The Time Texts: The Crux of Preterism
R.C. Sproul says that “the central thesis . . . of all preterists is that the New Testament’s time frame references with respect to the parousia point to a fulfillment within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ disciples.[i]” The majority of preterist books I have come across devote much of their argument to these “time texts”, and the interpretation of them makes it necessary for what was prophesied in the N.T. eschatological texts to have a first century fulfillment. If we can show that these texts are better understood within the futurist understanding, preterism as a system will have lost much of its support. To begin the challenge I will address the two prominent “time frame” references, and why preterists fail to properly interpret these texts. The first I will discuss in this paper, and the next in the following article.
After declaring the birth pangs, the hard labor of tribulation, and the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus declares in Matthew 24:34, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” With regards to this text, I had a dear friend recently say, “I’m just saying what I read in the passage”. Listen to popular preterist proponent Gary Demar’s discussion on “this generation:”
The texts that govern the timing of the Olivet Discourse prophecy – Matthew 23:36 and Matthew 24:34 – make it clear that Jesus was speaking of the events leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 . . . If people fail to recognize the timing of these events set by Scripture and the historical context of Jesus’ words, they will always be led astray by those who keep insisting that it’s our generation that living in the end times.[ii]
Preterists regard their interpretation of “this generation” in the Olivet Discourse as the undefeatable Goliath of their system. However, is their interpretation the most persuasive given the usage and context of the term in Matthew’s Gospel? I don’t think so. Remember when we interpret a word/phrase, we need to go and see how the author uses that phrase elsewhere, to get a better understanding. The preterist is using the historical-grammatical hermeneutical principle of ‘Reading carefully and normally’ to come to their understanding, however they are ignoring two other principles which are: “Context determines meaning’ (in this case the book of Matthew) and ‘Word Study’.
The classic futurist interpretation is that this verse speaks of a future generation, or time. The classic preterist interpretation is that this verse speaks of a past generation, or time. I think that both of those views fail to take into account a number of vital interpretational factors.
How does Matthew use the phrase “this generation”? Is that a reference to a time frame, say 40-80 years? Surly this would be my conclusion if my only interpretational principle was to read ‘normally and carefully’(note that I don’t think preterists apply this same principle in a few verses time, since ‘suddenly the coming on the clouds’ is all cryptic and metaphorical to them, but I will deal with this issue in a later paper). I don’t think that this is a reference to time at all.
Rather than quantitative (time on earth), it is a qualitative use of the phrase (describing people with specific spiritual characteristics). The phrase ‘this generation’ is being used in a critical sense towards a group of people, namely, the Israelites who rejected the Messiah.
If we understand this term as descriptive of those in ethnic Israel who reject Messiah (which has continued since the first century) not only are we within the bounds of the usage of “this generation” in Matthew, but this interpretation also fits best with both the immediate context and the whole of Scripture. (I am in the process of writing an article which addresses this Matthews use of this phrase and the Jewish understanding of ‘Corporate Solidarity’)
The expectation of salvation and restoration of ethnic Israel runs through Bible. It’s a common theme in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:22-38), right after the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:6-8), and in Paul’s teachings. The Apostle writes, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). The theme of the restoration of Israel is important in the Olivet Discourse. Just before the Discourse in Matthew, Jesus announces to “this generation”: “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!'” (Matthew 23:39 emphasis added).
“This generation” will pass away, but this has not yet happened as there are still unbelieving Israelites. But a time will come when there will be no more unbelieving Israelites who reject Messiah. Those Israelites who remain will see their Messiah when they declare, by His sovereign grace, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Lord will “come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). But all the events Jesus outlined in the Olivet Discourse must be fulfilled before this occurs (cf. Zech 12).
This interpretation of “this generation” fits much better with Matthew’s usage, with the immediate context of the Olivet Discourse, and the whole counsel of God. So ironically, preterism’s chief text turns into solid support for both futurism and the coming restoration of ethnic Israel when Christ returns.