The Olivet Discourse: Matthew 24:3 in the Cross Hairs – #3
Which Disciples Were- or Are- Confused?
After posting the first two installments of this series on numerous FaceBook pages, including “Full Preterism: A Thing of the Past,” some former preterists totally ignored every point I made and simply continued to argue that the disciples had no idea that the temple was to be destroyed! That is why, they claimed, the disciples were pointing out the size and beauty of the temple in response to Jesus’ prediction of its imminent demise. These scoffers insisted that the disciples just could not believe that the temple was to be destroyed, and of course, they insisted that the apostles were confused and mistaken to link that destruction with the end of the age.
What this means is that:
1. The apostles were ignorant of the first destruction of Jerusalem in BC 586. They were ignorant of the fact that that event was called the Day of the Lord (Zephaniah 1). It was the Day of the Lord’s “presence” (LXX, prosopon, meaning ‘face’ or presence). They were ignorant of the fact that that former destruction was the time when the Lord destroyed “heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 4:25f). Can anyone seriously think that the apostles were ignorant of this history and the prophetic language used to describe it?
2. It means that they were totally ignorant of all of the prophecies that I cited in those early articles, all of which connected the time of the end, the resurrection, the kingdom, with the judgment of Israel.
3. It means that they were totally ignorant of the fact that prominent rabbis in Israel predicted the AD 70 judgment of Jerusalem. And they made their predictions before AD 70.
4. It means that they were completely ignorant of the ministry and message of John the Baptizer, as The Voice (who would proclaim the Day of Judgment, the time of the taking away of Israel’s sin– Isaiah 40:1-12). They did not know that he was “The Messenger” of Malachi 3:1-6, who would prepare and proclaim the Day of the Lord’s coming in judgment of Israel for violating Torah. They were totally ignorant that John was Elijah to call Israel to “keep the law of Moses my servant” (Malachi 4:4) “lest I come and smite the earth with a curse, i.e. the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5-6).
Significantly, Sam Frost, former preterist, is on record admitting that John was Elijah! To admit that John was Elijah demands– logically – that John was the herald of the Great Day of the Lord in judgment of Israel. And let us not forget that John emphatically declared that the judgment was near: “The Axe is already at the root”; “the winnowing fork is already in his hand.”
Thus, when Frost, Vincent, and other former preterists make the astounding, ill-informed claim that the apostles had no clue that Jerusalem was to be destroyed, they are claiming that the apostles had to have been totally ignorant of the importance of John, or, they have to deny his eschatological role.
5. It means that the apostles were totally ignorant of what Jesus taught in Matthew 21-22, which clearly anticipated the coming judgment of Jerusalem. Even the leaders of Jerusalem who hated Jesus understood that! So, according to the former preterists, the Pharisees and scribes understood that Jesus predicted the coming destruction, but the apostles didn’t understand that!
Are we to attribute such utter, abject ignorance to Jesus’ apostles? To do so stretches credulity far beyond its limits. It is simply not tenable. These denials smack of willful ignorance, overt rejection of the Word of God.
Let us look now at what Jesus had to say about his coming at the end of the age, and what the disciples said about their own understanding of the prophecies of that event.
Let’s take a preliminary look at Matthew 13:39-43:
The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
Notice that Jesus here foretold the end of the age (v.40). He used the identical distinctive Greek term (συντελείᾳ tou aiōnos) that the disciples used in Matthew 24:3, when they asked about the end of the age.
That end of the age under consideration in Matthew 13 is the time of the harvest. A couple of things should be considered here in light of the connection between the ministry and message of John the Baptizer and Jesus’ parable:
1. As we have just seen, John the Baptizer was The Voice, The Messenger and Elijah to proclaim that the harvest- the harvest of Matthew 13 – was already underway. The image of the winnowing fork already being in his hand is an incredibly powerful image of imminence. In fact, the winnowing fork was utilized after the in-gathering of the harvest to the threshing floor, not at the inception of the harvest. Thus, John was saying in an extremely powerful metaphor that the eschatological consummation was near. Judgment was not, in John’s mind or his message, an event that was two millennia away. Harvest and judgment are inseparable siamese twins. Be sure to get a copy of my book, Elijah Has Come, for an in-depth study of the role of John the Baptizer as Elijah.
John Nolland says, “John’s call gained pressing urgency in light of an imminently expected act of judgment on the part of God.” (New International Greek Testament Commentary, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, Paternoster, 2005), 144).
Donald Hagner concurs: “John’s apocalyptic message involves an imminent judgment of the unrighteous in tes mellouses orges, ‘the coming wrath.’ This eschatological wrath, associated with fulfillment, is further alluded to in v. 10-12. Abundant parallels indicate that this was a fixed component in the Jewish apocalyptic expectation (see esp. Daniel 7:9-11; Isaiah 13:9; Zephaniah 1:15; 2:2-3; Malachi 4:1f). …What frightened John’s listeners was the insistence that the judgment was about to occur (mellouses). (Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, Matthew, 33a, (Dallas, Word, 1993), 50).
2. Similarly, when John spoke of the judgment, he challenged his audience: “Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”– literally, the wrath “about to come.” W. D. Davies and Dale Allison Jr. comment on Matthew 3:7: “Who has warned you to flee from the wrath about to come” “mello here implies not so much purpose as imminence or futurity.” (W. D. Davies and Dale Allison Jr., International Critical Commentary, Matthew 1-7, Vol. 1, (New York, T & T, 1997), 304).
As Craig Blomberg notes of the language found in the message of John in Matthew 3, John called on his audience to a radical change of life, “Otherwise judgment will be imminent: The axe is already at the root of the trees.” (Matthew 3:8). Judgment is also depicted by the metaphor of the threshing floor, as the farmer sifts the wheat from the chaff (v. 12).” (Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, Nashville, Broadman and & Holman, 1997), 218.).
Davies and Allison take note that the imagery of the axe at the root is a common OT motif for a time of imminent national judgment: “The felling of trees is a prophetic image of judgment in a number of OT texts. We are given a gnomic statement of the culling principle to be operated: if the fruit is good, keep the tree; otherwise dispose of it.” (ibid, 145). In other words, the imagery of harvest permeates John’s message in Matthew 3.
So, in John’s message of the impending kingdom (itself a “harvest” motif as Matthew 13 shows), the idea of harvest / judgment permeates the text. And that harvest judgment was near. It is untenable and specious to attempt to extrapolate that judgment 2000 years into the future. That is a violation and distortion of the text.
Jesus fully concurred with John’s message of the imminent harvest. Look at John 4:34-37:
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.
Jesus’ words here are clear and powerful. The time of the harvest had arrived! Thus, this meant that the time for the end of the age had arrived! They were living in the time of the end. After all, as Hebrews 9:26 says, Christ had appeared at the end of the age– suntelieia tōn αἰώνων- the same term found in Matthew 13 and 24.
One should not overlook (or ignore) the eschatological harvest context of this text in John 4. Jesus has just spoken to the Samaritan woman. He has promised her living waters that would give her eternal life. As Stephanos Mahalios has noted, the term “eternal life” is a powerful resurrection motif taken directly from Daniel 12:2, which is the only OT text that mentions “eternal life.” (Stefanos Mahalios. The Danielic Eschatological Hour in the Johannine Literature, Library of New Testament Studies 436, (New York; T and T Clark, 2011), 108f). Thus, Jesus’ promise to give “eternal life” was reference to the resurrection, the time of the harvest of Matthew 13.
Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan woman hearkens back to the OT and the promise of living waters flowing out of the Messianic Temple (Isaiah 49; Joel 3; Zechariah 14). Keep in mind that in John 2 Jesus has just identified himself as that promised Temple. These motifs are inextricably bound up with the concept of the last days gathering of Israel and the nations at the time of the resurrection (Isaiah 2; 11; 27:13, etc.). When, therefore, we read Jesus’ clear cut affirmation that the time of the harvest had arrived, the eschatological significance of this cannot be over-emphasized. What it means is that the end of the age and the harvest of Matthew 13 was on the cusp of fulfillment, just as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:11:
Now all these things happened to them as examples, (literally, as “types”- DKP) and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Barton expresses the significance of Paul’s statement that the end of the ages had arrived: “Christians in Corinth are told, for example that they are fortunate to be alive when the decisive moment in history came about. So the present has become the moment to which all the Scriptures have been pointing, though their meaning can only be understood with that divinely inspired intuition which flows from acceptance of the Messiah.” (John Barton The Biblical World, Vol. 1, (New York; Routledge, 2004), 142).
So, just as John said that the time of the kingdom, the judgment and harvest was near, and just as Jesus said the time of the harvest was upon them, Paul said the goal of all the previous ages had arrived. This brings Matthew 13 (and Matthew 24) into sharp focus therefore, because in the case of the message of John and Jesus, the apostles had been disciples of John and had heard his message of the imminent harvest. They had heard Jesus tell them, very specifically, that the time of the harvest was upon them. Thus, when he spoke of the end of the age and the harvest / judgment in Matthew 13, they had a solid background of knowledge that they were living in the end of the age and that the harvest time had arrived. In the very chapter, in fact, as the lead into the parable of the sower, Matthew 13, Jesus had told is apostles that they were indeed living in the time foretold by the OT prophets, which means they were living in the last days, the time for the eschatological consummation:
But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (Matthew 13:16-17. See 1 Peter 1:10-12 on this as well).
Jesus’ declaration that the time for the fulfillment of what the OT prophets had foretold is important, especially in light of what we have just seen from Paul that the goal of all previous ages had arrived. When we couple this information with what we saw in the previous article, it becomes almost astounding to read or hear commentators claim that the disciples had no understanding of the end of the age and the connection to the judgment on Israel.
So, before we actually delve into Matthew 13- cited above- let’s summarize what we saw in the previous article and what we have seen here. Remember, the question is, were the disciples confused or ignorant when they connected / conflated the prediction of the impending destruction of Jerusalem with the end of the age? The resounding answer to that is that they were not nearly as confused as the modern commentators.
Here is what we have seen so far:
1. In passage after passage, the Old Testament connected the time of judgment, the resurrection, the kingdom, salvation and the New Creation to the time of Israel’s judgment, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Go back and read the previous article. What this means is that when commentators say the apostles were wrong to make that connection, it is essentially being claimed that they were completely ignorant of those prophecies.
2. We have seen that prior to Matthew 24, Jesus had predicted the coming of the Kingdom, the Wedding (which is nothing other than the time of the resurrection), and he tied those elements and events to the coming of the Lord in judgment of Judah and the destruction of the city. Not only that, the Jewish leaders understood this! Thus, to claim that the apostles did not understand that connection is to claim that the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes understood Jesus’ teaching better than the apostles!
3. We have seen that leading rabbis of the time predicted the time of the end at the destruction of Jerusalem. Now, is it possible that the apostles were not aware of those specific rabbinic prophecies? One could hypothesize that this is true, but, coupled with the two previous points, that suggestion surely seems untenable. In fact, in light of the two previous points, it is actually irrelevant whether the apostles knew of any rabbinic predictions of AD 70! What matters is that the Tanakh foretold it and that Jesus’ predicted it.
4. In this article we have seen that the parable of the harvest / judgment at the end of the age in Matthew 13 is in full agreement with the message of John the Baptizer as The Voice, The Messenger and Elijah. And John’s message was that the kingdom, the judgment, the harvest was at hand. This is unmistakably and undeniably true.
5. We have seen that Jesus himself, echoing the OT prophecies of the last days temple, the living waters, the resurrection, said that the time of the harvest had arrived.
With these facts before us, we are ready now to turn to Matthew 13 and examine it more closely. When we do, we will find that Jesus specifically addresses the apostles and asked them if they understood what he was teaching about the end of the age. Their answer flies in the face– flatly contradicts– the common claim that the disciples were ignorant and confused to such an extent that they wrongly connected the end time harvest and judgment with the fall of Jerusalem and the temple.
In the meantime, be sure to order a copy of my book, The Resurrection of Daniel 12:2: Fulfilled or Future?