Well part 3 has been a long time coming. Finally I have had a chance to finish it. In part 1 of this blog I made a case for the importance of context when reading any passage of scripture. My main focus of course was the Olivet Discourse, as there has been a wide and (IMHO) terrifying scope of poor interpretations that has surfaced in the last 150 years. In part 2 (which was ultimately an extension of the context piece of part 1) I discussed the importance of determining the audience of the text. I argued for 2 audiences that we must have in view to interpret the Olivet Discourse accurately: Jesus direct audience (the disciples), and Matthew’s intended audience when he wrote it (Jews). I argued that if we read the text of scripture with the idea that we are indeed the intended audience we can make it say whatever we want. If we fail get to grasp the correct context and fail to determine the audience we might as well stop and go no further as there is little chance we will gain an accurate understanding of the text.
Now on to a short discussion of time frame reference. In this part I will again not hit all of the details of the passage. My goal is to re-examine the time frame reference that in our English language is so often called “the end” and perhaps give you a different perspective than what you have heard before.
THE “END”- συντελεια
If we can solve the mystery of the “end” that is referred to by Jesus in Matt 24, it might go a long way in helping us to interpret this passage correctly. As you may have noticed, I generally quote from the NASB version though I am not so married to that translation that I place singly above all others. I will say this though, I also regularly look at the UBS4 Greek text as a reference especially when I am trying to get a clearer sense of the text. There are 3 different Greek words that have been all translated with the same English word in the text of Matt 24. This post will deal with 2 of those 3 uses. The final one is not in reference to the end of the world or age and so is not a particularly helpful for the scope of this discussion. Matt 24:3 is an important starting place for our discussion as this verse contains the first of these 3 Greek words that have been translated as “end”. The Greek word used is συντελεια. Translating this word as “end” as the NASB does is partially problematic because it doesn’t entirely communicate the meaning of “end of the age”. As a quick side note the KJV version translates this as “the end of the world” which is also problematic because normally the word αιωνος is translated as “age” and not “world”. For an interesting study go look at all the times the KJV translates αιωνος as world. You might surprised. If the Greek said κοσμος here then I would be more in favor of the KJV translation. The NKJV has corrected this erroneous translation. So as a word of caution when reading any version at all, it is important to realize that translators actually invest their interpretation of a text into their translations (albeit often innocently I believe) when going from the original language to English.
Back to my original point. The word συντελεια doesn’t just mean “end”. More specifically it carries with it the connotation of “consummation”. This is important for our interpretation. The disciples were looking for the consummation of the age. As I mentioned in part 2, they were looking for a time when their “in home” exile would be finished. A time when they would be able to worship in the temple again (a renewed temple) without the tyranny of Rome or any other foreign nation casting a shadow on what they did. This would be ushered in by Messiah. Essentially in their question to Jesus, they were asking for a time frame for when the current age would be finalized and complete and the glorious future age would begin. They recognized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah they were waiting for and they wanted to know when He would set things to right. The wording of the question and the response of Jesus to that question clearly focuses the attention on the AD 70 event and not on something 2000 years into the future. Let’s face it, the disciples didn’t really understand the suffering servant that Jesus was to be, or His words about resurrection and if Acts 1:6 is any evidence, they still didn’t get Jesus approach or teaching even after He had been resurrected.
THE END- τελος
The second word translated in english as “end” is the Greek word τελος. This word literally does mean “end” or “goal”. Contextually it makes sense to understand and translate it as “end” as it has been done in so many translations. However the understanding of the word in vs.6, 13 and 14 is meaningless outside the context of the question that Jesus was asked by the disciples in vs. 3 where they used the word συντελεια. One of the major tools I have been using for my study of things as of late is Olive Tree’s Bible Study App. Recently I picked up a fantastic resource (I actually got it for free, very cool). It was an ESV version of scripture keyed to Strong’s Concordance of the bible. Here is one of the things it says about the Greek word τελος: “properly, the point aimed at as a limit, i. e. (by implication) the conclusion of an act or state (termination (literally, figuratively or indefinitely), result (immediate, ultimate or prophetic), purpose).” I found this to be quite helpful. We need to ask the question: what is the point aimed at as a limit? I believe the presupposition that most take today is that the Jesus was aiming at an “end” that was to be the finality of this world. This presupposition is incredibly suspect in my estimation because the disciples had already posed a question using language that speaks of a summation of things as they saw and understood them. Now some will argue at this point that Jesus response was meant to correct the disciples poor understanding of things (ie. that Jesus was referring to a different end then they were). This is an asinine assumption in my opinion. God is not an author the confusion, rather he is a God of clarity; by extension so was Jesus. I think it is wrong to assume that Jesus was not answering the question that they were asking. It appears to me that if we are understand τελος within the passage it needs to (by implication alone) be understood in light of συντελεια.
Since we have been already talking about the “end” let’s start with the details surrounding the end as Jesus gives them. I believe that if you look at these things objectively it will be very difficult to interpret this passage as a future thing.
THE TIME OF THE END
“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘ I am the Christ, ‘ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (Matt 24:5, 6 NASB)
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will” come. (Matt 24: 14 NASB)
If you have done any study of 1st century Palestine, you would have very quickly come to an understanding that the Jews absolutely hated the Romans. This Roman empire (of which they were a part simply because they were “conquered” by them) was idolatrous and polytheistic to start with. This alone was enough of an abomination for the strict monotheistic ways of the Jewish people. Add to this corruption of the Roman Tax system, Roman garrisons stationed in the towns and cities(a constant reminder of the “at home” exile that the Jews lived in) as well as Jewish religious zealotry and an expectation of a Messiah that would come and deliver them from the tyranny of the Romans and you have the right ingredients for a rebellion. Rebellion was exactly what happened again and again in in the 1st century. At one point or another a revolutionary claiming to be the Messiah would gather a following and rebel, causing trouble for the Roman army and disrupting the relative piece of the Pax Romana in Palestine. Consider Barabbas for a moment; he was most likely one of these revolutionaries. According to Mark’s gospel he was a στασιαστής; a insurrectionist who had committed murder during an insurrection. So we have proof even from Jesus’ day, that this type of rebellion was evident and it could argued as something that was becoming more prevalent as well. I won’t quote it here but when you have a minute read the words of Gamaliel in Act 5: 34- 39. This passage clearly demonstrates more of the same. Interestingly one can read about these type of things in non biblical 1st century documents as well. Josephus mentions some this in his Jewish history. In the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem of AD70, the Jewish people began a serious revolt against Rome. The Roman response was a military campaign that moved from city to city. They would lay siege to the city, sack it and take hard core control, once again bringing each part of Palestine back fully under their control. Let us now look back at the text from Matt 24 that I quoted above.
Were there people coming claiming to be Messiah and leading many astray? According to the bible and other sources from the 1st century, there were indeed.
Was there war and rumors of wars during the time leading up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem? Absolutely. Roman was responding to Jewish revolt in the years leading up to AD70. Interestingly, as a side note, the Roman conquest of Britain was taking place in the 1st century as well- yet another war.
Is this what Jesus was talking about? From my perspective, I don’t have to look very far to see that this is not only plausible, but completely reasonable, logical and believable.
Jesus goes on to say that the end is not yet. He then begins to speak about the future of the disciples (those who were his immediate audience). They would be put through great tribulation, he says. They would be killed and hated by all nations because of Him, he says. Is this literally about the disciples or about some future people group 2000 years removed? Church tradition and history would tell us that indeed the disciples were put through great tribulation- they were killed and hated by all the nations that they preached too. Jesus also speaks of the gospel being preached in the whole world and then the end would come. Most futurists will hang on this verse to further their cause stating that the gospel has not been preached to the whole world even now, so how can this have been fulfilled 2000 years ago. The biggest problem with this idea is that the text has been ripped from the 1st century context and put into our global 21st century context. Question: What was really the span of the world in the 1st century? Exactly, the Roman Empire. The people at this point didn’t know about Australia, Antarctica, North or South America. As I mentioned, the Romans had just barely conquered Britain at this point. To further my argument consider Acts 1:8 where Jesus declares (again to the disciples- not us) that they would be His witnesses to Jerusalem,Judea, Samaria and even the remotest part of the earth. They didn’t get to North or South America let alone Antarctica or Australia. So we have a conundrum. Either Jesus was wrong (because he was indeed speaking to his disciples and not us) or we need to put the text back into the 1st century context and understand how the disciples would have understood it.
Now let me try to put this all together. The disciples had in mind the end of the Jewish Age and the beginning of the Messianic Age when they questioned Jesus about when these things would occur (remember they used the word συντελεια). Jesus answers them using the word τελος which I have argued we need to interpret in light of the question asked by the disciples. Jesus gives a number of signs that will show them the approach of the end of the Jewish age. The signs that would show this was approaching would be false messiahs, war and rumors of wars amongst a number of others. Additionally, some of those disciples would be tortured, beaten, hated and killed for Jesus’ sake. This as we well know did happen. These things were not the end but merely harbingers of sorts that the end was near. Again not the end of the world; rather the end of the Jewish age. The ultimate sign that the Jewish age was finished was the preaching of the gospel in all nations. Luke himself sets us up for this reality leaving us with Paul at the heart of world, a world that was Roman waiting to preach the gospel to the epitome of everything Roman: the emperor. There is so much more I could say. So many others time frame references to look at, but I have already written over 2000 words here. I leave you with this. Perhaps it is time to rethink your eschatology. Perhaps it is time to figure out why you have certain presuppositions about the Olivet Discourse and discard them for something more solid. As for me I don’t fear blood moons, abominations that cause desolation, lightning in the sky or any other astronomical perturbations because I am sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking to me on the Mt. of Olives. I am sure that I don’t have all the answers either. Thankfully I believe that I have many more years to continue to study it and flesh it out and to pull out more and more of the truth contained there because Jesus was speaking about stuff that was to happen within a mere 40 years from the time He said it. As usual, I welcome your thoughts and ideas about what I have written and I apologize that part 3 took me so long to write.