Friday, April 06, 2012

Why I May Give Up Interpreting Matthew 24

My friend Ken and I have had some discussion about Preterism and the interpretation of Matthew 24.

Since becoming Reformed, I've never had any strong eschatological convictions, other than: Dispensationalism is wrong. Since that time, I've more or less parked myself in amillenialism, but not in any sort of dogmatic way.

Like many of my Reformed friends, I picked up R.C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus when it came out. At the time, I was very intrigued and almost persuaded by the argumentation. Unfortunately, I was a bit uneasy about committing to partial-preterism because at the time, the majority of those who were spokesmen for this view were post-millennial. Now I know that's not a valid reason to not embrace something... simply because it may lead to something else.  I read some of the books by DeMar and Gentry as well. I always found their views interesting, but I never could commit to it.

I think I've mentioned this here on the blog before: an old friend of mine recently lost his fairly well-paid senior  pastor gig at a Dispensational church because he went full-Preterist. If I recall the story correctly, during the Harold Camping May 21 controversy, the elders of his church asked him to preach some messages on end-times. He hadn't studied end times in a while. A few months later, he was a convinced hyper-Preterist. He was then abruptly fired. I keep tabs on him through his websites, watching him move up the ranks in the hyper-Preterist community.

I read this comment from Ken Gentry some time ago that hyper-Preterists were best described as people without jobs with access to the Internet. When I read that, I thought it was fairly accurate.  What I didn't realize at the time is that the only thing hyper-Preterism really needs to gain momentum is a few gifted speakers. The views they espouse are not as easy to refute as one may think. Sure, some of the hyper-Preterists are wacky. But some of them are good communicators and good at defending their views. I'm not as quick to write off the impact these folks may eventually have on the church. Their targets are typically Dispensationalists. I've heard a few debates between Dispensationalists and Preterists. In each case, the Dispensationalists did poorly. The more people become disenchanted with Dispensationalism, I think the more opportunity for such people to become some sort of Preterist.        

As I've been looking into hyper-Preterism, the entire key to their theology is Matthew 24 (as it is in partial Preterism). That is, if they've got ten minutes to convince you of their view, the first passage of the Bible they will turn to is Matthew 24. The entire world of the Bible seems to rest on Matthew 24 for these folks. It's like that as well sometimes with the partial-Preterists. Here's where I think one of the problems is. The partial-Preterists appear to me to be very arbitrary in how they divide up the chapter to some verses being past and others being future. I'm leaning towards saying that the partial crowd simply isn't being consistent with their hermeneutic, while the hyper folks are. So, I'm even a bit more hesitant now about partial-Preterism.

But I think I may have had a breakthrough on interpreting Matthew 24. Ken asked me if I thought any of it applied to A.D. 70. I took some time to go through Kim Riddelbarger's chapter on Matthew 24 tonight in his book, A Case for Amillennialism. Frankly, I got lost in it a few times, attempting to follow what was supposed to be A.D. 70, what's supposed to be future, what may have double fulfillment, etc. I think what I'll actually have to do is map out exactly what Riddelbarger is saying precisely in the chapter (certain books require that sort of work). I think the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 must be in view- although I was out with Alan Kurschner the other night, and he's convinced the entire chapter is future (by the way, he'll be debating partial-preterist Dee Dee Warren on Matthew 24).

Here's though where I had some sort of Matthew 24 breakthrough tonight.  I read Matthew 24 a few times, keeping in mind something Riddlebarger pointed out. Kim mentioned something that I took for granted. After Jesus shockingly predicts the destruction of the temple, His disciples ask him three questions: "Tell us" they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age"?

I went back and read Matthew 24 keeping these three questions in mind.  Now, let's remember that there were times when the disciples asked the wrong question, or didn't understand the answer they were given. I'm tempted to say in Matthew 24, Jesus answered the three questions posed to him in Mt. 24:3. He answered their wrong questions that didn't distinguish the different time periods of the events Himself by not distinguishing the events of AD 70 to those at the end of history. In other words, he answered the imprecise questions they asked him. Suppose He simply described both events, not clearly distinguishing one from the other? If the three questions are understood to be referring to two (or perhaps three) different periods of time (and the disciples of course, didn't realize this), Jesus simply described all the events at the same time, mixed together. It's not the fault of Jesus that He answered all three questions at the same time not distinguishing one time period from the other. That's the way they asked the questions! It's the fault of the disciples for assuming all the events were to occur at the same time. I don't claim to be able to read the mind of the Lord. But  it is possible he did most certainly answer their three questions by answering them all at once.

Now I'm not any sort of rocket scientist when it comes to exegesis. Matthew 24 is a very difficult passage. But based on previous answers the Lord gave to His disciples, it wouldn't surprise me at all that He answered their questions in a way that they didn't expect or completely understand. In this case, if one rules out hyper-Preterism, I think it's at least a possibility that He did indeed answer their imprecise questions leaving out many of  the same distinctions about the timing of the events that they did. What concerns me about all those who try to say of Matthew 24, "This is A.D. 70... this part is future... this part is both..." etc., is that they may have missed exactly why the answers Jesus gave were in the form they were in.

I don't normally speculate on the Biblical text like this. I certainly don't hold any of this dogmatically. I'm simply speculating on the text.  In other words, I don't at all have any sort of problem with being wrong or way off on this.


Martin Yee said...

Hi James,

Wow, this is an extremely interesting insight - when the Lord himself mixed and answered all three questions at one go, who are we to sort out neatly and try to be precise as to which answer is for which question. Thanks a lot.


Rhology said...

I would say based on my own experiences debating Hyper-Preterists that as long as one sticks to the main issues (like the general eschatological resurrection, the flawless and renewed state of the eschaton vs the crappy state of the current world, and the fact that if sin no longer exists, then obligation no longer exists... for ANYthing) a dispy could do just as well as a partial preterist.
I am persistently confused eschatologically speaking, and using mostly those arguments I was able to tie my opponents up in knots.

James Swan said...

as long as one sticks to the main issues (like the general eschatological resurrection, the flawless and renewed state of the eschaton vs the crappy state of the current world, and the fact that if sin no longer exists, then obligation no longer exists... for ANYthing

Here's the thing. I agree that these sort of issues are harder for hyper-Preterists to explain. I think even they would agree. But going to these issues would be going to the secondary issues in their minds. The answers on these sorts of issues will differ depending on which Hyper-Preterist is dealing with.

As far as I've been able to understand these guys, the heart of their theology is Matthew 24. Deal with that, then all the rest is taken care of.

By the way, if you have any written examples of your interactions with these folks, I'd be interested in seeing them.

Ken said...

As I mentioned to James - I think that the 3 part question that the disciples asked is the key to this. The disciples added the issues of "the end of the age" and "the sign of your coming".

Jesus did not mention those things in Matthew 23:36-39 and 24:1-2 - which seem very clearly about 70 AD and the destruction of the temple.

The Disciple's added those issues.

What made me notice this is that R. C. Sproul in his book, The Last Days According to Jesus, interpreted Matthew 13:39-40 as 70 AD also (p. 72-74), and I thought, "no way; that is just weird; how can Sproul think that is 70 AD?

"the end of the age" is also the same phrase in Matthew 28:20 where Jesus promises His presence to carry out the Great Commission. That has not happened yet. So, it seems to me that the disciples added that part in, and Jesus answers them mixing His answers in with 70 AD and His second coming.

And, also since Matthew 24:29-31 quotes from Isaiah 13:10 and the context there is judgment on Babylon and the "Day of the Lord" - and God did judge Babylon by bringing on them the Medes and the Persians - isaiah 13:17-22 - there is good reason to take the "coming on clouds" language as judgment language on God's enemies, as "the Lord rides on a cloud, judging the idols of Egypt" -(Isaiah 19:1) the Lord "came" in a sense of bringing other nations in judgment to conquer Egypt also, just as Jesus "came" in judgment in ordaining the Romans to destroy the temple and kill many Jews and scatter them to many nations. Also, Jesus says "I am coming" and "I am coming quickly" - Rev. 2:4-5; 2:16; 2:25; 3:3 - and He did that by ordaining the Goths to destroy Ephesus in 263 AD and then the Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia (1071 AD) (todays modern Turkey) from the Byzantines, and then the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (1453 AD) - the lamp stands were taken away by Jesus' coming in judgment in bringing conquering armies on His people. That judgment language (also in Joel 2:10 - applied to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, yet no literal signs in the sky, etc. and Ezekiel 32:7) lends a lot of credibility to the partial preterits view; but does not rule out some kind of double - fulfillment as the scriptures also say He is coming on the clouds at the end of time. (I Thess. 4:13-18; I Cor. 15:23-28; 50-55; 2 Thess. chapter 1)

Just as the abomination of desolation has a double fulfillment in Daniel 11 (Antiochus Ephiphaes, 167 BC - offering a pig to Zeus on the altar in the Jewish temple) and Daniel 9:24-27 - 70 AD - and Jesus clearly indicates this in Matthew 24:15;

So also there are multiple judgments and 'Day of the Lord" type of judgments in history of God bringing foreign nations on His people to judge and chasten.

Ken said...

Acts 1:11 is also another clear verse on Jesus' bodily second coming that is still future to us - on clouds.

Rhology said...

Here you go, James.

And that's just weird about Matt 24. Bad priorities!

James Swan said...

I talked this over with my better-half over lunch. She's like, "You're not going hyper-Preterist are you?"

Then ensued a discussion as to which would be worse, becoming Roman Catholic or becoming a hyper-Preterist. We both agreed that becoming Roman Catholic would be a good means to stardom. That is, I could probably end up on the Journey home or get on Catholic Answers as a guest.

Anyway. I think many of the disciples expected King Jesus to take over his physical kingdom and rule. This probably motivated their three questions in Matthew 24. Note what happened when Jesus explained what was going to happen to him in Luke 18:33-34.