In response to the last video—Part 5—in the Matthew 24 series, one of the regular viewers sent me an email asking about how two seemingly related passages can be understood. Some would call these problematic passages. Bible scholars referred to them by the Latin phrase: crux interpretum. I had to look it up. I think one way of explaining it would be to say this is where ‘interpreters cross paths’. In other words, this is where opinions diverge.
Here are the two passages in question:
“Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3, 4 NASB)
“But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23 NASB)
The problem these create for many Bible students is the time element. What “last days” is Peter talking about? The last days of the Jewish system of things? The last days of the current system of things? And precisely when does the Son of Man come? Was Jesus referring to his resurrection? Was he referring to the destruction of Jerusalem? Was he referring to his future presence?
There simply isn’t enough information given in these verses or their immediate context for us to nail down the answer to those questions in a way that leaves no doubt. These are not the only Bible passages that introduce a time element that creates confusion for many a Bible student, and which can lead to some pretty exotic interpretations. The parable of the sheep and the goats is one such passage. Jehovah’s Witnesses use that to get their followers to rigidly comply with all the Governing Body tells them to do. (By the way, we’re going to get into that in the Matthew 24 series even though it is found in the 25th chapter of Matthew. It’s called “literary license”. Get over it.)
Anyway, this got me to thinking about eisegesis and exegesis which we have discussed in the past. For those who haven’t seen those videos, eisegesis is a Greek word meaning essentially “from outside in” and refers to the technique of going into a Bible verse with a preconceived idea. Exegesis has the opposite meaning, “from inside out”, and refers to researching without any preconceived ideas but rather letting the idea spring from the text itself.
Well, I came to realize that there is another side to eisegesis that I can illustrate using these two passages. We may not be reading some preconceived idea into these passages; we may actually think we’re researching them with the notion that we will let the Scriptures tell us when the last days are and when the Son of Man will come. Nevertheless, we may still be approaching these verses eisegetically; not with a preconceived idea, but with a preconceived focus.
Have you ever given someone a piece of advice only to have them fixate on one element, a side element at that, thank you, and then dash off leaving you reaching for them crying, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I meant!”
There is a danger that we do that very thing when studying Scripture, especially when the Scripture has some time element in it which gives us the inevitably false hope that we might be able to figure out how close the end is.
Let us start by asking ourselves in each of these passages, what is the speaker trying to say? What point is he trying to make?
We’ll start with the passage Peter wrote. Let’s read the context.
“Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:3-10 NASB)
We could read more, but I’m trying to keep these videos short, and the rest of the passage just confirms what we see here. Peter certainly is not giving us a sign to know when the last days are, such that we could predict how close we are to the end as some religions, my former one included, would have us believe. The focus of his words is all about enduring and not giving up hope. He tells us that inevitably there will be people who will ridicule and mock us for putting faith in that which cannot be seen, the coming presence of our Lord Jesus. He shows that such people ignore the reality of history by making a reference to the flood of Noah’s day. Surely the people of Noah’s day mocked him for building a huge ark far from any body of water. But then Peter warns us that the coming of Jesus will not be something we can predict, for he will come as a thief comes to rob us, and there will be no warning. He gives us the cautionary note that God’s timetable and ours is very different. For us a day is a mere 24 hours, but for God it is far beyond our lifespan.
Now let us look at Jesus words recorded in Matthew 10:23. Again, look at the context.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. “But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. “But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. “For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.
But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!”
(Matthew 10:16-25 NASB)
The focus of his words is persecution and how to deal with it. Yet, the phrase so many seem to fixate on is “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”. If we miss his intent and instead center on this one clause, we get distracted from the real message here. Our focus then becomes, “When does the Son of Man come?” We become preoccupied by what he means by “not finishing going through the cities of Israel.”
Can you see that we’d be missing the real point?
So, let us consider his words with the focus he intended. Christians have been persecuted throughout the centuries. They were persecuted in the early days of the Christian congregation right after Stephen was martyred.
“Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1 NASB)
The Christians obeyed Jesus words and fled from the persecution. They didn’t go into the nations because the door of preaching to the gentiles had not yet been opened. Nevertheless, they fled from Jerusalem which was the source of the persecution at that time.
I know in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they read Matthew 10:23 and interpret it to mean that they will not finish preaching their version of the good news before Armageddon comes. This has caused many honest hearted Jehovah’s Witnesses great distress because they are taught that all who die at Armageddon will have no resurrection. Therefore, this makes Jehovah God into a cruel and unjust judge, for he actually foretells that his people will not be able to carry out the warning message to every person before judgment day comes.
But Jesus doesn’t say that. What he is saying is that when we are persecuted, we should leave. Wipe the dust off our boot, turn our backs, and flee. He doesn’t say, stand your ground and accept your martyrdom.
A Witness might think, “But what of all the people we have not yet reached in the preaching work?” Well, it seems our Lord is telling us not to worry about that, because you weren’t going to reach them anyways.”
Rather than get worried about the timing of his return, we need to focus on what he’s trying to tell us in this passage. Rather than feel some misguided obligation to continue preaching to people who are going out of their way to persecute us, we should feel no compunction about fleeing the scene. To stay would be equivalent to flogging a dead horse. Worse, it would mean we are disobeying a direct command of our leader, Jesus. It would amount to arrogance on our part.
Our mission is primarily to work in accordance with the guiding of the holy spirit for the ingathering of God’s chosen ones. When our number is complete, Jesus will come to bring the end of the system of things and establish his righteous kingdom. (Re 6:11) Under that kingdom we will then participate in helping all humans to reach out for the adoption as God’s children.
Let’s review. Peter wasn’t giving us a sign of the last days. Rather, he was telling us to expect ridicule and opposition and that possibly the arrival of our Lord would take a very long time. What he was telling us was to endure and not give out.
Jesus was also telling us that persecution would come and that when it happened, we were not worry about covering every last bit of territory but rather that we should simply flee elsewhere.
So, when we reach a passage that makes us scratch our heads, we might take a step back and ask ourselves, what is the speaker really trying to tell us? What is the focus of his counsel? It is all in God’s hands. We have nothing to worry about. Our only job is to understand the direction he is giving us and comply. Thank you for watching.