The importance of context of what's being said, and to whom, in Scripture.
I came across this image the other day (in the header above; see larger here) that links together three parts of Matthew’s Gospel to highlight the connection which many often miss, or read as separate events. I like the image because it shows that when Jesus spoke these things, he would have been saying them directly to the disciples and others who were listening to his teaching, and not in some cryptic, ambiguous dictation to a prophetic scribe, devoid of all context and meaning to those around him at the time.
Update Feb 2017: I am adding some additional information to this to display some of the counter arguments/alternative interpretations used by dispensationalists, sometimes also called “Futurists” (those who believe these passages refer to a distant future event centred around the “Second Coming” of Jesus, and is typically the most popular and recent interpretive framework taught in churches today) to try and give a more well rounded view and a defense of the non-dispensational interpretation.
So let's break it down and look at each quote in a bit more detail to see how these all connect together coherently.
Matthew 10 is Jesus telling his disciples about their mission and the persecutions it would entail. He explains to them all the things that would happen to them – "they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me" (Matt 10:17), which we can see fulfilled in Acts (cf. Acts 8:1; Acts 11:19; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:22; Acts 20:23).
Jesus rounds this short discussion off by telling them to flee from one town to the next and that they "will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." (Matt 10:23), which gives us a time statement and some parameters about the coming of the Son of Man.
On the face of it, this sounds like any other eschatological statement by Jesus in regards to his “coming” at the end of the age, which he mentions a few times using this same or similar terminology (see: Matt 24:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 18:8). But the Futurist interpretation would say that this isn’t what Jesus refers to at all, but rather is a convoluted way of him saying “you won’t have travelled far until I catch up with you later” – ie. until Jesus (the Son of Man) comes [back to the apostles]. That conclusion is quite a stretch of the imagination and, like the other dispensationalist interpretation which says that this refers to some far future event, it completely rips it from its direct and immediate context: a message to the apostles.
But, as many commentaries point out, the Futurist interpretation was not the common view until recent times, nor the historical position of the Church for millennia. As the Benson commentary (amongst others) puts it:
...until the Son of man shall come — To destroy their capital city, temple, and nation. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus is often called the coming of the Son of man. See Matthew 24:27; Matthew 24:37; Matthew 24:39; Matthew 24:44; Luke 18:5.
"The son of man comes" or the "coming of the son of man" is a phrase only used in one particular way all the way throughout the Gospels: to mean the judgement of God on a nation. This is seen in many places in the Old Testament, often called the Day of the Lord. The same is true here, Jesus is once again teaching about the impending doom of Jerusalem as punishment. Hence the urgency towards his disciples to flee towns that won't listen and go to where they do accept the Gospel.
Matthew 24 is a similar conversation, but with some more details.
Whilst walking by the temple, the disciples point out the magnificence of the building, and Jesus responds by saying "Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (v.2)
So obviously, the disciples ask the poignant question: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (v.3) – notice here that they also link the tearing down of the temple with the “end of the age”.
To which Jesus begins his long monologue on what is going to happen, the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem, and the signs leading up to this event for his followers to watch out for. Again, he tells them of the impending persecutions that will befall them because of this ("Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death").
The parallel account in Luke 21 words this persecution almost word-for-word with Matt 10:23 –
"But before all this [the signs and destruction] occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name."
Now, Jesus goes further with his explanation and shows how this ties in with Daniel's prophecy (Daniel 9:20-27), which his Jewish audience would have understood. Matthew's Gospel was written to a Jewish community, and so keeps this language:
"So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains..." (Matt 24:15)
Whereas Luke's Gospel was written by a Gentile, to Gentiles, and thus clarifies certain things so that non-Jews will understand, such as what that the “desolating sacrilege” is:
"When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains..."
Jesus then rounds up with more apocalyptic imagery from Daniel's prophecy which speaks of the Son of Man coming on clouds – a direct quote of Dan 7:14;
"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. "
If we also look at when Jesus was before the Council being accused in his trial, the High Priest asks Jesus directly if he is the Messiah, to which he says "I am" and then quotes Dan 7:14 to prove his point and tells them what they will soon see (Matt 26:57-68).
Towards the end of this chapter, Jesus uses a fig tree to emphasise the need to be watchful for the signs he already explained, and then concludes by saying "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Matt 24:34), once again giving a pretty solid time frame for when those listening should expect to see these things come to pass.
But despite all of this, the Futurist will argue that when Jesus said “this generation”, he actually meant “that future generation who live to see these signs” which completely strips this of any context and meaning to those people he spoke to. There are some Dispensationalist teachers who say that the Greek word for “generation” should be translated as “race”, changing the meaning to say “this race shall not pass away” despite all other instances of the word “generation” meaning just that: a generation. You can read a more detailed counter-argument to this “race” claim, and all the implications of it, here: americanvision.org/1689/norman-l-geisler-generation/.
Jesus talks about judgement coming on "this generation" more than just here in Matt 24 where the context and grammar is the same (Matt 12:41-45; 23:36; Mark 8:36; Luke 11:50 to name a few). This interpretation is just a weak argument which willfully ignores other parts of Scripture or reinterprets words, to force a doctrine (Futurism/Dispensationalism) into the text rather than let Scripture dictate doctrine.
The final quote in the image comes from Matt 16:28 where Jesus rounds off his dialogue foretelling his death and resurrection, and subsequent coming Kingdom. Taken in the context of verse 27, this again harkens back to the prophecy in Daniel 7 about the Son of Man coming into power with his eternal kingdom and the position of judgement he will have over the nations: "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done" (v.27).
After saying this, Jesus emphasises the imminence of this event by saying that "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom".
The Futurist argument says that coming kingdom is referring to the transfiguration, and that the suicide of Judas fulfils Jesus’ words about some of those with him not “tasting death” before they see the kingdom come. On the face of it, this sounds like a fair counterpoint, until you consider the situation and see that there are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t make sense.
The first reason being the most striking, is that after Jesus spoke these words, the transfiguration happened only six days later and we know this because Scripture gives us the time in Matt 17:1 (and Mark 9:2). That makes Jesus’ statement about some people not dying before seeing the kingdom a little bit over-dramatic if it was only less than a week away! The second point being that Jesus only took Peter, James and John with him, so Judas wasn’t even there to witness the transfiguration before his death — not to mention that he wouldn’t have even known about it since Jesus swore the three disciples to silence until after the resurrection (Matt 17:9).
Still, there are some Bible teachers who would use a "slice and dice" Futurist hermeneutic. What I mean by this is that sometimes certain scholars will "slice" up a passage of Scripture, in arbitrary places like mid-sentence, to make it fit a particular theological interpretation (the same thing is often done with parts of Matt 24). For example, some would say verses 27 and 28 are not dealing with the same subject, and that verse 27 is about the end of time but suddenly verse 28 is about the transfiguration!
But we can see from examples like John 21:20-23 that Jesus' followers believed that some of them would not die before his coming, as we can see Peter trying to quiz Jesus on whether one of them would die or not before then (thus starting a rumour among the disciples that John wouldn't die!).
This outlook and expectation can be seen throughout the New Testament, with so many references to these things happening "soon" or in a "very little while" (Heb 10:37), or it being the "last hour" (1 John 2:18) and what "must soon take place" (Rev 1:1), plus many more similar phrases.
Each of these quotes are different conversations and various times of teaching by Jesus to his disciples, and whoever else was around at the time, which all talk about the same event: the coming of the Kingdom of the Son of Man, and the signs and things to look out for in the lead up to said event. Namely, the destruction of Jerusalem being the obvious and most catastrophic event which his followers would notice, which God was bringing as a judgement against the nation of Israel like he did in former times, and the establishment of the Church in power!
This is just a brief look at this topic and the few passages surrounding it, but if it’s sparked your interest, then you can read more about this by following through my seven part study on the “Second Coming of Jesus”.
- Benson Commentary: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/benson/matthew/10.htm
Various Commentaries: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/10-23.htm
Jackson, Wayne. "What Is the Meaning of Matthew 10:23?" ChristianCourier.com. Access date: January 29, 2017. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/668-what-is-the-meaning-of-matthew-10-23
Norman Geisler: “This Generation” or “This Race” Will Not Pass Away? http://americanvision.org/1689/norman-l-geisler-generation/
- List of 101 time indicators throughout the NT: http://www.preteristarchive.com/Hyper/2002_green_time-indicators.html