from their evil ways, after which God repents of harming them (3:10; compare Judg 2:1-3 ; 2 Kgs 20:1-6 ; 1 Sam 2:27-36 ).


"The idea of contingency was eventually applied to eschatological expectation. Some rabbinic passages have it that the Son of David will not come until Israel changes for the better (e.g., b. Sanh. 97b, 98a; b. Sabb. 118b; b. B. Bat. 10a; b. Yoma 86a). Earlier pseudepigraphical texts make repentance usher in the consummation (T. Dan 6:4; T. Sim. 6:2-7; T. Zeb. 9:7-9; As. Mos. 1:18; 2 Bar. 78:7) or assume that the time before the end, although predetermined, can be cut short (e.g., 4Q385 frag. 3; Pss. Sol. 17:45; L.A.B. 19:13; 2 Bar. 20:1-2). But when the end is conceived primarily in terms of judgment instead of salvation, hope for its delay, occasioned by repentance, may arise (Sib. Or. 4:162-7; 5:357-60; Gk. Apoc. Ezra 3:6). Tertullian assumes this when he prays for “the delay of the final consummation” (Apol. 39; compare Exod 15:5-6 , where God gives “an extension of time” to wicked people).


"The NT also knows of the contingency of eschatological expectation. In Acts 3:19-21 , Peter invites his audience to repent and turn again so that God will send the Messiah. Second Peter 3:11-12 speaks of holy lives “hastening” the coming of the day of God. In Luke 18:1-8 , the widow’s persistence in gaining a hearing means that God will vindicate the elect who cry out day and night and will not delay long over them. In this way God’s eschatological act is an answer to the saints’ cry that justice be done. Perhaps the same thought lies to hand in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13 //Luke 11:2-4 ). “Your kingdom come” may presuppose that the coming of God’s kingdom is, like bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil, a proper object of petition, so that to utter the words is to hope that God will hear and hasten salvation? However that may be, Mark 13:10 makes the completion of the eschatological prophecies wait upon the completion of the Christian mission, and Mark 13:20 speaks of God abbreviating the days of eschatological terror.


"If several NT texts assume that God’s mercy can hasten the speed with which the kingdom comes, Luke 13:6-9 on the contrary assumes that God’s mercy may delay the end. In this parable, a man is about to cut down his unfruitful fig tree, but his gardener begs him to leave it alone another year, because maybe it will yet produce fruit. Here the patience and mercy of God are reflected in the action of the gardener, who gains another year for the tree, which is a transparent symbol for Jesus’ hearers or Israel. God, in mercy, has not rendered immediate judgment but rather a period of respite.


"That God has delayed or will delay the end is in tension with the notion that God will hasten it. But the two disparate hopes share two presuppositions. First, both imply that there is no fixed date for the end, or that if there is a fixed date, it can be changed. Second, both assume that whatever God does is the consequence of mercy."




So, YES there is urgency in the gospels, but nothing that would support an unconditional prediction of a time window for the Parousia.




Thus, this is another case of where the data does not really 'connect to' apocalypticism or eschatological roles--except in a traditional sense, and hence cannot be used in support of your blogger-friend's hypothesis.





What does the term 'interim ethic' mean and do the gospels give evidence that Jesus taught such?


The term 'interim ethic' is also connected with the original 'delay problem' guy Albert Schweitzer. He was trying to interpret the lofty (impossible?) ethical demands Jesus seemed to teach in the Sermon on the Mount (aka The Great Instruction, with parallels in Luke's Sermon on the Plain). This view is not widely held today. Although there are other senses in which 'interim ethic' can be used appropriately, his view is the one apparently intended by the blogger. To wit:


"One common interpretation is the “interim ethic” view, that Jesus advocated such radical ethics in the sermon because He expected the consummated kingdom to begin immediately. The breaking in of that kingdom was so imminent that the disciples were to practice these rigid requirements for the brief period of time until it arrived. Because, however, the consummated kingdom did not arrive, the demands of the “interim” sermon must be dismissed. This view is not widely held." [Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 2003 (C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, T. C. Butler & B. Latta, Ed.) (1464). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.]


"The application of the Sermon’s ethic can also be tempered by pleading special circumstances, which is essentially what Weiss and Schweitzer did with their “interim ethics.” In this view Jesus believed that the end was at hand; thus His demands were never intended for normal history but were tailored to that revolutionary interval before the replacement of human society by the kingdom of God. This view of the Sermon as “emergency orders” stands or falls with Schweitzer’s total understanding of the ministry of Jesus. “Consistent eschatology” rescues the eschatological note in Jesus’ proclamation but, in the judgment of most scholars, has fallen into the opposite error of losing the “this-worldly” element." [Vol. 4: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. 1988 (G. W. Bromiley, Ed.) (415). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]


"Secondly, and more sensationally, Schweitzer argued that as far as the available evidence goes it presents a picture of Jesus who was an apocalyptic visionary, who thought in the terms of the Judaism of his own day and who expected God to intervene dramatically in world history to set up his Kingdom during his own lifetime. In that case Jesus died as a disappointed visionary. As far as his ethical teaching is concerned, Schweitzer argued that it was by no means central to his message and was in any case impossible to live by for any length of time. In his words it was an interim ethic, demanding a life–style which could only be sustained for the short period until the expected Kingdom was established. .. Subsequent New Testament scholarship has agreed that Schweitzer’s conclusions were extreme, but that he had drawn attention to important themes which were being overlooked. After Schweitzer the supernatural element in the Gospels, and especially in the thinking of Jesus himself as it is presented there, had to be taken more seriously." [Worrall, B. G. (1993). The making of the modern church: Christianity in England since 1800 (New ed.) (133–134). London: SPCK.]


"The third view (consistent eschatology) certainly emphasizes the element of crisis, of impending decision-making, in the teaching of Jesus. It is certainly true that Jesus constantly spoke of the End, and of impending judgment. But it is exactly this element which is not emphasized in the Great Instruction. “Jesus is no fanatical enthusiast, his ethic is not an expression of anxiety in the face of catastrophe” (Jeremias, p. 15). Any interpretation of the Instruction which sees the teaching as “interim ethics” would have to deny that Jesus envisaged, made provision for, a continuing community. Such a denial runs counter to all we know of contemporary messianism (especially among the Essenes), and it must somehow explain how the infant community so successfully misunderstood Jesus in so brief a time as to provide us with the evidence of Acts 1–4." [Albright, W. F., & Mann, C. S. (2008). Vol. 26: Matthew: Introduction, translation, and notes. Anchor Yale Bible (52). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]




Interestingly, it is the mass of ethical and legal teaching of Jesus in the NT that presents the strongest argument AGAINST a Schweitzerian apolcalyptic Jesus. Under a model that says that everything Jesus did or taught had to have been based upon His expectation of an impending Eschaton, one would expect His recorded, remembered, or even 'church-created' (if possible) words to reflect that.


But we see the very opposite--His pronouncements in the Gospels show otherwise.


You can see this even at a cursory level in the texts. Consider this passage from Luke 6:


27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.  32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. " [The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Lk 6:27–36). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.]


Notice that the supporting rationale for the ethic centers on (1) reciprocity --i.e. the Golden Rule; (2) the character of God; (3) future recognition/rewards from God--and an unspecified time; and (4) the believer's experience of God.


This is very clear from the mass of ethical teachings:


"Because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. The commands given above are not based on the shortness of time remaining before the kingdom’s consummation, i.e., as an interim ethic, but upon God’s character. It is not an eschatological urgency that serves as the basis for these commands but God’s character (“he is kind”—cf. Rom 2:4) and the fact that the believer while ungrateful and wicked has been the recipient of God’s mercy." [Stein, R. H. (1992). Vol. 24: Luke. The New American Commentary (209). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]


"The modern debate concerning the interrelationship of ethics, eschatology and the kingdom began in 1906 with A. Schweitzer’s epochal work I. Schweitzer, having effectively dismissed all previous attempts to reconstruct the life of Jesus, then produced his own attempt, which was even more implausible than the ones he had rejected. Showing a complete disregard for critical method, Schweitzer declared that Jesus expected the coming of a “Son of man,” other than himself, during his own ministry or during the mission of the Twelve, and that when that hope failed to materialize, he changed course and brought about his own crucifixion in order to force God’s hand. ... While this reconstruction was to win few enthusiasts, it had an unfortunate aftermath. What Schweitzer had erected was a colossal blunder—the “end-of-the-world Jesus”—which has, despite the arguments of critics from C. H. Dodd onward, weighed heavy on the ground of NT study. And perhaps what is most disturbing is that all that was needed to bring down the structure was the wrecking ball of accurate description. ... But lack of exegetical accuracy was not the only difficulty with Schweitzer’s theory. Another was its failure to accommodate ethical teaching to the question of eschatology. Having insisted with J. Weiss that eschatology was the indispensable framework for the interpretation of NT teaching, he was then faced with the ethical teaching of the Gospels, which he declared to be an “interim ethic” (Interimsethik)—an ethic of impractical idealism which could never have been designed for a long period. It was possible for Jesus to talk in this way only because he believed that the interval between his preaching and the end of the world was so short that he could afford to be impractical. That view of the ethics of Jesus was soon met not only with blanket incredulity but substantial arguments to the contrary. In the ethical teaching of Jesus (as in the ethics of the whole NT), the sanctions for the teaching are only in very rare cases the expectation of a future crisis. The reasons are nearly always based on what God has done, on the character of God himself, on the character of Jesus or on the nature of the Christian revelation. They are certainly not based on any final crisis." [Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 1992 (J. B. Green, S. McKnight & I. H. Marshall, Ed.) (210). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]



"Granted this fusion of Law and eschatology in Jesus’ message, one might refer, in a very vague and general sense, to Jesus’ teaching on Torah as “eschatological morality” or “kingdom ethics,” that is, the life that conforms to the coming of God’s kingdom in the end time. However, while such terminology is popular among scholars, two caveats are in order: (i) Jesus does not explicitly ground any of his legal pronouncements in the presence or the coming of the kingdom of God. In the halakic commands of Jesus that we have judged authentic, the terminology of “kingdom” is noticeably absent. (ii) Even if we speak (though Jesus does not) of “kingdom ethics,” we should remember that this is not the same thing as Albert Schweitzer’s famous idea of the “interim ethic” supposedly taught by Jesus. Portraying Jesus as an apocalyptic fanatic, Schweitzer explained Jesus’ radically stringent moral demands in terms of his apocalyptic expectation that only a very short time remained before the kingdom of God fully arrived. ... In my opinion, Schweitzer’s conception of an interim ethic does not do justice to the already/not-yet structure of Jesus’ preaching and ministry. Granted Jesus’ paradoxical proclamation of a kingdom both present and yet coming fully in the future, the disciples are not being told simply to screw up their courage, clench their teeth and fists, and observe an extreme ethic for a brief period while they await the kingdom’s complete arrival in the very near future (as Schweitzer would have it). Rather, in Jesus’ view of things, the halakic life he demands of his disciples is one that already is made possible by and responds to the power of God’s rule, present in the Jesus’ preaching and actions. Thus, Jesus’ legal commands express the proper eschatological implementation of God’s will as expressed in Torah—an eschatological implementation that is meant not just for a short, sui generis interval but for the whole future of Israel as God’s people, restored in the end time. All this, I readily admit, is my own way of putting together the pieces of the puzzle. But it is the most satisfying explanation I can find of how Jesus the eschatological prophet-like-Elijah meshes with Jesus the demanding teacher of Torah. The enigma is illuminated and yet remains." [Meier, J. P. (2009). A marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume Four, Law and Love (657–658). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]



And--although this anticipates a later entry in this series--we should note that the post-NT church did not understand the Sermon on the Mount as something 'interim' (unless that term is applied to the 'interim' period we are in now):


"Nonetheless, the gap between the Sermon on the Mount as composed of unconditioned commands and the accommodation made for their application in particular historical circumstances appeared in Christian history from the beginning.  The Didache, a first century manual on morals and church practice, includes in chapters one through six a summary of Christian ethics. Echoes of the Sermon on the Mount abound. Clearly, its direction is to be followed literally, but not without practical wisdom. Having just referred to the sayings found in Mt. 5:41–42 about giving to everyone who asks, the author of the Didache (1:6) hastened to add this word of caution, “But concerning this it was also said: ‘Let your alms sweat into your hands until you know to whom you are giving.’” For a summary of this “common sense” approach, hear the Didachist’s echo to Mt. 5:48: “For if you can bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect, but if you cannot, do what you can” (6:2). ... Though all the Christian writings of this period support the Sermon on the Mount as commands to be obeyed, the difference between ideal and practice began to be addressed. Interaction with the church’s opponents, particularly Gnostics and Jews, accelerated this process. The anonymous author of the first extant Christian sermon, 2 Clement, recognized the problem in a world where Christianity was being judged by pagans. Speaking of the Lukan parallel to Matthew’s words about loving one’s enemies, the sermon says (13.3): For when the heathen hear God’s oracles on our lips they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But afterwards, when they mark that our deeds are unworthy of the words we utter, they turn from this to scoffing, and say that it is a myth and a delusion. Justin Martyr, in chapters 15 and 16 of the First Apology, quoted freely from the Sermon on the Mount, adding, “Those who are found not living as he [Jesus] taught should know that they are not really Christians” (Apol. 1.16). But in his Dialogue with Trypho one critique of Christianity by the Jewish voice is the impossibility of the gospel’s ethical demands. From another premise, the Gnostic’s also held that the Sermon’s injunctions should be separated from the Law of the Old Testament. Irenaeus in Against Heresies, book 4, argued that Jesus’ teachings did not abolish, but fulfilled and extended the Law. ... According to the early church, difficult as it seems, the Sermon does not point in new directions, but points more accurately or further along the same way taken by the Old Testament. The Ante-Nicene writers accepted the Sermon on the Mount as directives to be followed by all, and they deflected any attempts to separate the Sermon’s injunctions from continuity with the Old Testament tradition." [Vol. 89: Review and Expositor Volume 89. 1992 (2) (246–247). Louisville, KY: Review and Expositor.]


Note: Sometimes commentators and scholars DO describe the NT ethic as an 'interim ethic' but it is not meant in the same sense as Schweitzer/Weiss (and presumably your blogger).


Compare Bruce's comment on John the Baptist (in Lk's account):


"On the other hand he [Luke] adds an interesting passage not found in Mt. or Mk, reporting John’s practical suggestions for the implementation of genuine repentance. The people generally (the crowd, 10) were told of the responsibility laid upon them to share with less fortunate neighbours their superfluity of food or clothing. Tax-collectors, universally despised and detested as unpatriotic tools, willingly placing themselves at the service of the Roman overlords or Jewish tetrarchs and as unscrupulous and dishonest extortioners lining their own pockets, were commanded to carry out their duties with scrupulous fairness and honesty. Swaggering and bullying soldiers were to refrain from summary appropriation of the goods of others, and from glib perjury to cover their tracks. It is interesting that there is nothing revolutionary in all this; even the tax-collectors are not ordered to give up their jobs. This is an ‘interim ethic’—as it is sometimes called—a code of conduct whilst awaiting the day of the full revelation of the kingdom, when Roman taxes and much else beside will be swept away. [Bruce, F. F. (1979). New International Bible commentary (1191–1192). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.]


If it is proper to speak of "carrying out duties with scrupulous fairness and honesty" as an 'interim' ethic, then that ethic has been in place since the Fall of humanity! If avoiding "summary appropriation of the goods of others" and "glib perjury" is an 'interim' ethic, then the 'interim' has been all of recorded history--and not simply some period inaugurated by Jesus!


The calls to righteousness made by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles are in spiritual continuity with the calls to Israel and Judah made by the Hebrew Prophets. Many of the Hebrew prophets had the same 'clean up your act, or else the promised judgments of Deuteronomy will fall upon you--as the Day of the Lord falls upon you'.  The reformation of behavior (supposed to flow from reformation of character) was about deferring judgment ("repent or ye shall all likewise perish") and 'hastening' blessing from God ("make straight the paths for the Lord", "pour out a blessing too big to receive").


Being a peacemaker may be a behavior only useful before the Eschatological peace removes the need for 'repair' work, but it was important long before the 1st century [e.g., Ps 34.14], and the character of a peacemaker (as a reflection of the Father) will never be 'de-valued'. Suffering persecution patiently for the Lord may be  a behavior only useful before all of God's enemies are removed in the Eschaton, but it was important long before the 1st century [e.g., Jesus' reference to the Hebrew prophets], and the character of a 'suffering servant' (as a reflection of the Suffering Servant Son) will never be 'de-valued'.


So, there IS a legitimate sense in which ALL of post-Fall history is under an 'interim ethic', but this would be radically different from the meaning of the term in Schweitzer/Weiss and presumably your blogger friend. Schweitzer's interim was from the announcement of the Kingdom by Jesus/John until the Eschaton; the true interim is between the Fall of humanity and the Eschaton. Interim ethics in the true sense DO remind us that God will ultimately renew all things and vindicate all positive moral choices in our lives, but they do not in ANY way require a belief that God will bring the Eschaton within some specific, short-term time frame.

Next, we will look at about 40 other passages in the Synoptics which MIGHT bear on the urgency/interim ethic question...



On to Part THREE

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