In the first part of this blog I asked you the reader to begin a short journey with me to reexamine some of what Jesus was teaching in Matt 24. I contended in part 1 that "context is everything"; short of getting a strong understanding of the context, we were likely to miss the mark with any interpretation we put forth. Today I want to look at the element of audience and how this impacts our interpretation of any text of scripture. Truthfully audience is just another part of context, but I felt it important to highlight as a major element of sound biblical hermeneutic. Determining the audience of each document of scripture is a huge piece of the interpretation puzzle. There are 2 very important questions (amongst others) that we should ascertain the answers to when we are interpreting any document, let alone scripture. Additionally these questions are connected to one another. They are: Who was this text written to and how would they have understood it?
WHO DID THE BIBLICAL WRITER HAVE IN MIND?
What I hear commonly in churches today (much to my chagrin), is that the bible was written to "us". I wont use bad language at this point but this idea doesn't pass the smell test. Let's look at how this idea is flawed with a simple example. If you are reading this and you are a gentile Christian let me ask you: Do you eat pork? Some will say yes and others will say no. For the ones that said "yes", I then ask this question: "Isn't pork (amongst a vast plethora of other animals) considered unclean and not to be eaten? The inevitable reply is: "Oh... but that was a commandment to the Israelites in the Torah." Do you see the problem? I do realize that at the council of Jerusalem a letter was written to gentiles that held them to only 4 missives of which none of them prohibited pork (but this doesn't negate my point). It actually strengthens it. The Torah was written to the Jews and the letter in Acts 15 was written to gentiles. These texts were not written to you or to I directly, though there is application that can be drawn from these texts for the lives of believers even in the 21st century. The biblical texts were written to individuals or groups 2000 years and more removed from today. How then, can they be written to us? Colossians was written to the churches in city of Colosse. Galatians to those churches in the region of Galatia. There are parts of Jeremiah that were written to the exiles in Babylon and parts that were written to people who still lived in Judah. These audiences were not us. This does not in any way reduce the importance or power of the scriptures for us today. God has used the letter penned by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29) repeatedly in a powerful way in my life (but it wasn't written to me). The apostle Paul wrote (and I whole heartedly agree) that:
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16 NASB)
Who was Paul's audience in this writing? It was most definitely Timothy. Stop for a moment and consider something for a moment. What scriptures were being referenced by Paul when he penned these words to Timothy? The NT was not even completed (case and point Paul is writing part of it with this letter to Timothy). As a result there was no compiled and canonized NT at this point. If Timothy is the intended audience and the NT was not finished and compiled then consider the ramifications of this. It's stunning really: Paul had in view the OT scriptures. These were those that he said were God breathed. Now don't think for a moment that I am suggesting that NT is not canon and not authoritative. I have a complete bible with OT and NT sitting in front of me now and a wealth of electronics versions as well. I respect and trust and follow the words written on the pages of my bible. The whole thing is completely authoritative. I simply am trying to draw us to the conclusion that when we assume an audience that was not intended our understanding of a text can become skewed. From an application standpoint Paul's words still hold. We can trust the OT and NT as God breathed and powerful for the transformation of our lives; I cannot assume however that based upon the intended audience of 2 Timothy that Paul was including his own writings as canon. I actually have a hard time with believing that Paul would have ever put himself on a level playing field with Moses, Isaiah or Jeremiah. This just doesn't seem like Paul. So to conclude this point: the intended audience serves a contextual purpose that aids us determining a more accurate interpretation
So let's get back to Matt 24. From my perspective there are 2 audiences in this text. I am not referring to a current and future audience. Jesus was not speaking to his disciple in his time and also to a people 2000 years into the future. So who are these two audiences that I speak of? The first I have already mentioned in part 1: the disciples. The second is the audience that Matthew had in mind when (years later) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he penned the document we now call the Gospel of Matthew.
Let me quickly speak again of Jesus' audience then move on to a discussion of Matthew's intended audience, which is perhaps a little more complicated. It is again important to note that though chapter 23 and 24 (and 25 for that matter) are all connected and in many respects are truly part of the same dialogue, the venue for this discussion changes and along with it, the audience also. I am not sure that I can definitively say that no time had passed between chapter 22 and 23, but it appears that this is the case. The audience at the end of 22 includes the pharisees (who had gathered themselves together to "have another go at Jesus"), the crowds and Jesus' disciples. As we enter into 23 Jesus begins what is perhaps his strongest polemic against any of the Jewish religious groups. The opening verse of 23 says Jesus began to address the crowd and his disciples. I cannot say for sure whether the pharisees were present or not. What I do know from the text is that his last response to them had actually shut their mouths and they wouldn't ask Him anything else. I think it probable that the pharisees were present during Jesus tirade against them, they were just silent because of fear of the crowd (a seemingly regular occurrence according to the 4 gospels). The text of 23 ends with Jesus clearly speaking of the demise and desolation of the house of Israel. As I have mentioned previously, chapter 24 starts with Jesus and just the disciples leaving Jerusalem and heading to the Mount Olives. Jesus then continues his discourse in a more private setting with the disciples only.
Now what about Matthew's audience? Why is this even important? Answering the question of intended audience as far as Matthew is concerned is extremely difficult. Many theories have been put forth and the debate continues. I personally lean towards the idea that Matthew was written to a Jewish audience. There are a number of things that lead me to this belief and I will not get into all of them here. A couple will suffice in developing my point and furthering my idea about the importance of audience with respect to Matt 24.
The genealogy that is presented by Matthew lends itself to the idea that he was writing to a Jewish audience. Consider first that the genealogy only goes back to Abraham (as opposed to going back to Adam as it does in Luke's gospel). For the Jew, Abraham was the patriarch of their nation. The promises made to him by God held great weight amongst the Jews. Subsequent generations all the way down to the time of the Jesus claimed these promises as their own. This genealogy forms a direct connection from their patriarch (who was promised a land and to be the father of many nations and ultimately to be the one through whom all people would be blessed) directly to Jesus. Keep in mind additionally that Matthew goes to great lengths to bring evidence that Jesus was the bona fide messiah that the people of Israel had waited for. The Jews would also have recognized that this genealogy was the proof of Jesus royal blood claim to the throne of Israel (part of a promise and blessing that Israel bestowed upon his 4th son, Judah) which declared that the scepter (the mark of rulership) would not depart from his line amongst the tribes.
I am going to make a little detour here to bring something to light that figures prominently (at least in my mind) into this. During the time of Samuel, before Israel asked for a king, Yahweh was both the Lord (God) and king of Israel. When Saul was anointed king and give the throne, God in a certain sense was relegated (sadly) to the place of "God only". His plan was that David would sit on the throne (a descendant of Judah). His plan was that ultimately Jesus would be rewarded with the throne (a descendant of Judah and also of David), one who was genealogically related to Abraham directly. When Jesus died, rose and ascended, God had clearly declared His rightful place as both God and king of His covenant people. Now let me be clear, God has always been God and He has always "really" been king, but consider the messianic expectation of the Jews, which from all accounts had gone greatly askew over the course of hundreds of years. By Jesus time, this messianic expectation was entrenched in the idea that a messiah would come; one who was a warrior king that would essentially come and turf Romans and give them their land back and draw the people back to true worship of God in a renewed temple. I contend that they never expected their messiah to be God Himself. I would remiss at this point if I failed to mention in this discussion about Matthew's intended audience the common Jewish ideology concerning "age". For the Jew there were only 2 ages: The present and the future. Stated another way, there was the present age and the messianic age. Their desire was to see the messianic age. I would argue that Matthew was attempting to tell his Jewish audience that messianic age was at hand. Consider the opening statements of John the Baptist according to Matthew's gospel just before the beginning of Jesus' ministry:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2 NASB)
The Jews were certainly not in the kingdom of heaven before the coming of Jesus and Matthew indicates that it was drawing near. Soon after the messiah comes on to the scene. Jesus uses this term "kingdom of heaven" almost exclusively in His parables and teaching throughout the gospel.
I have briefly argued that Matthew's audience was Jewish and there is much of the Olivet discourse that is sharply brought into focus in a far different way when we begin to understand the text as they would have seen it. From "Kingdom of Heaven" references to sayings like "let the reader understand" it becomes clear that Matthew had an audience in mind. If we divorce the text from that original audience and try to understand it outside of that audience we are as I suggested in part 1, completely likely to come to interpretation that would have Matthew smacking his head and sighing about.
In part 3, I intend to look at some time frame reference from Matt 24. Stay tuned.
One final note:
There are many sources that one can find that support much of what I have said. One source (a highly academic and perhaps technical work) that clearly demonstrates and provides a wealth of evidence to support much of this is N. T. Wright's "The New Testament and the People of God". I highly, highly, highly recommend this book. In case you weren't aware Wright himself is a partial preterist (though I would argue he seems to hate those types of labels).