Which Disciples Were (Or Are!) Confused?
Don K. Preston
It is undeniable that the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) is the key to understanding Jesus’ eschatology. It is certainly his longest discussion of the end of the age and his coming. To say the least, the Discourse is the source of a great deal of perplexity expositors. For the dispensationalist, Jesus’ discussion continues to provide fodder for their repeatedly failed prognostications that we are in the terminal generation.
This discussion of the Olivet Discourse will not deal with the verses 4f. We are concerned here about Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple and the questions that Jesus’ prediction elicited from the disciples. It is not too much to say that if one has a mistaken understanding of verses 2-3 that their entire perspective of the Discourse is thereby skewed. The proper understanding of the disciples’ questions is critical to understanding Jesus’ response. Here is why.
One of the most fundamental beliefs concerning the Discourse is that, yes, Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple. This of course is undeniable. The disciples however, upon hearing of that awful prediction, mistakenly associated that coming event with the end of the age and Christ’s coming. It is not too much to say that the idea that the disciples were confused, or simply mistaken, is one of the most fundamental beliefs about the Discourse. Calvin stated that the disciples: “did not suppose that while the building of this world stood, the temple could fall to ruins.”1 Just a few citations from modern representatives of the various futurist eschatologies will suffice to demonstrate how ingrained the idea is that the disciples were confused.
1.) Dispensationalist Thomas Ice says: “The disciples apparently thought that all three items, destruction of the Temple, the sign of Christ’ s coming, and the end of the age would occur at the same time. Yet this is not the case.”2 Ice cites other dispensationalists that likewise affirm that the disciples were mistaken or confused.
2.) Amillennialist Kim Riddlebarger, says, “It would be quite natural for the disciples to wrongly assume that the end of the age and the destruction of Jerusalem would be the same event. But this assumption may not be correct, for the destruction of temple, cataclysmic as it would be, was not the end of the age, nor did the Lord return in AD 70.”3
3.) Postmillennialist Keith Mathison says:”The disciples’ question indicates that in their mind the destruction of temple and the close of the redemptive history are closely related in time. They do not conceive of any significant temporal delay between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of redemptive history. Jesus’ response to their question, however, indicates that their understanding is in need of some correction.”4
All futurist eschatologies are to a great degree reliant on the concept that the disciples were mistaken. Both the amillennial and postmillennial paradigms believe that the Discourse is divided into two topics. It is held that in Matthew 24:4-35 Jesus discussed the destruction of the temple. However, we are told, in v. 36 he switched topics and began to discuss his coming at the end of the current Christian age. The dispensationalists on the other hand, claim that the only verses in the entirety of the Discourse that discuss the destruction of Jerusalem are found in Luke 21:20-24.
But, what if the disciples were not wrong to link the fall of Jerusalem with the end of the age and Christ’s coming? What if they were not as eschatologically challenged as modern commentators claim? If the disciples were right to link the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the age, then patently Israel stands at ground zero in God’s eschatological schema. And not only is Israel established as the key to end times understanding, but, eschatological fulfillment is positively confined to the first century. The implications for all of the futurist eschatologies, if the disciples were not as confused as is commonly assumed, are astounding.
The pressing question therefore is, were the disciples wrong to connect the fall of Jerusalem with the end of the age and the Day of the Lord? The unequivocal answer is that they were not mistaken.
Matthew 13, The End of the Age and the Disciples’ Understanding
Just as there is a consensus that the disciples were confused in their questions to Jesus, there is almost total agreement that Matthew 13:39f is a prediction of the end of the Christian age.5 It is assumed that the prophecy is about the church, and New Covenant promises, and not concerned with the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. The failure to see Jesus’ parables as an expression of the kingdom hope of Israel is the fatal flaw in all futurist eschatologies.
The parable in Matthew 13 is about the end of the age that the disciples were inquiring about in Matthew 24:3. One thing that helps identify that age is to ask the simple question: What age did that temple and Jerusalem represent? Did the temple in any way represent the current Christian age? Indubitably not. There was only one age that the temple and Jerusalem represented. That was the Mosaic Covenant age. There can be no disputation about this. Thus, if Matthew 13 and Matthew 24:3 are concerned with the end of the same age, then indisputably, Matthew 13 and Matthew 24 are about the end of the Old Covenant age.
When Jesus predicted the end of the age (Matthew 13:39-40, 49) he used a distinctive Greek term sunteleia tou aionos. This is the same term that the disciples utilized in Matthew 24:3. The topic is patently the same. The point that we just made is established even further by these facts.
Notice that Jesus said “harvest is at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:40). Jesus did not, as the KJV suggests, say that the harvest would be at the end of the world. He was predicting the end of the age. He then said that at that end of the age “then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the Father” (v. 43). So, the end of the age would be when the righteous would shine.
It is critical to understand Matthew 13:43 is a direct allusion / citation of Daniel 12:3: “Then (the time of the resurrection, v. 2, and the end of the age, v. 4), shall the righteous shine…”
So, Daniel predicted the resurrection, the time of the end, and the righteous shining forth in the kingdom. Jesus predicted the harvest (the resurrection), at the end of the age, and said it would be when the righteous would shine in the kingdom. There is little doubt that Jesus was drawing from Daniel 12.
Note now where fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy is posited by the God of heaven. In verse 6 one angel asked another when “all of these things” would be fulfilled. Verse seven is heaven’s divine answer:
“Then I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.”
There could hardly be a clearer more definitive answer. Let me express my argument succinctly:
Jesus’ prophecy of the end of the age and harvest, when the righteous would shine in the kingdom is the reiteration of the prophecy of Daniel 12.
But, the prophecy of Daniel 12 posited the end of the age and harvest, when the righteous would shine in the kingdom, at the time when the power of the holy people would
be completely shattered (Daniel 12:7).
Therefore, Jesus’ prophecy of the end of the age and harvest, when the righteous would shine in the kingdom, would be fulfilled when the power of the holy people would be completely shattered.
There is patently no other time and no other event that fits the description of the shattering of the power of the holy people than the cataclysmic destruction of Old Covenant Judaism in AD 70.6 What this means is that when Jesus told the parable of Matthew 13 the disciples would immediately have thought of the prophecy of Daniel.7 They would have known that the end of the age was not the end of the Christian age, but the end of the Mosaic age.8
Daniel is not alone is positing the eschatological fulfillment within the context of the end of the Old Covenant world of Israel. See Isaiah 65-66 where the prophet posits the coming of the New Creation at the time when God would destroy the Old Covenant “heaven and earth” and create a New People with a New Name (Isaiah 65:13-19). And there are many other OT prophecies that likewise foretold the coming of the kingdom and salvation at the end of Israel’s aeon. For the moment however, we will allow our comments on Daniel 12 and Isaiah 65 to suffice.
What we want to do now is to take note of some of Jesus’ other predictions of the eschaton that the disciples had heard prior to the Olivet Discourse, to see if it is justified to say that they were so horribly confused when Jesus spoke in Matthew 24. Surely it will be admitted that what Jesus had said prior to Matthew 24 would have informed the disciples’ understanding as Jesus spoke in Matthew 24. Take a look then at just a few of the passages in Matthew in which Jesus had spoken of the time of the end.
Matthew 16:27-28– Jesus had predicted his coming in judgment before all of that current generation died. This coming, as Wright has corrected noted, was to be in vindication of his suffering and that of his disciples.9 It simply will not do to claim that this prediction was fulfilled just a few days later in the Transfiguration vision.10
The agreement between Matthew 16 and Matthew 24 is too strong to ignore. And this means that we have the twin statements that the events were to be in that generation (Matthew 16:28; Matthew 24:34). Now, did the disciples know and understand that Christ said he was coming in judgment of those who were about to kill him, and persecute them, in that generation (Matthew 16:27-28)? If they did, then it surely is difficult to argue that they were confused in Matthew 24 when Jesus had just warned them of the very persecutions mentioned in chapter 16, and then promised vindication of those sufferings (Matthew 23:29-37). The correspondence is perfect, and is a challenge to those who would claim that the disciples were so confused in Matthew 24. If the disciples remembered Jesus’ prediction that he spoke in Matthew 16, then they were not confused in Matthew 24.
– Jesus told the parable of the Wicked Vineyard Husbandmen. The parable contains the elements of persecution of God’s prophets, just like Matthew 16:23f, Matthew 23 and Matthew 24:9f. It contains the promise of the coming of the Lord (v. 40-41), and the vindication of the suffering saints. And, there can be no dispute that the focus of the coming of the Lord in the text, the coming that would crush and grind to dust the enemies of the Vineyard owner, was to be the judgment of the Pharisees and religious leaders. As Jesus predicted the impending judgment that would result in the removal of the kingdom from Israel the text says that the Pharisees “understood that he spoke of them” (Matthew 21:45). This is then, an unequivocal judgment of the coming judgment of Jerusalem.
What is so important is that Jesus’ citation of the OT prophecies of the Stone that would crush the opposition must be viewed within the context of the establishment of the kingdom at the end of the age, i.e. in the last days (Daniel 2:28; 7:13f; Isaiah 8, etc.). The citation of Psalms 118:22f is an allusion to the Messianic Temple that would be established in the last days. So, Jesus’ citation of the OT prophecies of the Stone, in the context of the coming judgment of the Jerusalem leaders for persecuting the saints, must be viewed as an eschatological prediction. Furthermore, it must be seen in the context of the coming of the Son of Man.
Did the disciples not have a clue about what any of this meant? Those who argue for a confused group of disciples in Matthew 24 must be able to demonstrate that the disciples were likewise confused when Jesus uttered this parable. Of course, the difficulty with this is that Jesus specifically told the parables so that his disciples would understand his teachings (Matthew 13:10-16).
So, in Matthew 21 we find the very elements found in Jesus’ Temple discourse, which of course is what led to the disciple’s questions in the first place. We find the past persecution and the threat of future persecution. We find the promise that God was about to act in vindication of the suffering saints, and that promise would be fulfilled in the coming of the Master of the Vineyard. and that judgment was coming soon. Are we to believe that although the Pharisees and chief priests “perceived that he was speaking of them” in Jesus prediction of the coming of the Vineyard Master to destroy his enemies, that Jesus’ own disciples did not understand that message? Where the Pharisees and chief priests truly more perceptive about Jesus’ message of impending doom than Jesus’ own inner circle? And, did the Pharisees or even the disciples believe that the predicted judgment was to be the end of the time-space world? How would one justify such a claim?
Parable of the Wedding– It is somewhat rare when commentators of virtually all stripes agree on a given interpretation. It is significant therefore, to discover that there is virtually no disagreement as to the application of Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22. As Hagner expressed it: “It is virtually impossible for post-AD 70 readers of the Gospel not to see the destruction of Jerusalem alluded to in these words.”
What does Jesus predict in Matthew 22? He chronicles how representatives of the King were sent to the invited guests, to tell them the Wedding (the eschatological hope of Israel, (Hosea 2:19f; Isaiah 62, etc.) was now ready. The invited guests persecuted and killed the messengers. The King sent his servants to destroy the murderers and burn their city. Likewise, in the Temple discourse, Jesus chronicled the sending of YHWH’s servants to Israel, and how those servants had been slain. Now, Jesus said, he would send his messengers who would in turn be slain. But, judgment and vindication would come in his generation. The murderers would be slain, their city destroyed.
These motifs continue right through the Olivet Discourse. Just as Jesus said in Matthew 23:34f that he would send his disciples to Israel, and they would kill his “apostles and prophets and wise men and scribes” in Matthew 24:9f, speaking to those very disciples that he was sending out, he told them “they will deliver you up to persecution” (thlipsis). The persecution of Matthew 24:9f is the persecution predicted in 23:34f.
Just as Jesus said in Matthew 22, the Father would send out His armies to destroy the city of the persecutors. In Matthew 23:34f Jesus predicted the coming desolation of the city that spurned him and his disciples. And in Matthew 24, Jesus predic
ts the utter desolation of that Temple, and proceeds to explain why: the persecution of his disciples. The parallels are precise.
Did the disciples understand that Jesus was predicting the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 22? Just how would they have misunderstood it? If they understood from Jesus’ parable that Jerusalem was to be destroyed as a result of the persecution of those who followed him, how could they then become so dense, to use the term, in Matthew 23-24 when Jesus is expounding on those very topics?
So, we have three major texts (four counting Matthew 13 to which we will shortly return) in Matthew alone in which Jesus, prior to the Olivet Discourse, foretold the impending destruction of Jerusalem, at his coming and the end of the age. This raises the question then about why we should believe (assume) that the disciples were so egregiously ignorant and confused in Matthew 24. Exactly what is it that demands this? But, to help settle this, let’s take another look at Matthew 13.
Jesus told the parable of the sower and the harvest. The harvest when the Son of Man would send forth the angels to gather the harvest, would occur at the end of the age (Matthew 13:39-40). Notice what Jesus said in verses 39-43. He would send forth his angels to gather the elect and judge the wicked. When this was done, “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). This is a direct echo of Daniel 12:3! Let me reiterate the argument I made above:
The coming of the Lord at the harvest / resurrection at the end of the age
in Matthew 13:39-43 is the end of the age resurrection foretold by Daniel 12:2-3.
So, what we have is that Jesus told a parable about the kingdom, the judgment, the end of the age. His parable is based squarely on Daniel 12 which foretold the fulfillment of these things when Israel would be completely shattered.
Notice now, that Jesus continued to discuss the end of the age with the disciples. He then posed an important question to them, a question that is virtually ignored in the discussions of Matthew 24:3 and whether the disciples were confused in their questions. In Matthew 13:51 Jesus asked his disciples “Have you understood all of these things?” This is a critical question for it has a direct bearing on our understanding of the eschatology of Jesus and particularly Matthew 24.
Remember, Matthew 13 and Matthew 24 are about the end of the age. The identical distinctive Greek term is used in both texts. Both passages speak of the gathering (Daniel 12:3; Matthew 24:31). Both passages are dealing with God’s promises to Israel and the fate of Israel. Daniel 12 emphatically and irrefutably posits the kingdom, the gathering, the resurrection / harvest at the time of Israel’s destruction. Jesus directly alludes (some say he is loosely quoting Daniel 12:3, and in the normal custom of citations in the first century, this is true). Jesus then asked the disciples if they understood what he had said, and they affirmed that they did!
Now, did the disciples know that Daniel 12 foretold the end of the age? Who can deny that? Did they understand that Daniel foretold the resurrection? It can hardly be missed. Did they comprehend that there was a direct connection between the end of the age, the kingdom, the resurrection, and the destruction of Israel, as Daniel so clearly states? Well, they said they understood what Jesus was saying! And Jesus was citing Daniel’s prophecy of the end, the resurrection and the destruction of Israel.
If the end of the age in Matthew 13 is the end of the age in Daniel 12, then the end of the age in Matthew 13 would be when Israel was shattered.
If the end of the age in Matthew 13 is the end of the age in Matthew 24, then the end of the age of Matthew 24 would be when Israel was shattered.
The disciples said they understood what Jesus said about the end of the age in Matthew 13.
But Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 13 is drawn from Daniel 12 which predicted the end of the age when Israel was shattered.
Therefore, unless the disciples lied about understanding Jesus’ discourse about the end of the age in Matthew 13– and its undeniable connection to Daniel 12– then unless it can be definitively proven that they did in fact not understand what Jesus said in Matthew 13, it is prima facie evident that the disciples were not confused to connect the destruction of the Temple with the end of the age!
Did the disciples lie in Matthew 13 when they said they understood Jesus’ appeal to Daniel about the end of the age?
Did the disciples forget what Jesus said in Matthew 13 when they asked their questions in Matthew 24? Even if they had somehow forgotten it, that does not invalidate the actual connection between the end of the age and the destruction of Israel found in Daniel / Matthew 13!
Did the disciples misapply Jesus’ application of Daniel, in Matthew 13? What is the proof of that? Daniel and Matthew 13 are predictive of the end of Israel’s age at the time of her destruction. The end of that age at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is what prompted the disciples’ questions in Matthew 24. So, where would the misapplication and misunderstanding be?
Did the disciples not understand what Jesus said in Matthew 16:27-28? Was the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ teaching worse than that of the Pharisees in Matthew 21, so much so that although the Pharisees understood that Jesus was speaking of their impending judgment at the coming of the Lord, the disciples just did not get it? Did the disciples not comprehend Jesus emphatic declaration of the coming judgment of the city that had killed the prophets? Just how dense were Jesus’ disciples, if the modern day assumptions are correct?
Make no mistake. The disciples were often confused about Jesus’ teachings. That is not the issue. The telling fact however, is that when the disciples did not understand what Jesus said, the gospels plainly tell us that they did not understand! The question is therefore, where in the Olivet Discourse do we find anything resembling such a statement in Matthew 24?
In several instances in the Gospels we are told “they had not understood” (Mark 6:52), or, we read of Jesus challenging his disciples “How is it that you do not understand?” We have examples in which the disciples did not initially understand what was said, but then, the Gospel writer tells us, “Then the disciples understood” (Matthew 16:6-12). We have Jesus overtly chiding his disciples for not understanding what he said in regard to his impending death (Mark 9:32; Luke 24:25ff; John 14). In fact, it was discussions of Jesus coming passion and resurrection that elicited more comments about their misunderstanding than any other occasion.
The point is that when the disciples did not understand something the Lord said the Gospel writers, looking back at those instances, tell us of their confusion or ignorance. They even tell us how later actions shed light on their understanding (John 12:16).
In stark contrast with these emphatic statements concerning the disciples’ confusion or lack of comprehension, there is nothing in Matthew 24 that even closely resembles, even slightly suggests in any way whatsoever that the disciples did not understand the nature of their own questions. There is no, “They did not understand” declaration. There is no, “After his glorification, then they came to know.” There is no, “After he was risen, then the disciples remembered…” (Cf. Joh
So, what does this mean?
1.) It means that we have emphatic OT prophecies of the end of the age and coming of the Lord that posit fulfillment at the time of the destruction of the Old Covenant world. The disciples, of course, were intimately familiar with these prophecies.
2.) We have Jesus citing one of the central OT prophecies of the end of the age resurrection which unambiguously places the consummation at the time of Israel’s destruction.
3.) Not only does Jesus cite that OT prophecy, but in three pericopes prior to Matthew 24 Jesus predicted the impending destruction of Jerusalem at the coming of the Lord.
4.) When Jesus told the parable of the end of the age, and cited Daniel 12, he then asked his disciples if they understood what he had taught them, and they affirmed that they did understand.
5.) We have the undeniable fact that in on all other occasions when the disciples did not understand what Jesus said, the Gospel writer records their misunderstanding. In fact, the only way that we know the disciples were ever confused is because the Biblical text unabashedly tells us! There is not a syllable about such confusion in Matthew 24.
6.) We have the disciples (Matthew 24:3) using the distinctive Greek term for the end of the age that Jesus had used when citing Daniel 12, which, again, the disciples claimed they understood. What right does any modern commentator have to deny their claim?
Thus, when Jesus predicted the impending destruction of the ultimate symbol of that Old Covenant world, the disciples were not only not confused, they were thinking with logical acuity informed by their knowledge of the Old Testament prophets! The end of the age and the coming of the Lord are in fact inextricably linked with the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple. The implications of this are profound, needless to say.
Since the disciples were not confused or in error to connect the end of the age with the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, it is patently clear that it is the modern day disciples who are confused in their approach to Matthew 24. It is the modern day eschatological paradigms that are in confusion. Does it not border on theological arrogance to claim that the disciples were so horribly confused when in fact they affirmed their understanding?13 I think that Wright expressed it well: “Matthew 24:3, therefore, is most naturally read, in its first century Jewish context, not as a question about (what scholars have come to call, in technical language) the ‘parousia’, but as a question about Jesus’ ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ in the sense of is actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city.” (1996, 346).
Wright is mostly correct, but, it is patently obvious that the disciples were in fact asking about Christ’s parousia, and Jesus’ response emphatically answers their well informed questions: the parousia of Christ was to be in the first century in the judgment of Old Covenant Jerusalem.