The Olivet Discourse – Hermeneutics Part 2

03Jul11

Previously we began our discussion on the Olivet Discourse by looking at the context of the passage (Matt 24-25) and what led to the disciple’s questions and Jesus’ lengthy response. A quick review here to show the basic context issues and events leading up the discourse.

  • The disciples questions were in response to Jesus predicting the Temple’s destruction (similar to Daniel 9)
  • The disciples were concerned about the Temple because Jesus had just “cursed” it as he left the Temple in Chapter 23
  • The cursing of the Temple was preceded by the 7 Woes in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and states that punishment will come against that generation
  • The real context started in Chapter 21 when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, enters the Temple and turns over the money changer’s table.
  • He then refers to the Temple as His House
  • He follows the cleansing with several parables and confrontation with the Pharisees in which He begins telling them they will not enter the Kingdom of God
  • The culminating parable is the Vineyard Parable in which the Kingdom is taken from the Jews and given to those who will work the field
  • He exits the Temple and refers to it as “Your Temple” and no longer “My House”

This background context leads us to the discussion of the audience context. This very important and often overlooked part of the contextual understanding of the passage does help quite a bit in interpreting some of the difficult portions.

THE AUDIENCE

When asked who is the audience, most often the answer is the first century Jews to whom Matthew was probably writing. And although this is true, there is a much more immediate audience context for Jesus’ words.

Matt 24:3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying,

The initial audience for Jesus’ words were His disciples. This is important as throughout the passage the term “YOU” is used over and over again. He was not speaking to a specific Church or Church universal like you would find in Paul’s epistle’s, He has a specific “you” in mind. Those gentlemen who were seated around Him. These words were for “them” and it becomes a dangerous exercise in Biblical eisegesis when we want to apply those words to us or a future generation. Jesus could just have easily said “they” in the discourse, but He was specific to whom He was addressing.

One can gather that Jesus believed those Disciples would share the coming warning to those that came after them since this prophecy of destruction would come against Judea, but the warning does not exclude the disciples, but rather demands they be a part of the coming events with the repeated usage of the personal pronoun, you! Those things that Jesus said would happen to them, actually did happen to them and shows the Christ as the Messiah He was and is.

LANGUAGE CONTEXT

Here now we begin to look the use of language and how important it is to understand the kind of language being used and how to interpret it’s usage. There are several language “styles” used that make “wooden” literalism both impossible and ultimately dangerous as it forces the passage to say something it never intended and disparages the word of God through false prognostications. The following literary styles are used

  • Prophetic – Predictive narrative – “These things will happen”
  • Hyperbolic – exaggeration used to prove a point – “The greatest tribulation ever”
  • Symbolic – Symbols representing persons, places, things – “The stars will fall from the sky”
  • Apocalyptic – Language of graphic nature to reveal a truth – “The sky rolls up”
  • Old Testament Imagery – “The sign of the Son of Man”

All of these are used and they all have a purpose and an expectation the reader will consider the meaning. Wooden literalism falls into the trap of having to decide when something is to be taken literally within a literary style and when to take it figuratively. the problem is the inconsistency and the danger of forcing expressions out of their literary context.

Example..

If literally the stars will fall from the sky and hit the earth, what would “literally” happen? Just one star would destroy the earth just by being close – as in millions of miles close. So Left Behind theologians like Walvoord state that this must mean “,eteors” and not literally stars. But why? If they are meteors here then why not in Revelation? And how literal is it to change the actual word?

The important thing to ask is: Where have we seen something similar before? Are there Old Testament passages or parallel New Testament passages that will help us understand these difficult concept. Fortunately, YES! We will discuss several as we walk through the passage, but for now I will give one example.

Here is Matthew’s words – again, remember he is writing to jews who will be more familiar with Old Testament imagery than Lukes more greek oriented audience.

Matt 24:15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place ( let the reader understand), 16then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…

Matthew uses an Old Testament Biblical image of the abomination of desolation. Luke though writes…

Luke 21:20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains

So Luke makes it easier for the Greek mind to get the reference and, in a sense, interprets Matthews passage for us. This becomes all to clear the more the brighter parallel passages are used to help illuminate the darker passages. Luke, writing for a mind whose familiarity with the OT will not be as strong “interprets” the message for us and tells us that the abomination warning is the same as seeing Jerusalem surrounded by armies.

This leads to the final linguistic issue in hermeneutics, especially as it relates to the Olivet Discourse and much of prophecy for that matter. The Eastern (Jewish) mind and the Western (Greek) mind. This difference can greatly impact how one evaluates certain passages and, in actuality, makes things much easier to understand.

If one is to ask the “western” mind to explain why an individual may have become a juvenile delinquent the responses would probably range from; his father wasn’t around much, his mother was an alcoholic, he lived in poor conditions, he wasn’t raised properly, etc. If one would ask the “eastern” mind the same questions the answer may sound something like; the father eats sour grapes and the sons teeth chatter (Jer 31:29). Now both minds are giving the same reason but they sound quite different.

So in the same way when the western mind is asked to describe God the responses include; omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, saviour, creator, etc. the eastern mind responds; a tree planted by the water, a door, a sheep, a lion, a chicken gathering it’s chicks under it’s wings, etc. Again, the same thing being said but using radically different words. The western mind desires facts and definitions while the eastern mind wants descriptions and symbols.

A great problem arises when the western mind attempts to “define” the eastern mind’s writings using western definitions. This little key, along with understanding the different immediate and potential audiences will come in handy as we begin our walk through the Olivet Discourse.

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