In this post I am following up from the last one which outlined the traumatic nature of the final few years of the 6th decade AD. (It needs to be read as background to this post.) That post outlined the trauma within the wider Roman Empire, mainly because of the great instability due the rival claimants to the throne in Rome, and the decade ended with major trauma and tragedy in Israel. It is remarkable that against the assault of Rome and the final siege of Jerusalem that the city held out for so long. As we look at the ‘Olivet discourse’ of Jesus (Matt. 24, Mk. 13, Lk. 21) we have to read Jesus’ words there in the light of that history.
There is no intrinsic reason to suggest that the signs Jesus presented are signs yet to be fulfilled, in fact quite the opposite. R.T. France suggested that there is a switch to a focus on the ‘end’ in Matt. 24: 36 with the words, ‘But about that day and hour no one knows…’ His proposal being that we have AD70 in view up to that point and from then on a focus on an unknown future date – the ‘parousia / eschaton’. However that is running ahead of ourselves.
Looking at the ‘signs’ here are substantial reasons why these events are past.
- The signs are in relation to the question(s) concerning the destruction of the Temple, the ‘sign’ of Jesus’ coming and the ‘end of the age’ (Matthew); the sign that the destruction of the Temple was about to happen (Mark); when will occur the destruction of the Temple and the sign that it is about to take place (Luke). So only in Matthew do we get the extra phrase ‘end of the age’. We will return to this, but the thrust of the passage is, and this is certainly made explicit in Mark and Luke, about the destruction of the Temple.
- They are geo-specific not universal references: ‘those in Judea flee to the mountains’;
- They are seasonal references: ‘pray your fight might not take place in winter‘.
- They are contextualised to a Jewish-religious context. ‘Pray your flight might not take place… on a Sabbath‘.
- The references are not to ‘the end of the world’ but to being able to flee from trouble, hence the prayer that the flight might not be hindered – by Sabbath, winter, or pregnancy / young children.
- When the final event of that era takes place: ‘the desolating sacrilege’, as referred to in Daniel, then there has to be a swift escape. The end is right at hand. This desolating sacrilege is ‘culturally-translated’ by Luke for a Gentile audience. He interprets it as ‘when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies‘.
- Finally, Jesus declares that all these things would take place within the lifetime of that generation (a generation was reckoned to be 40 years and we have Jesus making these proclamations around 30AD).
Another factor in taking this to be in reference to the events of 66-70AD is that is the way the followers of Jesus understood his words in that era. They did not stay in Jerusalem but took his warning to heart, this being viewed as a betrayal by other Jews.
The sign of the coming of the Son of Man (e.g. Matt. 24: 30) with the reference to Daniel should not be taken as a reference to a traditionally understood ‘Second Coming’. We looked at this Danielic reference in earlier posts, and in the context here in the Gospels it is in contrast to other signs in the heavens, signs of the ‘sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling, etc’. Those are common apocalyptic signs that indicate a total shift in the earthly world of rulers and kingdoms. Daniel’s vision is showing that the Son of Man was given authority, rulership was placed in his hands, and judgement was brought on all other rulers. This did not take place in AD70, but in the Easter event(s). What takes place in AD70 was a visible sign of its reality that took place in AD70. The Temple curtain that was torn at the crucifixion, acted as a sign, yet it could be sown up again. Life could carry on as ‘normal’. But the destruction of ‘not one stone upon another’ had a finality about it. There is a parallel between the 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 years between crucifixion and destruction.
In closing this post I will look at possible objections to taking Matt. 24 and parallels as referring to AD70.
First Matthew 24:14 which has been taken as a marker of the Gospel to all tribes and then the end will come.
And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations, and then end will come.
I come from a tradition where this was a major text and impetus for mission and evangelism, with the belief that the end would not come before a Universal proclamation to all tribes. Statistics could be produced as to how many unreached tribes there were and therefore how the end could not come ‘at any moment’. However… (there is always a ‘however’).
However, the term to all the nations (pasin tois ethnesin) is simply the normal term for ‘to all Gentiles’. The hearers would not have sought to interpret it along an ‘all the tribes’ concept. The ‘ta ethne’ were the Gentiles not the ethnic distinctions. The contrast is the wider world as opposed to the Jewish world, this being an expansion of the previous phrase where the Gospel will be proclaimed ‘throughout the world’ (oikomene). So the commission was to take the Gospel in that period far and wide.
This was the passion of Paul and he made some startling claims:
- Ro. 1:8 your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world (en holo tou kosmou)
- Ro. 10:18 their words to the ends of the world (oikomene)
- Ro: 16:25-26 Has been made known to all the nations (not in all the original MSS but where it is: panta ta ethne)
- Col. 1:5,6 In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace (en panti to kosmo)
- Col 1:23 The Gospel… proclaimed in all creation under heaven (en pase ktisei te upo ton ouranon)
Placed against those claims we can see that the commission to the disciples was to proclaim throughout their world, among the Gentiles, the Gospel of the kingdom. While that was taking place there would be opposition, and (seemingly) increasing tension that would eventually lead up the catastrophe of the Jewish War and the ransacking of Jerusalem. The further context from Luke positions this proclamation and opposition as occurring ‘before all this occurs’ (Lk. 21:12). This pushes us to understand the phrase ‘and then the end will come’ as different to the ‘end as at the final parousia‘. With the destruction of the Temple comes something bigger than the end of a building, but the end of an age – the Jewish age. (This does not necessarily mean that it is the end of any distinction in being a Jew, but the re-definition of ‘Israel’ seems to be necessary once the Son has been appointed as the mediator. Those who are ‘in Christ’ becomes the one and only critical factor, everything else has to be counted as ‘crap’ according to Paul.)
If the passage ‘and then the end shall come’ was listed after all the other signs it might be possible to see it as a reference to ‘the final eschaton’, but that verse is set in the context of the ongoing signs which lead up to the ‘sacrilege that causes desolation’, hence it seems that the simplest way of understanding the ‘extra’ question in Matthew on the lips of the disciples: ‘… and of the end of the age?’ is as a parallel to to the other questions they ask, and not as asking a new and different question. The question is not asking a further question, such as ‘tell us about AD70 and then also tell us about the parousia / Second Coming. If we understand it, as I suggest, then Mark and Luke have simply dropped that extra phrase from the question. Their one question then is also Matthew’s one question. This might be a challenge to us, but we have to ask if this is simply a challenge because of what we have been taught to understand, and we also need to ask if the challenge this presents us with would have been a challenge to those first-century believers. Consider:
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:26, emphasis added).
So ‘end of age’ cannot simply be taken in all contexts as future, and in the Olivet Discourse I suggest we should not understand it this way when taken in context.
I would also raise a question concerning the (R.T. France) position of a shift at Matt. 24: 36 (‘that day’) from AD70 to the parousia as taken as one passage the language of ‘but of that day’ is probably more easily applicable to the preceding material, with ‘that day’ referring to the climax and final destruction of Jerusalem. If there is a shift there is a focus on signs relating to the earlier period but a remarkable absence of signs relating to the latter.
We also read that the judgement of Jerusalem will be ‘until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled’ (Lk. 21:24). This could be an indeterminate time, or it could indicate that there would be a future date when there would be a ‘return’ to Israel by the Messiah. In Luke 13: 35 where Jesus prophesies impending disaster on Jerusalem he says:
See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes whend you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
Likewise in Acts 3:14-26 the promise of refreshing is given in a Jewish / Jerusalem context to the generation that had rejected Jesus. So whether there is a time-limit on ‘the trampling of Jerusalem’ or not, any future seasons of favour and presence of Messiah is in the context of acknowledging that Jesus is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
The tension of Israel’s position beyond the resurrection and of Israel beyond AD70 is a huge one, yet regardless of how we resolve that one the centrality of Jesus in the purposes of God has to be the one immovable aspect.
The understanding that the Olivet discourse is centred in on AD70 (future for the disciples but past for us) is not a novel idea. Indeed suggesting that it was not fulfilled in AD70 would often have been considered a novel idea in history.
If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian (Josephus) concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvellously strange. (Eusebius – bishop of Caesarea 263 – 339).
So in conclusion:
- I consider that we cannot take Matthew 24 and parallels with respect to what we might consider the Second Coming of Christ.
- I do not however think that the ‘Second Coming’ is past, and that there is no ‘new heavens and new earth’ to be anticipated.
- I suggest that the end of the Jewish era is an important milestone in the purposes of God. The people who were chosen in Abraham to be a blessing to the nations had found themselves to be under a curse. It was this curse (curse of the law) that Jesus took on the cross, exhausted it so that the blessing of Abraham in the Holy Spirit might come to the Gentiles and Jews alike.
- The death of Christ brought about the end of the ‘no prophet can ide outside of Jerusalem’ era as the horizon was changing. From Jerusalem the horizon was shifting to Rome, and in the same way as Jesus ended his days in Jerusalem so Paul ended his days in Rome.
- It is in this sense that there is one ‘end’ yet many ‘ends’. AD70 marked an end (and can be described as ‘the end’) yet we look forward to ‘the end’.
Again it is to do with perspectives and horizons. The fulfilment of the purposes of God for the world took many twists along the way. There are new beginnings but the same finish goal. Since Jesus there were ‘ends’ that that were not anticipated. The cross is the end, certainly the resurrection, the Ascension as Son of Man, the destruction of Jerusalem as judgement is a further sign of the end. Yet all the above does not exhaust the hope for the end that is yet to come.
Seeking to illustrate it a series of events seen from one perspective (bottom left) are seen as (and are ‘theologically’) one event. They are the ‘end’. Seen from another perspective (a ‘sideways view’) they are a series of chronological events but intrinsically all related as ‘eschatological’.