The comings and goings of the Son of Man

I recently had an article published in the journal Biblical Interpretation, on an idea I’ve been working and re-working for a long time, which attempts to make sense of the very difficult Son of Man material in Matthew’s Gospel concerning the theme of ‘second coming’. This paper was a long time in the coming, and so I was particularly pleased when it finally made it into print. It seemed to me that Matthew doesn’t so much portray a second coming of Jesus in the indefinite future, so much as a motif of perpetual presence in the present. Not only did this make sense of some of Matthew’s more difficult apparent contradictions, it also exploited something the great G. B. Caird once wrote (all too briefly) about how the coming of Jesus is also a going. I called this paper ‘The comings and goings of the Son of Man’, a title I was rather proud of.

The full reference is this – ‘The Comings and Goings of the Son of Man: Is Matthew’s risen Jesus “present” or “absent”? A Narrative-Critical Response’ Biblical Interpretation 22:51-70 (2014), and I’ve included the first few paragraphs here. You can also see the full article on my Academia page (

Matthew’s Gospel abounds in complex apocalyptic language and imagery, and many questions arise.[1] The mysterious figure of the Son of Man presents particularly difficult problems. When will he come? Will it be within the lifetime of ‘this generation’ (24:34), or only after the whole world is evangelized (24:14), or is it the case that no one knows, not even the Son (24:36)? The eschatological vision of Matthew’s Gospel presents many questions, but few answers.

A similar difficulty arises with Matthew’s celebrated ‘presence’ Christology. The title Emmanuel (‘God with us’) appears towards the beginning of the Gospel (1:23) and so forms an inclusio with the very last sentence (‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’; 28:20), thus providing an interpretative bracket around almost the entire narrative.[2] David Kupp has argued that the presence motif runs even deeper than is often thought, that the theme of Jesus as God’s presence is central to the whole of the First Gospel, binding it together.[3] And yet, this very same presence motif exists alongside passages which suggest the current absence of Jesus. John Ziesler says of this apparent contradiction between the simultaneously present and absent Jesus:

‘It is just possible that [Matthew] was a man of simple mind who did not notice the contradiction, yet few students of Matthew are left in any doubt that he was a writer of great subtlety and insight, with impressive intellectual powers. In short, it is more likely that he knows exactly what he is doing, and that if we think we find a contradiction between a present and an absent Jesus, it is because we have got something wrong.’[4]

This apparent contradiction might find its resolution in a brief but tantalising suggestion made by the late G. B. Caird. He asserted that in Matthew 26:64 we find the conviction expressed ‘unambiguously’ that ‘the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven would be seen not merely at the end of time but continuously or repeatedly from the moment of Jesus’ death’.[5] According to Caird, this picture exemplifies Matthew’s twin preoccupations with (a) the eternal presence of Jesus with his disciples, and (b) the theme of judgement:

For Matthew’s emphasis on the final judgement does not arise out of any preoccupation with the end of the world, but rather from a recognition that the final judgement is for ever pressing upon the present with both offer and demand. How could it be otherwise in a Gospel which begins with the birth of him whose name is Immanuel, God with us, and ends with his promise, ‘I am with you to the end of the world’?[6]

Caird therefore sees Matthew as something of a proto-Bultmannian, putting forward an eschatological schema which is symbolic of the existential crisis brought about by faith. And the image of the Son of Man perpetually coming in the clouds is, for Caird, a narrative reminder of this fact. This image would seem to resolve (pictorially) the problem of the simultaneous presence and absence of the risen Jesus: he is exalted in the clouds, between heaven and earth, and therefore representative to both.

Caird made this point in a brief paragraph, and it clearly warrants further investigation. The rationale of narrative criticism offers a promising approach for fleshing-out Caird’s suggestion. In the light of a potential contradiction between a Son of Man who is simultaneously absent and present, narrative criticism offers a potential way of resolving these contradictions, since it works on the assumption that the text is a largely self-defining world which will present its own logic for how it is to be read.[7] The hope is that once the logic of this particular narrative world is uncovered, apparent narrative contradictions will fall away. And unless the text itself indicates that it is designed to be read in a metaphorical or symbolic sense (as in a parable), it should be read literally, within the internal frame of reference of the text.

[1] See, for example F.C. Grant, The Gospels: Their Origin and their Growth (London: Faber and Faber, 1957) p. 137; J.A.T. Robinson, Jesus and his Coming: The Emergence of a Doctrine (London: SCM, 1957), pp. 96-100.

[2] U. Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 31-33.

[3] D.D. Kupp, Matthew’s Emmanuel: Divine Presence and God’s people in the First Gospel (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 240.

[4] J.A. Ziesler, ‘Matthew and the Presence of Jesus (2),’ Epworth Review 11 (1984), pp. 90-97 (92).

[5] G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, (London: Duckworth, 1980), p. 268.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kupp, Matthew’s Emmanuel, pp. 9-11.