Matthew 24-25 is the “little apocalypse”—an extended discourse that many believe parallels the book of Revelation and gives a brief prediction of last day events. Not everyone agrees with that interpretation. The Preterist interpretation understands these sayings of Jesus to be a prediction of events in the first century.
In this article I shall begin an analysis of these two chapters. I have given some introduction in a previous article. That article includes an outline of the passage. The present article addresses two topics. First, I analyze the relationship between the lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23 and Jesus’ prediction of destruction in Matthew 24. Second, I analyze the questions that the disciples asked of Jesus.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MATTHEW 23:37-39
AND THE PREDICTION OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE
At the Temple (24:1-2): The narrative in Matthew 24 follows directly Jesus’ seven woes against the religious leaders, which is found in Matthew 23. At the end of His denunciation, Jesus revealed His tender heart for the city of Jerusalem:
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:37-39; all Scripture quotations from English Standard Version unless stated otherwise)
A question that should be considered is: how closely should this saying of Jesus be tied to Matthew 24—especially Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem?
This prediction, in Matthew’s narrative, comes immediately after Jesus’ lament that I just quoted. As Jesus was leaving the Temple, His disciples pointed out the magnificence of the Temple. Jesus replied with a saying that most have interpreted as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. Jesus said that “not one stone here will be left on another...” My previous article gives an overview of the Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-70, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
So, I shall consider the question of the relationship between the lament and the prediction. Hank Hanegraaff, in The Apocalypse Code, makes a strong connection between these two sayings. Consider the following:
So great was the devastation of Jerusalem and its temple “that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” As the starved and shackled survivors slumped out of the smoldering ruins, no doubt more than a few remembered the words of Jesus, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…[quotes Matthew 23:37-38, omitting verse 39]” Some may even have recalled the scene. As his words still hung in the air, Jesus turned his back on the place that had tabernacled the shekinah glory of the Almighty. Sensing the gravity of the moment, his disciples had called his attention to the majesty of the temple and its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he had responded, “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another…”
In another place, Hanegraaff also connects Matthew 23 and 24 closely:
Jesus began his famous Olivet Discourse by walking away from the very house that afforded the Jewish people their theological and sociological significance. He had pronounced seven woes on the Pharisees and then uttered the unthinkable: “Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38)
Hanegraaff makes three interpretative errors.
1. He misinterprets the term “your house.” In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus is addressing Jerusalem. He has just addressed the leaders of the entire nation. Now, He addresses the city. The city was a symbolic representative of the whole nation as the center of its religious and political life. He characterized the city by its long history of rejection of prophetic leadership—which was also rejection of the outstretched hand of a loving God. Now, Jesus had come and passionately loved the people of that city and the nation it represented—a passionate and protective mother-like love. But, again, He met with rejection. So, He said, “your house is left to you desolate.” What was Jesus saying? First, He had characterized the leadership in the seven woes to demonstrate their spiritual bankruptcy. Then, in 23:37-38, He characterized the spiritual bankruptcy of the whole nation by their rejection of the messengers of God and of Himself. Therefore, the “house” of Israel “is left to you desolate.” He used “house” as a reference to the condition of the whole nation. There are numerous examples of the use of “house” to refer to the nation in the Old Testament. See for example Isaiah 2:5 and 5:7 and Ezekiel 3:7. There is nothing in the context of Matthew 23:38 to indicate that Jesus was referring to the Temple.
2. He fails to observe the element of time. Jesus used the presence tense in Matthew 23:38: “Look, your house is left to you desolate.” Jesus had just excoriated the present condition of the religious leaders. He characterized the whole city by its history of rejection of the prophets in the past and by its present rejection of Himself. Jesus was not making a prediction; He was stating a fact. The present condition of the house of Israel of that time was spiritual desolation. Jesus was not referring to the later desolation of the Temple.
3. He ignores Matthew 23:39. Jesus, in effect, was saying “Good bye” to the city of Jerusalem. This speech is depicted in Matthew as taking place during Holy Week (Luke has a different setting). It is true that the people would see Him in that week. But Jesus knew that the machinations that would lead to His crucifixion were already in motion. In a few days they would see Him on trial and then executed outside the gates of the city. Only His followers would witness the resurrected Christ. But the city would see Him again. They would see Him and shout: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is a quotation from Psalm 118:26. The crowds at Jesus triumphal entry were quoting from Psalm 118:25-26:
Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD.
It is obvious that, for Jesus, the next important event for the people of Jerusalem—after His Passion and resurrection—would be when He came to bring blessing. This is predicted in Zechariah 12 and various other places. Therefore, though Jesus lamented the spiritual declension of the city, He knew that ultimately He would return in salvation. He is NOT saying His next visit (Parousia) would be to bring desolation to their house. Hanegraaff conveniently omits this verse in referring to Jesus’ lament, because he tries to make the case that the Parousia is Jesus’ visitation in judgment in AD 70.
Therefore, I do not believe that we can make a tight connection between Matthew 23:37-39 and the prediction of the destruction of the Temple. We should not ignore Matthew 23. It gives us a powerful statement of the spiritual condition of the leaders as well as the people—not just of Jerusalem, but of the entire Jewish nation. That spiritual darkness led to the rejection of Jesus and to the perfidy of the leaders in His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The rejection of Jesus by a majority of the people was, I believe, punished by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, again and again, commentators ignore the fact that the end of the validity of the Israelite religion took place when the veil of the Temple was rent in two from top to bottom on the day that Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:51)—not in AD 70.
THE QUESTIONS FROM THE DISCIPLES
The Questions on Mount Olivet (24:3): The disciples asked some follow-up questions to Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Temple. They asked them sometime later when they were alone with Jesus on Mount Olivet. I think it is significant to understand that all that follows (often called the Olivet Discourse) is said to the disciples in private. It is not said to the Jewish nation at large, but rather to the disciples, who can also be considered the apostles, the foundation of the church.
The questions that the disciples asked are the following:
1. When will this happen?
2. What will be the sign of your coming [Parousia]?
3. What will be the sign of the end of the age [suntelios tou aionos]?
It can hardly be in doubt that “this” of question (1) is the destruction of the Temple. The disciples seemed to associate that event with Christ’s coming and with the end of the age. So they followed up the first question with two more. They wanted to know what would be the sign of Christ’s coming and the sign of the end of the age. The wording is as though the sign of His coming would also be the sign of the end of the age.
Why would they associate the destruction of the Temple with Christ’s coming and the end of the age? What did they know about His coming, since they seemed to be murky about the fact of Jesus’ approaching death and subsequent resurrection? What did they mean by the end of the age?
The term that is translated “coming” is Parousia. It can mean “presence” (Philippians 2:12), “arrival” (I Corinthians 16:17), or “coming” (II Corinthians 7:6). It can refer to a visit by an official (Arndt and Gingrich page 635). It is used several times in the New Testament to refer to a future event that most interpret as the Second Coming of Christ. However, others may interpret some of these instances as His “coming” in judgment in AD 70 or to the secret rapture. These passages are (other than the present passage):
I Corinthians 15:23
I Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:15
II Thessalonians 2:1, 2:8
James 5:7, 5:8
II Peter 3:4
I John 2:28
The “coming of the lawless one” also uses parousia (II Thessalonians 2:9), and the coming of the “day of God” uses the same term (II Peter 3:12). I believe that the best understanding of the term is “presence with emphasis on arrival.” For example, Paul was comforted in Macedonia by the parousia of Titus. (II Corinthians 7:6) It was both the fact that Titus came and the fact of his presence once he had arrived that brought comfort to Paul. Such an understanding fits well with the Second Coming of Christ (though it could fit with the events of AD 70). Obviously, a word study on this one term does not exhaust the debate over what Parousia means in Matthew 24 and elsewhere. It is important to understand that this question of the disciples is specifically addressed in verses 26-31, which refer to the Parousia of the Son of Man.
For the Jews, there were two ages: this age and the age to come. The age to come will be God’s great victory and a time of glory and blessing. I believe that the disciples were asking their question with that framework in mind.
I think it is important to understand that these questions introduce the passage, but they do not totally define the passage. Jesus used their questions as a starting point, but He framed His discussion for His own purposes. This is very typical of Jesus’ style of conversation. Again and again, someone asks Jesus a question and Jesus does not confine His answer simply to giving the person the information he or she asked for. See, for example, Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus in John 3.
NEXT: Jesus begins His reply to the disciples’ questions.
Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 235395-235396). Good
News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hanegraaff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
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