From: Apocalyptic and History: Matthew 24 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
FROM NEAR FUTURE
TO INDEFINITE FUTURE
(Matthew 24:34-36; Mark 24:30-32; Luke 21:32-33)
As presented at length in the beginning of this study, we understand these three verses as constituting the pivot of the chapter. All that went before describe the immediate tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem. All that comes afterwards (including chapter 25) points to the indefinite future, to that unknowable time when Jesus returns and the purposes of this physical earth are no longer needed. “The end of the world” in the traditional interpretation of the expression.
1. PREVIOUSLY DESCRIBED EVENTS IN THE NEAR FUTURE/THE
THEN-LIVING GENERATION (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32)
The importance of the preceding prediction to those listening is stressed even more emphatically, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all [Page 227] these things take place.” The reading has only minor superficial differences in the three recountings.
The verse not merely indicates that the events will take place soon, it asserts both imminency and drives the theme home even harder by stressing the current generation. The themes of imminency and this generation fulfillment were ones ripe with Old Testament precedent.
For example, the punishment of Israel for mutinous unbelief was that they would be unable to conquer the Promised Land. This punishment was not one reserved for some distant retribution but one coming upon the then living generation (Numbers 32:8-13; Deuteronomy 2:14-15). Much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament contained thundering warnings of the imminence of God bringing nations against Israel. Although the terminology of “this generation” is lacking, essentially the same concept is presented.
Much has been written about the meaning of the words “this generation” in Matthew 24:33. Six basic interpretations have been suggested:
1. It has been interpreted as asserting that the Jewish people would not die out before the end of the world. This approach has been criticized on the grounds that though the underlying Greek word might have the sense of “race” or “nation” in some places, there is none where it is clearly required or necessary. Others scoff at even the possibility, arguing that “there is no linguistic evidence to substantiate” the approach. Richard B. Gardner suggests that even if the term generation could sometimes refer to ethnic Israel, the use of the term in this gospel (11:16 and 12:38-42 in particular) exclude it as being the idea intended in this context.
The Jewish people had already survived some two thousand years since Abraham. After such an extended period of time, to assert that they would survive until the end of the world would seem to be little more than an empty truism. It would have been taken for granted. Furthermore, taken this way it really conveys no information at all. As F. F. Bruce asks, “[W]hat point would there be in such a vague prediction? It would be as much as to say, ‘At some time in the indefinite future all these things will take place.’ ”
[Page 228] Most important is the fact that what has been narrated before does not refer to end world events at all. This approach runs contrary to the interpretive framework asserted implicitly and explicitly by the text itself. Furthermore, interpreting the preceding text as referring to the Fall of Jerusalem yields quite credible results as we look for events that might have been alluded to. With only modest exception, the events (at the absolute minimum, parallel or similar events) can either be documented or are overwhelmingly probable within that time frame. To project it all into the yet distant future only introduces needless complication into a framework that performs quite adequately and best matches the apparent intent of the text itself.
2. Some extend the expression from an ethnic allusion to a species one: “the human family” will not vanish before these things occur. Why would such a prolonged description of tragedy be relevant to human beings unless they existed when it happened? The very rationale for the text’s existence requires the human species to be in existence; it would be a mere (empty?) restating of the obvious.
3. The verse has been taken to mean that all the events will occur in the same generation, but not as specifying when that generation would be. It will be that unpredictable final generation of the human race. The wording of the text, however, clearly is such that the contemporary listeners would have taken it as alluding to their lifetimes. In light of the quite adequate interpretation that approach yields, this alternative is also superfluous.
4. A moral spin is suggested by those who contend that Jesus is teaching that a people like that current generation (rebellious, sign seeking, evil) will never pass away until Jesus returns.
As precedent Robert H. Gundry argues that Matthew 23:35-36 includes in “this generation” those who had killed Zechariah many hundreds of years previously: “you” murdered them; hence, this generation included those of Zechariah’s day. Matthew 23:35-36, however, does not assert that “this generation” killed Zechariah, only that Divine judgment was coming upon “this generation” for deeds of that kind: what was going on had happened before and it was now time for the postponed Divine reckoning.
Attempting to define “this generation” as equivalent to the church puts a positive moral spin on the theory, but is no more compelling.
[Page 229] 5. Yet another approach is to read the verse as saying that a sufficient amount would be immediately fulfilled to prove that all would ultimate occur. This was the approach of John Calvin, The text makes no claim, however, to be covering all of history. Indeed, it is only marginally church-ocentric. It is actually dealing with the dangers of Palestine in the first century and, only secondarily, the lessons for Christians of the day to learn from those dangers.
In a related approach, some interpret it as referring only to the beginning of sufferings that would occur in the then living generation, “that is, the events described in 24:6-26.” Placement of verse 34 after verse 26 would make this quite credible; since it occurs much later, such a limitation is very unlikely.
6. The most natural interpretation remains the one most easily obtained from a reading of the text: It prefers to the generation then living. Barring the most pressing of reasons--or extraordinarily good direct evidence--the meaning should be interpreted within that framework. Especially when verses 34-36 are stressing the contrast between promptly to-be-fulfilled events and ones for the far distant future. The clincher is that the text does yield an adequate interpretation fully consistent with typical Old Testament rhetoric and the events of the first century as well.
2. IN CONTRAST, THE DATE OF THE ULTIMATE PASSING AWAY OF THE VISIBLE WORLD IS UNKNOWABLE (Matthew 24:35-36; Mark 13:31-32; Luke 21:33)
Until now, the Matthewean text has concerned itself with events contemporaries would live to see. At this point the text changes emphasis and contrasts those painful events that generation would live through with the promise (and warning) of end time events, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:35-36)
[Page 230] Luke omits all reference to the unknowability of the date of the final end. In Matthew it is affirmed that angels are unaware of it and many manuscripts add, “nor the Son.” The lack of the words in some manuscripts has led the genuineness to be questioned, and it is common to believe that the reason for the omission was the ambivalence or hostility of copiers to the doctrine being taught. Oddly enough the gospel usually regarded as the oldest (i.e., Mark) has the same words and they are unchallenged on textual grounds. If this priority be granted, then this is an example of how the earliest sources of Christ’s life had no difficulty in affirming ideas that might be a stumbling block to the next generation. It also argues for their conscious desire to maintain an accurate and reliable written record regardless of whether they had or did not have personal sympathy toward a concept being discussed.
Old Testament precedent. The Torah presents itself as binding upon both the immediate and following generations. In the prophets we find possible allusions to the ending of the world. Admittedly, apocalyptic rhetoric being applied to events of this world makes it far more difficult to determine whether the language is “really” there or merely verbal precedent for a greater “literalism” on the subject in the New Testament.
The imagery of teaching (“words”) not passing away carries with it the idea of abiding authority. For example, the message of God is described in Isaiah 40:3, “The grass withers, the flower fades: but the word of our God will stand for ever.” (In 1 Peter 1:23-15 that Isaiahian text is applied to the gospel preached by the early Christians.)
The rabbis were well aware of this doctrine of “permanent” authoritativeness. As one of them wrote, “Everything has its end, the heavens and earth have their end; only one thing is excepted which has no end, and that is the Law.” The fact that Jesus’ words would remain binding even beyond the current world was an assertion of their authoritativeness not mere equal to that attributed to the Mosaical system then being followed, but actually superior. Hence one may [Page 231] fairly say that not only are Jesus’ words inherently true but that in a very real sense they are “more firm than creation itself.” An astounding assertion of authoritativeness.
In the current context of Matthew, however, the most important element is the strange introduction of “unknowability.” In spite of all the claims to Jesus’ authority and even supernaturalness that are scattered throughout the four gospels, here we have an explicit assertion of something beyond His knowledge. He simply doesn’t know it.
This is not without Old Testament precedent: By and large the Torah and the prophets stress the immediate relevance of their contents to their day and age. Even so there are a few places where facts and information are knowingly withheld, though it is of interest that the fact is clearly stated rather than leaving the reader constantly wondering where and when the phenomena has occurred. These are presented as matters God does not intend for the human race to know. If not permanently, then at least for a period of time.
In Deuteronomy 29:29 Moses is presented as warning Israel, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Here the text apparently has in mind a permanent withholding.
In Daniel 12:8-9, however, the withholding is in regard to the understanding of Daniel’s prophecy and is presented as one that will eventually come to an end, “I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, ‘O my lord, what shall be the issue of these things?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.” Those who do finally grasp the point God was driving at will do so because of their spiritual purity and receptivity, “Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be refined; but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand; but those who are wise shall understand” (verse 10).
Isaiah’s vision is also described as a sealed book, “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ And when they [Page 232] give the book to one who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.’ ” (Isaiah 29:11-12). Once again, the inability to understand is described as rooted in the spiritual lack of the listener/reader (verses 13-14).
The “vision” under discussion (29:11) could refer to the immediately preceding chapters. Most commentators who explicitly state an opinion, prefer to make it a broader reference including the entire book up to this point. The first person handed the scroll is an individual who is literate, but he is prevented from opening it because of the seal on the document (29:11). These are the ones who have “the technical skills to understand” but who fail to do so because of a lack of “spiritual insight.” In contrast are the illiterate who have no hope for understanding because they do not even have the rudimentary abilities that are essential. Both are frustrated but for very different reasons. The latter could overcome their inability through study, but there has never been a method of study that guaranteed that the former could overcome their equally serious weakness.
In Isaiah 29:11-14 the imagery of a sealed scroll is used to rebuke those who could not grasp the meaning: either due to their learning outdistancing their insight or due to sheer lack of ability to read the words in the first place. In Daniel 12, the imagery is shifted to that which can not be understood at all because the information has been hidden from one and all. In Isaiah the rebuke is on the reader/listener; in Daniel the warning is don’t even make the attempt--it will do you no good. The text will only begin to make sense at “the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9), when they finally occur. They will be grasped retroactively rather than anticipated in advance.
In Matthew 24 and Mark 13 the inability to derive a valid conclusion as to when Jesus returns is not due to lack of moral insight or skill, as was the case in Daniel and Isaiah. Rather it is, like in Deuteronomy, because God has kept the information strictly within His province and has refused to reveal it at any time to any one.
“Nor the Son”
In spite of the apparent explicitness of the text, it is not uncommon to find efforts to prove that Jesus really did--somehow--have knowledge of the date. One means of doing so is immediately ruled out. Although the phrase is omitted from some ancient manuscripts of Matthew (not so of the Markian parallel), the words are found in so many that they do not deserve rejection on grounds of lack of documentation--though the divided evidence does lead some translations to make note of the fact.
Accepting the legitimacy of the textual reading, the perceived incompatibility between this and the attribution of various traits of deityship to Jesus in the four gospels, has been resolved in different manners. As early as the fifty century, Gregory the Great interpreted it to mean that Jesus was not permitted to reveal the information, not that it was literally and absolutely unknown to Him. Acts 1:7 is cited in vindication of that claim. Acts 1, however only refers to what “the Father” knows concerning the future and neither asserts nor denies what “the Son” knows.
Others take it as simply meaning that Jesus declined to exercise His omniscience on this question. Yet others see it as one of those limitations Jesus labored under while in human form but which was removed after the resurrection. In other words, it was voluntary, temporary ignorance due to His partaking of a human nature. One wonders why it would have been limited to this one particular area, however.
Why should there be a reluctance to accept such a modest knowledge limitation as is asserted in Matthew 24, even in a strict Jesus = deity interpretation of His nature? If the New Testament can picture Jesus as being made king by the Father and eventually returning the kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15), then in at least some areas there are differences in function and authority. Why should it be odd if there be a few differences in withheld knowledge/information as well? The “equality” of Jesus with God depicted in the New Testament is that of a shared deityship; a possession of that nature or essence that is identical--there is nothing incompatible between that and what is depicted in the current text.
[Page 234] Verse 36 implies a vigorous warning against prophetic speculationists of our era. Jesus had available to Him the scroll of the book of Daniel. If Jesus could not deduce from that book (or any other Torah or prophetic text) the exact date of the ultimate end, who are we to do such? Are we better scriptural exegetes on such matters than Jesus? Although those accepting only a naturalistic Jesus might assume such for themselves, those most liable to such date setting are among those claiming the highest theoretical belief in Jesus’ supernaturalness.
If applied to the fall of Jerusalem, Jesus’ denial of knowing the day and hour has been applied to the very narrow idea of not knowing the exact day and hour. But why even take the time to deny knowledge of “anything so incredibly trivial?” Indeed, why would the Father provide to Him all the details except the final one? If so many repeated signs were to warn the disciples of the events imminence, it is hard to imagine a reason for Jesus to be denied knowledge of the specific timing. In contrast, if the ultimate parousia is the event depicted only in the broad brush strokes of the remainder of the chapter, an explanation is far more forthcoming: there would be no obvious and clear cut signs of that event--unlike those that would precede the Jerusalem catastrophe.
de Dietrich, 128. Cf. Hendriksen, 943. For a lengthy list of commentators who have applied the expression “generation” to the Jews as an ethnic group, see Michael Sours, The Prophecies of Jesus (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, Limited, 1991), 141, footnote 150.
Cf. the remarks of Broadus, 491-492. Though the underlying word genea is used in the Greek language of papyri in the sense of “family” (Guthrie, 796) there is still a considerable jump from this to that of an entire “ethnic group/family/race” covering both now and into the indefinite future.
Bruce, Hard Sayings of Jesus, 226.
Obach and Kirk, Luke, 216, place this possibility on a par with the strictly Jewish interpretation.
Keener, 346. Cf. Karris, 238. Differently worded but with the same idea apparently in mind is Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, “Matthew,” in The Gospels, edited by Walter E. Mills, et. al., in the Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1996), 47.
Bock, 343; Browning, 152; Danker, 338; Johnson, 328; Tolbert, 268; Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 254.
Gundry, Matthew, 491.
A. Irvine Robertson, Lessons, 116.
As quoted by Evans, 314.
For example, Peter D. Miscall, Isaiah (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press/Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 76; John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1985), 386; Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Volume Two: Chapters 19-39, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 317.
Oswalt, 532. Cf. J. Ridderbos, Isaiah, translated by John Vriend, in the Bible Student’s Commentary series (Grand Rapids Michigan: Regency Reference Library/Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 234.
Ellison, 167; Johnson, 552.
See quotation of the text in Brunner, 880.
See quotation in Brunner, 880. This is also the approach of Gundry, Matthew, 492.
Calvin, for example; cf. Brunner, 880.
McGarvey and Pendleton, 632.