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Audience Double-Talk in the Olivet Discourse

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fig-treeDuring the Question and Answer session at the Reno Symposium on Revelation, Sam Waldron said that he followed John Murray’s interpretation of Matthew 24 and 25. Since there was no time for cross examination, I was not able to respond (we were all put in this position). So I have taken some time to work my way through Murray’s exposition. [1]

When I first started studying the Olivet Discourse, I remember looking at John Murray’s exegesis on Matthew 24–25 when it was first published. I found it very confused, hard to follow, and difficult to defend. It created more difficulties than answers. The typical Bible-reading Christian could not come up with such an interpretation on his or her own.

The first thing I noticed is that Murray did not mention Jesus’ use of the second person plural (you) throughout the discourse. A study of how Jesus uses the second personal plural beginning with Matthew 21 leaves no doubt that He had his contemporary audience in view: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (21:45). This emphasis continues in chapter 22 and extends through chapter 23. The Pharisees certainly understood what Jesus was saying: “Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said” (23:15).

Why would they care about trapping Jesus if He wasn’t talking about them? Jesus made it clear that they were “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (23:31; cf. Heb. 11:32–38; 1 Kings 19:10; 2 Chron. 16:10; 1 Kings 22:27; Jer. 26:23); it was their generation that would “fill up” the measure of the guilt of their fathers (Matt. 23:32; cf. Gen. 15:16; 1 Thess. 2:16).

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, [2] whom YOU murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to YOU, all these things will come upon this generation (23:34–36).

We find the same audience reference noted again and again. The second person plural is used repeatedly throughout the chapter. Neither Sam Waldron nor Jim Hamilton commented on the audience reference. This was surprising since he spent a good amount of his time during his opening statement commenting on Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse. In his full-length commentary on Revelation, he includes a chart showing the parallels between the Olivet Discourse and Revelation 6–8. [3] Not once in 13 examples does the word “you” appear. He never mentions the audience reference. In fact, in commenting on Matthew 24:9–12, he uses the phrase “believers put to death.” The text says, “Then they will deliver YOU to tribulation, and will kill YOU, and YOU will be hated by all nations because of My name” (24:9). It’s not just “believers” in general, but that group of believers in particular. This is a major exegetical oversight that a seminary student writing an exegesis paper would be docked at least two grades for not mentioning and commenting on.

Matthew 24 begins the same way in terms of audience reference: “See to it that no one misleads YOU. . . And YOU will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that YOU are not frightened. . . Then they will deliver YOU up to tribulation, and will kill YOU, and YOU will be hated by all nations on account of My name” (vv. 4, 6, 9). There is nothing in these verses that would have led Jesus’ audience to conclude that He was speaking about a different group of people, especially as time unfolded and reports were coming in of famines (Acts 11:28; see Josephus, Antiquities iii.xv.3, Tacitus, Annals 12:43; Suetonius, Claudius 18), earthquakes (Matt. 27:51–54; 28:2; Acts 4:31; 16:26; Laodicea in AD 61 and at Pompeii in AD 62), and wars and rumors of wars.

Of course, this is not to say that there will never be any wars, famines, earthquakes, or tribulation after that generation passes away. Actually, these events are common to every era, both before and after Jesus’ ministry. The context of these events, however, concerns the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:2) that did take place before that current generation passed away.

Even the gospel was preached “in the whole world” (οἰκουμένῃ) (Matt. 24:14) in the same way that the “whole world” (οἰκουμένην) was taxed during the reign of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) and a famine occurred “all over the world” (οἰκουμένην) during the reign “of Claudius” (Acts 11:28). These events were Roman Empire-wide not world- (κόσμος) wide.

Murray comments on Matthew 24:14, but does not note that “the world-wide preaching of the gospel for a witness to the nations” is a Roman Empire-wide (οἰκουμένῃ) event and not a distant global event (Rom. 1:8 [κόσμος]; 16:25–26; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:16). [4] James Hamilton writes the following in his commentary on Revelation: “In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says the gospel has to be proclaimed to the whole world, ‘then the end will come’ (Matthew 24:14).” [5] Like Murray, he does not mention that Matthew uses οἰκουμένῃ and not κόσμος.

Murray’s comments surprised me because in his first volume of his 1959 commentary on Romans he wrote the following on Romans 1:8:

“Throughout the whole world” has been regarded as hyperbole. This is not perhaps the most felicitous way to expressing the apostle’s thought. Paul did not mean, of course, that the whole world distributively, every person under heaven, had heard of the faith of the Roman believers. His terms could not be pressed into that meaning even if most literally understood. But the expression here witnesses to the extensive diffusion of the gospel throughout the known world during the apostolic age (cf. Col. 1:23; Acts 17:30, 31). [6]

Paul uses the word kosmos in Romans 1:8. So if kosmos can be used in a way that applies to a limited area and time, as Murray and other commentators argue, can’t the same be said for Jesus’ use of the more restrictive oikoumenē in Matthew 24:14?

Murray’s argument rests on the unproven assumption that “the end” (24:13–14) refers to an end that is still in our future. In reality, Jesus was addressing the very specific “end of the age” that would come before that generation passed away (24:3, 34). The expression “end of the age” refers “to the end of the ‘Jewish age,’ i.e., the time of transference from a national to an international people of God,” [7] what the Apostle Paul describes as the “ends of the ages” (τέλη τῶν αἰώνων) that had come upon that generation of Christians (1 Cor. 10:11). Matthew is the only gospel writer to use the phrase “the end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20; cf. Heb. 9:26).

A similar use of telos (end) is used by Jesus in Matthew 10:22: “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.” Jack P. Lewis comments:

He who endures to the end will be saved is parallel to Luke 21:19: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” . . . It does not signify “to the end of time” (cf. 24:13; 1 Cor. 13:7; Rev. 3:11). [8]

Jesus is not using “saved” to mean saved from eternal judgment but saved from death during that first-century period of tribulation. Just a few verses later, Jesus explains how anyone who leaves the doomed city will be saved simply by retreating to the mountains outside Judea (Matt. 24:15–22). By escaping this “great tribulation,” they will be “saved” in a physical sense (24:22). Henry Hammond writes “that σωθήσεται [‘will be saved’] is not always to be interpreted of eternal salvation, but of temporal escaping (any more than σωτηρία does . . . where it is clearly the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt by Moses [Acts 7:25; see Gen. 19:19].” [9] Most translations translate σωτηρία (“salvation”) in Acts 7:25 as “deliverance,” that is, physical deliverance by Moses from the oppression of the Egyptians. This meaning of “saved” is common in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 8:25; 9:21–22; 14:30; 24:22; 27:40, 42, 49).

We know that the use of “saved” in Matthew 24:13, 22 describes being rescued from physical calamity and tribulation because Jesus uses the same phraseology in Matthew 10 when He sends out the twelve “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5–6). The audience is identified by Jesus. It’s very specific and reads very much like what we find in the Olivet Discourse. For example: “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved [σωθήσεται from σῴζω]” (Matt. 10:22; cf. 24:13). Even ultra-dispensationalist John Phillips acknowledges that “[t]he word translated ‘shall be saved’ [in 10:22] can also be translated ‘shall escape’ or ‘shall be delivered.’” [10]

Notice what Jesus says next to the twelve He commissioned to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: “But whenever they persecute YOU in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to YOU, YOU will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (10:23). The audience reference is self-evident. If this were a description of events that impacted a future generation, the command would be universal and not confined to the cities of Israel. Jay Adams writes:

As Jesus said, there was no need to linger in a city that refused to hear; there were plenty more cities to cover before it was too late and Jesus would come in judgment on Israel (70 AD). [11]

The 1995 edition of the New International Version Study Bible notes:

Matthew 10:23: “Jesus’ saying here is probably best understood as referring to his coming in judgment on the Jews when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in A.D. 70.”

To conclude this section, it’s evident that without identifying the audience that Jesus was addressing, all types of speculative interpretations are possible. I’ve been amazed how some interpreters try to get around what is obvious to any reader of the Olivet Discourse. That’s why liberals have claimed that Jesus was mistaken. Jesus had His present audience of that generation in view. If the audience reference of “you” did not refer to the audience that first heard Jesus’ words, then what audience reference could Jesus have used if He had wanted to single out that generation? If “you” did not mean them, then how else could He have said it to refer to them?

  1. John Murray, “The Interadventual Period and the Advent: Matthew 24 and 25,” Collected Writings of John Murray (2): Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 387–400.[]
  2. For a study of the identity of “Zechariah, the son of Berechiah,” see Gary DeMar, Identifying the Real Last Days Scoffers (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2012), Appendix B.[]
  3. James M. Hamilton, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 166–167.[]
  4. Murray, “The Interadventual Period and the Advent,” 388.[]
  5. Hamilton, Revelation, 166.[]
  6. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 1:19. The one-volume edition was published in 1968.[]
  7. R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 337.[]
  8. Jack P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew, 2 vols. (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Co., 1976), 1:152. Also see his comments on Matthew 24:13–14 in volume 2 of The Gospel According to Matthew (124–125).[]
  9. Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase and Annotations Upon the Books of the New Testament, Briefly Explaining all the Difficult Places thereof, 7th ed. (London: 1702), 47.[]
  10. John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Matthew: An Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 192.[]
  11. Jay E. Adams, The Christian’s Counselor’s Commentary: The Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 1999), 94. Also see D.A. Carson, “Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984) 8:250–253.[]
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