Preterism, Idealism, & the Olivet Discourse

an exegetical look at Matthew 24:3-14

FOREWORD

The material for this post originated as an exegetical paper over Matthew 24:3-14, the first part of the Matthean Olivet Discourse. Citations for all references are in the section following the content. All material here belongs to Jason Hinrichs, and may not be cited or copied without express written or verbal consent.

 

 

The Matthean Olivet Discourse is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ message to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Though it is contested as to where the Matthean Olivet Discourse begins, it is most widely accepted that it opens with Matthew 24:3–14. Also widely contested is the time period that is being addressed by Christ to the disciples in this section and in the larger pericope of the Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Matthew.

Though the entirety of verses three to fourteen will be in view, the emphasis is on the first section going into verse eight, as this sets the stage for how one views the entire Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Matthew. This specific section of the Olivet Discourse is referring to the time leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but the events fulfilled also inaugurate corollary ideals that will mark the time period between the destruction of the temple to the singular eschatological event of Christ’s coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.

THE DISCIPLES’ QUESTION

Though the disciples believed that they were asking a singular question, Jesus answered in two parts. “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” is the question of the Jesus’ disciples in verse three. Though it is clear that the disciples are asking a singular question, “Jesus will make clear that the destruction of the temple and the end of the age are two separate events, but probably the disciples do not yet recognize this.”[1]

Most scholars would agree with this statement and apply it in many different ways, though John Nollard would argue that “‘your coming’ and ‘the completion of the age’ are marked as belonging together.”[2] The problem with Nollard’s statement is that it leaves no room for the obviously fulfilled event of the destruction of the temple, but it leaves all the room for the second advent of Christ. It is clear from the text that “the church expected certain events to happen within a generation,” namely the destruction of the temple, and it is also clear that this event took place in A.D. 70.[3] It does not follow, however, “that the Lord’s return itself must happen within a generation.”[4] That is, the fact that the disciples asked a singular question of Jesus does not mean that He gave a singular answer.

Though parousia has traditionally been associated with the second advent of Christ, it likely refers to the end of the age, fulfilled in AD 70. The Greek term parousia is translated as end of the age in English translations. Some scholars argue that this also refers to the second coming of Christ, as parousia’s secondary definition is “arrival as the first stage in presence.”[

More narrowly defined, the critical Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature notes that this specific verse’s use of parousia refers to Christ’s “Messianic Advent in glory to judge the world at the end of this [current] age.”[6] Though this is what many would call the traditional view, N.T. Wright argues that this definition only exists because of “ecclesiastical and scholarly tradition;” in the most literal sense it means presence, and this definition should be the starting point, rather than the traditional interpretation.[7]

When the disciples’ question is evaluated, it is clear that parousia does not necessarily refer to an eschatological end of the world. Rather, the Jewish disciples did not have in mind “the end of the space-time order, but the end of the present evil age . . . and the introduction of the age to come.”[8] This is exactly what Jesus is addressing, as he places the end of the age with the destruction of the temple, and refers to the signs of His coming as separate events.[9]

JESUS ANSWERS

As it has already been established, Christ gave a two part answer to the disciples’ question, telling them of the many false signs that were to come. Jesus answers the disciples by giving them signs of the end of the age and leading up to His coming, while also clarifying that there would be calamities that would seem to mark the end of the age, but in actuality were ‘false contractions.’ Jesus first warns that “many will come in [His] name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”

Leon Morris argues that the statement of the false teacher is that of “claiming to be the Messiah” and continues to say that this must not refer to the age to the come, but the period following leading up to the Second Advent.[10] However, other sources disagree with the claim that deity must be claimed to qualify this instance of false prophecy, but come to the same conclusion.[11]

Both views of what it means to be a false prophet in this instance cannot be reconciled, and it seems as though Blomberg has the premise correct, but not the conclusion. False prophets refer to those Jewish frauds claiming to be the Messiah leading up to A.D. 70 after seeing Jesus’ success in doing so, and the language of this entire pericope only makes sense within the context of the audience, which is the disciples. The disciples would encounter false prophets that would attempt to lead them astray in their lifetimes.

Proceeding, Jesus describes what are to be considered the ‘false contractions’ of the end of the age. The disciples would not experience these troubles themselves, as Jesus says that they would only hear of wars and rumors of wars.[12] John Nolland, assuming that this refers to the end of the age eschatologically, states that the end here can only refer to the destruction of the figurative temple, the Church.[13]

It is clear, however, that the phrase the ‘end is not yet’ is still referring to false contractions of the end of the age preceding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the end of the world is the ‘not yet’.[14] Jesus continues with “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” in verse seven. Jesus’ grouping of nations battling nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, and famines and earthquakes—combined with the words ‘will rise’—clarifies for the disciples that these things are merely passive instruments of God’s work being done, because there is no one who can control nature but God.[15]

“All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Christ essentially states that all of the listed disasters are merely birth pains for the coming of the end of the age. Though modern-thought leads one to believe that birth pains refer to pain before a good outcome, this Jewish metaphor does not require a good outcome, but rather refers to the ‘false contractions’ that lead a mother to believe that she is in birth when she really is not.[16] These ‘birth pains’ point the disciples to the false signs and the true signs before the destruction of the temple and further establishes the ideal of ‘birth pains’ or ‘false contractions’ proceeding all the way to Christ’s Second Advent.

FALSE PROPHETS AND THE SPREAD OF THE GOSPEL

In the time leading up to the coming of the age, Jesus says that “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” As Jesus transitions from addressing the immediate context of the end of the age to the ideal—or principle—of the corollary concepts established in the time between that end and Jesus’ Second Advent, he is not simply referring to the ‘Great Tribulation’ discussed in the section of the Olivet Discourse further in the text.

Rather, Jesus is referring to the continuing principle of tribulation that all Christians will endure throughout the figurative millennium—which is the present, in addition to the Great Tribulation experienced by Christians under the persecution of Nero leading up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The ones who would deliver the Christians to tribulation and death were a mix of ethnic Jews and those thought to be a part of the Church—spiritual Jews—in the time leading to the age to come.[18] This latter group is described by Jesus as the many whose love grew cold. In the immediate context of the time leading up to the end of the age, ‘all nations’ refers to the known world at the time, but in principle following the end of the age refers to the literal all nations.

“Many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another” is modified in verse thirteen with “but the one who endures to the end will be saved.” So when Christ refers to those who fall away, He is not talking about the ones who were kept by the Father to the end. Rather, He is referring to the people who claimed to be of the Church but were not actually ever in the eschatological covenant. These were “those who had been taught to love as Christ loved them [who would] degenerate into living in hatred.”[19] This applies both to the immediate context of the disciples and the inauguration of this continuing principle of hateful apostates until the Second Advent. In contrast, believers that are the subject of this hatred will be kept by the Lord in whatever trials they endure.[20]

With the end of Jesus’ answer comes the climax of verse fourteen, “and this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” To the disciples, this was a hope to put their faith in and a challenge. Matthew spoke of Jesus proclaiming this gospel, but now it was the responsibility of the disciples, not just to proclaim it, but to proclaim it to the ends of the earth.[21]

This immediate context of the disciples in their world saw its fulfillment in the late 50s according to Paul.[22] The principle/ideal of this gospel being proclaimed throughout the world carries forward past the end of the age into this (figurative) millennium of Christ’s rule and reign through His church, and it is the means by which the Gospel is being proclaimed to the ends of the expansive earth.

CONCLUSION

Though the fulfillment of the end of the age occurred with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Christ’s coming has yet to be fulfilled. In this intermediary state between the destruction of the temple and the singular eschatological event of the Second Advent, the continuous principle/ideal of tribulation unfolds in the ‘birth pains’ before His coming. However, it must be considered that though much of the later section of this pericope inaugurates principles that continue until the final judgment, the direct and immediate context of this text addresses Jesus’ prophesying of the physical annihilation of the temple in A.D. 70, and the later section of the Olivet Discourse moves into that which is to come.


 

[1] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 353.
[2] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek New Testament, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005). 961.
[3] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992),  463.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick William Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001),  780-781.
[6] Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 780-781.
[7] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 341.
[8] Ibid., 345-346.
[9] Jason Hood, “Matthew 23-25: The Extent of Jesus’ Fifth Discourse,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (Fall 2009),527.
[10] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 597.
[11] Blomberg, Matthew, 353.
[12] Morris, Matthew, 597-598.
[13] Nolland, Matthew, 963.
[14] Morris, Matthew, 598.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Blomberg, Matthew, 354.
[17] Nolland, Matthew, 963.
[18] Ibid., 965.
[19] Morris, Matthew, 600.
[20] Ibid., 601.
[21] Morris, Matthew, 601-602.
[22] Blomberg, Matthew, 356-357.

Recommended Resources

A Case for Amillennialism” by Kim Riddlebarger
Kingdom Come” by Sam Storms
Four Views on the Book of Revelation

Jason is a co-founder and editor of The Reformed Collective, student, member of The Village Church (Fort Worth) and Technology & Design Coordinator at Camp Thurman, a non-profit Christian organization.