- Table of Contents
- About the Author
- Preface to the Book
- The Last Words in Old Testament Prophecy
- PART I. - The Parousia in the Gospels
- Parousia in the Synoptical Gospels
- Prophetic Intimations of the approaching Consummation of the Kingdom of God:
- The Prophecy on the Mount examined:
- Our Lord's declaration before the High Priest
- Prediction of the Woes coming on Jerusalem
- Prayer of the Penitent Thief
- Apostolic Commission, the
- The Parousia in the Gospel of St.John.
- Appendix to Part I
- PART II. The Parousia in the Acts and the Epistles.
- In the Acts of the Apostles.
- In the First Epistle to the Thessalonians
- In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
- In the First Epistle to the Corinthians
- In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
- In the Epistle to the Galatians
- In the Epistle to the Romans
- In the Epistle to the Colossians
- In the First Epistle to Timothy
- In the Second Epistle of Timothy
- In the Epistle to Titus
- In the Epistle to the Hebrews
- In the Epistle of St. James
- In the First Epistle of St. Peter
- In the Second Epistle of St. Peter
- In the First Epistle of St. John
- In the Epistle of St. Jude
- Appendix to Part II
- Part III. The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
- Summary and Conclusion
- Appendix to Part III.
- Afterword by Russell
- All the Comparative Scripture Charts Combined
by James Stuart Russell
I. -The Interrogatory of the Disciples
We may conceive the surprise and consternation felt by the disciples when Jesus announced to them the utter destruction which was coming upon the temple of God, the beauty and splendour of which had excited their admiration. It is no marvel that four of their number, who seem to have been admitted to more intimate familiarity than the rest, sought for fuller information on a subject so intensely interesting. The only point that requires elucidation here refers to the extent of their interrogatory. St. Mark and St. Luke represent it as having reference to the time of the predicted catastrophe and the sign of its fulfilment coming to pass. St. Matthew varies the form of the question, but evidently gives the same sense, — ‘Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?’ Here again it is the time and the sign which form the subject of inquiry. There is no reason whatever to suppose that they regarded in their own minds the destruction of the temple, the coming of the Lord, and the end of the age, as three distinct or widely separated events; but, on the contrary, it is most natural to suppose that they regarded them as coincident and contemporaneous. What precise ideas they entertained respecting the end of the age and the events therewith connected, we do not know; but we do know that they had been accustomed to hear their Master speak of His coming again in His kingdom, coming in His glory, and that within the lifetime of some among themselves. They had also heard Him speak of the ‘end of the age;’ and they evidently connected His ‘coming’ with the end of the age. The three points embraced in the form of their question, as given by St. Matthew, were therefore in their view contemporaneous; and thus we find no practical difference in the terms of the question of the disciples as recorded by the three Synoptists.
II. -- Our Lord's Answer to the Disciples.
(a) Events which more remotely were to precede the consummation.
It is impossible to read this section and fail to perceive its distinct reference to the period between our Lord’s crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem. Every word is spoken to the disciples, and to them alone. To imagine that the ‘ye’ and ‘you’ in this address apply, not to the disciples to whom Christ was speaking, but to some unknown and yet non-existent persons in a far distant age, is so preposterous a supposition as not to deserve serious notice.
That our Lord’s words were fully verified during the interval, between His crucifixion and the end of the age, we have the most ample testimony. False Christs and false prophets began to make their appearance at a very early period of the Christian era, and continued to infest the land down to the very close of Jewish history. In the procuratorship of Pilate (A. D. 36), one such appeared in Samaria, and deluded great multitudes. There was another in the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus (A. D. 45). During the government of Felix (53-60), Josephus tells us ‘the country was full of robbers, magicians, false prophets, false Messiahs, and impostors, who deluded the People with promises of great events.’1 The same authority informs us that civil commotions and international feuds, were rife in those days, especially between the Jews and their neighbours. In Alexandria, in Selucia, in Syria, in Babylonia, there were violent tumults between the Jews and the Greeks, the Jews and the Syrians, inhabiting the same cities. ‘Every city was divided,’ says Josephus, ‘into two camps.’ In the reign of Caligula great apprehensions were entertained in Judea of war with the Romans, in consequence of that tyrant’s proposal to place his statue in the temple. In the reign of the Emperor Claudius (A. D. 41-54), there were four seasons of great scarcity. In the fourth year of his reign the famine in Judea was so severe, that the price of food became enormous and great numbers perished. Earthquakes occurred in each of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius.2
Such calamities, the Lord gave His disciples to understand, would precede the ‘end.’ But they were not its immediate antecedents. They were the ‘beginning of the end;’ but ‘the end is not yet.’
At this point, (Matt. 24:9-13) our Lord passes from the general to the particular; from the public to the personal; from the fortunes of nations and kingdoms to the fortunes of the disciples themselves. While these events were proceeding, the apostles were to become objects of suspicion to the ruling powers. They were to be brought before councils, rulers, and kings, imprisoned, beaten in the synagogues, and hated of all men for Jesus’ sake,
How exactly all this was verified in the personal experience of the disciples we may read in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles of St. Paul. Yet the divine promise of protection in the hour of peril was remarkably fulfilled. With the single exception of ‘James the brother of John,’ no apostle seems to have fallen a victim to the malignant persecution of their enemies up to the close of the apostolic history, as recorded in the Acts (A.D. 63).
One other sign was to precede and usher in the consummation. ‘The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world [oijkoume>nh] for a witness unto all nations and then shall the end come.’ We have already adverted to the fulfilment of this prediction within the apostolic age. We have the authority of St. Paul for such a universal diffusion of the gospel in his days as to verify the saying of Our Lord. (See Col. 1:6, 23) But for this explicit testimony ‘from an apostle it would have been impossible to persuade some expositors that our Lord’s words had been in any sense fulfilled previous to the destruction of Jerusalem, it would have been regarded as mere extravagance, and rodomontade. Now, however, the objection cannot reasonably be urged.
Here it may be proper to call to mind the note of time, given on a previous occasion to the disciples as indicative of our Lord’s coming: ‘Verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come’. (Matt. 10:23) Comparing this declaration with the prediction before us, (Matt. 24:14) we may see the perfect consistency of the two statements, and also the ‘terminus ad quem’ in both. In the one case it is the evangelisation of the land of Israel, in the other, the evangelisation of the Roman empire that is referred to as the precursor of the Parousia. Both statements are true. It might well occupy the space of a generation to carry the glad tidings into every city in the land of Israel. The apostles had not too much time for their home mission, though they had upon their hands so vast a foreign mission. Obviously, we must take the language employed by Paul, as well as by our Lord in a popular sense and it would be unfair to press it to the extremity of the letter. The wide diffusion of the gospel both in the land of Israel and throughout the Roman empire, is sufficient to justify the prediction of our Lord.
Thus far then we have one continuous discourse, relating to a particular event, and spoken of and to particular persons. We find four signs, or sets of signs, which were to portend the approach of the great catastrophe.
1. The appearance of false Christs and false prophets.
2. Great social disturbances and natural calamities and convulsions.
3. Persecution of the disciples and apostasy of professed believers.
4. The general publication of the gospel throughout the Roman empire.
(b) Further indications of the approaching doom of Jerusalem
No argument is required to prove the strict and exclusive reference of this section to Jerusalem and Judea. Here we can detect no trace of a double meaning, of primary and ulterior fulfilments, of underlying and typical senses. Everything is national, local, and near:—‘the land’ is the land of Judea, —‘this people’ is the people of Israel, and the ‘time’ the lifetime of the disciples, —‘When YE therefore Shall See.’
Most expositors find an allusion to the standards of the Roman legions in the expression, ‘the abomination of desolation’ and the explanation is highly probable. The eagles were the objects of religious worship to the soldiers; and the parallel passage in St. Luke is all but conclusive evidence that this is the true meaning. We know from Josephus that the attempt of a Roman general (Vitellius), in the reign of Tiberius, to march his troops through Judea, was resisted by the Jewish authorities, on the ground that the idolatrous images on their ensigns would be a profanation of the law.3 How much greater the profanation when those idolatrous emblems were displayed in full view of the temple and the Holy City! This was the last token which portended that the hour of doom for Jerusalem had come. Its appearance was to be the signal to all in Judea to escape beyond the mountains [ejpi< ta< ojrh] for then would ensue a period of misery and horror without a parallel in the annals of time.
That the ‘great tribulation’ [qliyiv mega>lh] (Matt. 24:21) has express reference to the dreadful calamities attending the siege of Jerusalem, which bore with such peculiar severity on the female sex, is too evident to be questioned. That those calamities were literally unparalleled, can easily be believed by all who have read the ghastly narrative in the pages of Josephus. It is remarkable that the historian begins his account of the Jewish war with the affirmation, ‘that the aggregate of human woes from the beginning of the world, would, in his opinion, be light in comparison with those of the Jews.’4
The following graphic description introduces the tragic story of the wretched mother, whose horrible repast may have been in our Saviour’s thoughts when he uttered the words recorded in Matt. 24:19:
‘Incalculable was the multitude of those who perished in famine in the city, and beyond description the sufferings they endured. In every house, if anywhere there appeared but the shadow of food, a conflict ensued; those united by the tenderest ties fiercely contending, and snatching from one another the miserable supports of life. Nor were even the dying allowed the credit of being in want; nay, even those who were just expiring the brigands would search, lest, any, with food concealed under a fold of his garment, should feign death. Gaping with hunger, as maddened dogs, they went staggering to and fro and prowling about assailing the doors like drunken men, and in bewilderment rushing into the same house twice, or thrice in one hour. The cravings of nature led them to gnaw anything, and what would be rejected by the very filthiest or the brute creation they were fain to collect and eat. Even from their belts and shoes they were at length unable to refrain, and they tore off and chewed the very leather of their shields. To some, wisps of old hay served for food; for the fibres were gathered, and the smallest quantities sold for four Attic pieces.’
‘But why speak of the famine as despising restraint in the use of inanimate, when I am about to state an instance of it to which, in the history of Greeks or Barbarians, no parallel is to be found, and which is horrible to relate, and is incredible to hear? Gladly, indeed would I have omitted to mention the occurrence, lest I Should be thought by future generations to deal in the marvellous, had I not innumerable witnesses among my contemporaries. I should, besides, pay my country but a cold compliment, were I to suppress the narration of the woes which she actually suffered.’5
That our Lord had in view the horrors which were to befall the Jews in the siege, and not any subsequent events it the end of time, is perfectly clear from the closing words of ver. 21—‘No, nor ever shall be.’
(c) The disciples warned against false prophets.
As yet we have found no break in the continuity of the discourse, — not the faintest indication that any transition has taken place to any other subject or any other period. The narrative is perfectly homogeneous and consecutive, and flows on without diverging to the right hand or to the left.
The same is equally true with respect to the section now before us. The very first word is indicative of continuity—‘Then’ [to>te] and every succeeding word is plainly addressed to the disciples themselves, for their personal warning and guidance. It is clear that our Lord gives them intimation of what would shortly come to pass, or at least what they might live to witness with their own eyes. It is a vivid representation of what actually occurred in the last days of the Jewish commonwealth. The unhappy Jews, and especially the people of Jerusalem, were buoyed up with false hopes by the specious impostors who infested the land and brought ruin upon their miserable dupes. Such was the infatuation produced by the boasting pretensions of these impostors, that, as we learn from Josephus, when the temple was actually in flames a vast multitude of the deluded people fell victims to their credulity. The Jewish historian states:
‘Of so great a multitude, not one escaped. Their destruction was caused by a false prophet, who had on that day proclaimed to those remaining in the city, that "God commanded them to go up to the temple, there to receive the signs of their deliverance." There were at this time many prophets suborned by the tyrants to delude the people, by bidding them wait for help from God, in order that there might be less desertion, and that those who were above fear and control might be encouraged by hope. Under calamities man readily yields to persuasion but when the deceiver pictures to him deliverance from pressing evils, then the sufferer is wholly influenced by hope. Thus it was that the impostors and pretended messengers of heaven at that time beguiled the wretched people.’6
Our Lord forewarns His disciples that His coming to that judgment-scene would be conspicuous and sudden as the lightning-flash, which reveals itself and seems to be everywhere at the, same moment. ‘For,’ He adds, ‘wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together;’ that is, wherever the guilty and devoted children of Israel were found, there the destroying ministers of wrath, the Roman legions, —would overwhelm them. .
(d) The arrival of the 'end,' or the catastrophe of Jerusalem.
Here also the phraseology absolutely forbids the idea of any transition from the subject in hand to another. There is nothing to indicate that the scene has shifted, or a new topic been introduced. The section before us connects itself most distinctly with the ‘great tribulation’ spoken of in Matt. 24:21, and it is inadmissible to suppose any interval of time in the face of the adverb ‘immediately’(euqe>wv de) But the scene of the ‘great tribulation’ is undeniably Jerusalem and Judea, (Matt. 24:15, 16) so that no break in the subject of the discourse is allowable. Again, in Matt. 24:30, we read that ‘all the tribes of the land [pasai ai fulai thv ghv] shall mourn,’ referring evidently to the population of the land of Judea; and nothing can be more forced and unnatural than to make it include, as Lange does, ‘all the races and peoples’ of the globe. The restricted sense of the word gh [land] in the New Testament is common; and when connected, as it is here, with the word ‘tribes’[ fulai], its limitation to the land of Israel is obvious. This is the view adopted by Dr. Campbell and Moses Stuart, and it is indeed self-evident. We find a similar expression in Zech. 12:12—‘All the families [tribes] of the land,’—where its restricted sense is obvious and undisputed. The two passages are in fact exactly parallel, and nothing could be more misleading than to understand the phrase as including ‘all the races of the earth.’
The structure of the discourse, then, inflexibly resists the supposition of a change of subject. Time, place, circumstances, all continue the same. It is therefore with unfeigned wonder that we find Dean Alford commenting in the following fashion: All the difficulty which this word [immediately— euyewv] has been supposed to involve has arisen from confounding, the partial fulfilment of the prophecy with it’s ultimate one. The important insertion Luke 21:23, 24 shows us that the ‘tribulation’ [yliqiv] includes orgh en tw law toutw (wrath upon this people), which is yet being inflicted, and the treading down of Jerusalem by the Gentiles, still going on; and immediately after that tribulation, which shall happen when the cup of Gentile iniquity is full, and when the gospel shall have been preached it all the world for a witness, and rejected by the Gentiles, shall the coming of the, Lord Himself happen... (The expression in Mark is equally indicative of a considerable interval—in those days after that tribulation.) The fact of His coming and its attendant circumstances being known to Him, but the exact time unknown, He speaks without regard to the interval, which would be, employed in His waiting till all things are put under His feet,’ etc.7
It may be said that in this comment there are almost as many errors as words. Indeed, it is not the explanation of a prophecy so much as an independent prophecy of the commentator himself. First, there is the groundless hypothesis of it’s double sense, it’s partial and an ultimate fulfilment, for which there is no foundation in the text, but which is a mere arbitrary and gratuitous supposition. Next, we have it ‘tribulation,’ not ‘shortened,’ as the Lord declares, but protracted so as be ‘still going on’ in the present day. Then the word ‘immediately’ is made to refer to a period not yet come, so that between Luke 21:28-29, where the unassisted eye can perceive no trace of any line of transition, the critic intercalates an immense period of more than eighteen centuries, with the possibility of an indefinite duration in addition. Still further we have an implied contradiction of St. Paul’s statement that the gospel was preached ‘in all the world’, (Col. 1:6) and the assumption that the gospel is to be rejected by the Gentiles. Then the commentator finds that St. Mark suggests a ‘considerable interval,’ whereas he expressly says In those very days after that ‘tribulation’ [en ekeinaiv taiv hmeraiv meta thn yliqin ekeinhn]—precluding the possibility of any interval at all, and lastly we have what appears like an apology for the veracity of the prediction, on the ground that our Lord, not, knowing the exact time when His coming would take place, ‘speaks without regard to the interval,’ etc.
It is obvious, that if this is the way in which Scripture is to be interpreted, the ordinary laws of exegesis must be thrown aside as useless. He is the best interpreter who is the boldest guesser. Is there any ancient book which a grammarian would treat after this fashion? Would it not be pronounced intolerable and uncritical if such liberties were taken with Homer or Plato? Would it not have been a mockery to propound such riddles to the disciples as an answer to their question, ‘When shall these things be?
How could they know of partial and ultimate fulfilments, and double senses? and what effect could be produced in their minds, but bitter perplexity and bewilderment? We cannot help protesting against such treatment of the words of Scripture, as not only unscholarly and uncritical, but in the highest degree presumptuous and irreverent.
But, it is answered, the character of our Lord’s language in this passage necessitates its application to a grand and awful catastrophe which is still future, and can be properly understood of nothing less than the total dissolution of the fabric of the universe, and the end of all things. How can any one pretend it is said, that the sun has been darkened, that the moon has withdrawn her light, that the stars have fallen from heaven, that the Son of man has been seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory? Did such phenomena occur at the destruction of Jerusalem, or can they apply to anything else than the final consummation of all things?
To argue in this strain is to lose sight of the very nature and genius of prophecy. Symbol and metaphor belong to the grammar of prophecy, as every reader of the Old Testament prophets must know. Is it not reasonable that the doom of Jerusalem should be depicted in language as glowing and rhetorical as the destruction of Babylon, or Bozrah, or Tyre? How then does the prophet Isaiah describe the downfall of Babylon?
‘Behold the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.... I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place’ (Isa. 13:9, 10, 13)
It will at once be seen that the imagery employed in this passage is almost identical with that of our Lord. If these symbols therefore were proper to represent the fall of Babylon why should they be improper to set forth a still greater catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem?
Take another example. The prophet Isaiah announces the desolation of Bozrah, the capital of Edom, in the following language:
‘The mountains shall be melted with the blood of the slain... All the host of heaven shall be dissolved and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from my vine, and as a falling fig from the fig-tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold it shall come down upon Idumea,’ etc. (Isa. 34:4, 5)
Here again we have the very imagery used by our Lord in His prophetic discourse; And if the fate of Bozrah might properly be described in language so lofty, why should it be thought extravagant to employ similar terms in describing the fate of Jerusalem?
Again, the prophet Micah speaks of a ‘coming of the Lord’ to judge and punish Samaria and Jerusalem—a coming to judgment which had unquestionably taken place long before our Saviour’s time, —and in what magnificent diction does he represent this scene!
‘Behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high Oar, of the earth. And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be as wax before the fire, and as Me waters that arc poured down a steep place’ (Mic. 1:3, 4)
It would be easy to multiply examples of this characteristic quality of prophetic diction. Prophecy is of the nature of poetry, and depicts events, not in the prosaic style of the historian, but in the glowing imagery of the poet. Add to this that the Bible does not speak with the cold logical correctness of the Western peoples, but with the tropical fervour of the, gorgeous East. Yet it would be improper to call such language extravagant or overcharged. The moral grandeur of the events which such symbols represent may be most fitly set forth by convulsion; and cataclysms in the natural world. Nor is it necessary to construct a grammar of symbolology and find an analogue for every sacred hieroglyphic, by which to translate each particular metaphor into its proper equivalent, for this would be to turn prophecy into allegory. The following observations on the figurative language of Scripture are judicious. What is grand in nature is used to express what is dignified and important among men, —the heavenly bodies, mountains, stately trees, kingdoms or those in authority... Political changes are represented by earthquakes, tempests, eclipses, the turning of waters and seas into blood.’8
The conclusion then to which we are irresistibly led, is, that the imagery employed by our lord in His prophetic discourse is not inappropriate to the dissolution of the Jewish state and polity which took place at the destruction of Jerusalem. It is appropriate, both as it is in keeping with the acknowledged style of the ancient prophets, and also because the moral grandeur of the event is such as to justify the use of such language in this particular case.
But we may go further than this, and affirm that it is not only appropriate as applied to the destruction of Jerusalem, but that this is its true and exclusive application. We find no vestige of an intimation that our Lord had any ulterior and occult signification in view. But we do find that there is scarcely a feature in this sublime and awful description which He Himself had not already anticipated, and fixed in its application to a particular event and a particular time. Let the reader carefully compare the description in the passage before us, of ‘the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’ (Matt. 24:30)9 with our Lord’s declaration—‘For (Matt. 16:27) the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels,’—an event which He expressly affirms would be witnessed by some of His disciples then living. Again, the sending forth of His angels to gather together His elect, corresponds exactly with the representation of what would take place in the ‘harvest,’ at the end of the aeon, as described in the parables of the tares and the dragnet—‘The (Matt. 12:41-50) Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity.’ ‘So shall it be at the end of the age [aeon]: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire.’ Here the prophecy and the parable represent the self- same scene, the self-same period: they alike speak of the close of the aeon or age, not of the end of the world, or material universe; and they alike speak of that great judicial epoch as at hand. How plainly does St. Luke, in his record of the prophecy on the Mount of Olives, represent the great catastrophe as falling within the lifetime of the disciples: ‘And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh’. (Luke 21:28) Were not these words spoken to the disciples, who listened to the discourse? Did they not apply to them? Is there anywhere even a suspicion that they were meant for another audience, thousands of years distant, and not for the eager group who drank in the words of Jesus? Surely such a hypothesis carries its own refutation in its very front.
But, as if to preclude even the possibility of misconception or mistake, our Lord in the next paragraph draws around His prophecy a line so plain and palpable, shutting it wholly within a limit so definite and distinct, that it ought to be decisive of the whole question.
(e) The Parousia to take place before the passing away of the existing generation.
Words have no meaning if this language, uttered on so solemn an occasion, and so precise and express in its import, does not affirm the near approach of the great event which occupies the whole discourse of our Lord. First, the parable of the fig-tree intimates that as the buds on the trees betoken the near approach of summer, so the signs which He had just specified would betoken that the predicted consummation was at hand. They, the disciples to whom He was speaking, were to see them, and when they saw them to recognise that the end was ‘near, even at the doors.’ Next, our Lord sums up with an affirmation calculated to remove every vestige of doubt or uncertainty, —
‘VERILY I SAY UNTO YOU, THIS GENERATION SHALL NOT PASS, TILL ALL THESE THINGS BE FULFILLED.’
One would reasonably suppose that after a note of time so clear and express there could not be room for controversy. Our Lord Himself has settled the question. Ninety-nine persons in every hundred would undoubtedly understand His words as meaning that the predicted catastrophe would fall within the limits of the lifetime of the existing generation. Not that all would probably live to witness it, but that most or many would. There can be no question that this would be the interpretation which the disciples would place upon the words. Unless, therefore, our Lord intended to mystify His disciples, He gave them plainly to understand that His coming, the judgment of the Jewish nation, and the close of the age, would come to pass before the existing generation had wholly passed away, and within the limits of their own lifetime. This, as we have already seen, was no new idea, but one which on several occasions He had previously expressed.
Far, however, from accepting this decision of our Lord as final, the commentators have violently resisted that which seems the natural and common-sense meaning of His words. They have insisted that because the events predicted did not so come, to pass in that generation, therefore the word generation (genea) cannot possibly mean, what it is usually understood to mean, the people of that particular age or period, the contemporaries of our Lord. To affirm that these things did not come to pass is to beg the question, and something more. But we submit that it is the business of grammarians not to be apprehensive of possible consequences, but to settle the true meaning of words. Our Lord’s predictions may be safely left to take care of themselves; it is for us to try to understand them.
It is contended by many that in this place the word genea should be rendered ‘race, or nation;’ and that our Lord’s words mean no more than that the Jewish race or nation Should not pass away, or perish, until the predictions which He had just uttered had come to pass. This is the meaning which Lange, Stier, Alford, and many other expositors attach to the word, and it is maintained with conspicuous ability and copious learning by Dorner in his tractate, ‘Deut. Oratione Christi Eschatologica.’ It is true, no doubt, that the word genea, like most others, has different shades of meaning, and that sometimes, in the Septuagint and in classic authors it may refer to a nation or a race. But we think that it is demonstrable without any shadow of doubt that the expression ‘this generation,’ so often employed by our Lord, always refers solely and exclusively to His contemporaries, the Jewish people of His own period. It might safely be left to the candid judgment of every reader, whether a Greek Scholar or not, whether this is not so: but as the point is one of great importance, it may be desirable to adduce the proofs of this assertion.
1. In our Lord’s final address to the people, delivered on the same day as this discourse on the Mount of Olives, He declared, ‘All these things shall come upon this generation’. (Matt. 23:36) No commentator has ever proposed to understand this as referring to any other than the existing generation.
2. ‘Whereunto shall I liken this generation?’ (Matt. 11:16) Here it is admitted by Lange and Stier that the word refers to ‘the then existing last generation of Israel’( Lange, in loc. Stier, vol ii. 98).
3. ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign.’ ‘The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation.’ ‘The Queen of the South shall rise up in the judgment with this generation.’ ‘Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation’. (Matt. 12:39, 41, 42, 45)
In these four passages Dorner endeavours to make out That our Lord is not speaking of His contemporaries, the men of His own period, ‘For,’ be says, ‘the Gentiles’ (the Ninevites and the Queen of the South) ‘are opposed to the Jews; therefore "this generation"’[ h genea auth] ‘must signify the nation or race of the Jews’ (Dorner, Orat. Chr. Esch., p. 81). His argument, however, is not convincing. Surely the generation which sought after a sign was the then existing generation; and can it be supposed that it was against any other generation than that which had resisted such preaching as that of John the Baptist and of Christ that the Gentiles were to rise up in the judgment? There is only one interpretation of our Lord’s language possible, and it is that which refers His words to His own perverse and unbelieving contemporaries.
4. ‘That the blood of all the prophets... may be required of this generation.’ ‘It shall be required of this generation’ (Luke 11:50,51)
Here Dorner himself admits that it is of the existing generation (hoc ipsum hominum avum) that these words are spoken (p. 41).
5. ‘Whosoever shall be ashamed of me in this adulterous and sinful generation’. (Mark 8:38)
6. ‘The Son of man must be rejected of this generation. (Luke 17:25) It is only necessary to quote these passages in order to determine their sole reference to the particular generation that rejected the Messiah.
These are all the examples in which the expression ‘this generation’ occurs in the sayings of our Lord, and they establish beyond all reasonable question the reference of the words in the important declaration now before us. But suppose that we were to adopt the rendering proposed, and take genea as meaning a race, what point or significance would there be in the prediction then? Can any one believe that the assertion so solemnly made by our Lord, ‘Verily I say unto you,’ etc., amounts to no more than this, ‘The Hebrew race shall not become extinct till all these things be fulfilled’? Imagine a prophet in our own times predicting a great catastrophe in which London would be destroyed, St. Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament levelled with the ground, and a fearful slaughter of the inhabitants be perpetrated; and that when asked, ‘When shall these things come to pass?’ he should reply, ‘The Anglo-Saxon race shall not become extinct till all these things be fulfilled’! Would this be a satisfactory answer? Would not such an answer be considered derogatory to the prophet, and an affront to his hearers? Would they not have reason to say, ‘It is safe prophesying when the event is placed at an interminable distance!’ But the bare supposition of such a sense in our Lord’s prediction shows itself to be a reductio ad absurdum. Was it for this that the disciples were to wait and watch? Was this the lesson that the budding fig-tree taught? Was it not until the Jewish race was about to become extinct that they were to ‘look up, and lift up their heads’? Such a hypothesis is its own refutation.
We fall back, therefore, upon the only tenable and possible interpretation, and understand our Lord to mean, what in so many words He says, that the events specified in His prediction would assuredly come to pass before the existing generation had wholly passed away. This is the only interpretation which the words will bear; every other involves a wresting of language, and a violence to the understanding. Besides, it is in harmony with the uniform teaching of our Saviour. He had long before assured His disciples that some of them should live to witness His return in glory. (Matt. 16:27, 28)
He had told them that before they had completed their apostolic mission to the cities of Israel the Son of man should come. (Matt. 10:23) He had declared that all the blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, should be required of that generation. (Matt. 23:35, 36) It was, therefore, of that generation that He spoke. It should never be forgotten that there was a specialty about that generation. It was the last and worst of all the generations of Israel, inheriting the guilt of all its predecessors, and was about to be visited with signal and un-paralleled judgments. Whether the predicted catastrophe came to pass is another question, which will come to be considered in its proper place.10
Other interpretations which have been suggested, as ‘the human race,’ ‘the generation of the righteous,’ and ‘the generation of the wicked,’ do not require consideration.
A word or two may be needful respecting the length of time covered by a generation. Of course, it is not an exact measure of time, like a decade or a century, but has a certain indefiniteness or elasticity, yet within certain limits, say between thirty and forty years. In the book of Numbers we find that the generation which provoked the Lord to exclude them from the land of Canaan, and were doomed to fall in the wilderness, were to die out in the space of forty years. In the ninety-fifth psalm we read, ‘Forty years long was I grieved with this generation.’ In the genealogical table given by St. Matthew we have data for estimating the length of a generation. We there find that ‘from the carrying’ away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations’. (Matt. 1:17) Now the date of the captivity, in the reign of Zedekiah, is said to be circa B. C. 586, which, divided by fourteen, gives forty-one years and a fraction as the average length of each generation. The Jewish war under Nero broke Out A. D. 66, and assuming our Lord to have been about thirty-three years of age at the time of His crucifixion, this would give a space of about thirty-three years when the signs betokening the approach of ‘the end’ would ‘begin to come to pass.’ The destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem took place in September A. D. 70, that is, about thirty-seven years after the prophecy of the Mount of Olives, a space of time that amply satisfies the requirements of the case. It is neither so short as to make it inappropriate to say, ‘This generation shall not pass away,’ etc., nor so long as to throw it beyond the lifetime of many who might have seen and heard the Saviour, or of the disciples themselves.
(f) Certainty of the consummation, yet uncertainty of its precise date.
Although our Lord has defined the limits of the time within which the predicted consummation would take place, yet a certain amount of indefiniteness remains respecting the moment of its arrival. He does not specify the exact date, the ‘hour, or the day,’ or even the month or the year. This does not mean that the whole question of time is left unsettled: it refers merely to the precise date. The consummation was to fall within the term of the existing generation, but the particular hour when the knell of doom should sound was not revealed to man, nor angel, nor (what is stranger still) to the Son of man Himself. It was the secret which the Father kept ‘in His own power.’ There were doubtless sufficient reasons for this reserve. To have specified ‘the day and the hour’—to have said, ‘In the seven and-thirtieth year, in the sixth month and the eighth day of the month, the city shall be taken and the temple burnt with fire ‘would not only have been inconsistent with the manner of prophecy, but would have taken away one of the strongest inducements to constant watchfulness and prayer—the uncertainty of the precise time.
(g) Suddenness of the Parousia, and calls to watchfulness.
All the representations given by our Lord of the coming catastrophe and its concomitant events imply that it would take men by surprise. As the deluge came suddenly upon the antediluvians, and the storm of fire and brimstone on the cities of the plain, so the final catastrophe would overtake Jerusalem and Judea at an unexpected hour, when the business and the pleasure of life occupied men’s hands and hearts. In Luke 17 we have the fullest record of our Lord’s discourse on this point. Whether the passage in St. Luke has been transposed by him from its original connection, or whether our Lord uttered the same words on separate occasions, does not particularly concern us here. Neander is of opinion that ‘Luke gives the natural connection of these words,’ and that in St. Matthew ‘they are placed with many other similar passages referring to the last crisis.’11 We doubt this; but, waiving this question, one thing is indubitable, viz., that both St. Matthew and St. Luke describe the same thing, the self-same period, the self-same catastrophe. It is surprising to find Alford asserting, in regard to the passage in St. Luke, ‘There is not a word in all this of the destruction of Jerusalem.’ It would be more correct to say, ‘Every word here is of the destruction of Jerusalem.’ Observe the note of time so distinctly marked by our Lord: ‘But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation’. (Luke 17:25) What other catastrophe belongs to the period of that generation which could fitly be compared with the destruction of the antediluvian world by a flood of water, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha by a deluge of fire?
From the certainty and suddenness of the approaching consummation our Lord draws the lesson which He impresses on His disciples, —the necessity for vigilance. Here He first utters the admonition which from that time never ceased to be the watchword of His disciples throughout the apostolic age, ‘Watch and pray!’ We shall find how constantly and urgently this call was addressed by the Apostles to the faithful in their day, and how it is continually repeated, down to the latest moment that we catch the sound of an apostolic voice. This watchfulness was essential to the safety of the followers of Christ, for so sudden would be the catastrophe that it would overtake the unready and unwary, as birds that are caught in a net. ‘For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole land (pashv thv ghv)—words which plainly intimate the local character of the event.
We have a striking commentary on this passage in the history of Josephus. Accounting for the prodigious numbers slaughtered in the siege of Jerusalem, —one million one hundred thousand, —he says, ‘Of these the greater proportion were of Jewish blood, though not natives of the place. Having assembled from the whole country for the feast of unleavened bread, they were suddenly hemmed in by the war. On this occasion the whole nation had been shut up as in a prison, by fate; and the war encircled the city when it was crowded with men.’12 A more exact verification of our Lord’s prediction (Luke 21:35) it is impossible to conceive.
In all this we observe the continuation of that direct personal address which proves that our Lord was speaking to His disciples of that in which they were personally concerned. There is not the faintest hint that there was an undercurrent of meaning in His words, and that when He said ‘Jerusalem,’ and ‘this generation,’ and ‘ye,’ He meant ‘the world,’ and ‘distant ages,’ and ‘disciples yet unborn.’
At this point St. Mark and St. Luke close their record of the prophecy on the Mount of Olives, and it cannot be denied that their ending here is natural and appropriate. We have in the Gospel of St. Matthew, however, a series of parables appended to our Lord’s discourse, such as He was accustomed to employ in teaching the people. It strikes us as somewhat singular that our Lord should speak in parables to His disciples, especially on such an occasion; and there is not a little to be said for the opinion of Neander, that it was peculiar to the editor of our Greek Matthew to arrange together congenial sayings of Christ, though uttered at different times and in different relations. We need not therefore wonder if we find it impossible to draw the lines of distinction in this discourse with entire accuracy; nor need such result lead us to forced interpretations, inconsistent with truth, and with the love of truth. It is much easier to make such distinctions in Luke’s account, (Luke 21) though even that is not without its difficulties. In comparing Matthew and Luke together, however, we can trace the origin of most of these difficulties to the blending of different portions together, when the discourses of Christ were arranged in collections.’13
But without discussing this question, it is very evident that the parables recorded by St. Matthew in connection with this discourse, even if not originally spoken on this particular occasion, are strictly germane to the subject; while, if this be their true place in the narrative, their bearing on the matter in hand is still more close and intimate.
(h) The disciples warned of the suddenness of the Parousia.
Parable of the Goodman of the House.
It will be seen that this parabolic saying of our Lord is recorded in quite different connections by St. Matthew and St. Luke. The verbal resemblance, however, is too exact to render it probable that it was spoken on two different occasions. The slightest attention will satisfy the reader that St. Luke’s report is the more full and circumstantial, and that he assigns to it its true chronological position. This appears from the fact that the question of St. Peter, recorded only by St. Luke, gave rise to the concluding remarks of our Lord, which, as given by St. Matthew without this connecting link, seem somewhat incoherent and abrupt. Besides, we can scarcely suppose that St. Peter, conversing in private with only three other disciples in company with the Lord, would ask, ‘Speakest thou this parable to us, or even to all?’—a question which was most natural when, as St. Luke tells us, Jesus was speaking to His disciples in the presence of a great multitude. (Luke 12:1) It is worthy of notice also that in Mark 13:34-37, where we can detect evident traces of this parable, the question of St. Peter is distinctly answered, ‘What I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch;’ a statement which would be out of place when our Lord was speaking to four persons, but quite appropriate when speaking to a multitude.
There is no impropriety, therefore, in supposing that St. Matthew, perceiving the words of Jesus, spoken on another occasion, to be admirably illustrative of the necessity for watchfulness in view of the Lord’s coming, inserted them in this eschatological discourse. Stier suggests that St. Mark ‘gives a short abridgment of Matt. 24:43, with the two parables of the servant, Matt. 24:45-51, 25:14, and even with a slight echo of the parable of the virgins.’14 We have no more reason to require strict chronological arrangement in the Evangelists than strictly verbatim reports: neither the one nor the other entered into their plan.
But what is chiefly important for us is the bearing of this parable, if it may be so called, of the goodman of the house watching against the midnight thief, on the preceding discourse of our Lord. Nothing can be more evident than that it is wrought into the very warp and woof of that discourse. There is no introduction of a new topic at the forty-third verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew: (Matt. 24:43) no transition to another catastrophe, or another coming different from those of which He had all along been speaking. There is no hiatus, no break, in the continuity of the discourse; no indication of passing away from the grand event which engrossed the thoughts of the disciples to another in the far distant futurity. It seems incredible that any critical judgment should select Matt. 24:43 as the commencement of a new subject of discourse. Yet this is done by Dr. Ed. Robinson, who says, ‘Our Lord here makes a transition, and proceeds to speak of his final coming at the day of judgment. This appears from the fact that the matter of these sections is added by Matthew after Mark and Luke have ended their parallel reports relative to the Jewish catastrophe; and Matthew here commences, with ver. 43, the discourse which Luke has given on another occasion, Luke 12:39, & c.15 But there is not the faintest shadow of any transition. The finest instrument cannot draw a dividing line between the parts of the discourse, and assign one portion to the judgment of the Jewish nation and another to the judgment of the human race. There is not transition, but continuation, at ver. 43. Nothing can be more consecutive and concatenated. ‘Watch therefore,’ says our Lord to His disciples in ver. 42, ‘for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.’ ‘Therefore, be ye also ready,’ He says in ver. 44, ‘for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.’ The suggestion that a new topic, having reference to a totally different event, in a far distant age of time, is introduced here, is altogether arbitrary and groundless.
(i) The Parousia a time of judgment alike to the friends and the enemies of Christ
Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
Matt. 25:1-13 ‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut. Afterwards came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour’ [wherein the Son of man cometh].
Almost all expositors suppose that Jerusalem and Israel now disappear wholly from the scene, and that our Lord refers exclusively to the final consummation of all things and the judgment of the human race. This supposed transition is rendered more easy to the English reader by a new chapter commencing at this point.
But has our Lord really dropped the subject with which He and His disciples had been hitherto occupied? Has He passed from the near and imminent to a far distant era, separated from His own time by hundreds and thousands of years? If it were so, we might surely expect some very distinct indication of the change of subject. But there is absolutely none. On the contrary, the supposition of a new theme being introduced by this parable is entirely forbidden by the express terms in which the parable opens and closes. it opens with a very explicit note of time, —[ tote] then, at that time. There is no hiatus between the end of Matt. 24 and the commencement of Matt. 25. The connecting link ‘then’ carries forward the discourse, and knits it into close connection as regards theme, time, and the persons addressed. This is further confirmed by the fact that the moral of the parable of the ten virgins is precisely the same as that of the good man of the house in the preceding chapter, viz. the necessity of watchfulness. The closing words, —‘Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour,’—so evidently addressed to the disciples, are the very same which our Lord had already spoken in Matt. 24:42; so that in both passages the reference must be to the self-same event.
It does not come within our province to give a detailed exposition of this parable. There are theologians who find a mystery in every word: in the number ten, in the number five, in virginity, in lamps, in oil, etc.16 As Calvin sarcastically observes, ‘Multum se torquent quidam, in lucernis, in vasis, in oleo.’ Suffice it here to note the great lesson of the parable. It is the necessity for constant readiness and watchfulness for the sudden and speedy return of the Son of man. Unwatchfulness and unreadiness would involve the penalty which befell the foolish virgins, viz. exclusion from the marriage supper of the Lamb.
We find therefore in this parable an organic connection with the whole previous discourse of our Lord. It is still the same great theme of which He is speaking, —the consummation which was to take place within the limits of the existing generation, —and concerning which the disciples expressed so natural an anxiety.
(k) The Parousia a time of judgment.
Parable of the Talents.
Matt. 25:14-30.—‘For [the kingdom of heaven is] as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I Will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well clone, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I win make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: and I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed; thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
In this parable we find an evident continuation of the same subject, though presented in a somewhat different aspect. The moral of the preceding parable was vigilance; that of the present is diligence. It can hardly be said that a new element is introduced in this parable, for the representation of the coming of Christ as a time of judgment runs through the whole prophetic discourse of our Lord. It is this fact which gives point and urgency to the oft-reiterated call to watchfulness. Not only was it to be a time of judgment for Jerusalem and Israel, but even for the disciples of Christ themselves. They too were ‘to stand before the Son of man.’ There was danger lest ‘that day’ should come upon them unprepared and unaware. This association of judgment with the Parousia comes out in the parable of the good man of the house, and still more in that of the good and the evil servants. It is yet more vividly expressed in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, has greater prominence still in the parable of the talents; but it reaches the climax in the concluding parable, if it may be so called, of the sheep and the goats.
It is not necessary to enter into the details of the parable of the talents. Its leading features are simple and obvious. It contains a solemn warning to the servants of Christ to be faithful and diligent in the absence of their Lord. It points to a day when He would return and reckon with them. It sets forth the abundant recompense of the good and faithful, and the punishment of the unfaithful servant.
The point, however, which chiefly concerns us in this investigation is the relation of this parable to the preceding discourse. What can be more plain than the intimate connection between the one and the other? The connective particle ‘for’ in Matt. 25:14 distinctly marks the continuation of the discourse. The theme is the same, the time is the same, the catastrophe is the same. Up to this point, therefore, we find no break, no change, no introduction of a different topic; all is continuous, homogeneous, one. Never for a moment has the discourse swerved from the great, all absorbing theme, —the approaching doom of the guilty city and nation, with the solemn events attendant thereon, all to take place within the period of that generation, and which the disciples, or some of them, would live to witness.
(l) The Parousia a time of judgment.
The Sheep and the Goats.
Matt. 25:31-46—‘When the Son of man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all [the] nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shalt set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left’
‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’
‘Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.’
Up to this point we have found the discourse of Jesus on the Mount of Olives one connected and continuous prophecy, having sole reference to the great catastrophe impending over the Jewish nation, and which was to take place, according, to our Lord’s prediction, before the existing generation should pass away. Now, however, we encounter a passage which, in the opinion of almost all commentators, cannot be understood as referring to Jerusalem or Israel, but to the whole human race and the consummation of all things. If the consensus of expositors can establish an interpretation, no doubt this passage must be regarded as wholly quitting the subject of the disciples’ interrogatory, and describing the last scene of all in this world’s history.
It may be freely admitted that this parable, or parabolic description, has many points of difference from the preceding portion of our Lord’s discourse. It seems to stand separate and distinct from the rest, without the connecting links which we have found in other sections. Still more, it seems to take a wider range than Jerusalem and Israel; it reads like the judgment, not of a nation, but of all nations; not of a city or a country, but of a world; not a passing crisis, but final consummation.
It is therefore with a deep sense of the difficulty of the task that we venture to impugn the interpretation of so many wise and good men, and to contend that the passage is not only an integral part of the prophecy, but also belongs wholly to the subject of our Lord’s discourse, —the judgment of Israel and the end of the [Jewish] age.
1. This parable, though in our English version standing apart and unconnected with the context, is really connected by a very sufficient link with what goes before. This is apparent in the Greek, where we find the particle de, the force of which is to indicate transition and connection, —transition to a new illustration, and connection with the foregoing context. Alford, in his revised New Testament, preserves the continuative particle—‘But when the Son of man shall have come in his glory,’ etc. It might with equal propriety be rendered— And when, etc.
2. This ‘coming of the Son of man’ has already been predicted by our Lord, (Matt. 24:30) and parallel passages, and the time expressly defined, being included in the comprehensive declaration, ‘Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled’. (Matt. 24:34)
3. It deserves particular notice that the description of the ‘coming of the Son of man in his glory’ given in this parable tallies in all points with that in Matt. 16:27, 28, of which it is expressly affirmed that it would be witnessed by some then present when the prediction was made.
It may be well to compare the two descriptions:
Here the reader will note—
(a) That in both passages the subject referred to is the same, viz. the coming of the Son of man—the Parousia.
(b) In both passages He is described as coming in glory.
(c) In both He is attended by the holy angels.
(d) In both He comes as a King. ‘Coming in his kingdom;’ ‘He shall sit upon his throne’; ‘Then shall the King,’ etc.
(e) In both He comes to judgment.
(f) In both the judgment is represented as in some sense universal. ‘He shall reward every man’‘Before him shall be gathered all the nations.’
(g) In Matt. 16:28 it is expressly stated that this coming in glory, etc., was to take place in the lifetime of some then present. This fixes the occurrence of the Parousia within the limit of a human life, thus being in perfect accord with the period defined by our Lord in His prophetic discourse. ‘This generation shall not pass,’ etc.
We are fully warranted, therefore, in regarding the coming of the Son of man in Matt. 25 as identical with that referred to in Matt. 16, which some of the disciples were to live to witness.
Thus, notwithstanding the words ‘all the nations’ in Matt. 25:32, we are brought to the conclusion that it is not the ‘final consummation of all things’ which is there spoken of, but the judgment of Israel at the close of the [Jewish] aeon or age.
4. But it will still be objected that a very formidable difficulty remains in the expression ‘all the nations.’ The difficulty, however, is more apparent than real; for—
(1) It is not at all uncommon to find in Scripture universal propositions which must be understood in a qualified or restricted sense.
There is a case in point in this very discourse of our Lord. In Matt. 24:22, speaking of the ‘great tribulation,’ He Says, ‘Except those days should be shortened there should no flesh be saved.’ Now it is evident that this ‘great tribulation’ was limited to Jerusalem, or, at all events, to Judea, and yet we have an expression used in regard to the inhabitants of a city or country which is wide enough to include the whole human race, in which sense Lange and Alford actually understand it.
(2) There is great probability in the opinion that the phrase ‘all the nations’ is equivalent to ‘all the tribes of the land’. (Matt. 24:30) There is no impropriety in designating the tribes as nations. The promise of God to Abraham was that he should be the father of many nations. (Gen. 17:5 Rom. 4:17, 18)
In our Lord’s time it was usual to speak of the inhabitants of Palestine as consisting of several nations. Josephus speaks of ‘the nation of the Samaritans,’ ‘the nation of the Batanaeans,’ ‘the nation of the Galileans,’—using the very word (eynov) which we find in the passage before us. Judea was a distinct nation, often with a king of its own; so also was Samaria; and so with Idumea, Galilee, Paraea, Batanea, Trachonitis, Ituraea, Abilene, —all of which had at different times princes with the title of Ethnarch, a name which signifies the ruler of a nation. It is doing no violence, then, to the language to understand (panta ta eynh) as referring, to ‘all the nations’ of Palestine, or ‘all the tribes of the land.’
(3) This view receives strong confirmation from the fact that the same phrase in the apostolic commission, (Matt. 28:19) ‘Go and teach all the nations,’ does not seem to have been understood by the disciples as referring to the whole population of the globe, or to any nations beyond Palestine. It is commonly supposed that the apostles knew that they had received a charge to evangelise the world. If they did know it, they were culpably remiss in not acting upon it. But it is presumable that the words of our Lord did not convey any such idea to their mind. The learned Professor Burton observes: ‘It was not until fourteen years after our Lord’s ascension that St. Paul travelled for the first time, and preached the gospel to the Gentiles. Nor is there any evidence that during that period the other apostles passed the confines of Judea.’17
The fact seems to be that the language of the apostolic commission did not convey to the minds of the apostles any such ecumenical ideas. Nothing more astonished them than the discovery that ‘God had granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto life’. (Acts 11:18) When St. Peter was challenged for going in ‘to men uncircumcised, and eating with them,’ it does not appear that he vindicated his conduct by an appeal to the terms of the apostolic commission. If the phrase ‘all the nations’ had been understood by the disciples in its literal and most comprehensive sense, it is difficult to imagine how they could have failed to recognise it once the universal character of the gospel, and their commission to preach it alike to Jew and Gentile. It required a distinct revelation from heaven to overcome the Jewish prejudices of the apostles, and to make known to them the mystery ‘that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ by the gospel’. (Eph. 3:6)
In view of these considerations we hold it reasonable and warrantable to give the phrase ‘all the nations’ a restricted signification, and to limit it to the nations of Palestine. In this sense it harmonises well with the words of our Lord, ‘Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come’. (Matt. 10:23)
5. Once more, the peculiar test of character which is applied by the Judge in this parabolic description is strongly opposed to the notion that this scene represents the final judgment of the whole human race. It will be observed that the destiny of the righteous and the wicked is made to turn on the treatment which they respectively offered to the suffering disciples of Christ. All moral qualities, all virtuous conduct, all true faith, are apparently thrown out of the reckoning, and acts of charity and beneficence to distressed disciples are alone taken into account. It is not surprising that this circumstance should have occasioned much perplexity both to theologians and general readers. Is this the doctrine of St. Paul? Is this the ground of justification before God set forth in the New Testament? Are we to conclude that the everlasting destiny of the whole human race, from Adam to the last man, will finally turn on their charity and sympathy towards the persecuted and suffering disciples of Christ?
The difficulty is a grave one, on the supposition that we have here a description of ‘the general judgment at the last day,’ and ought not to be slurred over, as commonly it is. How could the nations which existed before the time of Christ be tried by such a standard? How could the nations which never heard of Christ, —or those which flourished in the ages when Christianity was prosperous and powerful, be tried by such a standard? It is manifestly inappropriate and inapplicable. But the difficulty is easily and completely solved if we regard this judicial transaction as the judgment of Israel at the close of the Jewish aeon. It is the rejected King of Israel who is the judge: it is the hostile and unbelieving generation, the last and worst of the nation, that is arraigned before His tribunal. Their treatment of His disciples, especially of His apostles, might most fitly and justly be made the criterion of character in ‘discerning between the righteous and the wicked.’ Such a test would be most appropriate in an age when Christianity was a persecuted faith, and this is evidently supposed by the very terms of the King’s address:—‘I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, was naked, sick, and in prison.’ The persons designated as ‘these my brethren,’ and who are taken as the representatives of Christ Himself, are evidently the apostles of our Lord, in whom He hungered, and thirsted, was naked, sick, and in prison. All this is in perfect harmony with the words of Christ to His disciples, when He sent them forth to preach—‘He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man, shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward’. (Matt. 10:40-42)
We are thus brought to the conclusion, the only one which in all respects suits the tenor of the entire discourse, that we have here, not the final judgment of the whole human race, but that of the guilty nation or nations of Palestine, who rejected their King, despitefully treated and slew His messengers, (Matt. 22:1-14) and whose day of doom was now near at hand.
This being so, the entire prophecy on the Mount of Olives is seen to be one homogeneous and connected whole: ‘simplex duntaxat et unum.’ It is no longer a confused and unintelligible medley, baffling all interpretation, seeming to speak with two voices, and pointing in different directions at the same time. It is a clear, consecutive, and historically truthful representation of the judgment of the Theocratic nation at the close of the age, or Jewish period. The theory of interpretation which regards this discourse as typical of the final judgment of the human race, and of a world-wide catastrophe attendant upon that event, —really finds no countenance in the prediction itself, while it involves inextricable perplexity and confusion. If, on the one hand, it could be shown that the prophecy, as a whole, is in every part equally applicable to two different and widely separated events; or, on the other hand, that at a certain point it quits the one subject, and takes up the other, then the double sense, or twofold reference, would stand upon some intelligible basis. But we have found no dividing line in the prophecy between the near and the remote, and all attempts to draw such a line are unsatisfactory and arbitrary in the extreme. Still more untenable is the hypothesis of a double meaning running through the whole; a hypothesis which supposes a ‘verifying faculty’ in the expositor or reader, and gives so large a discretionary power to the ingenious critic that it seems utterly incompatible with the reverence due to the Word of God.
The perplexity which the double-sense theory involves is placed in a strong light by the confession of Dean Alford, who, at the close of his comments on this prophecy, honestly expresses his dissatisfaction with the views which he had propounded. ‘I think it proper,’ he says, ‘to state, in this third edition, that, having now entered upon the deeper study of the prophetic portions of the New Testament, I do not feel by any means that full confidence which I once did in the exegesis, quoad prophetical interpretation, here given of the three portions of this Matt. 25. But I have no other system to substitute, and some of the points here dwelt on seem to me as weighty as ever. I very much question whether the thorough study of Scripture prophecy will not make me more and more distrustful of all human systematising, and less willing to hazard strong assertion on any portion of the subject.’ (July 1855.) In the fourth edition Alford adds, ‘Endorsed, October 1858.’ This is candour highly honourable to the critic, but it suggests the reflection, —if, with all the light and experience of eighteen centuries, the prophecy on the Mount of Olives still remains an unsolved enigma, bow could it have been intelligible to the disciples who eagerly listened to it as it fell from the lips of the Master? Can we suppose that at such a moment he would speak to them in inexplicable riddles—that when they asked for bread He would give them a stone? Impossible. There is no reason for believing that the disciples were unable to comprehend the words of Jesus, and if these words have been misapprehended in subsequent times, it is because a false and unnatural method of interpretation has obscured and distorted what in itself is luminous and simple enough. It is matter for just surprise that such disregard should have been shown by expositors to the express limitations of time laid down by our Lord; that forced and unnatural meanings should have given to such words as aiwn genea enyewv, &c.; that arbitrary lines of division should have been drawn in the discourse where none exist, —and generally that the prophecy should have been subjected to a treatment which would not be tolerated in the criticism of any Greek or Latin classic. Only let the language of Scripture be treated with common fairness, and interpreted by the principles of grammar and common sense, and much obscurity and misapprehension will be removed, and the very form and substance of the truth will come forth to view.18
Before passing away from this deeply interesting prophecy it may be proper to advert to the marvellously minute fulfilment which it received, as testified by an unexceptionable witness, —the Jewish historian Josephus. It is a fact of singular interest and importance that there should have been preserved to posterity a full and authentic record of the times and transactions referred to in our Lord’s prophecy; and that this record should be from the pen of a Jewish statesman, soldier, priest, and man of letters, not only having access to the best sources of information, but himself an eye-witness of many of the events which he relates. It gives additional weight to this testimony that it does not come from a Christian, who might have been suspected of partisanship, but from a Jew, indifferent, if not hostile, to the cause of Jesus.
So striking is the coincidence between the prophecy and the history that the old objection of Porphyry against the Book of Daniel, that it must have been written after the event, might be plausibly alleged, were there the slightest pretence for such an insinuation.
Though the Jewish people were at all times restless and uneasy under the yoke of Rome, there were no urgent symptoms of disaffection at the time when our Lord delivered this prediction of the approaching destruction of the temple, the city, and the nation. The higher classes were profuse in their professions of loyalty to the Imperial government: ‘We have no king but Caesar’ was their cry. It was the policy of Rome to grant the free exercise of their own religion to the subject provinces. There was, therefore, no apparent reason why the new and splendid temple of Jerusalem should not stand for centuries, and Judea enjoy a greater tranquillity and prosperity under the aegis of Caesar than she had ever known under her native princes. Yet before the generation which rejected and crucified the Son of David had wholly passed away, the Jewish nationality was extinguished: Jerusalem was a desolation; ‘the holy and beautiful house’ on Mount Zion was razed to the ground; and the unhappy people, who knew not the time of their visitation, were overwhelmed by calamities without a parallel in the annals of the world.
All this is undeniable; and yet it would be too much, to expect that this will be regarded as an adequate fulfilment of our Saviour’s words by many whom prejudice or traditional interpretations have taught to see more in the prophecy than ever inspiration included in it. The language, it is said, is too magnificent, the transactions too stupendous to be satisfied by so inadequate an event as the judgment of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem. We have already endeavoured to point out the real significance and grandeur of that event. But the one sufficient answer to all such objections is the express declaration of our Lord, which covers the whole ground of this prophetic discourse, ‘Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all these things are fulfilled.’ No doubt there are some portions of this prediction which are capable of verification by human testimony. Does any one expect Tacitus, or Suetonius, or Josephus, or any other historian, to relate that ‘the Son of man was seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; that He summoned the nations to his tribunal, and rewarded every man according to his works’?
There is a region into which witnesses and reporters may not enter; flesh and blood may not gaze upon the mysteries of the spiritual and immaterial. But there is also a large portion of the prophecy which is capable of verification, and which has been amply verified. Even an assailant of Christianity, who impugns the supernatural knowledge of Christ, is compelled to admit that ‘the portion relating to the destruction of the city is singularly definite, and corresponds very closely with the actual event.’19 The punctual fulfilment of that part of the prophecy which comes within the field of human observation is the guarantee for the truth of the remainder, which does not fall within that sphere. We shall find in the sequel of this discussion that the events which now appear to many incredible were the confident expectation and hope of the apostolic age, and that the early Christians were fully persuaded of their reality and nearness. We are placed, therefore, in this dilemma—either the words of Jesus have failed, and the hopes of His disciples have been falsified; or else those words and hopes have been fulfilled, and the prophecy in all its parts has been fully accomplished. One thing is certain, the veracity of our Lord is committed to the assertion that the whole and every part of the events contained in this prophecy were to take place before the close of the existing generation. If any language may claim to be precise and definite, it is that which our Lord employs to mark the limits of the time within which all His words were to be fulfilled. Whatever other catastrophes, of other nations, in other ages, there may be in the future, concerning them our Lord is silent. He speaks of His own guilty nation, and of His judicial coming at the close of the age, as had been often and clearly foretold by Malachi, by John the Baptist, and by Himself.20 For this His words are to be held responsible; but beyond this all is mere human speculation, the hypothesis of theologians, grounded upon no warranty of Scripture.
We have thus endeavoured to rescue this great prophecy from the loose and uncritical method of interpretation by which it has been so much obscured and perplexed; to let it speak the same distinct and definite meaning to us as it did to the disciples. Reverence for the Word of God, and due regard to the principles of interpretation, forbid us to impose non-natural constructions and double senses, which in effect would be ‘to add to the words of this prophecy.’ We dare not play fast and loose with the express and precise statements of Christ. We find but one Parousia; one end of the age; one impending catastrophe; one terminus ad quem, —‘this generation.’ We protest against the exegesis which handles the Word of God in such free fashion as commends itself to many. ‘The Lord,’ it is said, ‘is always coming to those who look for His appearing.’ We see His coming on a large scale in every crisis of the great human story. In revolutions, in reformations, and in the crises of our individual history. For each one of us there is an advent of the Lord, as often as new and larger views of truth are presented to us, or we are called to enter on new and perchance more laborious and exciting duties.’21 In this way it might be difficult to say what is not a ‘coming of the Lord.’ But by making it anything and everything we make it nothing. It is evacuated of all precision and reality. There is no reason why the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection should not similarly become common and everyday transactions as well as the Parousia. It is one thing to say that the principles of the divine government are eternal and immutable, and therefore what God does to one people, or to one age, He will do in similar circumstances to other nations and other ages; and it is quite another thing to say that this prophecy has two meanings: one for Jerusalem and Israel, and another for the world and the final consummation of all things. We hold, with Neander, that ‘the words of Christ, like His works, contain within them the germ of an infinite development, reserved for future ages to unfold.’22 But this does not imply that prophecy is anything that an ingenious fancy can devise, or has occult and ulterior senses underlying the apparent and natural signification of the language. The duty of the interpreter and student of Scripture is not to try what Scripture may be made to say, but to submit his understanding to ‘the true sayings of God,’ which are usually as simple as they are profound.23
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1. Josh.. Antiq. bk. xx. x. xiii. sec. 5, 6.
2. Conybeare and Howson, Life and Epist. of St. Paul, c. iv.
3. Josh.. Antiq. bk. xviii. c. v, sec. 3.
4. Traill’s Josh.. Jewish War, pref. sec. 4
5. Traill’s Josh.. Jewish War, bk. vi. c. v. sec. 3
6. Traill’s Josh.. Jewish War, bk. vi. c. v. sec. 2
7. See Alford Gr. Test, Matt. 24:29..
8. Angus’s Bible Handbook p. 20 sec. i.
9. The phenomena described by our Lord as accompanying the Parousia, (Matt. 24:29.) cannot be explained by the portents slid prodigies alleged by Josephus to have preceded the capture of Jerusalem (Jewish War, bk. vi. c. v. sec. 3). That some at least of those portents actually appeared there seems no reason to doubt, and they serve to verify the prediction in Luke 21:11., —‘Fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’
10. See Lange in loc.
11. Reden Jesu, vol. iii. p. 304.
12. Harmony of the Four Gospels, sec. 129.
13. Professor Burton’s Bampton Lecture, p. 20.
14. The following extract is taken from an excellent article in the first volume of the Bibliotheca Sacra (1843), by Dr. E. Robinson, entitled ‘The coming of Christ.’ Up to Matt. 24:42., Dr. Robinson maintains the exclusive reference of the prediction to Jerusalem, and thus notices the interpretations which refer it to the ‘end of the world:’ ‘The question now arises whether, under these limitations of time, a reference of our Lord’s language to the day of judgment and the end of the world, in our sense of these terms, is possible. Those who maintain this view attempt to dispose of the difficulties arising from these limitations in different ways. Some assign to enyewv the meaning suddenly, as it is employed by the LXX in Job 5:3, for the Hebrew oatp But even in this passage the purpose of the writer is simply to mark an immediate sequence—to intimate that another and consequent event happens forthwith. Nor would anything be gained even could the word enyewv be thus disposed of, so long as the subsequent limitation to ‘this generation’ remained. And in this again others have tried to refer genea to the race of the Jews, or to the disciples of Christ, not only without the slightest ground, but contrary to all usage and all analogy. All these attempts to apply force to the meaning of the language are in vain, and are now abandoned by most commentators of note.’ After so luminous an exposition it is disappointing to find Dr. Robinson failing to carry out the principles with which he started consistently to the end. Embarrassed by the foregone conclusion that the ‘final judgment’ and ‘the end of the world’ are somewhere to be found in the prophecy, and unable to see where the theme of Jerusalem ends, and the other and greater theme of the world’s catastrophe begins, he adopts the following method. Starting with the assumption that the parable of the sheep and the goats must describe the latter event, he feels his way backwards to the preceding parable of the talents, in which he finds the same subject, the doctrine of final retribution. Going still further back, to the parable of the tell virgins, he finds the object of that parable to be the inculcation of the same important truth. The twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew must therefore, he concludes, refer wholly to the transactions of the last great day. ‘But,’ he continues, ‘the latter portion of Matt. 24., viz. from ver. 43 to 51, is intimately connected with the opening parable of Matt. 25,’ which seems to furnish a sufficient ground for regarding this passage also as referring to the future judgment. At Matthew 24:43, therefore, Dr. Robinson conceive that our Lord leaves the subject of Jerusalem altogether and takes up a new topic, the judgment of the world. It will at once be apparent that the whole of this reasoning is vitiated by the false premise with which it starts, viz., the assumption that the parable of the sheep and the goats refers to the judgment of the human race. We have already shown that there is no new departure at Matt. 24:48. .
15. The note in Robinson’s Harmony of the Four Gospels, part vii. sec. 128, is excellent. ‘This generation,’ etc. These words (genea) cannot be understood (as some have explained them) of the Jewish nation or the human race. The meaning is, that the men of that age should not all die (See Matt. 16:28. , in sec. 74) before the prophecy would be accomplished, which began to come to pass thirty-seven years after its utterance in the destruction of Jerusalem, etc.
16. Life of Christ, c. xii. sec. 214, note.
17. Traill’s Josephus, Jewish War, b. -vi. ch. ix. sec. 3, 4.
18. Life of Christ, sec. 254, Note.
19. Contemporary Review, Nov. 1876. See Note B, Part I.
20. Jonathan Edwards says, referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, —‘Thus there was a final end to the Old Testament world: all was finished with a kind of day of judgment, in which the people of God were saved, and His enemies terribly destroyed.’—History story of Redemption, vol. i. p. 445.
21. Evang. Meg. Feb. 1877, p. 69.
22. Life of Christ, 165.
23. See Note A, Part I.