Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The Olivet Discourse

I have posted on the Preterist viewpoint in the past. I have decided to provide more details by giving a nearly verse-by-verse commentary on the Preterist view of the Olivet discourse. If you don’t know what a preterist is, then in some sense a preterist is someone who agrees (more-or-less) with the following explanation of that mysterious passage. Still, it will be helpful in preparation to give the following thumbnail sketch of Preterism:
  • Unlike dispensationalism, preterism does not view the "Kingdom of God" as something occurring in the future, but as something that has already been initiated. The Gospel references to the Kingdom of Heaven, (or Kingdom of God), when given with an accompanying time frame, teach of the imminence of the Kingdom (c.f., Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 12:28; Mark 1:15, 9:1, 12:34; Luke 9:27, 10:9-11, 17:20-22).

  • Preterism attaches great prophetic and redemptive significance to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

  • Preterism (as we will see) presents a harmonious explanation of the Olivet discourse, taking the references to time at their plain meaning and references to cosmic cataclysm as prophetic poetry. This is both its greatest success (for all other explanations of the Olivet discourse suffer from some sort of difficulty in the time related aspects) and its greatest provocation, for the preterist must acknowledge that the Parousia (second coming) has already happened. The "sense" in which it has happened, and whether or not there is still a future glorious return of Christ in the clouds and a resurrection of the saints, separates hyper-preterism from partial or moderate preterism.

  • The Olivet discourse contains timelines, apocalyptic prophesy, and descriptions of the fulfilling of prophesy. In some sense, preterists and dispensationalists choose opposite hermeneutics: The preterists take the time references literally and the apocalyptic descriptions as imagery, while the dispensationalists do the reverse.

  • The preterist views the Olivet discourse as a continuous exposition on a single time period: from the time Christ spoke the words to about one generation (40 years) later (when some of those present would still be alive). The terminus of the discourse’s prophesy is about 70 A.D., when the Temple was destroyed.

  • The most important thing to keep in mind, is that to the preterist, everything discussed in the Olivet discourse happened within about forty years after Christ delivers the prophecy.

The Olivet Discourse

Now, on to the scripture (Taken here from Matthew’s account in chapter 24 of his gospel):

1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down."

There is universal agreement that this refers to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. This is such an amazing prophesy that biblical critics argue that it "proves" that either the gospels were written after the event or that its description was added later to give Christ more credibility.

3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"

According to preterism, The disciples are asking about closely related events, or different aspects of the same event: these things refers to what was just discussed, the destruction of the temple, your coming refers to the Parousia, and the end of the age refers to the end of the Jewish dispensation. Calvin taught that the disciples, finding the destruction of the temple to be utterly inconceivable, erroneously assumed that it would not happen until the end of the world. Preterists disagree, pointing out that if it were so, then it is surprising that Jesus took no steps to correct the false assumption, and indeed He answers as if these events occur in a single time frame.

4 And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, "I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Preterists point to historic accounts from Josephus and other contemporary writers affirming that all these things occurred in the vicinity of Palestine during the period in question. Calvin agrees that all these events happened in the approximately 40 years from the time Christ spoke these words until the destruction of Jerusalem, but points out that they all would happen to some degree in virtually any 40 year period. I think what Calvin was really saying is that for the Lord to give a specific warning about such matters, they must not be, for example, your garden variety false Christ but deceivers extraordinaire. The preterist response (in regards to the false prophets) is that while in its infancy, the church was extremely vulnerable to false prophets and so a specific warning is in order, whereas today the maturity of the church makes it less susceptible to such an attack.

Preterists also point out that Christ says Take heed that no one deceives you. The plain reading is that "you" refers to the disciples, not some far future group of believers. This is further evidence that Jesus is talking about something imminent, and has not segued into a discussion of far distant prophesy.

9 "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. 14 "Therefore when you see the "abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened. 23 "Then if anyone says to you, "Look, here is the Christ!' or "There!' do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 "Therefore if they say to you, "Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or "Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.

There is more in this part of the discourse about false prophets, to which the previous comments once again apply. More importantly, this passage talks about what is usually believed to be the great (and future) Tribulation with a capital 'T'. However, to the preterist, this tribulation refers to the persecution endured prior to the "coming of the Son of Man" (again: about 40 years hence, to the preterist). Verses 9-11 offer no problem; surely a case can be made that such things happened during this period.

How does the preterist claim a fulfillment of verse 14, that the gospel will be preached in all the world? They claim it is substantiated by none other than the Apostle Paul: 5 because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; (Col 1:5-6) and if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col 1:23) In short, whatever Paul meant by “all the world” and “every creature under heaven” used in the past tense, indicates that Paul taught that Matthew 24:14 was already fulfilled.

As for the tribulation, the preterism draws what I think is a very credible conclusion from verses 14-27: this is a localized tribulation in the region of Judea (culminating with Roman invasion). References to those who are in Judea and the holy place (the temple) and the overall description bespeaks of a localized, imminent event, not a far-off world-wide cataclysm.

As for the coming of the Son of Man, the preterist view varies, but I think the most common view is that the destruction of Jerusalem is in some sense the result of "the coming of the Son of Man". Whether there is a future, literal return in-the-clouds is part of what separates hyper from moderate preterism. In any case, preterists of all stripes agree that for preterism to be the self-consistent exposition it claims, then everything in the Olivet discourse including "the coming of the Son of Man" had to have occurred within a generation. For support, they turn to some other scripture: 23 When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matt 10:23). This verse seems to say that the Son of Man will come when the diciples had visited the cities of Israel. That would seem to be a task that would fit nicely into the timeframe of a generation and not require thousands of years.

Another relevant passage is: 27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. 28 Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matt. 16:27-28). Here the preterist can again assume a plain reading: some of the disciples would still be alive when they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, which is in fact the end of the Jewish age and the onset of "The age of the gentiles" (Matt. 21:43). Non-preterist views of this passage sometimes border on (in my opinion) the absurd. For example, many argue that in this context the "Son of Man coming in His kingdom" refers to the transfiguration, which occurs about six days later. (My bible injects bewteen verses 16:27 and 16:28 a heading: The Transfiguration. ) But this interpretation implies that verse 16:28 can be paraphrased: "Some of you will still be alive six days from now" which hardly seems worthy of divine mentioning.

The preterists claim that the carcass of verse 28 is the Jewish dispensation which is about to end, and the eagles refer to the agent of destruction, specifically the standard of the invading Roman legions.

The end that will come is not the end of history resulting in the eternal state, but the end of the Jewish age.

29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

This is the biggest problem for the preterist. While historians of antiquity have given accounts of false prophets, earthquakes, famines, and wars, no one has described what would seem to be an unraveling of the fabric of the universe. Josephus has no description of the cosmological upheaval alluded to in verses 29-31.

Here is where the preterist appeals to poetic language. The destruction of Jerusalem, according to preterists, is so "big" that it requires, in the tradition of the East, apocalyptic symbolism. As proof, they site strikingly similar passages from the old testament, for example regarding the destruction of Babylon: 9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, And the moon will not cause its light to shine. (Isa. 13:9-10) and Therefore I will shake the heavens, And the earth will move out of her place, (Isa. 9:13). Add to this, the destruction of Bozrah: 3 Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. 4 All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree. (Isa. 34:3-4). If the destruction of Bozrah warrants such language, then even more so, says the preterist, the destruction of Jerusalem.

32 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.

The preterist is on the highest of his high ground here, for he accepts the phrase this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place as having its simple meaning: generation means generation, not race or type of people as some viewpoints require. Preterists point out that wherever else Christ used the word generation, he meant it in the plain sense of those living at that time. (c.f., Matt. 11:16, 12:39, 12:41, 12:42, 12:45, 16:4, 17:17). The fig tree analogy also implies near term fulfillment.

Maybe I will blog more about this in the future. For now I merely point out that in my opinion the preterist account of the Olivet discourse is very appealing. There is no need for an assumed and unannounced discontinuity between when Jesus is speaking of near-term prophesy to when He speaks of things that will happen in the distant future. There is no basis upon which a critic could claim that Jesus was wrong because he mistakenly thought He would be returning within a generation. And there is no need to infer that the disciples asked a question laden with a false assumption that Jesus did not correct.

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