Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Preterism: What’s the Big Deal? (Part 3 of 4) Timeframe References

Preterists highlight three timeframe references in Matthew’s Gospel (10:23; 16:28; 24:34), conflating the verses to make the preterist theory appear more credible. But their eisegesis is less convincing when each passage is carefully examined in context.

Timeframe Reference #1: Matthew 10:23

In Matt. 10:23 Jesus says to his twelve apostles, “but when they persecute you in one city, escape to the next. For truly I say to you, you will most certainly not have completed the cities of Israel until the Son of Man has arrived.”1 The verbal érchomai denotes general motion or progress, and in Matthew’s Gospel its nuances include “coming” (3:11; 6:10; 8:9a; 23:35; 25:31) and “going” (2:8, 9; 8:7), but particularly “arriving” (2:2, 11, 23; 3:7, 14, 16; 4:13; 5:17, 24; 7:15, 25, 27; 8:9b, 14, 28, 29; 9:1, 10; 11:19; 16:28; 21:40; 24:46). The emphasis is not on the process or expectation of coming (not there yet) but the actual arrival. 

The surrounding context of the statement in question (for which there is no parallel in the other Gospels) is Jesus sending out his immediate disciples on what has historically been called the limited commission (Matt. 10:1–11:1; cf. also Mark 6:7-13, 30; Luke 9:1-6, 10). While the six pairs of evangelists were making their circuit through various Israelite communities (Luke 9:6), the Lord himself “departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities” (Matt. 11:1, 20). Before they had completed their mission, Jesus refers to his present earthly ministry as “the Son of Man arrived [érchomai] …” (Matt. 11:19). Preterists and futurists will continue debating whether Matt. 10:23 predicts the Lord’s coming in judgment in AD 70 or in the distant future, but the immediate context reveals the statement’s fulfillment long before either.

Timeframe Reference #2: Matthew 16:28

The next timeframe reference is Matt. 16:28, where Jesus affirms, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not experience death until they have seen the Son of Man arriving in his kingdom” (with parallels in Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27). The context and subject matter are not the same as the previous discussion. Jesus is no longer alluding to his arrival in Israelite cities. Contextually he is speaking to a crowd, including his disciples (Mark 8:34), about sacrificing worldly pleasures to gain spiritual life (Matt. 16:24-26). As an apparent incentive he says, “for the Son of Man intends to come [érchomai in the sense of a future arrival] in the glory of his Father, with his angels, and then will give to each one according to his deeds” (v. 27). Judgment is implied here, so is it the judgment against rebellious Jews in AD 70 or the final judgment of all at the end of time? Preterists and futurists are at a stalemate.

For the purpose of our current study, however, the more pressing question is whether vv. 27 and 28 refer to the same event, or does v. 28 reveal a necessary prelude to what Jesus has just projected in v. 27? The interpretive key is the subject matter. What and when is this forecasted “kingdom”? The premillennialist says it is a physical kingdom on earth not yet realized. The amillennialist contends it is a spiritual kingdom inaugurated at Pentecost AD 30. The preterist maintains it is a spiritual kingdom established when Jerusalem fell in AD 70. 

The premillennial view is challenged by the Lord’s promise to his contemporary listening audience, “some standing here who will not experience death until they have seen …” Attempts to overcome this exegetical hurdle include (a) allusion to the transfiguration, where three disciples witnessed Jesus in his majestic glory (Matt. 17:1-13); or (b) the “some” refers to the generation alive to observe the signs of the Lord’s parousia (Matt. 24:34) in the remote future. Both interpretations seem forced, and neither is faithful to what the text actually says.

That the promised kingdom is spiritual in nature is surely confirmed by Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36a), in light of his persistent contrast between the heavenly and the earthly, the temporal and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual.2 It is hard to escape the clear implication of all three synoptic accounts that the Lord’s spiritual kingdom was to be witnessed in the lifetime of his contemporaries (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), i.e., relatively soon rather than millennia in the future (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7).

Preterists may not totally agree on when Christ’s dominion began, whether at his ascension or at Pentecost, but they do agree that the kingdom “really did not exist in its fully established and glorified manifestation until the events of 70 AD.”3 This position, however, downplays and practically skips over the extraordinary happenings four decades earlier at Pentecost (Acts 1:3-8; 2:1-47), while over-emphasizing the admittedly significant, albeit far less significant, events of AD 70. 

It is hard to miss the integral connection between the Lord’s kingdom and his church (Matt. 16:18-19; Col. 1:13, 18). From the historical record of Acts 2 onwards, the church Jesus promised to build was existing and growing and recognized as “the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:2-8; 2:1-47; 8:12; 14:21-22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; Eph. 2:19; 3:10; Col. 4:11; Rev. 1:6, 9; 5:10). These early Christ followers were also anticipating a future inheritance in the eternal heavenly realm (Matt. 5:12; 25:34; 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Tim. 4:1, 18; 2 Pet. 1:11).4 A transitional period from infancy to maturity unfolds in the NT record, but marking the fullness of the kingdom’s establishment at AD 70 is mere conjecture. 

Timeframe Reference #3: Matthew 24:34

In the final week before his crucifixion, Jesus spoke these words: “Truly I say to you that this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34). Which “generation” is he referring to, and what are “all these things”? The answers often depend on one’s favored brand of eschatology. 

The statement, of course, is just a tiny segment of a much broader context, commonly referred to as the Olivet Discourse, recorded in the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew and paralleled in Mark 13:1-37 and Luke 21:5-36. Premillennialists claim the entire prophetic message refers to the end-time judgment yet to be fulfilled, while preterists maintain the entire prophetic message applies to the AD 70 overthrow of Jerusalem. But there is a third option we will present below.

Contextually Jesus is having a private conversation with just four of his disciples: Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3). Nevertheless, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke to have recorded the conversation, it was obviously revealed to a wider audience. The discussion begins with Jesus bringing up the complete demolition of the Jewish temple and its buildings (Matt. 24:1-2). A handful of inquisitive disciples later ask about “the sign” of the Lord’s parousía and “the end of the age.” It seems many interpreters place as much exegetical weight on the queries and assumptions of these clueless fishermen as on what Jesus actually says in response.

The Lord is asked two questions: (a) “tell us, when will these things be?” (i.e., the temple’s demise), and (b) “what is the sign of your parousía and the end of the age?” (v. 3). Jesus answers the first question, concerning the temple’s destruction, in verses 4-34. This is where the statement in question occurs: “Truly I say to you that this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” The most straightforward reading of these words is that the signs of the previous verses culminated in Jerusalem’s fall just four decades later.

The premillennialist would disagree because of the wording and fantastic descriptions in vv. 27-31. It might be helpful to note, however, the transition into symbolism in vv. 27-28. The language of this brief section is comparable to Jewish apocalyptic literature, vividly portraying with cataclysmic images the Lord’s judgments against various nations (cf. Isa. 13:1-11; 14:4-12; 19:1; 34:1-5; Jer. 4:5, 13; 6:17; Psa. 104:3). Considering the Jewish context, one cannot insist on an absolutely literal interpretation of these verses.5

The preterist would be in agreement so far but would then continue this application through the rest of the discourse. However, after affirming the certainty and permanency of his words in comparison to the eventual passing away of the cosmos (Matt. 24:35), Jesus then answers the second question he had been asked, “what is the sign of your parousía and the end of the age?” Notice carefully the words “these things” and “those days” (vv. 3, 6, 8, 19, 22, 29, 33, 34) in contrast to “that day” (v. 36). There will be no signs pointing to the end of the world; it will be sudden and unexpected (vv. 35-51).


Rather than conflating all the timeframe references in Matthew’s Gospel, our contextual study proposes four separate occasions: (a) the Lord’s earthly ministry (Matt. 10:23); (b) the Lord’s inauguration of the kingdom at Pentecost (Matt. 16:18-19, 28); (c) the Lord’s judgment against Jerusalem (Matt. 24:34); and (d) the Lord’s final judgment (Matt. 24:35–25:46).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 See K. L. Moore, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth (Part 3),” Moore Perspective (6 May 2020), <Link>.
     3 John McPherson, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” The Preterist Archive (retrieved 12 May 2020), <Link>. See also Kurt Simmons, “How Do Preterists View the Kingdom of Christ?” (retrieved 12 May 2020), <Link>; and Ward Finley, “The Kingdom of God,” (retrieved 12 May 2020) <Link>.
     4 See K. L. Moore, “The Kingdom of God (Part 3),” Moore Perspective (25 Jan. 2014), <Link>.
     5 See K. L. Moore, “The Day of the Lord,” Moore Perspective (1 Feb. 2014), <Link>; also “Matthew 24: the End of the World or Jerusalem’s Fall? Moore Perspective (8 Feb. 2014), <Link>.

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