Monday, December 5, 2016

The End Times -- in Jesus' Own Words (I)

As mentioned in my previous post, I prepared for Advent a series of three talks for our local parish forum on the subject of the Eskaton, or End Times. The series focused just on what Jesus Himself told his disciples on that topic, as we learn from the synoptic Gospels and the Book of Revelation. Amid all the evangelical hullabaloo about the Rapture, the Four Blood Moons, the Shemitah and the like, it is a good thing to revert to the Most Knowledgeable Source and see what He had to say about His own Second Coming.

The three sessions were roughly divided this way: the first dealt with the harbingers of the last days; the second with the specific period referred to as "the Great Tribulation", and the third was devoted to Jesus' descriptions of the events around his prophesied return to earth after that Tribulation. As we shall see, the account given in the Gospels is a greatly condensed version of the fuller vision of these events that Jesus shared with John in the Book of Revelation.

I shall follow a slightly different plan in this series of posts, since those three subjects are simply too complex for each to be contained in the space of a single blog article. As I did in the forum, I shall start with the Olivet Discourse. That is the name given to Jesus' fifth and final teaching recorded in Matthew's Gospel (ch. 24), which he delivered while sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, outside the walls of Jerusalem on Tuesday evening of the last week of his life. In contrast to his earlier teachings as reported by Matthew (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in ch. 5), the Olivet Discourse was a private exchange; there was no surrounding crowd of followers.

Jesus and his disciples had just exited the Temple, after He had delivered a diatribe against its scribes and Pharisees, whom he had denounced as "hypocrites" and a "brood of vipers" (Mt 23). As they were going toward the gate to the Mount of Olives, his disciples called his attention to the splendid architecture of the Temple. Jesus astonished them with his reply: "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” (Mt 24:2).

This prophecy provoked the disciples into asking a series of questions about when "all these things" that Jesus foretold would come to pass. The Greek phrase ταῦτα πάντα (tauta panta, "all these things") turns out to be the key to unlocking the discourse that follows, as pointed out by R.A. Morey in his book, The End of the World according to Jesus: The Mt. Olivet Discourse and The Book of Revelation (Millerstown, PA: Christian Scholars Press, 2010).

For in response to Jesus' prophecy, his disciples ask him four separate questions, seriatim. (You can just imagine the words tumbling out, from first one disciple, then another and another.) Matthew's Gospel, however, gives us only three of them. For the fourth question, we have to go to the parallel passages in Mark 13:3-4 and in Luke 21:7. Taken in logical order (but not in the order narrated), and using boldface font to emphasize the disciples' use of the phrase tauta panta (sometimes just tauta alone) to refer to the destruction of the Temple), the four questions are these:

1) "When will these things happen?"
[Mt 24:3; Mk 13:4; Lk 21:7]

2) "What will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled"
[found only in Mk 13:4 and Lk 21:7]

3) "What will be the sign of your coming [again]?"
[found only in Mt 24:3]

4) "What will be the sign of the end of the age?"
[found only in Mt 24:3]

The last two questions, as you see, are reported only by Matthew. To understand how that could happen, one has to go back to the way Matthew structured his Gospel, mainly as a teaching narrative. Unlike Mark, who wrote for Roman Christians and laid out a narrative of action ("this happened . . . and then this ... next this ... immediately this took place"), and unlike the careful Luke, who took pains to research and craft an historically accurate narrative for his audience of educated Greeks, Matthew wrote for his fellow Jews, and wanted to demonstrate to them what a great rabbi Jesus was.

So he collected (as mentioned) all of Jesus' teachings into five great discourses and reported those as narrative units -- regardless of whether Jesus said those things sequentially or not. His Olivet Discourse collects (conveniently for us) all of what Jesus had to say about the End Times, and puts it together to make a unified teaching.

That does not mean, however, that Matthew presents Jesus' End Times teachings in a logical, or even in a straight narrative order. Nor does he have Jesus (as a modern teacher or professor might do) take up first one question and answer it fully before going on to the next. Instead, we find upon analysis of Matthew's 24th chapter (and the first 12 verses of ch. 25) that the answers to each of the questions are somewhat intermingled. Despite Matthew's best intentions, therefore, a modern reader can easily get confused, and fail to understand just which question Jesus is addressing at which point in the Discourse.

To make the Discourse easier to follow, I have hit upon the device of using differently colored fonts to make clear just which passages I believe go with which question. In what follows, I stress that my choices of which color to use when is my own subjective opinion. Others could arrive at other choices, and have other opinions about the proper flow and sequence.

Nevertheless, we have to make a start, and so I shall provide a link below to the handout I created for the first forum session, in which the four questions are colored blue, light brown, green and red, respectively, and then the text of Matthew 24:4-25:12 is colored to match them, along with the respective parallel passages (as far as they go) from Mark and Luke. (You may download the handout as a .pdf file from this link.)

As we make our way through the analysis, we will find certain clues that the different authors provide as to when their respective accounts were written. The troops of Titus razed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, after putting to the sword all of the Jews who remained inside to defend it against the Romans' siege and subsequent storming of its ramparts. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew are  believed to have been written before that momentous event, when Jesus' words about it were still a prophecy to those who heard them.

But the Gospel of Luke was most likely written as the last of the three synoptic Gospels, after all Christians had left Jerusalem because of its invasion and destruction. We can use the details of the Olivet Discourse that each author includes, as well as the ones he leaves out in comparison, to help us relate what is narrated to that author's unique perspective, and to shed a little more light on the whole of what Jesus said about the End Times.

And now another point of clarification: as we shall see, a good part of the Discourse relates to the answers that Jesus gave to the first two questions listed above -- concerning the destruction of the Temple, and the signs when that was about to occur. Since that event actually came to pass in A.D. 70, and we are now in A.D. 2016, only the most determined amillenialist (i.e., one who sees the entire spectrum from Jesus until now as a progression toward His eventual return, without regard to specific prophecies in the Bible) would contend that Jesus' prediction about the fate of the Temple was part of his teachings about the "End Times." Rather, I shall employ that phrase to refer only to the future days preceding the actual parousia, or "Second Coming", of Our Lord. (As I mentioned, the Greek term for those days is "the Eskaton"; the same term in Hebrew is "acharit-hayamim".)

Thus in the posts that follow in this series, we shall start first with the two questions referring to what would happen in A.D. 67-70, and then deal with the latter two questions in the later posts, that will also address the text of Revelation. Until my next installment appears, therefore, you are free to study the whole Discourse as shown and color-coded in the linked handout; my more detailed comments as to each question and response will be reserved for the post(s) that deal with that particular part of the account as given by the three synoptic Gospels.

1 comment:

  1. Looking at the 25th chapter of Matthew, verses 1-12, I find what was written by Oswald Chambers rather poingnant. Particularly this, "All the great blessings of God are finished and complete, but they are not mine until I enter into a relationship with Him on the basis of His covenant." That writing doesn't speak of the actual verses in Matthew, but the writing speaks glaringly of the spiritual reality that's present in the possessors of the oil.