Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 24.36-44
1st Sunday of Advent - Year A

Other texts:


Richard Jensen in Preaching Matthew's Gospel: A Narrative Approach suggests an alternative text/approach to Advent preaching from Matthew. Although I won't comment on the alternative text, I share some of his thoughts for your considerations.

First of all, if we approach Matthew as a narrative, the assigned text comes about 9/10th of the way through the book. As Jensen says, "One would certainly not begin to read a novel in Chapter 24.... The verses for this week's assigned text from Matthew, 24, therefore, come to us totally out of context." [p. 209]

In contrast, he suggests beginning our year of Matthew with the beginning of Matthew: 1:1-17 -- the genealogy. (I wonder why this text isn't assigned any Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary :-) ).

Jensen notes: "He [Matthew] begins his story in a very surprising way by including women in his genealogy. Women don't belong in Jewish genealogies! Most certainly Gentile women don't belong in Jewish genealogies. What are these women doing in the opening verses of Matthew's story? Clearly they are a sign that the central figure of Matthew's story, Jesus of Nazareth, brings salvation (1:21-23) to all the people of the earth." (p. 210)

In another chapter, Jensen talks more about these women:

Genealogies of old did not include women. What are these women of old doing in a list like this? And such women! Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2, 6), Ruth (Book of Ruth), and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). Most of them are Gentiles! Three of these women have been involved in scandalous behavior: incest, prostitution, and adultery. Four women. Four Sundays in Advent. This would make a great Advent mission series. Yes, mission. God's grace clearly includes persons such as these. God's grace clearly includes sinners like you and me. Matthew sees these women as playing a crucial role in God's movement from promise to fulfillment. [pp. 32-33

Then, he quotes from Robert Smith (Matthew):

...these women may be related not so much to Abraham at the beginning of the story as to Mary at its climax. Mary of whom Jesus was born (v. 16) is a fifth woman in the genealogy. God's sovereign and surprising use of these four ancient women foreshadowed the astonishing use of Mary (v. 20) in the fullness of time. All these women are signs that God has intervened and will do so yet again. History is wide open to God's fresh initiatives. [p. 33 in Smith's book]


NOTE: Different translation may include v. 36 in the preceding paragraph (NJB) or with that which follows (NRSV, NIV, TEV).

This text is part of the fifth discourse in Matthew (24:1-25:46), which centers on the coming of the Son of Man. The "end time" coming is the theme for the 1st Sunday in Advent for all three years, thus tying it in with the preceding Last Sunday of the Year and its Christ the King theme.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) writes about these chapters:

E. Käsemann has argued that the basic question of apocalyptic material is, "To whom does the sovereignty of the world belong?" Chapters 24-25 are an unequivocal assertion of God's ownership, God's right to determine cosmic destiny. Judgment falls on those who do not acknowledge god's sovereignty. Rome's empire, or any empire, is not ultimate. Eternal Rome is not the future. cf. 4 Ezra 11:37-46). It is mortal (24:28) and subject to God's empire.

This critique of Rome gains some force because of the material's proximity to the struggle of 66-70. Rome's victory and destruction of Jerusalem suggest invincible power. But chapters 24-25 contextualize this power in God's purposes, thereby revealing it to be limited and under judgment (see 22:7). Moreover, as U. Mauser has argued, the frequent references to false prophets and messiahs (24:5, 11, 23-26) show that the chapter rejects the way of violence adopted by those who took up arms as the means of trying to throw off Roman oppression. While the goal of liberation was commendable, the means was not. Armed revolution is a false way, just as passive compliance was rejected previously in the gospel (see 5:38-42; 17:24-27). Ultimately god will bring the promised salvation through Jesus' return and the establishment of God's empire (so 1:21). In the meantime, the Matthean community is to live its alternative, countercultural existence of active, subversive, nonviolent resistance in the sure hope of God's coming triumph. [p. 468]

This section of Matthew begins with foretelling the destruction of the temple, (which had happened by Matthew's time) and a two-part question from the disciples: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (24:3).

Answers to the question: "What signs?" are given in 24:4-35. Answers to the question: "When?" are given in 24:36-25:46.


Simply stated, the answer to "when" is, "Only God knows" (24:36). The majority of ancient authorities omit "nor the Son" from this verse, although "the best representatives of the Alexandrian, the Western, and the Caesarean types of text contain the phrase." [A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Bruce M. Metzger]. While I don't usually dwell too much on variant readings, this one may have some sermon possibilities.

Douglas R. A. Hare (Matthew, from the Interpretation series) says about this verse:

Since the emergence of the docetist heresy at the end of the first century there have always been Christians who have had difficulty believing that Jesus was fully human (it is probably for this reason that many ancient manuscripts of Matthew omit the phrase "nor the Son'; see the KJV). They have reasoned that when the Second Person of the Trinity came to live among us he must have retained his supernatural knowledge and power. He was not moved by ordinary human emotions and was incapable of anxiety because he knew the outcome of all future events. The Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds attempt to correct this misconception by insisting that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, that is, his divinity does not compromise his humanity at any point whatsoever. He was a genuine human being like us, or his death on the cross was a cruelly deceptive sham. The gospel testimony provides strong support for this view: Jesus did not know all things. [page 282]

To state that Jesus, even though he was God, had limited knowledge, may be a necessary corrective to the thinking of some people about Jesus.

A second reason for highlighting this verse is that any who claim to know the time of Jesus' return are false messiahs and false prophets (24:23-24). There were such people in Jesus' day (according to Josephus) and also in ours.


Our text is made up of five different sayings found in various places in other gospels, which strongly suggests that Matthew (or an earlier redactor) compiled the sayings as we have them:

In contrast to the terrible and great signs of the end that no one could miss -- and without God's help believers could not endure (24:22), our text indicates that the time of the end will be quite peaceful and normal. People will: be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and working at home or business. In the everyday-ness of this life, it might be easy to forget about the "coming of the Son of Man."

In contrast to the long, commercial buildup and advertising about the shopping days until Christmas, our text clearly indicates that we do not know when the day and hour of the Coming will come. Perhaps a reference could be made back to the Garden of Eden -- the humans sin by trying to know more than God intended them to know.

"Knowing" (and "not knowing") is a theme in our text. Three different "knowing" words are used: oida -- 24:36, 42, 43, cf. 25:13; ginosko -- 24:39, 43; cf. 24:32-33, 24:50; dokeo -- 24:44. In the paragraph just before our text -- the lesson of the fig tree (vv. 32-35) -- from the signs we can "know" that summer is near and that "he" (or "it") is near. However, if neither angels nor Jesus know "that day and hour" then certainly we won't know it either. It can be stated that most of the "signs" of the end have always been with us: false messiahs, wars and rumors of war, persecution of believers, darkened sun and moon (eclipses?), falling stars. So, we need to live knowing that the end is always near.

At the same time, we are asked to believe and trust God without knowing exactly when the Son of Man will come; thus the time to stay awake or keep watch (24:42, 43) is at all times. gregoreo in the first instance is a present imperative -- "continue to keep watch". In the second instance it is an aorist -- when you know the exact time, you need only be awake at that moment. The aorist is also used in 26:40 when Jesus discovers that his disciples couldn't "stay awake" for even an hour. Every other time this word is used in Matthew it is a present tense, imperative (24:43; 25:13; 26:38, 41).

It is perhaps ironic that we read about the command to "stay awake" as our nights are getting longer and colder -- and the comfort of a long sleep in a warm bed becomes more attractive. As I will illustrate later, a major point of these text has to do with one's priorities.

parousia is a Greek word that literally means "being (ousia) + "beside" (para). It can refer to the state of "being present" or the process of "becoming present" = "coming" or "arriving". It has become a technical term in English to refer to the (second) "coming" of Christ. However, it is not used frequently in scriptures (24 times). It only occurs four times in the Gospels -- and all of them in this chapter of Matthew:

Since all of these verses have parallels in the synoptics, it would seem that "parousia" is a word that Matthew added to the accounts. Perhaps it had become a technical term in Matthew's community.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes more about Matthew's use of this word "parousia" (Latin adventus):

The term denotes presence (Jdt 10:18; Josephus JW 4.345), but more importantly it has military (2 Macc 8:12; 15:21), political, and religious significance. It denotes the arrival of a king (Polybius, His 18.48.4), or emperor, governor, military commander (Josephus, Vita, 90-91), or other important official in a city or town (3 Macc 3:17; the adventus coins of Nero and Hadrian; see 21:1-11). The arrival was often preceded by a special payment in tax or goods to cover expenses. The welcoming ceremony indicated submission to the official's power. In religious traditions, it refers to the appearing of a god or of God (to Elisha, Josephus, Ant 9.55), including God's "coming" to establish God's reign at the end of the age (Dan 7:13). With this term, the gospel establishes Jesus' future coming as an event that asserts God's supreme authority (cf. 28:18), an event of life and blessing for those who welcome him but of condemnation and death for those who do not. Again the gospel employs imperial images to present the final establishment of God's empire. [pp. 469-470, emphasis in original]

In contrast to Matthew's technical use, it has various uses in Paul. It refers to the coming of Jesus (1C 15:23; 1Th 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2Th 2:1; 2:8). It also refers to the coming of other people (1C 16:17; 2C 7:6, 7; 10:10; Phl 1:26; 2:12) and even of the "Lawless One" (2Th 2:9).

The other occurrences refer to the coming of Jesus (Ja 5:7, 8; 2P 1:16; 3:4; 1J 2:28) or to the "day of God" (2P 3:12). [NOTE: the term does not occur in Revelation!]

The phrase "Son of Man" is only used by Matthew in terms of the "parousia". The others use some or all of the following names/titles: "Lord Jesus Christ".

With either title, we need to keep in mind that the "Coming One" is one who has come and who continues to come to us in our gatherings around Word and Sacrament. The Bible never uses the phrase "second coming." For those whom Jesus is a part of their lives now, I don't think the "coming" will be a surprise. He already comes into their lives now.

I used the theme once on this text: "God Doesn't Make Appointments!" I don't know about other clergy, but I struggle with the question of making appointments or not when calling on people. Do I "warn" them I'm coming or just show up? Do I make sure they will be home or take my chances -- and perhaps waste some valuable time? Beyond myself: Should the evangelism or stewardship committees call before "arriving" or not? My point was to indicate that among good friends (and some relatives), unexpected visits are expected. We are glad to see them, no matter how messed up the house or our hair might be. We make time to visit. Uninvited sales people don't receive the same welcome. Making an appointment or not often depends on the relationship I already have (or don't have) with the people. Some additional illustrations from that sermon based on some exegetical work:

Even though we don't know when the coming will be, the fact that there will be the coming is vitally important for our lives right now. Even though the people in Noah's day didn't know about the coming of the judgment, it still came. This text is not so concerned with describing the future as it is a call for repentance and discipleship and readiness right now. The text asks the question: what or who is most important to you now?

In the illustration from Noah, the great sin of the people was not gross immorality or flagrant idolatry; but just too much emphasis on the normal cares and necessities of life. They were concerned about eating and drinking . . . so are we. Especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Our concern about eating and drinking usually increases as we prepare and eat these great feasts.

They were concerned about weddings . . . so are we. A wedding is usually the most important day in a person's life. Months can be spent planning that perfect day.

There is something more important than your feasts or your weddings: the Son of Man could come. God might show up without an appointment. He could arrive unexpectedly. What would you tell him? "Go away, I'm busy getting this meal ready. We've got guests coming tonight." "Don't bother me now, it's my wedding day. I've got a million details to take care of." The question of the text is: what or who is most important to you now?

The next illustration in our text is not about a so-called rapture, where some people will disappear or are taken up into the air to meet a descending Christ. The story does talk about one being taken and one being left; but that word for "taken" (paralambanomai) doesn't mean "to go up" or "to meet", but "to go along with". It is used in the Transfiguration story: "Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother." It is used in the section on church discipline. If someone has sinned against you, you are to go to him and tell him his fault. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you.

It isn't a special word or a magical word about floating up in the air. It is much more like the fishermen or tax collector answering Jesus' call to follow me -- come along with me -- let's walk down the road together.

What are the people doing when this "taking" or "leaving" occurs? They are at the place of employment. They are busy at work. My guess is that the man working in the field is "left", because he couldn't leave his important work. My guess is that the woman working in the mill is "left", because she couldn't leave her important work.

Work is important. You need to provide food and shelter for yourself and your family; but there is something more important than your work: the Son of Man could come. God might show up without an appointment. He could arrive unexpectedly. What would you tell him if you were busy at work? "Don't bother me now, I've got work to do. Come back during my break, then we can visit. Make an appointment with my secretary." Who or what is most important to you?

You don't know when a thief might break into your house, so you prepare for him at all times. You lock your doors and windows. You leave a light on when you're gone. You insure your possessions. You do things now because a thief could come at some unknown time. He won't make an appointment.

How do you prepare for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man? Who is it that you readily let into your house without an appointment? I don't think you open your doors wide to an unexpected stranger. You welcome in a friend. Who is it that you'll let interrupt your busy work schedule? It's not some pushy salesman who shows up unannounced. You welcome a friend. If a friend calls long distance, even during an important meal, you'll talk to them. If it's a stranger or a computer trying to sell you something, you hang up.

While we often wonder how we can keep Christmas centered on Christ amid all the commercialization, we perhaps need to stress even more the need to keep one's daily life centered on Christ amid all the other demands placed on us by work, family, and self. When Christ comes, he will need to be the most important thing in our lives.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) raises an interesting question concerning the "taking".

Presumably one is ready or alert for the Son of Man's coming by not being distracted by reports of false prophets, wars, famines, or earthquakes, by remaining a faithful follower/disciple/believer through persecution and mission work, by fleeing, by seeing the sign in heaven. Is the righteous taken or is the unrighteous taken and consigned to hell? It is not at all certain. In favor of the latter is 13:40-42, 49-50; but in favor of the former is (1) 24:31, in which the angels gather the elect; (2) the verb take in 2:13, 14, 20, 21, which indicates salvation from danger (note that Jesus is the subject of the verb takes and disciples its object in 20:17; 26:37); (3) in 24:37-39 those who go in the ark are saved while those who are left are not; (4) the verb left indicates judgment in 23:38 and 24:2. [p. 480]

Although I think that the arguments in favor of salvation for those being taken, it could raise a few eyebrows, especially with the "rapture" people, to suggest that those who are taken are being gathered for a fiery judgment.


Matthew 24:45-51 should be studied with our verses, and since it is not part of the RCL, a preacher may include it in the lection.

In this story, we have an example of proper and improper waiting. Presumable, disciples of Jesus want to be "faithful and wise" (v. 45) and not "wicked" (v. 48) servants of God.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes:

The slave, with management skills, has faithfully carried out his master's instructions to ensure the welfare of his fellow slaves (20:26-27). He is ready for his master's coming by being faithful to these instructions. Ensuring that people have access to adequate food has been an important theme through the gospel (6:25-34; 10:10-15 [response to mission]; 12:1-8 [sabbath]; 14:13-21; 15:32-39; 16:5-12; 24:7; 25;31-46). On master as an image for Jesus in eschatological contexts, see 78:21-22; 24:42. To be alert/ready/prepared for his coming (24:3, 36-43) is to be obedient to the divine will, which means actions that strengthen the community of disciples. [p. 482]

In contrast to this faithful and wise servant, the wicked servant is primarily concerned with his power (shown by beating others) and his own food and drink. (Eating and drinking with drunks suggests overeating and overdrinking -- that he is more concerned with consuming the food than distributing it -- more concerned with himself than with others.)

Carter suggests from the punishment suffered by the wicked servant at the end that "[t]he gospel seeks to bully its audience into faithful, alert living." [p. 483]

As congregations may be looking at their budgets, we might ask, "How are we being faithful and wise in caring for others while waiting for Christ's return?"

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901