This Generation - Matthew 23:31-24:2
January 15, 2021 · C.E. Carter
One of the strongest arguments for the historicity and divine inspiration of the New Testament manuscripts is known as the Olivet Discourse, so-called because it was given by Jesus to His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). In this discourse outlined in Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13, Jesus predicts that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple would occur “in this generation” (Matthew 24:34), referring of course to the generation He was in. Indeed, in A.D. 66 the Roman province of Judea, a Jewish population, revolted against the Roman Empire, resulting in what is now called the first Jewish-Roman War, which culminated in A.D. 70 with the city of Jerusalem being laid under siege, invaded, and sacked by the Romans. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Jerusalem, and her Temple, were leveled in the conflict, confirming the accuracy and significance of Jesus’ predictions.
Matthew 24, the most detailed account of the Olivet Discourse, is roughly a sequence of events: first wars and rumors of wars, then a great tribulation, then a brief interjection of apocalyptic language, and then the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, and a few statements to conclude and tie everything together. Most evangelical Christians take these to be mostly or completely future events, which are yet to come in our future. These are the historicist and the futurist positions, respectively. I take the preterist position, which places these events in Jesus’ future, but our past. Futurists and historicists will argue for their position on account of the nature of the tribulation, the cosmic events in Matthew 24:29, and the assumption that the “coming” in Matthew 24:30 is referring to the Second Coming of Christ, among other things. I will eventually get to these interpretations (in fact, I have already written about them in other works), but my goal today is to do something a little different. I have a twofold aim: 1) to provide a little context for Matthew 24, and 2) to provide a brief exegetical argument for the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24.
Context is key for sounds exegesis of a text. When asking, “what does this text mean?” we need a foundation of axioms upon which we may build arguments and make inferences, and that is what context provides. Here, I believe suitable context for Matthew 24 is found in the previous chapter Matthew 23. This chapter is famous for the “eight woes” that Jesus pronounces to the Pharisees, who represent the current religious condition of the Jews in that day. These woes are weighty accusations of blame placed upon these religious teachers; “woe to you, you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people…” (Matthew 23:13) is language more likely to be found at the sentencing hearing of a criminal than in gentle correction offered by a friend. The guilt of the Pharisees has been firmly established. You can almost hear the emotion in our Lord’s voice when he says,
“So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You snakes, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matthew 23:31-33)
Jesus, knowing that their hearts are hard and unrepentant, finds them guilty of the sins of their fathers who murdered the prophets, and intends to amplify their guilt.
“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you will fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:34-36)
One of the ways which God punishes sin is by allowing for more sin, by His sovereign decree. Sin is antithetical to the human condition, and its indulgence only serves to amplify our suffering and our guilt. Jesus is going to give the Pharisees as much rope as they want to hang themselves, and in doing so, He is pronouncing judgement upon those Jews who reject Him. The evidence that they reject Him is that they kill and persecute the prophets, wise men, and scribes that He will send to testify of His redemptive work. The guilt of the persecution of the early Church will be heaped upon them, just as the blood of Abel and Zechariah cried out from the ground when they were murdered in worship. Christians are the righteous ones He mentions here, because we have been given righteousness from Christ, and we worship in Spirit and in truth. God avenges His own, and upon that generation of Jews His judgement would come. How would it come?
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who have been sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:37-39)
Because of these woes, Jerusalem will be left desolate. The workings out of this desolation, and the significance of it for the things yet to come, are what is described in the next chapter. Jesus has pronounced His judgement against those who have no ears to hear, and now turns to those who do have ears to hear in order to explain what is about to happen.
Jesus left the temple area and was going on His way when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. But He responded and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
What will be left desolate is Jerusalem and her Second Temple, which will be demolished at the decree of the Son of Man, ending the old ways of the Judaic age. With this in mind, we are ready to examine the rest of chapter 24, which will describe the events of the desolation and their significance, namely, that the Old Temple will become desolate for the sake of a new and better Temple, the redeemed of the Church. Just as that judgement of desolation would fall on that generation, so too would the whole narrative of the 24th chapter, just as Jesus says,
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)
This is obviously a real nail in the foot to historicists and futurists, who often try to interpret “this generation” as “that generation”. However, under the preterist view, these events fit nicely underneath the context of imminent judgement to be brought upon Jerusalem, laying her desolate within one generation, for her rejection of Christ.