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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Than Was Then, Tomorrow's How?

[Note: many italicizations have been lost from the original text on my facebook page...I won't spend the time to go in and add them again. The main points of each paragraph should remain clear enough.]

To be transparent, Trey Scott and I, who became very interested in and inquisitive about the subject of Christian eschatology several years ago (and still are to this day), were converted to a preterist (that is, orthodox preterist) view of biblical prophecy by little further study than hearing a masterful presentation of some of Dr. Kenneth Gentry's understanding of the book of Revelation which he himself gave at a 1999 Ligonier Conference in Orlando, and which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, the link for which is below. Disclaimer: we have no idea why the graphics and sounds are as cheesy as you would expect a sensationalist futurist's DVD program to be.

Anyway, we have since continued, at times with more or less intentional focus, to refine our understanding of this position as it relates to various biblical and theological issues.

Before I go further, I would point anyone who is an absolute newcomer with no exposure yet to this view to go read either Trey's recent absolute beginner's introduction to preterism, especially as it pertains to the Olivet Discourse:

A Note on Biblical Prophecy

AND/OR my older, slightly more involved but less well-organized primer:

Revelation Made Easier: Partial Preterism Primer

One issue that comes up when you adopt a partial or "orthodox" preterist position with regard to the judgment coming of Christ on Jerusalem in AD 70 is discerning which eschatological passages in the New Testament have primary or sole reference to that event, and which eschatological passages have primary or sole reference to the Second Advent of Christ--His literal, bodily coming at the end of history.

Some passages, for most orthodox preterists, are clear, like 1st Corinthians 15 and 1st Thessalonians 4. These passages, because the language in them about resurrection is manifestly about physical resurrection, are certainly referring to the yet-future Second Coming of Christ at the last day, not AD 70.

However, I am still working out some issues like determining precisely how Paul relates the two events in both of his letters to the Thessalonians, and whether his audience would have understood him clearly on the matter. I am also still working out whether I think for sure the apocalyptic de-creation language of 2nd Peter 3 is referring to the Second Advent, or is yet another way of referring to the events of the first century (I currently lean toward the former option).

I intend some day to finish making a fairly comprehensive study of the way the New Testament relates the two events, and attempt to come up with some consistent hermeneutical principles for the eschatological passages about Christ's coming that do demonstrable justice to both Christian orthodoxy and a partial preterist reading of the New Testament as a whole (if possible with the preterist reading).

One case, though, which I feel fairly confident about, despite the way commentators continue to rage in chaotic disagreement, is the question of whether there is a topical transition in the Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew from discussion of the first century "Great Tribulation" and destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:4-34 to descriptions of the glorious Second Advent of Christ to judge all people in Matthew 24:37 through 25:46.

I take the view that there is such a topical transition in Jesus' discourse, and will seek to briefly defend that position here.

Let's briefly review the preterist understanding of vv.4-34, though.

Vv. 4-13

All of these things were in fact happening in the first century prior to Jerusalem's fall: false Messiahs, famines and earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, growing persecution of Christians by the surrounding and occupying Roman empire, and many people apostatizing from true spirituality.

V.14

The gospel had, in a sense, been preached in the "whole world," in the sense of the "whole known world" of the Roman empire. Other passages in the New Testament confirm this as a legitimate way to speak, for they say that this had been accomplished. See Trey's note for four or five specific examples. This does not, for orthodox preterists, constitute any good reason whatsoever for the Church to neglect missions in our day. The "end" in this verse refers to the end of the Judaic aeon--the age of the Old Covenant order.

Vv. 15-20

The "abomination of desolation" is language from Daniel 9, which in turn is language that was originally applied to Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he desecrated the temple with sacrifices of pigs in the intertestamental period. Daniel prophetically, with fuzzy vision, and then here Jesus, with greater clarity, applies the language to the coming trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentile Roman armies. Compare with Luke 21:20-22. Jesus gives specific instructions here to those who are in Judea to take flight and "head for the hills" when they see the abomination of desolation "standing in the holy place" (Jerusalem and the near-surrounding area).

V. 21

How could the first century events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem have constituted the greatest tribulation to that day, and one such that no worse would ever be? In terms of covenantal significance, God's divorce and capital punishment of apostate national Israel was the biggest spiritual upheaval that has ever happened, even if the volume of physical slaughter has been outdone in the earth since then. Moreover, Jesus may be just employing a measure of prophetic hyperbole. It is not uncommon in the Old Testament. Interestingly, though, Josephus the historian uses very strikingly similar language when he describes the horror of the tribulation of those days as he watched these things happen.

Vv. 22-26

Again, there were many professing Messiahs in the first century. Also, though things were extraordinarily violent, they did take place rather quickly, once all the Christians had escaped Judea.

V. 27

Some commentators cannot understand how this could have a first century fulfilment, but it does sound like metaphorical apocalyptic language, and the main point seems to be that this judgment coming of Christ was a manifest and visible work, not some secret event the likes of which the false Messiahs and proto-Gnostic heretics were constantly claiming would happen. Everyone could see the ruin of Jerusalem take place as the Son of Man took vengeance on His apostate kinsmen.

V. 28

Jerusalem, and especially its corrupt leaders, was a spiritually dead city, as Jesus constantly points out in Matthew's gospel account. Therefore, it could be described as a corpse to which the "vultures" (the agents of God's judgment) gathered. There could be an overtone of the Deuteronomic covenant cursing imagery here, as well.

V. 29

This apocalyptic de-creation language was common in the Old Testament when the prophets were describing political upheaval in the land as judgments from God. There is no biblically constraining reason to be woodenly literalistic about these kinds of verses. See Trey's note, again.

V. 30

This verse should be translated as "And then will the sign of the Son of Man in heaven appear, and all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." This is not an astrological disturbance or a Superman moment for the body of Jesus. Rather, this is pointing to the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of filthy Gentile pagan Romans is the sign that the Son of Man had been exalted in heaven as the Messianic King, presented before the Ancient of Days (see Daniel 7), and was now "coming" in judgment (compare Old Testament texts about Yahweh "coming" on a cloud for judgment...again, see Trey's note). "Earth" here can also be translated "land," and "tribes" here manifestly refers to the families of Israel, who will now mourn because of their pending doom if they have rejected Jesus.

V. 31

"Angels" here can simply mean "messengers," and this verse, in a way similar to v. 14, simply refers to the wide announcement of the gospel and the gathering of many Gentiles into the Church before the end of the Jewish age.

V. 32-33

Jesus compares the signs He has been discussing to a fig tree. When the fig tree puts forth leaves, summer is around the corner. So, Jesus argues, the disciples to whom He was speaking (unless He meant "you" generically...extraordinarily unlikely in this context), should know that when these signs appear to them, His coming (in judgment on Jerusalem by means of the Romans) is near.

V. 34

Jesus declares that "this generation" will not pass away until "all these things" take place. Futurist attempts to make this generation refer to the Jewish race or the eschatological generation still in our future are very weak, especially in light of parallel passages in the other Synoptic accounts. See my comments on Trey's note.

Now to defend my view that a topical transition occurs here in the text.

Some commentators who take the same position as I do with regard to the topical transition at verses 24:35, 36 base their view largely on the grammar of the transitional verses 24:35, 36. They make a big deal out of both the strong adversative particle "but" at the beginning of verse 36, suggesting that it is a clear indicator of a major topical change in the discourse, and the contrast between the near demonstrative "this" in the "this generation" of v. 34 and the far demonstrative "that" of the "that day and hour" of v. 36.

I think that from within my position those things sound good and make sense, but I am not surprised that they are not convincing arguments on their own to full preterists or most futurists. The grammatical shifts, when considering the grammar alone, could simply signal a shift from discussion of a general time period of the great tribulation of the last years of the 60's AD with its attendant warning signs Jesus spoke about, to the short, more specific period of the siege of Jerusalem ("that day and hour").

However, combined with a few other observations, I think that I can accept those arguments as welcome auxiliary.

First, v. 34 does seem like a strong concluding statement to everything that had come before. Why would Jesus say about half the things He wanted to say about the turmoil that would occur within a generation, then say that "all these things" would indeed take place within a generation, and then continue to talk about more "things" that would take place in the same time frame? Some have attempted to argue that after 24:34 Jesus shifts His attention away from the events and situation to instructions about what the disciples should do about it--how they should live. This is unconvincing because Jesus talks about the nature of the situation surrounding the event spoken of in 24:37ff as well as how the disciples should respond to it, and He talks about what the disciples should do about the events in 24:4-34 within vv.4-34 itself. He talks about both aspects in both sections, and as we will see, they are very different pictures indeed.

Second, there is a shift from language of imminence to language of temporal distance which is very striking. In 24:4-34 we have temporal indicators like "near," "this generation," and "right at the door." In the rest of the discourse, we have a character of the first parable supposing the master would be gone for a "long time" (where would he have gotten that idea had he been instructed about the signs of imminence of the AD 70 judgment?), the wise virgins in the next parable being the ones who take extra oil for their lamps, and the master of the next parable coming back after a "long time" to settle accounts.

Third, there is a shift from language of insight concerning timing and signs to language of suddenness and unexpectancy. This hardly requires explanation, but one example would be a quick comparison between 24:15-16 with 24:36-41. In the first instance, the "abomination of desolation" is a sign of imminent judgment, together with all the famines and earthquakes Jesus warned of. In the latter instance, the comparison is made to the days of Noah. Everything was going on just as normal until the judgment waters came. Hell broke loose all at once. Two men were in the field, as it were, and one was taken and one was left; two women grinding at a mill, one was taken and one was left (and the two were in the same place, interestingly...cf. Luke 17:35 and discussion of Luke 17 below). I have seen full preterists attempt to argue that this "Noahic" situation could apply to the first century Christians in Judea, too. After all, they assert, there can be lots of bad things going on in the wide world around you while you stay safe and only hear of the "rumors" of wars. I don't buy it for a minute. 24:4-34 presents a host of turbulent signs of warning for believers, teaching that they need to be ready to flee when they see this stuff starting to happen. 24:37ff presents utter normalcy interrupted by sudden, unexpected, divine catastrophe. It's clear.

Fourth, there is a shift in the emphasis of Jesus' instructions to the disciples for how they are to live in light of the two different situations. In 24:4-34, the main instruction is to literally head for the hills when they see the signs of imminent destruction. In the rest of the discourse, they are to be alert and faithful stewards of God's resources as they are apparently carrying out normal kingdom work (as in 24:42-51 and all of Ch. 25, but especially 25:14-30). The two are not necessarily absolutely mutually exclusive. But every day kingdom work just does not seem like a natural focus for Jesus to have when speaking to His disciples of the time close to and leading up to AD 70.

Fifth, 24:4-34 is radically focused on the doom of Jerusalem in the first century (see vv.1-3 and the previous chapter for further confirmation that this is assuredly the main theme of the section). Then, Matthew 25:31ff, which most commentators agree goes together with 24:37ff--25:30, has Christ judging all nations of people. We go from a particular to a universal judgment.

Sixth, the judgment in 24:4-34, if it has reference to the first century (and it does) is a temporal, judgment of a nation, and the judgment pictured in 25:41, 46 (which, again, fits closely with the whole of 24:37ff--25:40) sounds clearly like the eternal judgment of individuals in "eternal fire" (cf. Rev. 20:10, 15).

Two common objections gave me the greatest pause when considering this interpretation.

The first is that Jesus' disciples would likely not have had the "exegetical" wherewithal, that I have had the luxury of time to develop and present here, to understand that Jesus was speaking of two distinct events separated by a large amount of time. They asked mainly about the temple's destruction and the "end of the [Jewish] age." So the "coming" of Christ they also asked about had to have only been the one connected with the first century event...His "metaphorical" (as some people put it) judgment coming on Jerusalem.

My answer, though, is that that's not necessary at all. First of all, the disciples rarely understood all the nuances of Jesus' often cryptic sayings. Second, it is common in Old Testament prophecy for the prophets to lay near events and far-off events right next to each other without any grammatical warning. Jesus, the ultimate prophet, had plenty of precedent to do just such a thing. And if a futurist wants to say this principle should be applied within 24:4-34 so that both "comings" of Christ are mentioned even within that range of verses (and a great many commentators in fact say such a thing), I would say it's remotely possible, but I see no reason not to take v.34 literally in the plainest and most absolute sense. Third, as I have argued above, the very different tone, circumstances, and instructions related to the two distinct events I have no doubt made the disciples begin to wonder if a couple of different events related to the "coming" of Christ lay yet in their future.

The second, and strongest exegetical objection to this view, is that Luke 17:20-37 incorporates language from both Matthew 24:4-34 and 24:37ff in the very same section. Isn't this, especially in light of the nature of the Synoptic gospels' relationships with each other, a clear indication that Jesus is either teaching us some kind of "full" preterism with only one judgment coming in AD 70, or is doing some kind of idealistic mashing together of prophecies of near and far events?

I don't think so. I think Luke 17:20-37 is all about the Second Coming at the end of history, even though it uses some language similar to a couple parts of Matthew 24:4-34 (namely, the verse about the visibility of the coming of the Son of Man, the verse instructing disciples not to go down into their houses to get anything, and the verse about the vultures gathering where the corpse is).

First of all, the Second Coming will be just as visible--and indeed far more visible and universally obvious than the judgment coming of AD 70. AD 70 was extraordinarily visible for the relevant observers at the time. The Second Coming will be visible to literally every person in the world as we understand that phrase today, for it will be relevant to every person. Why shouldn't Jesus use similar apocalyptic language to describe the "universal" visibility of both events?

Second, the language about not going down into one's house to get anything just seems to be a loose metaphor for the necessity of continual preparedness--something applicable to the believers in the first century as well as to us, although the preparedness in actuality looks a little different for each situation (see above on regular kingdom work vs. readiness to flee in the distinct sections of Matthew's Olivet Discourse account).

Third, the imagery of the vultures gathering where the corpse is is also just as applicable to the Second Coming as to AD 70. The participants in the Millennial final rebellion will be spiritually equivalent to a "corpse," and the agents of God's final judgment when Christ returns will be like unto vultures that swallow them up. I will concede, however, that the specific imagery of scavenger birds does readily call to mind the Deuteronomic curses that would be more closely associated with Israel than with the judgment of the wider world.

Fourth, the whole section of Luke 17:20ff begins with Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would not be coming with signs! For behold, says Jesus, "the kingdom of God is in your midst." It makes one think simultaneously of the passage in Matthew where Jesus declares that His ability to cast out demons proves that in Him the kingdom of God had come upon His hearers, as well as the kingdom parables like the mustard seed and the leaven, which illustrate the "at times imperceptibly slow-growing" nature of the kingdom throughout the whole Church age (or the Millennium, if you'd like, if you're a good a- or post-millennialist), which is terminated by Christ's Second Coming, not His coming to judge Jerusalem in AD 70. In any case, there is no way we can closely link a passage where Jesus has just declared that the kingdom comes "without signs" with a passage that is rampant with signs.

Fifth, in Luke 17:22, Jesus tells His disciples that days will come when they will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but that they wouldn't see it! Are we to believe that Jesus, who in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 (!), makes a big deal out of the all the dramatic visible signs and the imminence of His coming to judge Jerusalem within a generation, would actually tell His disciples on another occasion that they would not see the judgment of AD 70, even as a statement of relative negation implying something like, "You won't see it when you want to?" Not likely, in my opinion.

Sixth, to re-use a point from the discussion above about Matthew 24, the comparison made with the days of Noah here seems to be the dominant paradigm. Again, despite the mention of Lot "fleeing" Sodom before its destruction in v. 29 as an extra illustration (which would sound more like the AD 70 situation were that verse on its own), here we have life going on as normal: marriage, feasting, farming, trading. Then sudden judgment resulting in one of two people who are in one bed being taken away, one of two women in the same place being taken away, and one of two men in the field being taken away.

Seventh, Luke has his own account of the Olivet Discourse in chapter 21, with many more direct parallels with Matthew 24:4-34. Luke 17 is a unique occasion, and definitely a distinct topic from the first part of the Olivet Discourse as Matthew records it, fitting much better with the latter part of the discourse and describing the Second Coming.

Regarding the proposition that Matthew 24:35-36 constitutes a pivot point of topical transition from Messianic prophecy about first century events involving the destruction of Jerusalem to Messianic prophecy about distant the distant future event of the Second Advent, our Blessed Hope,

QED

Here's Dr. Gentry's great presentation:

The Beast of Revelation: IDENTIFIED

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