Jesus’ Teaching about the Future: Some Scholarly Opinions

The purpose of this paper is to show that there is a good deal of scholarly opinion that in Matthew 24 (and Mark 13, Luke 21) Jesus is referring to the signs pointing towards his Second Coming, as well as to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

There are three main views about these chapters:

1.      Jesus was only speaking about the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70.

2.      Jesus was only speaking about the signs of the return of Christ.

3.      Jesus was speaking about both.

In my paper on “Can we ignore what the New Testament says about signs of Jesus’ return?” I added an appendix critiquing the views of N T Wright.  He claims that these chapters which have long been understood as referring to a still future return of Jesus in glory actually refer to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem
and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

In my paper Which Aspects of the Teaching of Jesus Refer to the Second Coming? I refer to the views of Dick France. He and others interpret “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” as a reference to Daniel 7:13-14 in which Jesus is not referring to his return to earth but as “coming to God to receive vindication and authority.”[1] They interpret “all the peoples of the earth” mourning when they see the Son of man returning as “all the tribes of the land” (i.e. Israel) mourning at the events of AD70. They see the angels gathering the elect as the worldwide growth of the church after AD70 and the kingdom being preached to all nations as meaning only those nations known and reached between AD30 and AD70.

I give my reasons for rejecting interpretations 1. and 2. above and for believing that Jesus is speaking both about AD70 and about his future return in my two papers. Then I came across a paper I wrote some 20 years ago which recorded a fair amount of scholarly opinion on the matter and which I have updated. I include this material below as an appendix to the above papers. These scholars may differ on their interpretation of various aspects of the Olivet discourse but they do relate the passage to the events leading to the Return of Christ as well as to those of AD70.

Professors W D Davies and D C Allison in the International Critical Commentary on Matthew write that they are “unpersuaded” by Dick France that Matthew 24 is only about the events around AD70.[2]

They write: “

“Our own view holds that w. 4ff. are a depiction of the entire post-Easter period, interpreted in terms of the messianic woes.21 This means that the discourse, which freely mixes experience with topoi [literary conventions], concerns the past, the present, and the future. What has happened will continue to happen and only get worse: ‘the mystery of lawlessness is already at work’ (2 Thess 2.7). Whether the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is directly referred to in vv 15ff. or is instead indirectly included in the tribulations of vv. 15ff. we are uncertain. But if the former, AD 70 does not exhaust the significance of vv. 5ff, which plainly envisage eschatological events to come. So the answer to the disciples’ two-part question in v. 3 is this: the temple will be destroyed during the tribulation of the latter days, which runs from the first advent to the second; and after that tribulation the end—whose date cannot be known—will come.”[3]

Professor Leon Morris says:

“There is a problem for the student in that sometimes what Jesus says refers to the coming judgment on Jerusalem, a judgment that was consummated in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70, and sometimes what he is saying refers to the judgment at the end of the age.We may well argue that there is a theological unity between the two judgments, and that some of what Jesus says could apply equally well to both.”[4]

He adds:

“Some commentators take the whole discourse to refer to a single judgment. They hold that Jesus confidently expected his return within a comparatively few years and that there would be a judgment on Jerusalem as part of the judgment of the whole world. But the language used is against this. Far from promoting speculations that he would soon return in glory, Jesus seems to be discouraging this kind of thing (cf. vv. 6,8,14, and 23-28). And we should not overlook the important fact that he said quite plainly that he did not know the date of his coming back (v. 36). If he did not know it, how could he say confidently that it would occur within a few years?”[5]

Professor F D Bruner writes:

“The emphasis in Matthew’s version of the sermon is certainly on the end of the world, but the destruction of Jerusalem is everywhere that end’s classic precursor. Thus Jesus’ sermon about current events, especially the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, becomes a window through which to see Jesus’ view of end events, especially the coming of the Son of Man … The destruction of Jerusalem was the prototype of the end of the world … we most profitable read Matthew’s sermon when we read it in this irridescent way, seeing both Jerusalem’s end and Jesus’ coming in most texts, not always being sure which of the two events is meant …”[6]

Professor Robert Mounce says:

“It is helpful to remember that apocalyptic literature is a genre that does not share our Western concern for orderly continuity. If we allow Matthew the freedom to enlarge on a specific discourse delivered by Jesus by adding material from other settings, we are not at all surprised to find the chapter as fluid as it appears. It is not uncommon for prophetic material to move between type and antitype without calling attention to exactly what is happening. Predictions of the future were of necessity couched in language taken from the prophet’s own setting.”[7]

He adds: “Biblical prophecy is capable of multiple fulfillment.”[8]

Professor Douglas Hare writes of Matthew 24:

“….it speaks of a series of future events climaxing in the arrival of Jesus in glory…..”[9]

He adds that the prediction of the destruction of the temple

“provides the basis for the apocalyptic discourse, which addresses two fundamental concerns of early Christians: When will Jesus come in glory, and what are we to do in the meantime? The structure, accordingly, is relatively simple: (a) events prior to the great tribulation (24:3-14); (b) the abomination and the great tribulation (24:15-28); (c) Jesus’ coming in glory (24:29-31); (d) the time when all this will happen (24:32-44); (e) three parables about faithful waiting (24:45—25:30); and (f) the judgment of the pagans (25: 31-46).”[10]

He also writes:

“It is sometimes argued that for Matthew the events of verses 15-21 have already occurred: ‘the abomination of deso­lation’ refers either to the siege of Jerusalem or to the final capture of the temple by the armies of Titus and the offering of pagan sacrifice on the holy site; the flight that follows is either the migration of the Jerusalem church to Pella east of the Jor­dan prior to the siege or the escape of refugees following the fall of the city; the great tribulation of verse 21 describes the desperate situation in Palestine in the months following the Roman victory. All of this is most improbable. The flight of which verses 16-20 speak is not any historical event, and most certainly not the escape of refugees from the burning capital in the summer (not winter) of 70 C.E. It is not clear why Matthew’s version adds ‘nor on a Sabbath’ in verse 20, since it seems to acknowledge that the flight will take place whether it is winter or on a Sabbath or not, but it certainly indicates that the event has, for Matthew, not yet taken place; there would be no point in praying about a past event. No, it is best to treat these various events as representing familiar apocalyptic motifs.”[11]

He adds that in view of the teaching about the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4 who “sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God”

“It seems likely, therefore, that Matthew understands the abomination of desolation as referring to some supernatural Antichrist.”[12]

Professor R V G Tasker quotes B C Butler with approval:

“Matthew xxiv. 5-14 gives a straightforward anticipation of the whole of future history (in reference to the question about the consummation of the age), warning the disciples that secular catastrophes must not be taken as signs of the imminent end of history; forecasting, briefly, the world’s persecution of the Church; and working to a poignant climax which foretells defections from the Church, false prophets and spiritual decay and treason within the Christian body itself,… and reaching its culmination in the prophecy of the universal proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom—‘and then will come the end.’”[13]

Professor C E B Cranfield, writing on the parallel passage, Mark 13, says that it is an eschatological prediction of the End leading to the return of Christ. He writes that although we must take careful note of Jesus’ teaching and we cannot know the time of his return we must nevertheless take note of the signs of the End:

“To disregard the signs of the End as a mere relic of Jewish apocalypticism is to be in danger of reducing eschatology to something purely academic and of losing sight of its relevance to the present. For the signs are reminders in the midst of history of the coming Lord.”[14]

He continues:

“It may well be asked whether the disparagement of this chapter by much recent scholarship has not resulted in a serious impoverishment and weakening of the Church’s life. Its insistence on the signs is perhaps a help to faith and obedience that we cannot afford to dispense with; for the recognition that the events of history are signs of the End and pointers to the coming Lord rescues eschatology from the realm of merely academic discussion and makes it relevant for faith and obedience. As our faith recognizes the signs as they occur, we are again and again put in remembrance of our Hope, and our gaze, that is so easily distracted from the Lord who is coming to us, is again and again directed back to him. The events of the present become for us reasons for lifting up our heads (Lk. xxi. 28) and so many summonses to renewed penitence, obedience and joy.”[15]

He goes on to point out that 2 Thess 2:3-10 supports the identification of the “abomination that causes desolation” with the Antichrist. He says that neither an exclusively historical nor an exclusively eschatological interpretation is satisfactory but rather a mingling of the two.[16]

Scholars also comment on the difficult verse: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30).

The interpretation of “generation” (“genea”) in Matthew 24:34

Professor Robert Gundry makes a very helpful comment on Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish leadership in Matthew 23:29-36:

“Retribution for all the righteous blood of the OT martyrs will take the form of the tribulational events yet to be described as fulfilling the forecast concerning ‘this generation.’ By context ‘this generation’ means the scribes and Pharisees (‘lawyers’ in Luke). Matthew’s next verse narrows the reference further to the scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem. But his involving them in the by­gone murder of an OT prophet (v 35) shows that he does not take ‘this generation’ in a sense chronologically limited to Jesus’ contemporaries, but in a qualitative sense concerning the ‘unbelieving and perverted’ in the whole of Israel’s history (see 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17 and synoptic parallels for the same qualitative emphasis in pre-Matthean tra­dition; cf. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Hence, we read, ‘in order that on you may come … you murdered [for a centuries-old incident]… will come on this generation.’ In other words, if the ‘you’ who constitute ‘this generation’ includes those who murdered Zechariah in OT times, ‘this generation’ can hardly bear the chronological limitation usually imposed on it cf. Ex 20:5 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9.”[17]

The inference is, of course, that if “this generation” in 23:36 is clearly not chronologically limited to the literal present generation, the same is true of “this generation” in 24:34.

Professor Robert Mounce writes:

“If genetai (happened) is taken as an ingressive aorist, the sentence would indicate that before the generation alive at the time had died, all things described in connection with the end will have started to take place.”[18]

Leon Morris quotes Professor D A Carson as saying:

“All that v.34 demands is that the distress of vv.4-28, including Jerusalem’s fall, happen within the lifetime of the generation then living. This does not mean that the distress must end within that time but only that `all these things’ must happen within it.”[19]

Dr David Hill quotes Professor C H Dodd:

“It is probable that we have here an example of that `shortening of historical perspective’ which is so frequently in the prophets. ‘When the profound realities underlying a situation are depicted in the dramatic form of historical prediction, the certainty and inevitability of the spiritual processes involved are expressed in terms of the immediate imminence of the event’”[20]

Donald English comments on Mark 13:

“The best solution to hold together all the diverse considerations in [Mark 13] seems to be that which joins to the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate Parousia as two parts of God’s one activity, the former prefiguring the latter.  The `signs of the end’ begin when Jesus’ ministry is complete and Jerusalem’s destruction was terrible evidence of the end times. Jesus’ generation would see that, and proleptically would be recipients of the promise of the rest.”[21]

Robert Mounce writes about Matthew 24:34: “One thing we do know is that by the time Matthew wrote, the mission of the Twelve was history and the parousia had not taken place.”[22] It is not likely therefore that Matthew was referring to the AD30-70 generation.

[1] R T France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP, Leicester 1985, p. 344.

[2]W D Davis & D C Allison, Matthew 19-28, International Critical Commentary,  T & T Clark,  2004 p. 328

[3] Ibid, p. 331.

[4] The Pillar NT Commentary, The Gospel according to Matthew, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 593

[5] Ibid., p. 594

[6] F D Bruner Matthew: A Commentary – Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, p. 473.

[7] Robert Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated, 1991, p. 222.

[8] Ibid, p. 228.

[9] Douglas R Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, a commentary for teaching and preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Lousiville, 2009, p.  273.

[10] Ibid., p. 274.

[11] Ibid., p. 277.

[12] Ibid., p. 277.

[13] B C Butler, The Originality of St Matthew, 1951, p. 80 quoted in R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to St Matthew, Tyndale Press, London 1961, p. 224.

[14] C E B Cranfield,, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Cambridge University Press, 1959, p. 389.

[15] Ibid., p. 391.

[16] Ibid., p. 402.

[17] Robert Gundry, Matthew: a commentary on his handbook for a mixed church under persecution, Eerdmans  Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 472

[18] Robert Mounce, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew, Paternoster Press 1995, p. 228.

[19] D A Carson, Matthew: Chapters 13-28 v. 2 (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), Zondervan 1995, III, p. 97 quoted in Leon Morris, The Pillar NT Commentary, The Gospel according to Matthew, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 612.

[20] C H Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, p. 71 quoted in Dr David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible, Oliphants, London, 1972).

[21] Donald English, The Message of Mark, IVP, Leicester, 1992, p.209

[22] Robert Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated, 1991, p. 95.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction