New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #21

scriptures-resurrection-758817-printSo here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

What do you learn about Matthew 24:29 from D & C 133:49? (See also D & C 88:87.) Do you interpret Matthew 24:29 literally or symbolically?

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

When it comes to our own culture, we know what work a given kind of writing or speaking is supposed to do. That little flyer that comes in your mail contains coupons, not moral guidance. When you hear “so a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar,” you know it’s going to be a joke. You know the names in the front of an old family Bible are not a list of enemies. No one has to teach you this stuff and you don’t usually even think consciously about it. But when it comes to materials from other cultures, we make assumptions about the kind of material that we are reading. Often, those assumptions are spectacularly incorrect.

One ancient genre is known as apocalyptic. It was fairly common around Jesus’ time. It seems to sprout up during eras of political persecution, functioning almost as a code which allows its users to share significant truths under the radar of the prevailing authorities. It shows God’s power on a cosmic scale and thus re-assures the audience: despite what you see around you, God really is in control. It provides a set of visual images of God’s power which counter the lived experience of oppressive political power. It teaches symbolically. It is not history written in advance and if you read it that way, you miss the point. The longest example of an apocalypse in the Bible is the Book of Revelation. Its first verse says that the revelation was signified, meaning that it is presented through symbols. If you read it as if it were a news article from the future, you are misreading it.

Which brings us to the “little apocalypse,” also known as the Olivet Discourse (see Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21; note that some dispute calling this an apocalypse: perhaps it is a farewell address). A literal reading is an impoverished reading, as I think the D & C verses suggest. The point of the passage is not literal celestial discombobulation, but rather something else. A hint to what that something else might be comes from the Hebrew Bible (=Old Testament), which uses the image of celestial bodies to symbolize foreign governments. I think the picture here is that the power and glory of the Lord is so great that other pretenders to the throne will shrink away. This is a beautiful and important message which would have, I think, brought comfort to anyone throughout history who lived under the boot of an oppressive political regime.

5 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #21

  1. Back in 1983, I thought I should take a course on the Pearl of Great Price from Hugh Nibley. My reasoning was that he wouldn’t live forever (shows what I know, he taught for several more years). It was a mind-blowing experience. He told us he typically began with the Book of Abraham, which had been the focus of his studies for many years. That semester, he began with the Joseph Smith–Matthew and we spent 6 weeks on it. Your analysis about symbols was similar to what we did.

    Sidenotes: When the course began, we had about 300 people in a room that sat 150. He let anyone add the class who wanted and joked that in two weeks, there would be plenty of seats. He was right. By the end of the semester, there were about 20 of us and that included the “Nibley disciples”, who were the ancient studies and language students (about a dozen if I recall). The Final was to describe the 7 dispensations as presented in the Pearl of Great Price. My response was seven pages, type-written, single-spaced. I got a B with a note, “You gave me exactly what I asked for”. One girl who got an A gave her response in the form of a Greek tragedy with a chorus. I still feel we don’t talk about Nibley enough and Boyd Peterson’s book on his father-in-law, A Consecrated Life is worth taking the time to read.

  2. “One girl who got an A gave her response in the form of a Greek tragedy with a chorus.”


    “Boyd Peterson’s book on his father-in-law, A Consecrated Life is worth taking the time to read.”


  3. Out of curiosity – so if it’s understood to be symbolic, then what are the signs of Christ’s coming, if we’re not to take His explanation here as literal?

  4. Sarah, I think most of the point of Mark 13 is Jesus telling them _not_ to look for signs, since most signs would come from false prophets and messiahs. I think he’s mostly trying to talk them down from sign-seeking and prepare them instead for the rigors of discipleship. Having said that, when we read symbolically the signs which he does give, they point to the withering of earthly kingdoms.

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