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When Will These Things Happen?

Alistair I. Wilson. When Will These Things Happen? A Study of Jesus as Judge in Matthew 21-25.  Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Paternoster Press, 2004. approx. 272 pp.  ISBN 1-84227-146-6.  $31.00.  paper

 David B. Capes, Houston Baptist University

 Alistair Wilson’s monograph is a revision of his thesis at the University of Aberdeen written under the direction of I. Howard Marshall. It is largely a reaction to Marcus Borg’s portrayal of the “non-eschatological Jesus” and his resultant dismissal of many sayings and actions recorded in Matthew’s Gospel as inauthentic.  While Wilson agrees with and even applauds aspects of Borg’s work on the historical Jesus, he intends to challenge crucial aspects of his description through a careful exploration of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as judge in chs. 21-25. In dealing with this theme, he explores three aspects: (1) the nature of judgment, as preached by Jesus; (2) the anticipated time of judgment; and (3) Jesus’ role, if any, in the coming judgment(s).

Following a survey of some of the major voices in this debate, Wilson considers a number of methodological issues associated with canonical, redactional, and historical criticisms.  He concludes that Matthew made a good faith effort to account for what “actually happened” (65) and suggests scholars should interpret Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus within the Sitz im Leben Jesu before trying to reconstruct the life and concerns of a later, largely hypothetical Matthean community. Matthew’s Gospel may well be a coherent narrative, skillfully crafted by an astute theologian, but that does not diminish its historical importance. 

According to Wilson, Matthew 21-25 concentrates the themes of judgment and wisdom found throughout the Gospel.  Therein Jesus is both prophet and sage, pronouncing and ultimately exercising judgment as one who is destined to share God’s throne.  This section of the Gospel offers a coherent image of Jesus framed by twin parousias.  On the front end stands Jesus’ royal arrival in Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11); on the back Jesus’ parousia (arrival) at the end of the age (Matt 25:31-46).  These arrivals are not independent parousiai but ultimately interconnected within Matthew’s greater story. 

Central to Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus the prophet who both continues and expands the role of the Hebrew prophets. In Matthew 21-25 he engages in symbolic actions, pronounces judgment, speaks in parables (meshalim) and predicts the destruction of the temple. While Jesus exercises prophetic authority in ways typical of earlier prophets, he does so in a way that transcends earlier prophetic manifestations.  In fact, by both announcing and exercising judgment at the end of the age, Matthew portrays Jesus as more than a prophet; he is one who takes on the role of Yahweh himself (172). 

Wilson understands Matthew 21-25 as describing two judgments.  The first regards Israel as symbolized by the clearing of the temple, the withering of the fig tree and the predicted destruction of the temple. The evangelist interprets Jesus’ actions against the backdrop of prophetic literature found in Zechariah, Daniel and Israel.  According to the eschatological discourse and parables, this judgment on Israel is to be expected in the near future.  The second judgment is also a future judgment, however, no time frame is indicated.  This judgment involves all of humanity not just Israel. So, for Wilson, Jesus is an eschatological prophet who has an eye on both a near and an indefinite future.  The problem of the delay of the parousia is accordingly a modern problem. Noting that the majority of early Christians were not bothered that the parousia did not occur in their lifetimes, Wilson argues it is because they did not understand Jesus’ teachings as predicting his imminent return.  While they did expect the impending destruction of the temple, they did not expect his final parousia.  Properly understood, passages typically cited as predicting Jesus’ “second coming” should be read as Jesus’ pending vindication before his accusers and his receiving authority, in particular authority to execute divine judgment.

Wilson’s book offers a helpful response to those who wish to see the historical Jesus as either an apocalyptic prophet, concerned primarily to bring about the end of the world, or a wise sage, focused exclusively on events on the ground in Israel during the first century. His portrait accurately situates Jesus as both prophet and sage, linking the respective strengths of two, interconnected yet at times distinct, traditions.  Future research into Matthew’s eschatology and Christology will need to take Wilson’s treatment into consideration.

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2 Comments

  1. Brian Price says:

    Interesting review, Dr. Capes. Yesterday, I read a Facebook thread where someone commented that the Old Testament was “old” and no longer valid. This comment highlights the need to demonstrate the inseparable connection between the two testaments; Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish.

  2. Brian Price says:

    Interesting review, Dr. Capes. Yesterday, I read a Facebook thread where someone commented that the Old Testament was “old” and no longer valid. This comment highlights the need to demonstrate the inseparable connection between the two testaments; Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish.

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