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On the "transitional verses" in Matthew 24

By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry
Published September 2008

I have had several inquiries seeking a fuller explanatory justification for my argument that Christ’s attention turns from A.D. 70 to the future Second Advent in the transition verses, Matthew 24:34-36. I would like to offer a treatment of the matter.

The “Problem” with the Transition Text

It is frequently noted that the “coming of Christ” is mentioned before and after the transition text of Matthew 24:34-36. It is further noted that these references are virtually identical. For instance Matthew 24:27 reads:

“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” Compare this with post-transitional Matthew 24:37: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” How are we justified in taking two identical statements in the space of a unified discourse and applying them to events separated by thousands (and I suspect, tens of thousands) of years?

Linguistic Sense and Historical Referent

Now, is it hermeneutically possible for identical terms or phrases to be applied to different events? As a matter of fact, it is not only possible, but quite common in human language and biblical revelation. For astute students of philosophy and theology it is not uncommon for there to be inter-contextual differences between identical terms regarding sense and referent. Let me explain what I mean.

The fundamental linguistic sense of ‘coming’ has to do with a visitation of divine judgment upon man. This is the very essence of the notion of “the coming of the Son of Man,” for instance. But the particular historical referent of a “coming’ may be either the A.D. 70 coming, or the Second Advental coming to punctuate the end of history – or some other divine judgment visitation.

Beyond the introduction of this matter relative to the philosophy of language, it is important to realize that A.D. 70 is not unrelated to the Second Advent. As the ending of the era of sacrificial rituals and Israel-exalting redemptive history, A.D. 70 is a pre-consummational type of the Second Advent’s history ending, consummational conclusion. Hence, the similarity of language and the mixing of ideas is justified on the basis of the relationship of type (A.D. 70) to antitype (Second Advent) [This phenomenon of type/anti-type is very common in Davidic/Messianic passages. In such references, what is said of the historical King David often applies to the Messianic King Jesus.]

Examples of this sort of “problem” abound in Scripture

(1) The same sort of inter-contextual shift occurs in Revelation 20:46, where two resurrectional coming-to-life occurrences are spoken of: one is spiritual, the other physical. John himself, the writer of Revelation, gives us warrant for making such an interpretive maneuver; see John 5:25-29 [He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992),415-417.]

(2) Paul frequently shift his meaning of “law” in Romans 3-8 between the Old Testament revelation as such, the Pharisaic idea of “law as meritorious principle,” and “Law as God’s revealed non-meritorious standard of righteousness” [See: John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 1:105ff; 2:49ff.]

(3) When you compare John 2:13-17 with Matthew 21:12-13 you will find the references to the cleansing of the Temple almost identical. But, of course, they are separated by about three and one-half years.

More relevantly, various mentions of “the day of the Lord’ are referred to in Scripture. The general sense in all places is ‘divine visitation in judgment”; the specific referent might be upon Babylon (cp. Isa. 13:1 with 1:6,9), Egypt (cp. Jer. 46:8, with 46:10), Israel (cp. Joel 1:2 with 1:1 5; cp. Zeph. 1:1,2,4 with 1:7), or on the world at large (2 Pet. 3:10). For a discussion of the 2 Peter 3 passage, see my He Shall Have Dominion, 301-305.

The Transition Text Revisited

Now let me turn to the reasons why I hold there is a contextual shift here in Matthew 24:34-36, which reads: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

First, the Greek phrase PERI DE (“now concerning”) in Matthew 24:36 is used by Matthew as an indicator of a change of subject. Along with all the other data below, this is strongly suggestive of the change I am suggesting.

Second, by all appearance Matthew 24:34 seems to function as a concluding statement, having specific reference to the preceding events. If all of Matthew 24 were for the first century, why would not the Lord hold off on the concluding statement until the end of His discourse? The following events (Matt. 24:36-51) relate to some other event that was not to occur in ‘this generation.” Thus, all events before verse 34 are to occur to ‘this generation.”

Third, there seems to be an intended contrast between that which is near (in verse 34) and that which is far (in verse 36): this generation vs. that day. It would seem more appropriate for Christ to have spoken of ‘this day” rather than ‘that day” if He had meant to refer to the time of ‘this generation.’

Fourth, along these same lines, we should notice the pretransition emphasis on plural ‘days” in contrast to the focus on the singular “day’ afterwards. ‘This generation’ involves many ‘days” for the full accomplishment of the protracted (Matt. 24:22) Great Tribulation. Indeed, were the Great Tribulation on one particular day, its horror would be greatly reduced. By the very nature of the case “that day’ of the future Second Advent will come in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (cp. I Cor. 15:52). The Second Advent does not span days, whereas the Great Tribulation does.

In Matthew 24:19, 22, and 29 the Lord makes reference to the plural “days” that are fraught with judgment and terror. These involve times consumed by war and famine (vv. 6-7), which take time. He does, of course, mention that these people should pray that their flight not be on a singular ‘sabbath’ (Matt. 24:20). But this has reference to taking flight on any sabbath, not a particular one. The Great Tribulation era will cover a number of sabbath days as it develops.

It is true that Christ does speak of the future era of the Second Advent as being like the “days [plural] of Noah” (Matt. 24:37, 38). But it is clear that His focus is on “that” singular day, when Christ (“the Lord”) comes to punctuate the end of history (vv. 36, 50) and to bring final judgment upon men (v. 51).

Fifth, before verse 34 there are signs to the A.D. 70 coming; after it there are no signs. The time of Jerusalem’s destruction is a sign-filled era that called for attentive watching through sign reading. There will be false Christs (v. 5), wars and rumors of wars (v. 6-7), famines and earthquakes (v. 7b), persecution and betrayal (vv. 9-12), and false prophets (v. 11). His hearers will be witness to the abomination of desolation (v. 15) and urged to flee from the area when they see it (vv. 16-21). There will be great signs and wonders (v. 24), of which He informs them, since He knows what is to come and when (v. 25). Thus, when all these things begin occurring, they serve as signs of the impending nearness of Christ’s judgment coming on Jerusalem (vv. 32-33). The time of its approach may be known.

After verse 34 such signs and objectively verifiable events vanish from the discourse. His statements become more generic: the days will be like the “days of Noah” (vv, 37-39) in which people were eating and drinking and marrying, until the judgment falls on particular individuals (vv. 40-41) on that particular ‘day’ (v. 42). This in effect speaks of signlessness: mundane social concourse continues unawares. Thus, the Son of Man does not give concrete signs of that future, Second Advental coming. There appears in the discourse at this juncture generic encouragements to labor because of the lack of signs.

Sixth, even Christ Himself claims He does not know the time of the Second Advent (v. 36). Whereas in the early section He clearly knows the time of the events leading to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (vv. 29-30). He tells His disciples that certain signs may come, but He knows full well that “the end is not yet’ (v. 6). He dogmatically asserts that these things will happen to “this generation” (v. 34). Thus, He can positively assert ‘behold, I have told you in advance” (v. 25).

Seventh, in the early section of Matthew 24, the time frame is clearly specified: He asserts the nearness of events: “this generation” (v. 34). In the following section (and into chapter 25, which is not separated from chapter 24 in the original) the reference is to a long delay: ‘But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming” (Matt. 24:48) ‘While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept” (Matt. 25:5). “After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them” (Matt. 25:19). The designation “far” is certainly a relative concept. However, when used in a context and in apposition to “this generation” designates, its relativity is in strong contrast.

Eighth, in the early section of Matthew 24 the setting is chaotic, with wars, quakes, and famines. Who can read the first portion of Matthew 24 without a sense of turmoil and dread? Whereas, in the latter section the scene is tranquil, with men carrying on their normal daily affairs as if nothing is going to happen. This is a strong indicator of a major change of scenery. The difference is between the war-torn Great Tribulation and the unexpected appearance of Christ to end history.

A few adherents to the change of subject matter include F. T. France, Matthew (Tyndale Commentaries), R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to Matthew (Tyndale), J. M. Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (P&R), and J. A. Alexander, Matthew.


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