Yesterday I received a review copy of Eric J. Bargerhuff’s The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word is Misunderstood (2012) published by Bethany House. The author writes that common biblical phrases like “an eye for an eye” and “do not judge, or you will be judged” — “derived from the bestselling book of all time, the Bible — have often been misunderstood and misused” (13). I couldn’t agree more.
I often give a simple Bible quiz to people when I’m going to address a controversial biblical subject. I ask questions like the following to show that most Christians not only don’t have a handle on what the Bible says, but they often don’t have a handle on what a particular text means.
- Did Noah’s Ark land on Mount Ararat? You would be wrong if you said yes (Gen. 8:4).
- Who cut off Samson’s hair? It wasn’t Delilah (Judges 16:19)
- Is it true that the lion and the lamb will lie down together? No it’s not (Isa. 11:6).
- Does pride come before a fall? Not exactly (Prov. 16:18)
These are verses of fact, and many people get them wrong. When people find out that they believe things that are not found in the Bible, it makes my job easier in introducing a pet subject. There are verses of interpretation that people hear over and over again without ever doing their own study to see if the interpretation they’ve heard repeated so often is what the text actually says and means.
I received an email asking me if I could answer an objection. The emailer’s friend tried to claim that Matthew 23:39 is a prime indicator that the events of Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13 have not been fulfilled. He, like so many other futurists, appeal to Matthew 23:39 as prima facie evidence that Jesus is predicting a future Great Tribulation when in the midst of it the nation of Israel as a whole (after two-thirds of the Jews living in Israel are slaughtered by the forces of antichrist: Zech. 13:8) will proclaim, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” While this makes for great prophetic theater, it’s not what the text says.
Stanley Toussaint is representative of the position advocated by the emailer. He agrees that the use of “your house” (Matt. 23:38) refers to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, but “verse 39 describes Israel’s future repentance when they will mourn because of their great sin (Zech. 12:10).” ((Stanley D. Toussaint, “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse.” John 19:37 quotes 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 preterist interpretation of Zechariah 12, see Gary DeMar, Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2008) for an exposition of Zechariah 12.)) R. T. France argues that the word “For, with which the verse begins, unambiguously links it with God’s abandonment of his house in v. 38 [of Matthew 23].” ((R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 333.)) The two events are linked in time and not separated (so far) by nearly two millennia. If Matthew 23:38 refers to the generation of Jews that will see the destruction of Jerusalem in their generation, in A.D. 70, then so does what Jesus describes in verse 39.
Before we take a closer look at Matthew 23:39, let’s be clear that Israelites and non-Israelites are reconciled to God in the same way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6), Jesus said. There aren’t two ways of salvation or two different periods of salvation. Jews and non-Jews were being saved the day the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost. In fact, “Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), were the first people saved.
There are a number of problems with the claim that Matthew 23:39 is describing a yet future national repentance of Israel. First, there is the audience reference. If “your house” refers to that generation of Jews, then “until you say” must also refer to that same generation of Jews as well. Notice the use of the second person plural throughout Matthew 23 and 24. Why a sudden shift to a different audience in Matthew 23:39 when “you” is used repeatedly?: “For I say to YOU, from now on YOU will not see Me until YOU say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE Lord!’”
Second, Jesus begins Matthew 23:39 with “from now on.” Unfortunately, some translations translate the Greek as an indefinite “hereafter” instead of the more accurate “from now on.” This is another indication that Jesus had His audience in view. The following examples show that what will happen takes place soon the statement is made:
- “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on [ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι] until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).
- “From now on [ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι] I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He” (John 13:19).
- “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on [ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι] you know Him, and have seen Him” (John 14:7).
- “And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Write, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on [ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι]”’” (Rev. 14:13).
Each of these phrases describes events that were near.
Third, part of the problem in understanding the relationship between verses 38 and 39 in Matthew 23 is in the way “until” is used. 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.” ((France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 332.)) 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).
Actions do not take place unless or until certain conditions are met. Until the person pays full restitution — “the last cent” — he will remain in prison. Toussaint wants to read Matthew 23:39 this way: “For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me, but one day a future generation of Jews will because they will say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’” James B. Jordan writes:
When Jesus entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21:9, the people shouted, “Blessed is the One coming in the Lord’s name”; and they saw Jesus daily in the temple until they had rejected Him. Now, leaving the temple and the city, Jesus states that they will not see Him again until they reaffirm what they said when He first arrived.
It is clear that “The One Coming in Yahweh’s Name” is the Messiah. The quotation is from Psalm 118:26. This same Person has been identified as “Yahweh’s Right Hand” (vv. 15–16) and as the “Chief Cornerstone” (v. 22). Jerusalem will not see Jesus again until they again affirm that He is the promised Messiah. Their temple will not stand unless Jesus is the Chief Corner.
Jesus is describing what was necessary in order to escape the coming judgment that was to take place before that generation passed away. Throughout the period between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem, there were Jews who cried out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” 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?’” (Acts 2:37). Peter told them that they must “repent” in order to “be saved from this perverse generation” (2:38, 40). Three thousand Jewish converts were added to the believing community “that day” (2:41). Luke records that “many of those who had heard the message [of Peter and John] believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (4:4). The restoration had begun in Jerusalem and extended throughout the Roman Empire prior to the destruction of the temple and city in A.D. 70.
Toussaint is willing to dismiss repeated references to an impending judgment by straining to find a single passage to bolster his argument that a pre-tribulational rapture, a rebuilt temple, and the reinstitution of Old Covenant Judaism during an earthly millennium remain to be fulfilled. A careful study of the New Testament dispels such notions.
Does this mean that there was no hope for these Jews after Jesus declared that their house was being left to them desolate? Not at all. As James DeYoung writes:
“Although the temple shall be destroyed, a new religious order will be instituted in which the Jews are still invited to come to Christ and greet him as the Messiah within the new temple, the spiritual house that God will build, the Church. But there is in this passage no expression of the thought that this judgment on the temple, and hence on Jerusalem as the religious center of God’s people, will ever be reversed; that God will ever return to his temple in Jerusalem and once again make it the place where he exercises his redemptive revelational relation with his people.” ((James Calvin De Young, Jerusalem in the New Testament: The Significance of the City in the History of Redemption and in Eschatology (Amsterdam: J.H. Kok/N.V. Kampen, 1960), 89.))