Patently, Matthew 24 is a pivotal text in the eschatological debate. Amillennialists and premillennialists find little in common here. One shared belief, however, is that the disciples’ questions reveal they mistakenly believed Jerusalem’s fall and the end of time to be synchronous. One writer insists that while their questions indicate two events to us, "the disciples were indeed thinking of one stupendous event," i.e., the fall of Jerusalem. He then says, "However, it does not follow…that they were correct in their assumption." Such sentiments are common. In fact, seemingly taken for granted by the commentators is the gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ disciples and the clarity of modern comprehension!
Did the disciples misperceive Jesus’ discussion? Can we assume we are right and they wrong? This paper seeks to challenge the current consensus which suggests the disciples were wrong in their understanding that Messiah would come and the world would end at the fall of Jerusalem.
What Coming? What World?
The interpretation of Matthew 24 hinges upon a proper understanding of the questions in verse 3. Did the disciples ask about the destruction of Jerusalem plus the end of time; or did the disciples ask about the destruction of Jerusalem? Were the disciples confused? Could it be that the disciples (knowledgeable in Jewish apocalyptic) had a more perfect understanding of what was to happen in the "end of the age" and "day of the Lord" than we give them credit for having? In fact, upon what basis do WE assume that the disciples even conceived of the end of time? Have we read back into the text our modern concepts? Could it be that the end of the world they had in mind was the full end of the Jewish Theocracy at the coming of Messiah in his kingdom, Daniel 9:24-27? Space forbids us to pursue this here but we urge the reader to study this on his own.
An Admission–A Fact
We would acknowledge that the disciples very often misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. In fact, the resurrection is the one subject most misunderstood. See Mark 9:32,45. They did not fathom some of his references to the Father, John 8:27; his teaching about the sheepfold, 10:6; his entry into Jerusalem, 12:14-16; Jesus washing their feet, 13; his relationship with the Father, 14:7ff; and the doctrine of the Pharisees, Matthew 16:5ff. This question: How do we know of the disciples’ comprehension problems? Quite simply, we know because the Bible tells us! In each case cited above inspiration specifically tells us the disciples did not understand! The writers, writing "post facto" very candidly reflect on their own ignorance as they write about their time with Jesus.
Another question; Where in Matthew 24 are we told the disciples did not understand? Where does it say, "They did not understand what they were asking" as happened in Matthew 20:20ff? Where does it tell us that after Jesus was glorified they understood his words as is the case in John 2:22 and 12:14-16? Patently, there is no verse in Matthew 24 which tells us the disciples did not properly understand the nature of their questions or Jesus’ response!
Now, on other occasions, when the disciples did not understand Jesus’ teachings, or the significance of their own questions, the Holy Spirit specifically tells us of their failure to fathom. Thus, nor can we maintain they did not understand in Matthew 24 when not one word to that effect is stated by the writer? It is nothing less than arbitrary assumption to state something for which there is not one word of contextual evidence! But there is more to consider.
Knowing Their Thoughts
Not only do the writers tell us if the disciples failed to understand Jesus’ words, they also tell us that because Jesus knew their thoughts he corrected their error. In Mark 8:13ff he had warned them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. Not comprehending, they reasoned among themselves. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, called them around and promptly corrected their lack of understanding.
We ask again: Where in Matthew 24 is any indication that Jesus knew the disciples were mistaken about their ideas of the end of the age and his coming? Further, where is a text in which we can confidently assert the disciples were mistaken; in which Jesus did not rebuke or correct their error; or the writers do not tell us of their failure to understand? If the writers do not tell us the disciples were in error how can we know? But since they often do tell us, should not their silence about any supposed lack of comprehension in Matthew 24 cause us to be cautious in assigning error to the disciples?
This widespread assumption about disciple error is present in regard to another important text. In Acts 1:6 Jesus was asked, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Most amillennial writers aver the disciples were (mistakenly) asking Jesus to restore the old nationalistic kingdom; and they further insist Jesus rebuked them for their error. Closer examination will reveal disturbing discrepancies in this theory however.
The disciples had spent three years at Jesus’ feet. When he was crucified their hopes were dashed, Luke 24:18-21. Yet, as he appeared to two disciples we are informed Jesus opened their eyes so they might understand the scriptures in regard to his suffering and glorification, Luke 24:25-27. Later, with the disciples, he "opened their understanding that they might comprehend the scriptures," vs. 45.
For forty days after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples "speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God," Acts 1:3. Can we assume that after 3 1/2 years at Jesus’ feet; after having their eyes opened to understand the scriptures; after 40 days of intense final instructions; the disciples did not understand about the kingdom? How far shall we stretch our credulity?
Look close at Acts 1:6. What do the disciples ask about? They ask about TIME! "Will you at this time restore the kingdom?" Did Jesus rebuke their understanding about the nature of the kingdom? Read: "It is not for you to know the times of seasons the Father has put in His own authority," vs. 7, (emphasis mine). They asked about time–Jesus responded about time! Not one word of rebuke for failing to see the truth about the nature of the kingdom! They understood! We need to understand!
Restoration of the Kingdom
As one writer correctly notes: "…the kingdom of the gospels is a restored kingdom" (his emphasis). The prophetess Anna, Luke 2:36-38, said Jesus was for the "redemption of Jerusalem." Mary was told Jesus would sit on the throne of David, Luke 1:32-34. Yes, the kingdom was to be restored.
The millennialist fails to grasp the New Covenant teaching about the kingdom. He fails to see that Jesus is now on David’s throne–in heaven, Acts 2:29ff. He fails to see WHAT THE DISCIPLES HAD BEEN TAUGHT AND WHAT THEY IN TURN TAUGHT, THAT THE CHURCH IS THE RESTORED KINGDOM OF ISRAEL!
Peter, Acts 3, said Jesus would return after the "restoration of all things foretold by the Old Prophets, v.21. His emphatic words limiting that fulfillment to those days are ignored or overlooked by the millennialist. See verse 24. The events of those days were fulfilling the prophecies of the restoration of all things. But the events of those days were events surrounding the establishment of the church!
In Acts 15:13ff James rehearsed the conversion of the Gentiles. He said this was in fulfillment of Amos 9:11ff which had predicted the restoration of the "tabernacle of David" so that Gentiles could be
saved. Gentiles had been saved, therefore the tabernacle of David has been restored. This proves that the establishment of the church was the "restoration of the kingdom." We believe this was in the apostles’ minds when they, after having their eyes opened to understand the scriptures and 40 days of final instruction asked, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
It might be argued that, granted in Acts 1 the disciples did indeed properly understand, but this does not prove they did in Matthew 24. This would be true except we have unequivocal proof that the disciples had a better grasp of the concept of the end of the age and coming of the Lord than is normally granted.
In the parable of the tares, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and the correlative parables following it, 45-46, 47-52, we have reference to the end of the age. There can be no doubt, if we accept inspiration, that the reference to the end of the age/world is referent to the end of the Jewish Age/world. The key is verse 43.
Jesus said at the end of the age the Lord would send the angels who would gather the tares and burn them, and "then the righteous will shine forth as the stars in the kingdom of their Father." This is a quote from Daniel 12:3. But Daniel’s vision would be "for the time of the end," vs. 9, and would be fulfilled "when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered," vs. 7. When was the power of the holy people completely shattered? Without question it was at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. at the full end of the Jewish polity.
Now the final point in regard to the disciples’ comprehension of these matters. After telling the parables of the tares, pearl, and fish net, Jesus asked his disciples, "Have you understood all these things?" (Remember now we are dealing with matters relating to the time of the end of the age). Did the disciples understand? Hear them: "Yes, Lord," Matthew 13:51. The disciples did understand when Jesus spoke of the end of the age! If they did not they lied. If they did not and the writers by inspiration knew it, they failed to inform us!
Summary–In Matthew 13 Jesus told parables concerning the end of the age (sunteleia aionos) and his coming. Inspiration says this was to be the time when the power of the holy people was completely shattered, Daniel 12:7. Asked if they understood, the disciples insisted they did. In Matthew 24, Jesus consigned the city to destruction. His disciples, in response to his prediction, asked about the end of the age (sunteleias tou aionos).
Now since we know the disciples understood about the end of the age in Matthew 13, and that it referred to Judaism’s demise, how can we insist they did not understand in Matthew 24 where the subject is that very demise? Had they forgotten?
It is easy, 2000 years removed from the scene, to insist the disciples were guilty of an "appalling lack of understanding." As we have seen, when they were guilty of such the Bible tells us. In Matthew 24 we are not told they misunderstood. On the contrary, we are told (Matthew 13) they did understand in matters directly related to the subject of Matthew 24.
Since the disciples did not lack understanding as has been generally assumed, it is easy to correlate the parallel passages of Mark 13 and Luke 21 with Matthew 24. In those texts it is patent they asked only about the fall of Jerusalem. An insistence that in Matthew 24 the disciples did not understand the issues at hand forces one to manipulate the Markan and Lukan texts to fit modern assumptions. Acceptance of the disciples’ comprehension allows us to avoid artificial and untenable interpretations of Matthew 24. It then becomes a singular discourse about the Parousia of Jesus at the full end of the Jewish Age.
Based on the Biblical evidence it seems to this scribe that it is not the disciples who have been guilty of an "appalling lack of understanding."