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New Testament Eschatology -- New Testament Background

We started this series by taking a glancing look at the Old Testament and saw how the prophets used poetic language that depicted the complete desolation of the cosmos as a symbol of the destruction of various nations, such as Egypt (Ezekiel 32.2, 7-8, 11-12), Babylon (Isaiah 13.1, 10, 19), and even Israel (Jeremiah 4.14, 16, 23ff). With these things in the back of our minds, we now turn our attention to the New Testament. While we will be addressing some of the New Testament passages that refer to eschatology there is one question that a lot of people don't ask but it's just under the surface yearning to be asked -- 'From where did the New Testament writers get their eschatology? What was the basis for their 'time of the end' beliefs?'

The most obvious answer is the Hebrew Scriptures. Since (almost) all of the New Testament writers were Jewish, they would have been very familiar with the passages we have glanced at (and many, many others). But there was an added element that made them rethink their view of the 'time of the end'. That added element was Jesus. Jesus said things that made them believe that 'the end' would come within their lifetime. That is what they believed and what they taught. Furthermore, because of his resurrection, their Jewish understanding of what this meant had to be rethought. Jewish thought was that the resurrection would happen at the end of history to all people (or at least all of God's people). But, the resurrection of Jesus took place to one person in the middle of history. Therefore, they had to look at their Scriptures in a different light. Because of this, and before we look at some of the New Testament letters, we will look at some statements of Jesus, specifically what is commonly called 'The Olivet Discourse'.

Let's paint the scene. While in the Temple, in front of his disciples and crowds of people, Jesus is berating the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23). His closing statements are quite shocking:
Matthew 23.29-36, 38. 'What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’

“But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation...And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.”

Can you imagine the silence of this scene? The temple was the very center of the Jewish world and here is this (so-called) prophet claiming that it would be abandoned and desolate and the Jewish people, especially the leadership, would be responsible! I can see Jesus leaving the Temple and everyone just standing there in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity. And then everything just erupts! The disciples chase after Jesus and, still in disbelief at what he just said, point to the beauty of the Temple. 'Surely, he didn't really mean that', they think. So, they point out the Temple, just to make sure. Jesus replies, 'Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another' (Matthew 24.2).

Well, that settled it. Jesus was definitely talking about their Temple. Not some future Temple as some people today would have us believe. Nope. They showed Jesus their Temple and he told them that their Temple would be 'completely destroyed'. No question about it. So, if we were standing there with them that fateful day, what do you suppose would be the one question on everyone's mind?


And that is exactly what we find.
Matthew 24.3. 'Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?'

Now, you all know how much I enjoy using the New Living Translation. It is, in my estimation (and that's not saying a lot), one of the best new Bible translations on the market. It captures the very essence of the texts with all of the shock and impact of how I imagine the original hearers and readers felt. But this is one of the places where I feel it lets us down. The disciples didn't ask about the 'end of the world' but about 'the end of the age' (Greek = aion). This is significant because all through Jesus' ministry he had been talking about the coming of God's kingdom. He even taught the disciples to pray for God's kingdom to come 'on earth'. This meant that God's age of rule was being ushered (somehow) through Jesus' own ministry. And for that to happen, the (then) present Jewish age would have to be dissolved. It's time was coming to a close.

On another side of this, as was noted in previous posts, 'the end of the world' could be a really good translation if we keep in mind the symbolic language of the poet and left it in its historical context. That is, as I stated above, the Temple was the center of the universe to the Jews and it's complete destruction would be nothing less than 'the end of the world' to them.

On another side again, I think when we see or hear the phrase 'the end of the world' we think in terms of our understanding of what that would mean. That is, a cosmic desolation that is almost more than we can imagine. The complete and utter destruction of the whole cosmos. It is because of this (i.e., we reading our definition into the phrase) and how that understanding is fueled by a lot of modern interpretation of Jesus' answer, that I think 'age' would be a better translation.

So, to summarize this: Jesus just blasted the religious leaders of his day and proclaimed that the Temple would be destroyed. The disciples, hardly able to grasp this (since, one of the 'jobs' of the Messiah was to either establish the Temple or re-build it), pointed out the Temple and its buildings as they left it. Jesus told them as plainly as possible, that yes, they had heard him correctly. The Temple would be completely demolished and 'not one stone' would be 'left on top of another'. Still in shock by this, the disciples (I would imagine) approached Jesus very timidly and asked him when that would happen (understanding that what Jesus was talking about was nothing short of the complete end of their 'world').

I submit that Jesus actually answers their question. Jesus was not talking about the end of the 'world' as we understand it, but, like the prophets before him, Jesus used poetic (apocalyptic) language to describe the fall of Jerusalem. Over and over again, Jesus was emphatic that the disciples would witness the events he was describing.

Next time, we will start looking at Jesus' answer to the disciples. Until then...

Peace be with you.



Pinball said…
Brother, what makes this so good is that it is so dadgum READABLE. So much of the stuff out there explaining this view spends so much time arguing with opposing views that it takes too long to get through it all. You're simply putting forth your exegesis and allowing the rest of us to benefit from it.

I've said this to you privately, but I'll say it here: The greatest thing you've done for me is to set me free from the premillenial apocolyptic fear that I always felt when reading the dispensational view. I didn't even know there WAS another view until I met you, and I've since come to find out that many in my church hold your view. Keep writing this. It's really good.
Odysseus said…
Thanks, Pinball. I felt that this post might be a little too wordy and wouldn't flow very well. I always try and think of my Mom when I write. Whenever I would write something that seem very readable and easy to follow, she would say, 'You lost me after the first couple of paragraphs.' !?!?!?! I found that hard to believe. But, I took it to heart. I have continued to think in very easy to follow terms and hopefully put that down in my writing.

Thanks, again.

Ted M. Gossard said…
Good post, again. Good explanation. Thanks.

I used the NLT first edition for a time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hear the NLT 2 is a marked improvement, and do read it from time to time like here on your blog.

In the key explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3 though, it takes just one of the possible interpretations of "the righteousness of God", whereas I wish they would have left that open. All good translation work is interpretative in nature. Well, just an aside that really is secondary.
odysseus said…
Thanks for stopping by, Ted. There is a guy who comes to the men's Bible study at my parish and he uses the NLT first edition. There are some differences between the two on almost every passage that we read. I highly recommend it. But, if you are thinking about getting a copy, hold off for a little while longer. I have seen where they are going to release an NLT Study Bible. I'm thinking it is comparable to the NIV Study Bible, but I'm not certain. It is suppose to ship sometime this year, I believe.

Concerning the 'righteousness of God' in Romans 3: I'm not following you. Could you elaborate on it further?

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