PMT 2016-085 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my preceding article I began answering a reader regarding my interpretation of Matt. 24:30. I believe that the events of AD 70 are the sign of Jesus’s enthronement in heaven. That article should be read before entering into this one. Now I continue my defense of my interpretation (which is not mine, but one that is held by a number of scholars).
Hagner (“Matthew” in Word Biblical Commentary 2:714) points out the LXX backdrop to Matt. 24:30 which is found in Zech. 12:10–14. He notes that in Zech. 12:10–14 “the phrase pansai hai phulai, “all the tribes,” as well as he ge, here meant as ‘the land [of Israel].’” But then he argues that “in keeping with Matthew’s universal perspective, the tribes of the earth, which in the OT originally meant the tribes of Israel, are to be understood all the nations of the earth.” Nolland (“Matthew,” New Intl. Greek Comm., 984) agrees. How can this be said in light of the context?
Noted preterist commentator R. V. G. Tasker “Matthew” in Tyndale NT Comm., 230) writes that Matt. 24:30 refers “to the conditions prevailing when Jerusalem was being attacked.” This fits well with the context, since it has Jesus lamenting Jerusalem’s house being left desolate (Matt. 23:37–38), then his leaving the temple, which prompts the disciples to point out to him the beautiful temple building (Matt. 24:1). Then he prophesies the temple’s destruction (Matt. 24:2) which prompts the disciples to ask “when will these things happen”?
Jesus then launches into the Olivet Discourse, which speaks of “the holy place” (Matt. 24:15) and fleeing from “Judea” (Matt. 24:16), with encouragements to pray that their flight not be on the [Jewish] Sabbath (Matt. 24:20). And all of which is concluded by the near-term statement: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34). This strongly grounds the statements in the first century era of the destruction of the temple.
What is more both Matt. 24:30 and Rev. 1:7, uniquely combine Dan. 7:13 and Zech. 12:10–14, with both of them set in contexts clearly stating that the events were near (Matt. 24:2, 34; Rev. 1:1, 3). As Nolland (“Matthew,” New Intl. Greek Comm., 989) argues on v. 34: “All the alternative senses proposed here (the Jewish people; humanity; the generation of the end-time signs; wicked people) are artificial and based on the need to protect Jesus from error. ‘This generation’ is the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries.”
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Thus, the literalistic tendency (evident in Hagner, Nolland, and others) toward the Second Advent in this part of the discourse is surely mistaken. And this bias has led the commentators off in the wrong direction. After all, as Nolland (“Matthew,” New Intl. Greek Comm., 983) notes re: Matt. 24:29: “the highly symbolic language makes it impossible to tell what literal impact on the natural order is expected.” The language certainly is “highly symbolic.” Thus, the interpretive bias is again evident, for this statement appears within the time-frame of Jesus’ generation (Matt. 24:34).
In his Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (2:320), John Lightfoot (the famed Hebraist and Rabbinic scholar) argues regarding Matt. 24:30: “Kai tote phanesetai to semeion tou huiou tou antropou, And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man.] Then shall the Son of man give a proof of himself, whom they would not before acknowledge: a proof, indeed, not in any visible figure, but in vengeance and judgment so visible, that all the tribes of the earthy will be forced to acknowledge him the avenger. The Jews would not know him: now they shall know him.”
This parallels in sentiment Jesus’ declaration to the high priest when he was on trial for his life:
Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. ” (Matt. 26:64)
This was spoken to the then-living high priest with his Sanhedrin gathered around. Jesus was not speaking literalistically as if they would visibly see him in person sitting at God’s throne and coming in the sky. He was clearly affirming his victory following his ascension, after which he would come in judgment against Israel and its high-priestly, old covenant worship system.
In Matt. 24:30 the phrase “of the son of man in heaven” is the genitive of apposition (e.g., A. T. Robertson, Robert H. Mounce). As Mounce (“Matthew,” New Intl. Bib. Comm., 226) expresses it: “the genitive could be construed as an appositive, in which case the sign would be the Son of Man.”
R. V. G. Tasker
Tasker (“Matthew,” Tyndale NT Comm., 225–27) explains Matt. 24:29: “Is it not also possible to regard these verses as a cryptic description in the symbolism of poetry of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and of the spread of the Christian Church which followed it. The sack of ‘the holy city’ in which over a million people were slain would inevitably appear to those who witnessed it a world-catastrophe of the greatest magnitude; and only language symbolic of cosmic disturbance, such as the darkening of the sun, the failure of the moon to give light, and stars falling from the sky, was adequate to describe it. In using such language Jesus was following the example of the ancient prophets. As Levertoff remarks (p. 80), ‘These are figures, or symbols of divine acts effecting great changes in he world, and are not to be taken literally….’ It may well be, then, that R. A. Knox is right when he says ‘You must understand the portents of verse 29 as an allegorical way of referring to dynastic changes (AD 69-70 was ‘the year of the four emperors’); and you must identify ‘the coming of the Son of man’ in verse 30 with verified experience, e.g. the voice which was heard, according to Tacitus, crying out ‘The gods are departing.’ The type of language used by the Roman historian in the passage from which this quotation is taken is certainly instructive. ‘Contending hosts were seen meeting in the skies, arms flashed, and suddenly the Temple was illumined with fire from the clouds. Of a sudden the doors of the shrine opened and a superhuman voice cried; ‘the gods are departing’: at the same moment the mighty stir of their going was heard.’ The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was indeed a divine visitation, which one familiar with the language of Jewish prophecy could describe as a coming of the Son of man on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. It was in fact only after the old ended with the destruction of the Temple that world evangelism by the Christian Church, now entirely separate from Judaism, could be conducted in earnest…. Verses describing ‘the signs of the times’ in this chapter invariably refer to events preceding the downfall of Jerusale, and not to events heralding the final coming of the Son of man.”
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Hebrew scholar and theologian John Gill (“Matthew” in Gill’s Expositor, 7: 293–295) comments on Matt. 24:29-30:
Gill on Matt. 24:29 (p. 293): “That is, immediately after the distress the Jews would be in through the siege of Jerusalem, and the calamities attending it; just upon the destruction of that city, and the temple in it, with the whole nation of the Jews, shall the following things come to pass; and therefore cannot be referred to the last judgment…. All the following things were to be fulfilled before that present generation, in which Christ lived, passed away, ver. 34, and therefore must be understood of things that should directly, and immediately take place upon, or at the destruction of the city of temple.”
Gill on Matt. 24:30 (pp. 294): “Ver. 30. And then shall appear the sign of the son of man in heaven…. “this [cannot] design the last trumpet at the day of judgment, since of that the text does not speak, … but the son of man self: just as circumcision is called the sign of circumcision, Rom. iv. 11. and Christ is sometimes called a sign, Luke ii. 34. as is his resurrection from the dead. Matt. xii. 39…. he shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation; which will be a full sign and proof of his being come: for the sense is, that when the above calamities shall be upon the civil state of that people, and there will be such changes in their ecclesiastical state; it will be as clear a point, that Christ is come in the flesh, and that he is also come in his vengeance on that nation, for the rejection and crucifixion of him, as if they had seen him appear in person in the heavens. They had been always seeking a sign, and were continually asking one of him; and now they’ll have a sign with a witness; they hey had accordingly. And then shall the tribes of the earth, or land, mourn; that I, the land of Judea.”
Gill on Matt. 24:30 (pp. 295: “the same coming of the son of man is intended; not his coming at the last day to judgment; though that will be in the clouds of heaven, and with greet power and glory; but his coming to bring on, and give the finishing stroke to the destruction of that people, which was a dark and cloudy dispensation to them;: and when they felt the power of his arm, might, if not blind and stupid to the last degree, see the glory of his person.”
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Thomas Scott (The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments … Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, 1868, p. 110) writes of Matt. 24:29-30: “The clause, ‘immediately after the tribulation of those days,’ restricts the primary sense of them, to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the events which were consequent to it…. The darkening of the sun and moon … denote the utter extinction of the light of prosperity and privilege to the Jewish nation, the unhinging of their whole constitution in church and state…. This would be an evident ‘sign’ and demonstration of the Son of man’s exaltation to his throne in heaven; whence he would come, in his divine providence, as riding upon ‘the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory; to destroy ‘his enemies, who would not have him to reign over them;’ at which events ‘all the tribes of the land’ would mourn and lament, whilst they saw the tokens, and felt the weight, of his terrible indignation.”
And finally, Albert Barnes (Barnes Notes on the New Testament, p. 116) interprets Matt. 24:40 as follows: “The sign of the Son of man. The evidence that Christ is coming to destroy the city of Jerusalem… At the destruction of Jerusalem, the sign or evidence of his coming was found in the fulfillment of these predictions.”
Thus, I believe there is ample evidence to defend the preterist interpretation of Matt. 24:30. I would recommend reading R. T. France’s commentaries on Matthew in The New International Commentary of the New Testament and in Tyndale New Testament Commentary.