My thinking on eschatology and biblical interpretation has been fundamentally shaped by Andrew Perriman’s “narrative-historical” approach. According to Perriman, Jesus—and the Bible more broadly—was eminently concerned with historical rather than spiritual outcomes. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet but not the prophet of Schweitzer or Weiss—he did not prophesy the end of the world. Rather, Jesus prophesied, much like his predecessor Jeremiah, an imminent historical catastrophe. He understood this coming apocalyptic flood as the judgement of God upon a disobedient Israel. God was once again about to unleash the curses outlined in the Law of Moses. Contemporary scholars like NT Wright are on board with Perriman up to this point.
But Perriman presses further this commitment to reading the Bible historically. According to biblical precedent, after God judges His people He must next judge the nations for the sake of the faithful. After exile, God must save His people for the sake of His name. Or, in the apocalyptic language of the book of Daniel, the beasts representing indelible pagan empire must be destroyed and vindication and kingdom must be given to the Saints of the Most High. Jesus, as Son of Man, must be justified over against those powers that opposed him and his people, both pagan and Jewish. The biblical images of the Kingdom of God, the fall of Babylon, and the judgement of the nations among others all look ahead to this historical turn of events. New creation, final judgement, and the second resurrection of all the dead constitute a separate and later “eschatological horizon” in the New Testament.
What does this mean for the Sermon on the Mount? It means it is not essentially a work of moral philosophy. Although it is presented in the regalia of Moses giving the Law, Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ central teaching has been thoroughly infiltrated by the kind of apocalyptic thinking outlined above. Jesus is primarily concerned not with idealized morality but with how his community ought to live before the great day of the Lord’s vengeance. How should his followers behave as they maintain their marginalized existence among hostile pagans and hostile Jews? What are the deeds that are worthy of rescue and vindication?
That this is the context for the Sermon is demonstrated by its bookends. Jesus opens his words with prophecy: the beatitudes. These operate in the future tense; they announce what kind of people will inherit the age to come. We need not look far from the Sermon to learn that this new age was at hand, not in the indefinite future (Matthew 3:2, 10:23, 16:28, 24:34).
At the other end of the Sermon is a parable concerning two houses, one that survives the coming flood and the other that is overcome by it. Few interpreters miss the allusion to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70: Second Temple Judaism was about to be judged and the house of the Lord Jesus was about to replace it.
We will next introduce Matthew’s use of psalm 37 in order to further reveal the Sermon’s essentially prophetic and apocalyptic foundations.