When I first became a Christian and started reading the Bible, I found that there were passages that were hard to understand. This was natural since I didn’t know much about the Bible. When I would come across one of these difficult passages, I would set it aside until I could study it further. As I grew in my knowledge and understanding of Scripture, many of these tricky passages became clear. But there were still some passages that were “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). Part of the problem was trying to make them fit into a preconceived interpretive box, and when they didn’t fit neatly, all types of cooking and trimming were applied to make them fit.
So over the years I have tried to think outside the restraints of the interpretive boxes that were built to protect interpretive systems. One such difficult passage is found in Matthew 23:34–35: “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 scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may 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.”
“Interestingly Jesus attributed the killing of Zechariah to the scribes and Pharisees, for He said he was one ‘whom you murdered’ (εφονεύσατε). Jesus accused them of directly committing the murder of Zechariah.”1 It’s quite obvious that the use of “you” refers to Jesus’ present audience made up of scribes and Pharisees (23:2, 13, 14, 15, 25, 26, 27, 29). The claim is made that “you” refers to a past audience in verse 35. If this is the case, then it’s the only exception in Matthew’s entire gospel where “you” refers to some other audience. But even here I believe Jesus had His present audience in mind. The use of “whom you murdered” is chosen by Jesus to reinforce “the solidarity in guilt with the fathers.”2 This makes perfect sense by reading what Jesus says earlier: “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” (Matt. 23:31–32).
Futurists try to minimize the importance of the use of “you” as an audience indicator by pointing out that those in Jesus’ immediate audience could not have murdered Zechariah the son of Berechiah since he had been killed centuries before. Here’s how Norman L. Geisler explains this view:
Another argument for the preterist3 view is that “you” in many texts must refer to the immediate first century audience . . . . They cite Matthew 23:35 as proof: “On you may come all the blood shed on the earth . . . .” Ironically, that very verse proves the contrary since “you” is used in it of the people who slew Zechariah in the Old Testament who was long dead. So, “you” can be used historically to refer to “your ancestors” just as it can be used proleptically [by way of anticipation] of “your descendants.”4
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Geisler is right and “you” in Matthew 23:39 is being used historically to refer to their ancestors. It does not follow that any of the other uses of “you” in chapters 23 and 24 refer to people in the past or future.
The question is not how it can be used, but how is it being used. Actually, the argument for the use of “you” as an audience determiner is based on the way it is used consistently throughout Matthew’s gospel, including the Olivet Discourse. Who is the audience in Matthew 24? It’s the disciples: “His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him” (24:1). Who are the “you” of 24:2? The disciples: “And He 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.” The descendants of the disciples were not the ones seeing “all these things,” that is, things right before their eyes. In 24:4, Jesus says to “them,” “See to it that no one misleads you.” When the use of “you” is followed from 24:2 to 24:34, it consistently refers to the audience that is present with Jesus.
A comment in Tim LaHaye’s Prophecy Study Bible claims that the use of “you” in Matthew 24:15 “must be taken generically as ‘you of the Jewish nation.’”5 Who says? There is no evidence offered by the editors to substantiate this shift in audience reference from the disciples to Jews living at a time far removed from Jesus’ day. If Jesus had wanted to refer to a different audience, He could have said, “When they see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).” But even if the “you” in 24:15 does refer to the “you of the Jewish nation,” the reference is to the Jews of the Jewish nation of that first-century generation.
The problem with Geisler’s view, and those who follow it, is that there is no record in the Old Testament of a Zechariah son of Berechiah being murdered. Many scholars believe Jesus was referring to the Zechariah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:20–21. “It might seem natural to see in Abel and Zechariah the first and the last martyrs of the OT Scripture (Gen. iv and II Chron xxiv 20ff.).”6 If Jesus meant this Zechariah, who was killed “in the court of the house of the LORD” (2 Chron. 24:21), then why didn’t He say “the son of Jehoiada”? He didn’t say it because He had a different Zechariah in mind. This shouldn’t surprise us since there are many people in the Bible named Zechariah,7 and “prophets and priests were not infrequently murdered by their rivals.”8
Gleason L. Archer represents the view that Zechariah is “the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah” (Zech. 1:1, 7). This interpretation has the advantage of not having to explain why Jesus used Berechiah rather than Jehoiada. But there is no record of this Zechariah being killed in the manner described by Jesus. According to Jewish tradition, he “died peacefully at a great age (Liv. Pro. 15:6).”9 Even so, Archer writes, “we can only conclude that the later Zechariah died in much the same way the earlier one did, as a victim of popular resentment against his rebuke of their sins.”10 Archer’s view does make the point that Jesus tells us that there was a Zechariah who was murdered that the Bible does not record for us. We only have Jesus’ word—a good word at that—that it happened. So if it’s possible that the Zechariah son of Berechiah from the book of Zechariah was murdered, then it’s possible that there was a Zechariah son of Berechiah in Jesus’ day who was murdered. We can take what Jesus said literally. Like Zechariah, Berechiah is a common Hebrew name (1 Chron. 3:20; 6:39; 9:16; 15:17; 15:23; 2 Chron. 28:12; Neh. 3:4, 30). He was murdered by some of those who were standing before Jesus. James Burton Coffman takes this most logical and straightforward view that some see as “a well known difficulty”:
Why should there be a difficulty? It is obvious that Christ here referred to some secret murder perpetrated, not by the ancestors of those men, but “by them. Whom ye slew!” This could not be an indictment of their ancestors but plainly refers to a murder those wicked men had committed themselves. Christ tried with that one last lightning stroke of truth to get through to them, but even that failed. That no such murder was recorded in either the Old Testament or the New Testament, and that there was no general knowledge of it in the days of Christ, and that no traditions were developed with reference to it—these things present no difficulty at all, but point squarely at the Pharisees and show their effectiveness in covering up their evil deeds and hiding them from popular view. (It was precisely this ability they relied upon when they decided to make away with Jesus. See Matthew 26:1–4). It is further evidence of their depravity that none of them ever confessed it, even after he who knew their thoughts revealed it publicly! Their guilty secret went to the grave with them, except for this ray of light from the lips of Christ who made it known on the occasion of their being sentenced to hell for their wickedness.”11
It might be claimed that this is an argument from silence. True enough, except that Jesus states that His present audience had a hand in killing someone named Zechariah son of Berechiah. There are a number of historical events mentioned in the gospels that are not recorded elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Luke 13:1–4). In addition, killing a priest isn’t beyond the actions of the scribes and Pharisees considering that they wanted to kill a woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) and Jesus (Matt. 12:14; 26:4; Mark 9:31; 14:1; Luke 22:2; John 5:18; 7:1, 30; 11:53; Acts 2:23).12 A reading of Acts will show a similar willingness to kill their religious opposition. Stephen is a perfect example (Acts 7:54–60). Notice how the death of James the brother of John “pleased the Jews” (Acts 11:3).
If “son of Berechiah” is an interpolation or a scribal addition, as some suggest, then Matthew 23:35 would read similar to the way Luke 11:51 reads: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” So any contemporary person named Zechariah would fit. If we say that this Zechariah refers to any OT personage with the name Zechariah, then it does not add up. There would be hundreds of years after his death that would not be applied to “this generation.” Consider what Jesus says in Luke 11:49: “For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation.’” You see, prophets had been sent to their generation (“this generation”: Matt. 23:36). The wisdom of God says so, and some of those prophets had been killed by them, one of which was named Zechariah. It makes no sense to argue that “Jesus was referring to the wicked people of all time, those before the Messiah and those after.”13 The “apostles” and “prophets” were killed in Jesus’ day and in the period that lead up to the destruction of the temple that took place in A.D. 70. Why indict future generations when it was the generation of Jesus’ day that would “fill up the measure of their fathers” (Matt. 23:32). The “filling up” is a past event (1 Thess. 2:14–16).
- Susan M. Rieske, “What is the Meaning of ‘This Generation’ in Matthew 23:36?,” Bibliotheca Sacra,165 (April-June 2008), 214. Rieske does not agree with my conclusions. [↩]
- John Nolland The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 947. [↩]
- A preterist believes that certain prophetic texts refer to events that have been fulfilled based on audience reference (“you”) and time indicators such as “this generation,” “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “at hand.” [↩]
- Norman L. Geisler, “A Review of Hank Hanegraaff’s The Apocalypse Code: http://preteristarchive.com/CriticalArticles/geisler-norman_07-01.html [↩]
- Tim LaHaye, ed. Prophecy Study Bible (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), 1038, note on Matthew 24:15. [↩]
- W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971), 282. Chronologically, the last Old Testament prophet to be murdered was most likely Uriah (Jer. 26:20–23). [↩]
- Archer identifies “about twenty-seven different individuals mentioned in the Old Testament bearing the name Zechariah” (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 338) while R. T. France says “there are thirty of them in the OT” (The Gospel of Matthew, 881). [↩]
- Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 247. [↩]
- France, The Gospel of Matthew, 880. [↩]
- Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 338. [↩]
- James Burton Coffman, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1974), 375: http://www.searchgodsword.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=mt&chapter=023 [↩]
- An early church tradition holds that Zechariah son of Berechiah is the father of John the Baptist. For a full list of the literature on this identification, see Robert Horton Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel With Special Reference to the Messianic Hope (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 86–88. [↩]
- Rieske, “What is the Meaning of ‘This Generation’ in Matthew 23:36?,” 226. [↩]