Jesus’ Coming or Jesus’ Presence—Which?
“What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”—MATTHEW 24:3.
1. What role did questions have in Jesus’ ministry?
JESUS’ skillful use of questions made his listeners think, even consider things from new perspectives. (Mark 12:35-37; Luke 6:9; 9:20; 20:3, 4) We can be thankful that he also answered questions. His answers illuminate truths that we might not otherwise have known or understood.—Mark 7:17-23; 9:11-13; 10:10-12; 12:18-27.
2. To what question should we give our attention now?
2 At Matthew 24:3, we find one of the most important questions Jesus ever answered. With the end of his earthly life near, Jesus had just warned that Jerusalem’s temple would be destroyed, marking the end of the Jewish system. Matthew’s account adds: “While he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately, saying: ‘Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence [“coming,” King James Version] and of the conclusion of the system of things?’”—Matthew 24:3.
3, 4. What significant difference is there in how Bibles render a key word at Matthew 24:3?
3 Millions of Bible readers have wondered, ‘Why did the disciples ask that question, and how should Jesus’ reply affect me?’ In his reply Jesus spoke of the appearance of leaves showing that summer “is near.” (Matthew 24:32, 33) Hence, many churches teach that the apostles were asking for a sign of Jesus’ “coming,” the sign proving that his return was imminent. They believe that the “coming” will be the point when he takes Christians to heaven and then brings the end of the world. Do you believe that this is correct?
4 Instead of the rendering “coming,” some Bible versions, including the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, use the word “presence.” Could it be that what the disciples asked about and what Jesus said in reply differ from what is taught in churches? What really was asked? And what answer did Jesus give?
What Were They Asking?
5, 6. What can we conclude about the apostles’ thinking when they asked the question that we read at Matthew 24:3?
5 In view of what Jesus said about the temple, the disciples likely were thinking of the Jewish arrangement when they asked for ‘a sign of his presence [or, “coming”] and the conclusion of the system of things [literally, “age”].’—Compare “world” at 1 Corinthians 10:11 and Galatians 1:4, KJ.
6 At this point the apostles had but a limited grasp of Jesus’ teachings. They had earlier imagined that “the kingdom of God was going to display itself instantly.” (Luke 19:11; Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 10:35-40) And even after the discussion on the Mount of Olives, but prior to being anointed with holy spirit, they asked if Jesus was restoring the Kingdom to Israel then.—Acts 1:6.
7. Why would the apostles ask Jesus about his future role?
7 Yet, they did know that he would leave, for he had recently said: “The light will be among you a little while longer. Walk while you have the light.” (John 12:35; Luke 19:12-27) So they might well have wondered, ‘If Jesus is going to leave, how will we recognize his return?’ When he appeared as the Messiah, most did not recognize him. And over a year later, questions persisted about whether he would fulfill all that the Messiah was to do. (Matthew 11:2, 3) So the apostles had reason to inquire about the future. But, again, were they asking for a sign that he would soon come or for something different?
8. The apostles were likely speaking what language with Jesus?
8 Imagine that you were a bird listening to the conversation on the Mount of Olives. (Compare Ecclesiastes 10:20.) Probably you would have heard Jesus and the apostles speaking in Hebrew. (Mark 14:70; John 5:2; 19:17, 20; Acts 21:40) Yet, they likely also knew the Greek language.
What Matthew Wrote—In Greek
9. On what are most modern translations of Matthew based?
9 Sources back to the second century C.E. indicate that Matthew first wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. Evidently he later wrote it in Greek. Many manuscripts in Greek have come down to our time and have served as the basis for translating his Gospel into today’s languages. What did Matthew write in Greek about that conversation on the Mount of Olives? What did he write about the “coming” or “presence” that the disciples asked about and that Jesus commented on?
10. (a) What Greek word for “come” did Matthew use often, and what meanings can it have? (b) What other Greek word is of interest?
10 In the first 23 chapters of Matthew, over 80 times we find a common Greek verb for “come,” which is erʹkho·mai. It often conveys the thought of approaching or drawing near, as at John 1:47: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him.” Depending on usage, the verb erʹkho·mai can mean “arrive,” “go,” “get to,” “reach,” or “be on one’s way.” (Matthew 2:8, 11; 8:28; John 4:25, 27, 45; 20:4, 8; Acts 8:40; 13:51) But at Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39, Matthew used a different word, a noun found nowhere else in the Gospels: pa·rou·siʹa. Since God inspired the writing of the Bible, why did he move Matthew to choose this Greek word in these verses when penning his Gospel in Greek? What does it mean, and why should we want to know?
11. (a) What is the sense of pa·rou·siʹa? (b) How do examples from Josephus’ writing bear out our understanding of pa·rou·siʹa? (See footnote.)
11 Pointedly, pa·rou·siʹa means “presence.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says: “PAROUSIA, . . . lit[erally], a presence, para, with, and ousia, being (from eimi, to be), denotes both an arrival and a consequent presence with. For instance, in a papyrus letter a lady speaks of the necessity of her parousia in a place in order to attend to matters relating to her property.” Other lexicons explain that pa·rou·siʹa denotes ‘the visit of a ruler.’ Hence, it is not just the moment of arrival, but a presence extending from the arrival onward. Interestingly, that is how Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of the apostles, used pa·rou·siʹa.a
12. How does the Bible itself help us to confirm the meaning of pa·rou·siʹa?
12 The meaning “presence” is clearly borne out by ancient literature, yet Christians are particularly interested in how God’s Word uses pa·rou·siʹa. The answer is the same—presence. We see that from examples in Paul’s letters. For instance, he wrote to the Philippians: “In the way that you have always obeyed, not during my presence only, but now much more readily during my absence, keep working out your own salvation.” He also spoke of abiding with them that they might exult “through [his] presence [pa·rou·siʹa] again with [them].” (Philippians 1:25, 26; 2:12) Other versions read “my being with you again” (Weymouth; New International Version); “when I am with you again” (Jerusalem Bible; New English Bible); and “when you once more have me among you.” (Twentieth Century New Testament) At 2 Corinthians 10:10, 11, Paul contrasted “his presence in person” with being “absent.” In these examples he plainly was not speaking of his approach or arrival; he used pa·rou·siʹa in the sense of being present.b (Compare 1 Corinthians 16:17.) What, though, about references to Jesus’ pa·rou·siʹa? Are they with the sense of his “coming,” or do they indicate an extended presence?
13, 14. (a) Why must we conclude that a pa·rou·siʹa extends over time? (b) What must be said about the length of Jesus’ pa·rou·siʹa?
13 Spirit-anointed Christians in Paul’s day were interested in Jesus’ pa·rou·siʹa. But Paul warned them not to be ‘shaken from their reason.’ First there must appear “the man of lawlessness,” which has proved to be the clergy of Christendom. Paul wrote that “the lawless one’s presence is according to the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs.” (2 Thessalonians 2:2, 3, 9) Plainly, the pa·rou·siʹa, or presence, of “the man of lawlessness” was not just a momentary arrival; it would extend over time, during which lying signs would be produced. Why is this significant?
14 Consider the verse immediately before that: “The lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will do away with by the spirit of his mouth and bring to nothing by the manifestation of his presence.” Just as the presence of “the man of lawlessness” would be over a period of time, Jesus’ presence would extend for some time and would climax in the destruction of that lawless “son of destruction.”—2 Thessalonians 2:8.
15, 16. (a) What particular word is used in many translations of Matthew into Hebrew? (b) How is bohʼ used in the Scriptures?
15 As noted, Matthew evidently wrote his Gospel first in the Hebrew language. So, what Hebrew word did he use at Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39? Versions of Matthew translated into modern Hebrew have a form of the verb bohʼ, both in the apostles’ question and in Jesus’ reply. This could lead to readings such as: “What will be the sign of your [bohʼ] and of the conclusion of the system of things?” and, “As the days of Noah were, so the [bohʼ] of the Son of man will be.” What does bohʼ mean?
16 Though having various senses, the Hebrew verb bohʼ basically means “come.” The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament says: ‘Occurring 2,532 times, bohʼ is one of the most frequently used verbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and is at the head of verbs expressing motion.’ (Genesis 7:1, 13; Exodus 12:25; 28:35; 2 Samuel 19:30; 2 Kings 10:21; Psalm 65:2; Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 11:16; Daniel 9:13; Amos 8:11) Had Jesus and the apostles used a word with such a range of meanings, the sense might be debatable. But did they?
17. (a) Why may modern Hebrew translations of Matthew not necessarily indicate what Jesus and the apostles said? (b) Where else may we find a clue as to what word Jesus and the apostles may have used, and for what other reason is this source of interest to us? (See footnote.)
17 Bear in mind that modern Hebrew versions are translations that may not present exactly what Matthew penned in Hebrew. The fact is that Jesus could well have used a word other than bohʼ, one that fitted the sense of pa·rou·siʹa. We see this from the 1995 book Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, by Professor George Howard. The book focused on a 14th-century polemic against Christianity by the Jewish physician Shem-Tob ben Isaac Ibn Shaprut. That document set out a Hebrew text of Matthew’s Gospel. There is evidence that rather than being translated from Latin or Greek in Shem-Tob’s time, this text of Matthew was very old and was originally composed in Hebrew.c It thus may bring us closer to what was said on the Mount of Olives.
18. What interesting Hebrew word does Shem-Tob use, and what does it mean?
18 At Matthew 24:3, 27, 39, Shem-Tob’s Matthew does not use the verb bohʼ. Instead, it uses the related noun bi·ʼahʹ. That noun appears in the Hebrew Scriptures only at Ezekiel 8:5, where it means “entranceway.” Instead of expressing the action of coming, bi·ʼahʹ there refers to the start of a building; when you are in the entryway or on the threshold, you are in the building. Also, non-Biblical religious documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls often use bi·ʼahʹ regarding the arrival or commencement of priestly courses. (See 1 Chronicles 24:3-19; Luke 1:5, 8, 23.) And a 1986 translation into Hebrew of the ancient Syriac (or, Aramaic) Peshitta uses bi·ʼahʹ at Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39. So there is evidence that in ancient times the noun bi·ʼahʹ may have had a sense that differed somewhat from the verb bohʼ used in the Bible. Why is this of interest?
19. If Jesus and the apostles used bi·ʼah,ʹ what might we conclude?
19 The apostles in their question and Jesus in his reply may have used this noun bi·ʼah.ʹ Even if the apostles had in mind simply the idea of Jesus’ future arrival, Christ may have used bi·ʼahʹ to allow for more than what they were thinking. Jesus could have been pointing to his arrival to commence a new office; his arrival would be the start of his new role. This would match the sense of pa·rou·siʹa, which Matthew subsequently used. Such a use of bi·ʼahʹ would, understandably, have to support what Jehovah’s Witnesses have long taught, that the composite “sign” Jesus gave was to reflect that he was present.
Awaiting the Climax of His Presence
20, 21. What can we learn from Jesus’ comment about the days of Noah?
20 Our study of Jesus’ presence should have a direct bearing on our life and our expectations. Jesus urged his followers to stay alert. He provided a sign so that his presence could be recognized, though most would take no note: “As the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark; and they took no note until the flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.”—Matthew 24:37-39.
21 During the days of Noah, most people of that generation just carried on with their normal affairs. Jesus foretold that it would be the same with “the presence of the Son of man.” The people around Noah might have felt that nothing would happen. You know differently. Those days, which spread over time, led to a climax, “the flood came and swept them all away.” Luke presents a similar account in which Jesus compared “the days of Noah” with “the days of the Son of man.” Jesus admonished: “The same way it will be on that day when the Son of man is to be revealed.”—Luke 17:26-30.
22. Why should we be particularly interested in Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew chapter 24?
22 All of this takes on special meaning for us because we are living at a time when we recognize the events that Jesus foretold—wars, earthquakes, pestilences, food shortages, and persecution of his disciples. (Matthew 24:7-9; Luke 21:10-12) Such have been in evidence since the history-changing conflict significantly named World War I, though most people treat these as normal parts of history. True Christians, however, sense the meaning of these momentous events, just as alert people understand from the leafing of a fig tree that summer is near. Jesus advised: “In this way you also, when you see these things occurring, know that the kingdom of God is near.”—Luke 21:31.
23. To whom do Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 24 have special meaning, and why?
23 Jesus directed much of his reply on the Mount of Olives to his followers. They were the ones to share in the lifesaving work of preaching the good news in all the earth before the end would come. They would be the ones who could discern “the disgusting thing that causes desolation . . . standing in a holy place.” They would be the ones to respond by “fleeing” before the great tribulation. And they would be the ones particularly affected by the added words: “Unless those days were cut short, no flesh would be saved; but on account of the chosen ones those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:9, 14-22) But just what do those sobering words mean, and why can it be said that they provide a basis for us to have increased happiness, confidence, and zeal now? The following study of Matthew 24:22 will provide the answers.
a Examples from Josephus: At Mount Sinai lightning and thunder “declared God to be there present [pa·rou·siʹa].” The miraculous manifestation in the tabernacle “showed the presence [pa·rou·siʹa] of God.” By showing Elisha’s servant the encircling chariots, God made “manifest to his servant his power and presence [pa·rou·siʹa].” When Roman official Petronius tried to appease the Jews, Josephus claimed that ‘God did show his presence [pa·rou·siʹa] to Petronius’ by sending rain. Josephus did not apply pa·rou·siʹa to a mere approach or momentary arrival. It meant an ongoing, even invisible, presence. (Exodus 20:18-21; 25:22; Leviticus 16:2; 2 Kings 6:15-17)—Compare Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, chapter 5, paragraph 2 ; chapter 8, paragraph 5 ; Book 9, chapter 4, paragraph 3 ; Book 18, chapter 8, paragraph 6 .
b In A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, E. W. Bullinger points out that pa·rou·siʹa means ‘the being or becoming present, hence, presence, arrival; a coming which includes the idea of a permanent dwelling from that coming onwards.’
c One evidence is that it contains the Hebrew expression “The Name,” written out or abbreviated, 19 times. Professor Howard writes: “The reading of the Divine Name in a Christian document quoted by a Jewish polemist is remarkable. If this were a Hebrew translation of a Greek or Latin Christian document, one would expect to find adonai [Lord] in the text, not a symbol for the ineffable divine name YHWH. . . . For him to have added the ineffable name is inexplicable. The evidence strongly suggests that Shem-Tob received his Matthew with the Divine Name already within the text and that he probably preserved it rather than run the risk of being guilty of removing it.” The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References uses Shem-Tob’s Matthew (J2) as support for using the divine name in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
How Would You Answer?
◻ Why is it important to see the difference between how Bibles render Matthew 24:3?
◻ What is the meaning of pa·rou·siʹa, and why is this of concern?
◻ What possible parallel might exist at Matthew 24:3 in Greek and in Hebrew?
◻ What key regarding time do we need to know in understanding Matthew chapter 24?
[Picture on page 10]
The Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem