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Matt 24: Context, Audience & Time Frame Part 1

So I have been working the last couple of days on a blog post that I just can't seem to finish, so I am setting it aside for another time.  I like discussion and debate over theology and such, but often I have avoided those things that are the really hot topics.  This may mark a change today.  As you may have noticed from some of the blogs that I follow, I am partial preterist.  Dr. R. C. Sproul (another partial preterist) in his lectures on his book "Last Days According to Jesus" described the partial preterist view as a "minority report".  Unfortunately he is right, it is a minority report.  I do believe there is a new generation of theologians that are beginning to espouse this view and this excites me incredibly.  Recently I have joined a group of individuals that are solid partial preterists and as a result I am becoming a little more vocal about my support of this as well.  Today I hope to give some evidence that suggests perhaps its time you look more seriously at eschatology and the partial preterist perspective.  What I am about to share is by no means new information,  I am just not that smart.  If you have never heard of partial preterism, I would suggest that your education in the realm of eschatology is severely lacking.  My goal today is not to give you a complete run down of partial preterism; rather I intend to re-examine some of the text of Matt 24 and look at it through the lens of context, audience, and time frames.  It is my humble opinion that the text of Matt 24 when viewed through these 3 lenses (which are part of the grammitco-historical hermeneutic) will show why the partial preterist view is not only reasonable, but logical and very believable.  In truth I had hoped this would be done in 1 blog post but I am finding that it will likely take me 3 posts in order to get through it.  As usual I welcome comments and ideas.  Without further ado... part 1.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

I am often distraught at how poorly we read scripture.  Consider for a moment your secondary school education.  Unless you were some rare case, it is most likely that you have read at least one Shakespeare play in your high school career.  I personally didn't mind Shakespeare but I was a rare breed in that respect.  I remember that even though I enjoyed it, those plays were filled with words, phrases and references to things that were 400 years removed from my own time and culture.  The Old English language that they were written in was difficult enough;  however my lack of understanding in regards to the context they were written and presented in only further aggravated the problem of the language.   Take "The Merchant of Venice" for instance.  This was a play that had very strong ideas and pictures in relation to Anti-Semitism.  How many teenage kids today, let alone 22 years ago (when I was in high school) had any real understanding of this long perpetrated hatred towards Jews?  Until my prof explained this to me, I certainly didn't; and that is my point.  In order to understand the story told by Shakespeare one must necessarily have some understanding of Anti-Semitism (if only a little) because it has a prominent role in the story.

Do you remember looking at the margins in your Shakespeare textbooks?  There were often terms used by Shakespeare that I didn't know or had no frame of reference for.  There were places and ideas alluded too that I didn't comprehend.  The information in the margins often gave meanings to those words or highlighted and clarified things that were alluded to.  They were tidbits that gave context to what was being said.  Initially I mentioned that I am distraught at how poorly we read scripture and this is why:  We have been given some tools  from our secular school systems for reading and interpreting literature and unfortunately we often completely ignore these tools when we read the Word of God.  Now I understand that some of the concepts that we have learned and been indoctrinated with in our English classes (as far as reading interpreting are concerned) are not helpful or even reliable.  There are some, however that we can use.  One of these tools is related to determining context.  We all know that if you want to understand a story you need to read the story for context- a partial reading will not do it most cases.  Often from sheer laziness I wouldn't read books assigned by the prof.  When discussion and interaction was initiate by the prof about some element of the story I was unable to participate effectively because I lacked the context required to engage in that discussion.  This is sadly what we do with scripture and it is an awful practice.

Take Matt 24 for instance,  most scholars today suggest that this is a passage that discusses Jesus second coming, or at least part of the passage does.  I have trouble with this because the greater context of the passage is ignored.  The Olivet discourse from my perspective is not really a new discussion or new topic from the text of chapter 23.  I would agree there is a change of venue, but chapter 23 has Jesus declaring judgement on Jerusalem and the religious groups associated with the Jewish cult (Woe, Woe, Woe).  The Olivet discourse is simply a continuation of that discussion where Jesus begins to talk about the how and the when of that judgement.  If we divorce chapter 23 from chapter 24 there is no end to the speculation and interpretation that can come about as a result.  From literal interpretations of astronomical phenomona to double  fulfillment of prophecies (For a great blog post on why double fulfillment is problematic please see Adam Maarschalk's Matthew 24: Double Fulfillment Is Not Possible) there is a rampant disregard for solid interpretation because the context is ignored.  More importantly the first few verses of 24 tell us that the discussion that Jesus is having has everything to do with fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.  So my question is this: If the context suggests the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem why do we make attempts to understand it in any other way?  I will suggest that part of the answer has to do with some of the difficult sayings of Jesus here which can only be understood if all areas of context are considered.  Let me highlight at least one of these to explain what I mean:

"But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matt 24: 29 NASB)

This is a seemingly difficult saying at least from our 21st century perspective.  I would argue not so much though for a 1st century Jew.  Again context is everything.  Jesus cultural context was a Jewish one and when He was speaking these words He was using a style and form that was easily identifiable to those who heard Him.  Jesus (though more than just this) was the quintessential Jewish prophet.  His style and form resembled in many respects that of the O.T prophets.  Now remember that He has already identified clearly to His disciples that judgement was to come on Jerusalem.  Additionally, their questions in the beginning verses of  chapter 24 clearly indicate that they understood that this was case and yet they were questioning whether the temple would be included in this.  How would God let this beautiful building (the epitome of everything Jewish) be destroyed?  This is actually a funny question in light of the fact that it had been destroyed a couple of times before.  I believe that Jesus chose His words in vs. 29  specifically because of the immediate impact it would have from both the stand point have very prophetic overtones and because of the severity judgement that was associated with such language.  I believe it was David Chilton (though I could be wrong as I can't find the reference) that called this language which describes the sun and moon being darkened and stars not giving light  as "Royal Judgement" language.  Perhaps you didn't know this, but when Jesus used this type of language, He was not inventing something new.  This was most definitely old school.  If you have a bible with cross references do yourself a favor and go and look at all the OT passages that are cross referenced to vs. 29.  There are a number of them and they all use almost the exact same wording in their prediction of doom and gloom of the nation or city that was having judgement declared over it.  I contend that we need to recognize from a context standpoint that Jesus was using the same metaphorical or symbolic language to get the disciples attention and to suggest the severity of the judgement that was to come upon the centre of everything Jewish.  Were the sun and moon and stars about burn out or not give their light literally at the destruction of Jerusalem?  Based upon the cross references you looked up I would suggest that the answer is definitely NO!  I would argue that this didn't literally happen in the OT either.  Have I made my point about context though?  Context literally is everything.  Vs. 29 is difficult and without the context we have two options:  Jesus was either wrong on this particular detail about the near future destruction of the temple and Jerusalem or that Jesus wasn't talking about near future destruction of Jerusalem but some future event because there was not literal sun and moon darkening or stars falling from the sky (please note that I realize I have made an assumption about the timing of this judgement on Jerusalem which I will pick up on in part 3 of this blog).  Either we get the context right or we suffer the consequences of such a belief.

In the next part I will look at the intended audience of Matt 24.  Stay tuned

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