Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Where's the carcase and who are the eagles?



Matthew 24:28  For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

Many people have no idea what this verse means at all.  Modern commentaries openly express that they are so baffled that they would just be guessing at an interpretation.  Whilst I don’t wish to be dogmatic, I do think that the context presents us with the simplest and most beautiful interpretation which was the understanding of Reformers such as Calvin, Cranmer and Trapp, as well as many early church writers such as Chrysostom.  The debate here centres around what the symbolism of the ‘carcase’ and the ‘eagles’ represent.

Whilst the definition of ‘ptoma’ (carcase) is not really contested, with the Lexicons and translations in agreement that it refers to a dead body, the word for eagle or vulture is sometimes contested.  Often, the motivation for interpreting this verse one way or another is purely to suit a preferred prophetical view.  However, though vultures were considered somewhat synonymous with eagles by Aristotle, we must not alter the word to suit our interpretation but must alter our interpretation to suit God’s Word.  The Liddell Scott-Jones Lexicon shows the consistent ancient definition of the word ‘aetos’: ‘eagle…eagle as a standard, of the Persians… of the Romans…the constellation Aquila’, ‘aquila’ being the Latin word for eagle and the name of a Gentile convert from Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Strong’s Lexicon agrees that ‘eagle’ is the correct translation.

Now, many Protestant commentators have identified the dead body as Jerusalem in its spiritually dead state, which the Lord Jesus had prophesied would be destroyed just previously:

Matthew 24:15-16  When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains…

And, as we have seen, the Roman military standard was an eagle.  So, as the same standard of the eagle was set up as an abomination in the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman prince Titus, the typically conclusion is that the eagles of verse 28 must be referring to this same event. 
But, must we interpret verse 28 as referring to this?  The use of the word ‘eagle’ might cause us to reflect upon this prophecy earlier in the chapter, but does the immediate context allow us to do so? 

As verse 29 marks the beginning of a new paragraph, let us examine the context preceding verse 28:

Matthew 24:23-28  Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Behold, I have told you before.
Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

The context is discussing false teachers who declare Christ to have come before that great and terrible day.  But, the Lord Jesus reminds us of the simple truth that every eye shall see Him when He returns in great glory, like lightning, to judge every soul that ever lived.  Therefore, the context indicates that we are no longer discussing the destruction of Jerusalem but Christ’s return.  And His second coming will not be in some secret place or to arrive in a humble stable again.  Yet, Jesus declares that if you want to seek communion with Him today, it is at the Lord’s Supper that we remember Him, indeed where we can find the symbols of His broken body – that bread of life and poured out life which represent the sustenance of eternal life we have in Jesus.  Many react negatively to this understanding as the English word ‘carcase’ has come to take on many negative connotations rather than simply meaning ‘dead body’, as the Greek word does.  There should be no such reaction; doesn’t Paul command us to discern the Lord’s body as we sit at the Lord’s Table (1Corinthians 11:29)?

Christ reminds us that the elect will not be deceived into following the false notions of some false prophet but, being His sheep, they hear His voice and follow Him.  They do not seek a physical kingdom, here and now, but rather understand that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21).  Likewise, they do not follow strangers but rather flee from them and gather together in the name of Jesus and He Himself is there in the midst of that congregation.  We assemble to brake bread and to remember the death and resurrection to new life we have in Jesus.  We are then told, in this chapter, that at the actual return of Christ we will literally be gathered to Him:

Matthew 24:31  And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

But for now we gather to eat His body and drink His blood that we might live.  The eagle is described as doing the same thing in Job:

Job 39:27, 28 & 30  Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?
She dwelleth and abideth on the rock…
Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

The eagles gather where the dead body is.
But how can Christians be represented by eagles?  Where is the scriptural precedent for this?  Well, Christians are likened to eagles in Scripture:

Isaiah 40:31  …they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles…

But even stronger representation is used in the New Testament:

Revelation 12:14  And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished…

Here, the Spirit of God has John use the same symbolism used of the Israelites being led out of Egypt and persecution to be sustained in the wilderness by the manna from heaven:

Exodus 19:4  Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.

We are given eagle’s wings that we might be whisked away from the dog’s vomit of this world’s empty pleasures and be truly nourished in our soul with Christ.  We are spiritual pilgrims in the barren land of this wicked world blinded by Satan.  But our food is not physical food, not manna which the Israelites ate but whose bodies died nonetheless; our food is Christ – He is the true bread sent down from heaven and when we drink the blood of His New Covenant, we shall never die.  Though our bodies die, we know that we have eternal life and have passed from spiritual death to life by the same power of God which conquered the grave by raising our King to glory.

In conclusion, I believe the meaning of this verse can be summarised thus:  No false teaching can lure away God’s elect.  Wherever Christ is fed upon in Spirit and truth, His sheep will gather there and no one can snatch them from God’s hand.

Pulpit Commentary: ‘The carcase is Christ, or the body of Christ; the eagles are the saints, or true Christians; these, whatever happens, will, with keen spiritual sight, always be able to discern Christ and his body, and to flock thereto. He calls himself πτμα, because he saves us by his death, and feeds us by his body, in his Church, Word, and sacraments (see Wordsworth, in loc.). Such is the interpretation of many of the Fathers, and it has many analogies in other places of Scripture.’

Geneva Commentary: ‘The only remedy against the furious rage of the world is that of being gathered and joined to Christ.’

Calvin: ‘The meaning is, that by whatever methods Satan endeavors to scatter the children of God in various directions, still in Christ himself is the sacred bond of union, by which they must be kept united. For whence comes the dispersion, but that many depart from Christ, in whom alone our strength lies? ...Let the adherents of Rome now go, and exclaim that all are schismatics who do not allow themselves to be separated from Christ, that they may transfer their allegiance to a robber.’

Trapp: ‘That is, saith M. Lambert, martyr, wheresoever is declared by the course of the Scriptures, the benefits granted to us by Christ’s death, thither will men seek and flee, to know how they may enjoy the same. The sacrificed body of Christ (saith another) hath a most fragrant smell, inviting the saints (like birds of prey) to fly from far with marvellous swiftness to this dead but all quickening carcase…  Christ’s last supper is called by the ancients, Festum aquilarum, non graculorum, a feast for eagles, not for daws.’

Isaiah 60:8  Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?

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