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Making the Clear Confusing: A Response to John Murray’s Exposition of Matthew 24–25

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templeOn February 23, 2013 I participated in a Symposium on the book of Revelation with Sam Waldron (SW) who holds to an Idealist interpretation and James Hamilton (JH) who holds to a Futuristic Premillennial (non-dispensational) interpretation. I represented the Preterist position.

We each had 55 minutes to present our case. We then had 20 minutes to offer a critique of the other two positions. This was followed by a round-table discussion that was mostly generated by questions from the audience. Unfortunately, there was very little chance for any cross examination. There were so many questions I wanted to ask, especially of JH. I was astounded by some of the arguments he used against preterism. I will discuss some of these in future articles.

Neither SW nor JH made any mention of the time texts or the audience reference of the second-person plural “you” that’s found in Matthew 21–24. JH’s interpretation of “this generation” meandered all over the place. I wondered as I listened to his argument of how “this generation” meant any and all generations of how Jesus would have made it clear that He was speaking to His own generation if “this generation” did not mean “this generation.” “This here generation”? “Your generation”? I don’t know how using “your” would have cleared up things since the second person plural “you” is used repeatedly in the Olivet Discourse, and following JH’s interpretation, “you” does not mean them. In Matthew 24:33, we read: “so, YOU too, when YOU see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” Jesus couldn’t be clearer.

SW did make a few comments on Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse. He took the position advocated by John Murray (1898–1975) in his article “The Interadventual Period and the Advent: Matthew 24 and 25” that is found in volume two of the Collected Writings of John Murray: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology. Murray taught at Princeton Seminary and then left to help found Westminster Theological Seminary where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology from 1930–1967. He is a theological icon in the Reformed community. I’m taking a risk in disagreeing with his arguments, but I believe Murray’s argument is weak on a number of points.

Murray contends that there are a number of divisions in the Olivet Discourse that address different periods of prophetic time:

The discourse has its distinct divisions. In verses 4–14 Jesus deals with certain outstanding features of the interadventual period. (2:388)

Murray contends that we are living in the period of time that the events of verses 4–14 describe. For Murray, “the end” is Jesus’ personal and physical coming that is still in our future. The “interadventual period” is the time between the first and second personal and visible comings of Jesus. Like a number of commentators, Murray argues that the disciples were confused about the “end of the age” (24:3), believing that when the temple was destroyed, it would also mean a final eschatological end.

In view of the terms of the parallel verses in Mark and Luke—‘when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things come to pass’ (Mark 13:4)—we should most probably regard the disciples as thinking of the destruction of the temple and the coming (παρουσία) as coincident, and the sign, in their esteem, would be the sign of all three events specified in Matthew 24:3—destruction of the temple, the coming, and the consummation of the age. (2:387)

SW stated during the panel discussion that, like Murray, he believed the disciples were mistaken in conflating the three events. Jesus does not seem to be correcting the disciples on this point as He does at other times. We’re often told when the disciples got something wrong or did not understand some part of His teaching (Matt. 8:23–27; 16:21–23; Mark 9:30–33; Luke 9:37-56; John 12:15–17; 13:7–13; 16:18; 20:9; Acts 1:6–8).

Murray continues:

Verses 15–28 comprise another section of the discourse. This section cannot be a continuation, because verse 14 had brought us up to the end. It must be, to some extent, recapitulation. (2:388)

There is then a third division at verse 29. It’s here that Murray says,

we encounter some difficulty. For ‘the tribulation of those days’ might appear to refer to the ‘great tribulation’ of verse 21 which is associated particularly with the desolation of verse 21. And we ask: How could it be said that, immediately after 70 A.D., the events specified in verses 29–31 took place? (2:389)

The words “immediately after the tribulation of those days” don’t leave room for a gap in time. If verses 15–28 refer to the lead up to the destruction of the temple that took place in AD 70, then “immediately after” means just that. This means that at least everything up through 24:34 had to have been fulfilled before that particular generation passed away, including the events of 24:29–33 and verses 4–28. In addition to having trouble with “immediately after,” Murray also has trouble with “this generation.”

Ostensibly the expression ‘this generation’ would suggest the generation then living, the period, commonly designated ‘generation’, in which Jesus spoke these words. And the question would ten arise: Did all the things spoken of in the preceding context actually occur? (2:391–392)

He dismisses the notion that the Greek word translated “generation” (genea) means “race,” that is, the Jewish race, a favorite explanation made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible. Even most dispensationalists have stopped arguing that genea means “race.” They contend that it means any generation except the generation of Jesus’ day. Here’s Murray’s conclusion:

Usage in both Testaments requires, therefore, that ‘generation’ in Matthew 24:34 be understood in the sense of the living generation. (2:393)

Murray is still left with the difficulty of explaining how some of the events preceding 24:34 were not fulfilled when he admits that “this generation” refers to “the living generation” of Jesus’ day. Let’s be reminded of what Matthew 24:34 states: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Since Jesus lists specific events, the “all” must refer to all of them

Murray hopes to solve the dilemma he placed himself in by an appeal to Matthew 24:35–36: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Murray has to assume what he needs to prove, that Matthew 24:4–14 and 29–32 aren’t included in the “all these things” of 24:34.

In J. Marcellus Kik’s exposition of Matthew 24, we find a single division in the Olivet Discourse, not the multiple divisions argued for by Murray:

The first 35 verses of Matthew 24 relate to the destruction of Jerusalem and the events preceding that destruction. With 36 a new subject is introduced, namely, the second coming of Christ and the attendant final judgment. This forms the content of Matthew 24:36–25:46.

I’m surprised that Murray does not make reference to Kik’s work or that of so many other expositors and commentators who have done great exegetical work on the Olivet Discourse. Murray’s article was first delivered as “an address at a School of Theology convened in London in September, 1968.” (2:387). Kik’s book Matthew Twenty-Four: An Exposition was first published in 1948.

I’ll offer my views on the supposed division that Kik postulates at 24:36 in a future article. In my next article, I’ll deal with Murray’s arguments concerning the meaning of “the end of the age.”

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