In response to my comments on the fulfilment of prophecy it was suggested to me (by other channels) that while much of Matthew 24 can ‘with difficulty’ be made to fit exclusively into an AD 70 framework, the same cannot be said for the parables of delay in 24:36 - 25:30. In other words, Jesus must be thinking about events that will happen in our future and for which we must in the same way be prepared. I disagree, but before I say why, I want to say briefly that I regard this not as a Preterist argument but fundamentally as a defence of a historically grounded evangelicalism – as belonging to the affirmation of a thoroughly biblical understanding of the evangel as a statement, or even statements, about the historical existence of a ‘new creation’ community.
The first problem with the view that Jesus has two temporally distinct outcomes in mind is that Matthew 24:36 begins: ‘But concerning that day and hour…’. The issue of the timing – and thus the problem of delay – is connected with the preceding events. The parables presuppose the narrative of a catastrophic judgment on Jerusalem that will take place within a generation (24:34), which is interpreted by Jesus as a fulfilment of the symbolism of the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven – that is, as a vindication of a suffering community of righteous Israel. There is no temporal disconnection in the narrative: Jerusalem will be made desolate by its enemies within a generation (Jesus could hardly be more explicit); immediately after that tribulation the sign of the Son of man will be seen; but the exact timing is unknown, so the disciples cannot afford to be complacent. The passage gives no reason thus far to seek a second fulfilment beyond the horizon of the Jewish War.
As in the days of Noah
The ensuing parables – they are only parables, remember – simply reinforce the third stage in this argument. The disciples cannot know how long they will have to wait for the dramatic change of circumstances that will demonstrate to the world the rightness of their belief in a new temple, a new covenant, a new age. The judgment of Jerusalem, the vindication of the Son of man, will take the Jews by surprise, just as humanity was taken by surprise at the time of the flood – by which, incidentally, Noah was vindicated for building the lifeboat by which his little community survived.
In Daniel’s vision the coming of the Son of man marks the symbolic climax to a complex historical narrative. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of man as a surprise event, he has in mind the build up to war that is alluded to in the earlier part of the discourse.
A thief in the night
The same argument applies in relation to the saying about a thief in the night, but especially significant here are passages in the prophets which use the image of a thief (in the night) to describe judgment on Jerusalem through military invasion, which strongly suggests that Jesus has a similar narrative in mind:
I brought them upon him at the time when I visited upon him, because grape gatherers came, who shall not leave for you things gleaned. As thieves by night they shall place their hand. (Jer. 29:9-10 LXX = Jer. 49:8-9 MT)
If thieves came to you, or robbers by night, where would you be cast aside; would they not steal what is sufficient for themselves? And if grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? (Obad. 5 LXX)
The following passage from Joel is important because it also has the cosmic imagery which Jesus uses in Matthew 24:29 to express the geo-political and religious significance of the destruction of Jerusalem.
They shall seize the city and run upon the walls; they will scale the houses and enter through windows like thieves. The earth shall be disturbed before them, and the sky shall be shaken. The sun and the moon shall grow dark, and the stars shall shed their brightness. (Joel 2:9-10 LXX)
Virgins late for the party
This parable is attached to teaching that emphasizes the responsibility of the servant who has been set over his master’s household while he is away to treat his fellow servants justly and not associate with drunkards (Matt. 24:45-51). If the servant becomes complacent about the ‘coming’ of his master and abuses the other servants, he will be condemned with the hypocrites, consigned to a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. That is, these disciples will be judged as though they were Pharisees – as hypocrites who purport to be good shepherds of Israel but who in fact ‘shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces’ (Matt. 23:13). They will be like the five virgins who turn up at the wedding without oil and are turned away at the door.
The parable of the talents
This popular parable makes the same basic point. Jesus again warns his disciples to watch, because they do not know the hour or the day (25:13). Nothing in the construction of his argument suggests that he also had in view circumstances far beyond the historical horizon of that first generation of Jewish followers. The same conclusion is reached. Those who fail to remain true to their calling in these difficult decades will find themselves ‘judged’ along with the Scribes and the Pharisees, excluded from the community of redeemed Israel.