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What is the Meaning of Matthew 23:38–39?

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A few weeks ago, I received an email that an article had been published in the April-June 2010 issue of the dispensational-oriented journal Bibliotheca Sacra. Here’s part of what the emailer wrote to me:

“I’ve read your work and heard your debates in [the area of Bible prophecy], and I must say the counter-arguments [in Lawrence A. DeBruyn’s “Preterism and ‘This Generation’”] are very compelling and cogent, and touches grammatical and semantical points that, if memory serves, your work has either failed to engage or ignored altogether.”

My first reaction was skepticism since I’ve read critiques of the preterist, pre-A.D. 70 fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse, and could not believe that this author had uncovered anything that was new. Here was part of my response to the emailer:

Since I don’t have access to the Bib Sac article on “this generation” [“Preterism and ‘This Generation’”] I can’t respond the way I would need to. But in terms of how you have framed the article’s premise, I don’t see anything that’s new. The use of Matt. 23:34–36 does not help the author’s case. How is “this generation” used elsewhere in the gospels? Does the author deal with them? At what point does the second person plural switch from Jesus’ contemporaries (Matt. 24:2, 4, 6, etc.) to a future audience? Considering what you’ve sent, I have dealt with these issues.

My original skepticism was correct. There is little that’s new in DeBruyn’s article, and it’s obvious that he did not do his homework since I and others have covered most if not all of his arguments in previously published works.

DeBruyn gets off on the wrong foot with his assumptions about the meaning of Matthew 23:38–39. It colors his entire article. Here’s what he writes:

When the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus as a prophet of God, Jesus pronounced “woes” on the nation and its leaders (Matt. 21:42–43; 23:1–36). Concluding His censure of Jerusalem, Jesus predicted that the city would be devastated (23:38). But He also forecast a day when Jerusalem would sincerely say to Him, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v. 39; cf. 21:9). . . . The first prediction befell Jerusalem and her environs in A.D. 70. The world awaits fulfillment of the day when Jerusalem will finally welcome the One “who comes in the name of the Lord.” (184).

Stanley Toussaint, like DeBruyn, believes Matthew 23:38–39 speaks against a first-century fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse because it holds out hope for a distant future conversion of the nation of Israel. While verse 38 refers to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, “verse 39 describes Israel’s future repentance when they will mourn because of their great sin (Zech. 12:10).” [1] This distant futuristic interpretation is impossible. As R. T. France argues, the word “For, with which the verse begins, unambiguously links it with God’s abandonment of his house in v. 38.” [2] The two events are linked in time and cannot be separated by two millennia. If Matthew 23:38 refers to the generation of Jews that will see the destruction of Jerusalem, then so does what Jesus describes in verse 39.

Part of DeBruyn’s exegesis is his failure to deal with the use of “until” in 23:39. France contends that “the words until you say are expressed in Greek as an indefinite possibility rather than as a firm prediction; this is the condition on which they will see him again; but there is no promise that the condition will be fulfilled.” [3] DeBruyn is familiar with France’s commentaries and should have interacted with his exegesis on this critical passage. In his most recent commentary on Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (2007), France reinforces his earlier comments: “There is no prediction here, only a condition. Or, rather, the only prediction is an emphatic negative, ‘from now on you will certainly not see me,’ to which the following ‘until’ clause provides the only possible exception. They will not see him again until they welcome him, but the indefinite phrasing of the second clause gives no assurance that such a welcome will ever be forthcoming.” [4] The following verses demonstrate the conditional use of “until”:

  • “Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (Matt. 5:26).
  • “He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed” (Matt. 18:30).
  • “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him” (Matt. 18:34).
  • “And when it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under and oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12).

What’s interesting is that DeBruyn writes later in his article that “the word ‘until’ . . . is another piece of evidence that marks the fulfillment of ‘all these things’ as indefinite” (193). [5] If this is the case in Matthew 24:34, then why isn’t its use in 23:39 indefinite? These verses show that the results are not assured, certainly not as it relates to a national conversion. Actions do not take place unless or until certain conditions are met. For example, until the person pays full restitution—“the last cent”—he will remain in prison. There is no guarantee that he will ever pay it. Until those in Jesus’ audience (“you”) say a certain thing, they will not see Jesus.

Like DeBruyn and Toussaint, Donald Green argues that Jesus is referring “to a future event that will occur even if the time of fulfillment is uncertain.” [6] France disagrees: “It is remarkable that so many interpreters can find a positive prediction in what is in fact an emphatically negative prediction.” [7] If a definitive distant future generation was in view, Jesus could have made this particularly clear by saying “when they see” (e.g., Matt. 2:8; 6:2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 17; 10:19, 23; 14:32, 34; 15:12;  17:14, 27; 21:1, 46; 24:15; 24:33, 44; 26:8; Mark 4:15–16).

But let’s suppose Green is right that Jesus is describing how in the future Jews will embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Throughout the period between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem, many Jews came to believe that Jesus was the promised Redeemer. In Acts 2:37, after hearing Peter’s Pentecost message, the Jews “were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” Peter told them that they must “repent” in order to “be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:38, 40), the same generation that Jesus said would witness the events described by Him in the Olivet Discourse. Three thousand Jewish converts were added to the believing community “that day” (2:41). Luke records, “many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (4:4). The very thing Jesus said must happen if they were to see Jesus (Matt. 23:39) did in fact happen.

So much more could be said about DeBruyn’s article, but I have to say that there is little that’s new. He skips over major interpretive problems, does not interact with preterist arguments on the most critical passages, and since he mentions me in footnote number 54, he should have at least dealt with my arguments on the topics under discussion. Contrary to what the emailer charges, I have already discussed them.

  1. Stanley D. Toussaint, “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse”: John 19:37 is taken from Zechariah 12:10 as something that “came to pass, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” at the time of the crucifixion (19:36). For a discussion of Zechariah 12:10, see Gary DeMar, Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2008).[]
  2. R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 333.[]
  3. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 332.[]
  4. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 884–885.[]
  5. “Until” is used in Matthew 24:34: “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Since “this generation” is always used be Jesus as a reference to His present generation, all the things mentioned by Jesus must have been fulfilled since that present generation has passed away.[]
  6. Donald E. Green, “A Critique of Preterism” (2001), 32:[]
  7. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 885, note 11. Green maintains that those who argue for the conditional approach of “until” have not based their arguments “on independent exegesis, but rather in reliance on R. T. France, Matthew, in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 332.” (Green “A Critique of Preterism,” 30, note 82). Are we to suppose that France did not do his own “independent exegesis”? Green needs to take a look at France’s latest commentary and the exegetical work he has done on this issue (France, The Gospel of Matthew, 884–885, especially note 11 which is a direct answer to Green’s claims).[]

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