Today’s Text: Matt. 24:29,34,35, 36
How many questions did they ask in Matthew 24:3?
No interpretation of this text will succeed until we determine how many questions the disciples actually asked in Matt. 24:3. In simply looking at the question, we have three possibilities that we identified last week, but there is really no way to determine which is correct by only considering verse 3. There are two ways to figure this out: One way is to look at our favorite Millennial theory and see what everyone else says about it and go from there. Using this approach, we find that the premillennialists say there’s one question, the postmillennialists claim three questions and the amillennialists claim two. The other two theories (which are not very common theories) claim one.
The other way to determine how many questions are asked is to examine the structure of the answer to determine how many questions Jesus answered. Since we are not advocating any of the three main (or the two smaller) theories, the approach we will take is to figure out how Jesus answered and let the chips fall where they may. In interpreting the Bible, this is the best approach to any difficult text because it allows for the possibility, likelihood actually, that none of the theories are right one hundred percent of the time. Please note that if we come up with an answer that differs from your favorite theory, that does not mean that the whole theory is wrong, and if we come up with an answer that matches your theory, it doesn’t mean that your theory is entirely right. We are entirely neutral in here.
In searching the text for transitional clues, we come across four verses that are indicative of transition. (Transition denotes the grammatical change in the language that indicates that the response to the question is moving on from one topic to the next by changing the subject.) In this case, there are 4 such verses: 29,34, 35and 36. Verse 35 is indicative of time which is the key to the first part of verse three: “…when will this happen…” “This” relates to what was said in verse two, where Jesus was telling them that the Temple will be destroyed, “…not one stone will be left on another…” Verse 34 says: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Verse 34 appears to be what you might call a time stamp. The time stamp feature here is “…this generation will certainly not pass away until…”. Assuming that He means the generation that was alive at the moment He said this, it would appear that He was referring to the destruction of the Temple which occurred in 70 AD. If we could find Jesus saying the same thing about something else, we could tie this down for certain. As luck would have it, Jesus said substantially the same thing in Matthew 16. Right after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, and right after Jesus said that this was the rock upon which he would build His church, Jesus was telling the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, including death. Peter and the others had great difficulty understanding that Jesus could both die and build His Kingdom. The problem was that they were assuming the wrong kind of Kingdom; they were looking for an earthly kingdom based in Jerusalem that would re-establish the glory of old Israel. Of course, Jesus had plans that were quite different, because His plan was to build a heavenly Kingdom that was not of this world. This is confusion shared by many Christians to this day.
In 16:28, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” It is universally understood that Jesus was referring to the church and the Day of Pentecost when He said this, and it is universally understood that He was referring to those who lived at the time He said it, and for all of the same reasons, His reference to the generation living in verse 34 is indeed those who were living at the time.
If we are correct in our understanding of verse 34, then it should be followed by a change of subject. This is found in the very next verse: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”(v. 35) If Jesus meant to indicate that the topic between verses 4 and verse 34 was the destruction of the Temple (and Jerusalem) then this is definitely transition to another topic.: “Heaven and earth shall pass away”.
Verse 36 appears to be another time stamp: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If this is the beginning of an answer to a second question, then “that day” must follow after a change of subject. Verse 35 has a change of subject from “…when will this happen…” to “…what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (question in v. 3) I include these two together because there isn’t any more transition after this. This change of subject takes us from the destruction of the Temple to heaven and earth will pass away. At this point, we have a thesis that the disciples asked two questions in verse three because that’s how many questions Jesus answered. This would indicate that to Jesus, there were two issues raised, and that His coming and the end of the age are the same thing, or will be simultaneous. Before we can be absolutely certain that our thesis is correct, we need to check out verse 29, which might cause a problem, based upon the rules of internal consistency. Internal consistency means that our case does not contradict itself, and that we do not support our case with supposition that is the same as our conclusion. Verse 29 sounds to many to be speaking of the end of the world, and many would take it to indicate that the entire passage refers to the end of the world, even though it appears to start with the destruction of the Temple.
Verse 29 says:
“Immediately after the distress of those days ” ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
Let’s begin by noting the difference in tense between “that day” in verse 36 and “those days” in verse 29. The fact that verse 29 refers to a plural number of days and verse 36 refers to a single day would lend significant credence to our thesis: they are talking about different things. Even with that said, and the fact that the grammar is different between “those” and “that”, verse 29 is a tough one to understand. The method we use in determining what is intended will be to examine other passages in the Bible to see if we can find a trend as to the intended meaning that we can apply to this verse to ensure that our thesis is correct.
Once again, the difficulty that we must face is related to how we understand prophetic language. There are two schools of thought on this subject. The first school of thought is the Apocalyptic school which asserts that these are word pictures intended to transmit meaning about things through the use of descriptive language which reveals something to the reader. The second school is the Literalist school which asserts that everything must be taken literally; if the sun, moon and stars are said to fall, then they will fall. In looking at other passages, we should be able to discern which approach is correct. If the Apocalyptic school is right, then so is our thesis. If the Literalists are right, then our thesis may or may not be right. Let’s check out one passage to see if we can get an idea: Isaiah 13:1-22 deals with God’s wrath and judgment against Babylon, in context the highlights are as follows:
v. 1 An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw:…
v.6 Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty….
V. 9 See, the day of the LORD is coming —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger— to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it.
V. 10 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light….
V. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.
For the full effect, you should read the entire passage. For now, note that two things are very clear: First, the sun, moon and stars are said to be darkened, and second, God’s judgment is being poured out. As we will see next week, this is a common connection in Bible prophecy. Isaiah is talking about the destruction of Babylon in chapter 13, and God’s judgment on them. In Matthew 24, Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s judgment upon the Jews. This, along with the change from plural in 24:29 to singular in 24:36 is enough to determine that we are dealing with two questions being under discussion in the Olivet Discourse: One relating to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in particular, and the other being of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. As mentioned, we will look at some more Old Testament passages next week which will solidify this position. In the meantime, let’s prepare for that by taking a quick look at Literalism.
This school is based upon a reverent respect for Scripture which is both admirable and worthy of praise. Sadly, however, it is taken to an extreme when it is applied to prophecy where it is inappropriate. We use a literal approach much, maybe most of the time. We certainly do so in works of history for example, which the Gospels, Acts and the Old Testament books of history, including the Pentateuch are. We also use it in understanding the Epistles. It does not work in passages of prophecy, however; they were not intended to be understood that way, and this approach results in problems of internal consistency as well as non-starter errors. Here’s the sort of problem we run into: Clearly, in Matthew 24 Jesus begins talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was destroyed within the time guidelines He set forth. Yet a literal interpretation says that He must have been talking about something else because the sun, moon and stars are still up there. What was He talking about then? Isaiah 34 relates to the destruction of Edom, using much the same language Jesus used about Jerusalem. Edom was destroyed in 72 AD. But, since the sun, moon and stars are still up there, “Edom” must mean something other than the Kingdom of the Edomites, which has been it’s meaning throughout the entire Old Testament. If Edom doesn’t mean Edom, then what does it mean? If it doesn’t mean what it should mean, then what does it stand for? The catch is that as soon as you say that it stands for something else, it is no longer literal, thus you have defeated your own presupposition and your internal consistency crumbles into dust. This is why I say that Literalism doesn’t work with these prophetic passages. A literalist will run into this problem each and every time he uses it in prophecy.
Conclusion: Matthew 24:3 contains two questions which were answered by Jesus: First, when will the Temple be destroyed, and second, what will be the signs of His coming and of the end of the age?
Next week, we will examine the entire section from 24:29-31 along with Old Testament passages that shed light on its meaning.