Detective Stories and Working Theories

Well fellow detectives, how did you do?

What? You didn’t do your homework?  I’m shocked!

When we were together yesterday, your assignment was to look over Matthew 24 and 25 very carefully and look for structural clues that might help us to be certain about which question or questions Jesus answered after the disciples had posed their question in verse 3:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Matthew 24:3

If you missed our last get-together, you should probably check it out here before going further.

For me, the first thing that popped out was verse 34, and once that popped out, I noticed that there are three other verses that tend to indicate transition giving us four total, verses 29,34,35 and 36. Something happens here. Since 34 is the most obvious, let’s consider it first:

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Matthew 24:34

There is an element of time here: “…this generation will not pass away until…” Now, let’s make a little comparison. The original question asks, “…when will this happen…” OK, what does “this” refer to? To see that, we need to look to what was being discussed, and that is really easy, for at the end of verse 2, Jesus was telling them about what would become of Jerusalem:  “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The next time anyone speaks it’s, “…when will this  happen…” so, “this” must refer to the destruction of the city, since that was the subject on the table at the time: context. In verses 4-33 Jesus answers them until in verse 34 He tells them that this generation will not pass away until all of “these things” have happened. On the one hand you have “this” and then you have “these things” If “this” is the destruction of Jerusalem, then “these things” is also Jerusalem being destroyed, since the subject hasn’t yet changed. If this is correct, then “this generation” gives us an approximate timeframe for the destruction of the city, and we know from history that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 AD… but let’s double-check just to make sure.

If we browse through Matthew’s text, can we find Jesus saying something similar to this and determine what He means by “this generation will not pass away until”?  There is something similar in 16:28 where Jesus said,   “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” In chapter 16, Jesus was telling the disciples that He would soon go to Jerusalem and face death(Matt. 16:21-28) and it is clear that He is referring here to the coming of the Kingdom at Pentecost. If our thinking is correct, then “this generation” in chapter 24 means the generation alive at the time Jesus made the statement, and 70 AD fits that bill easily.

If our thinking is right, then we should find a change of subject very quickly, and when we look at verse 35, the very next verse, we find it.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Matthew 24:35

From verse 34 where the subject is the destruction of Jerusalem, to  35 where the subject changes to His words, the subject has changed, and if we keep reading, we find another time indication in the next verse:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Matthew 24:36

Now we have a more complete picture of the structure of the entire discourse. The comment about the destruction of Jerusalem is in verse 2, the question is in verse 3. The answer begins in verse 4 and continues to verse 34 where a time frame is given for its completion. Verse 35 transitions the subject, and a new time frame is given, only it is a time that nobody knows yet; Jesus is answering the second question, which appears at first glance to be, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Since there is no more transition or subject changes after this, it would appear that Jesus is answering 2 questions in the Discourse, first when will Jerusalem be destroyed and when will He return and what will be the signs, which Jesus seems to be treating as one question, or at least in one answer. At this point, we are developing a working thesis to investigate, but before we can be sure, we need to go back to that other verse I mentioned, verse 29.

“Immediately after the distress of those days

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

Matthew 24:29

Let’s begin by noting the difference in tense between “that day” in verse 36 and “those days” in verse 29.  The fact that verse 29 refers to a plural number of days and verse 36 refers to a single day would lend significant credence to our thesis: they are talking about different things.  Even with that said, and the fact that the grammar is different between “those” and “that”, verse 29 is a tough one to understand.  The method we use in determining what is intended will be to examine other passages in the Bible to see if we can find a trend as to the intended meaning that we can apply to this verse to ensure that our thesis is correct.

The difficulty that we must face is related to how we understand prophetic language.  There are two schools of thought on this subject.  The first school of thought is the Apocalyptic school which asserts that these are word pictures intended to transmit meaning about things through the use of descriptive language which reveals something to the reader.  The second school is the Literalist school which asserts that everything must be taken literally; if the sun, moon and stars are said to fall, then they will fall.  In looking at other passages, we should be able to discern which approach is correct.  If the Apocalyptic school is right, then so is our thesis.  If the Literalists are right, then our thesis may or may not be right. Let’s check out one passage to see if we can get an idea:

Isaiah 13:1-22 deals with God’s wrath and judgment against Babylon, in context the highlights are as follows:

v. 1 An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw:… v.6 Wail, for the day of the LORD is near;
it will come like destruction from the Almighty…. V. 9 See, the day of the LORD is coming
—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it. V. 10 The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light…. V. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble;
and the earth will shake from its place
at the wrath of the LORD Almighty,
in the day of his burning anger.

For the full effect, you should read the entire passage.  For now, note that two things are very clear: First, the sun, moon and stars are said to be darkened, and second, God’s judgment is being poured out.  As we will see next post, this is a common connection in Bible prophecy.  Isaiah is talking about the destruction of Babylon in chapter 13, and God’s judgment on them.  In Matthew 24 Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s judgment upon the Jews.  (Don’t forget that Jesus Himself passed judgment on the religious establishment of Jerusalem in chapter 23, a short time before this Discourse) This, along with the change from plural in 24:29 to singular in 24:36 is enough to determine that we are dealing with two questions being under discussion in the Olivet Discourse: One relating to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in particular, and the other being of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age.  As mentioned, we will look at some more Old Testament passages next time which will solidify this position.

For now at least, we have a working theory:  Matthew 24:3 contains two questions which were answered by Jesus: First, when will the Temple be destroyed, and second, what will be the signs of his coming and of the end of the age? When we get back together later, we will continue to examine the Discourse, and test out theory further by looking a 29-33 in more depth Will our working theory withstand this test?

We shall soon find out!

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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7 Responses to Detective Stories and Working Theories

  1. That’s what I always felt was how it was meant to be understood. I’ve met people who thought the first part was for the present time or future, but that just doesn’t make sense.

  2. Steve B says:

    I did your homework Don and to me it is still all mixed up. There is a reason for that in my humble opinion. Jesus spoke about events in the short, medium and long term. When you get to Verse 24 you can see that Jesus is speaking about the end end when He returns yet this is still before your “transition”. There is one person who reads the bible very carefully. He is called Satan. You see all the prophecies about Jesus are in the Old Testament yet they were confusing enough to throw Satan off track. Also prophecies are written so that we rely on God (Holy Spirit) to make clear for us if He so wishes and is useful for us. Anyway just my opinion 🙂

  3. paulfg says:

    The day job again! Saw you later post, and then have just found this earlier post. Now it is getting easier to follow!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Pingback: Matthew’s Story Continues | The Life Project

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