The Time of the End, or The End of Time?
Be sure to read the previous installment in this series in order to properly appreciate this last installment.
Did the disciples not understand what Jesus said in Matthew 16:27-28? (See our article where I discuss this). Was the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ teaching worse than that of the Pharisees in Matthew 21, so much so that although the Pharisees understood that Jesus was speaking of their impending judgment at the coming of the Lord, the disciples just did not get it? Did the disciples not comprehend Jesus’ emphatic declaration of the coming judgment of the city that had killed the prophets? Just how dense were Jesus’ disciples, if the modern day assumptions are correct?
Make no mistake. The disciples were often confused about Jesus’ teachings. That is not the issue. The telling fact however, is that in virtually every instance in which the disciples did not understand what Jesus said, the gospel writers plainly tell us that they did not understand! The question is therefore, where in the Olivet Discourse do we find anything resembling such a statement in Matthew 24?
In several instances in the Gospels we are told “they had not understood” (Mark 6:52).
In Matthew 15:17 Jesus asked his disciples if they now understood about what actually defiles a person.
In Matthew 16 and parallels, Jesus scolded the disciples for their failure to understand his comments about the “leaven of the Pharisees.” But, in that very text, in which the disciples did not initially understand what was said, after Jesus’ instruction, the Gospel writer tells us, “Then the disciples understood” (Matthew 16:6-12).
In Mark 4, after telling the parable of the soils and the disciples ask for the interpretation, Jesus said “If you do not understand this parable, how then will you understand all the parables?”
We have Jesus overtly chiding his disciples for not understanding what he said in regard to his impending death (Mark 9:32; Luke 24:25f; John 14). In fact, it was discussions of Jesus’ coming passion and resurrection that elicited more comments about their misunderstanding than any other occasion.
The point is that when the disciples did not understand something the Lord said the Gospel writers, looking back at those instances, tell us of their confusion or ignorance. They even tell us how later actions shed light on their understanding (John 12:16).
In stark contrast with these emphatic statements concerning the disciples’ confusion or lack of comprehension, there is nothing in Matthew 24 that even closely resembles, even slightly suggests in any way whatsoever that the disciples did not understand the nature of their own questions.
There is no, “They did not understand” declaration.
There is no, “After his glorification, then they came to know.”
There is no, “After he was risen, then the disciples remembered…” (Cf. John 2:19-22).
There is not a word from Jesus’ chiding them for mistakenly linking the coming destruction of the city and temple with his coming and the end of the age.
In every case that we know the disciples were confused, the way- the only way – that we know of their confusion is because the text explicitly speaks of it. So, we ask again, where in the Olivet Discourse do we find any idea, any hint, any suggestion, any statement, that the disciples were in error? It is simply not there. It has to be read into the text. Thus, when it is claimed, as some do, that since the disciples were confused about Jesus’ teaching, on other subjects and in other contexts, this demands that they were confused in regard to their questions in Matthew 24, this is an example of bad logic. It is a non-sequitur in the truest sense. This is like saying since a person is confused on the subject of math, that this means that they must be confused when history is being discussed.
So, let me reiterate: There is not a word from Jesus’ (or from the writers of the Gospels who record the disciples’ questions) chiding them for mistakenly linking the coming destruction of the city and temple with his coming and the end of the age. Since the text never says or indicates that they were wrong, misguided or confused, it is the modern student that is wrong to say that those disciples were wrong.
So, what does this mean?
1.) It means that we have emphatic OT prophecies of the end of the age and coming of the Lord that posit fulfillment at the time of the destruction of the Old Covenant world. The disciples, of course, were intimately familiar with these prophecies.
2.) We have Jesus citing one of the central OT prophecies of the end of the age resurrection which unambiguously places the consummation at the time of Israel’s destruction.
3.) Not only does Jesus cite that OT prophecy, but in three pericopes prior to Matthew 24 Jesus predicted the impending destruction of Jerusalem at the coming of the Lord.
4.) When Jesus told the parable of the end of the age, and cited Daniel 12, he then asked his disciples if they understood what he had taught them, and they affirmed that they did understand.
5.) We have the undeniable fact that in on all other occasions when the disciples did not understand what Jesus said, the Gospel writer records their misunderstanding. In fact, the only way that we know the disciples were ever confused is because the Biblical text unabashedly tells us! There is not a syllable about such confusion in Matthew 24.
6.) We have the disciples (Matthew 24:3) using the distinctive Greek term for the end of the age that Jesus had used when citing Daniel 12, which, again, the disciples claimed they understood. What right does any modern commentator have to deny their claim?
Thus, when Jesus predicted the impending destruction of the ultimate symbol of that Old Covenant world, the disciples were not only not confused, they were thinking with logical acuity informed by their knowledge of the Old Testament prophets! The end of the age and the coming of the Lord are in fact inextricably linked with the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple. The implications of this are profound, needless to say.
Since the disciples were not confused or in error to connect the end of the age with the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, it is patently clear that it is the modern day disciples who are confused in their approach to Matthew 24. It is the modern day eschatological paradigms that are in confusion. Does it not border on theological arrogance to claim that the disciples were so horribly confused when in fact they affirmed their understanding?
I think that Wright expressed it well: “Matthew 24:3, therefore, is most naturally read, in its first century Jewish context, not as a question about (what scholars have come to call, in technical language) the ‘parousia’, but as a question about Jesus’ ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ in the sense of is actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis; Fortress, 1996), 346).
Wright is mostly correct, but, it is patently obvious that the disciples were in fact asking about Christ’s parousia, and Jesus’ response emphatically answers their well informed questions: the parousia of Christ was to be in the first century in the judgment of Old Covenant Jerusalem. Jesus was not talking about “the end of time.” He was talking about the time of the end, the end of the Old Covenant age of Israel, that came to its cataclysmic end in AD 70.