Previously, I have been talking about various evangelical proposals regarding the meaning of the Olivet Discourse. Now aside from the strict futurism of dispensationalism, the proleptic futurism of inaugurated eschatology, and the opposite pendulum of preterism, I want to close out this discussion by mentioning just a few items that I believe evangelicals need to consider as they continue to wrestle with this important segment of prophetic Scripture.
First, when Jesus predicts the initial turmoil caused by social unrest and natural disasters, it does not seem to be clear initially whether these elements are to be restricted to the first century, projected out into the distant future at the end of history, or seen as necessarily unfolding gradually throughout all of church history. Matthew and Mark describe them as the birth contractions which initiate the Messianic woes (Matt 24:8; Mk 13:8). Yet Luke provides a temporal comment (Lk 21:12) which clarifies that before the woe events develop, the initial persecution of the church would commence. This is possibly inserted as a precursor to the book of Acts, which would suggest an emphasis on first century concerns. However, I still think we are left with a certain hermeneutical catch-22. On the one hand, I remain convinced that the Messianic woes and the persecution of the church increased before God used a pagan nation to judge Jerusalem. On the other hand though, when comparing Paul’s and John the Revelator’s comments about the parousia, I think it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that they viewed Jesus’ predictions as somehow being indicative of what will continue to transpire until the parousia.
Second, despite a few current trends, I do believe the jury is definitely still out on whether the Son of Man section should be limited to the first century. One reason being that the rest of New Testament speaks of the parousia in virtually the same way that the OD describes the coming Son of Man thereby making it exegetically difficult to maintain a difference between the two. Also, the language of the OD reflects not only the tone of Daniel but also other prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah who speak of a theophany where Yahweh appears to gather the nations for final judgment. For me, the more challenging element to decipher is how to interpret the section on the Abomination of Desolation. It seems difficult to deduce that Jesus, Paul and John spoke of the defiling of a temple that goes beyond the first century orientation of the original audience. However, if one makes this concession, one is still left with the dilemma of addressing how Christ returns to destroy the “man of lawlessness,” as Paul calls him, or the Beast, as John calls him. This is indeed a question that I am still wrestling with myself.
Third, the last section of the OD is where the interpretive rubber meets the road. Jesus has described the temple’s end as well as his return to judge the nations and clearly stated they are different events. But he only sets a timetable for one, not both. He taught the disciples that the way they could avoid being rattled when the temple tragedy occurred was if they were always prepared to stand before him when he returned at an unspecified time. This is why Jesus can speak of the temple’s doom in detail but leave the discussion of his coming in the clouds temporally ambiguous. In other words, to be able to look in hindsight and know that one was immediate whereas the other may or may not fits a typical prophetic scheme of temporal abbreviation.
Finally, the minefield found in the phrase “this generation” continues to spawn numerous proposals that can “get Jesus off the hook.” In observing the exegetical data though, I tend to lean toward the possibility that what Jesus is describing is not necessarily the chronological nature of the people group who lived in Jesus’ day as much as their qualitative state. If this is the case, then Jesus’ description of what would occur within “this generation” is actually referring to the cross-generational traits of his opponents which were corruption and unbelief. Consequently, the same “type” of unbelief and rebellion in the first century Jewish leaders would be indicative of those who will exist and not pass away until all of the things that Jesus predicted transpire, including his return to the earth to vindicate his people. So “this generation” possibly alludes to the disposition of a people in time, not a group specified in one blocked off period of time.
These ideas are hopefully exegetical food for theological thought. Have a blessed Christmas this week.