Audience Relevance in the Olivet

Two years ago I ran across the simplest of statements that would forever change my life, my paradigm (worldview) and my faith in the Bible. Although the Scripture was written FOR us it was not written directly TO us. At first glance this phrase seemed rather juvenile, that is until I began to consider its earthshaking implications.

I was very much aware that the New Testament writers like Paul and Peter wrote their letters to real flesh and blood 1st century believers or churches, but even in that light I unwittingly bypassed context looking for specific personal applications that I believed was encased in every passage.

Clearly “all Scripture is inspired by God” and fully profitable that “we may be equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17) but is it beneficial to be so preoccupied with finding personal relevance to the point where we ignore scriptural context? I truly believe this has created a whole host of interpretational errors and has led to a great deal of confusion.

Therefore, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to first determine what the New Testament author intended to communicate to his immediate audience, and only after that attempt to make proper personal application. In other words, a text can’t mean today what it never meant to the first-century recipients. 

All too often when reading a passage of Scripture I was inclined to automatically transpose the “you” to “me” or “us”. That seemed wise until I realized that by doing so I was ripping “audience relevance” from the equation, and therefore trivialized the lives of the original recipients—to the point where they were deemed irrelevant. By doing this we inadvertently transport segments of Scripture germane to a first-century culture and spiritual climate, 2,000 years to a westernized people who have virtually no connection to the original context.

By ignoring context we create significant confusion such that we unwittingly subject ourselves to Doubting Thomasitis. I surely had a bad case of this nasty superbug! Things just did not add up and the subliminal affects of doubt crept in to the point where it took a serious toll on my relationship with the Lord. It’s insidious yet I prevalent in the Church. Expectations become skewed when we attempt to move passages from their first-century moorings to current day settings. When we time-warp, for example the letter to the Hebrews, to the year 2008 instead of reading it in it’s original 0062 context, we introduce insurmountable hermeneutical issues.

Doing this causes two identifiable problems.
  1. We don’t recognize God’s faithfulness to the original recipients.
  2. We expectantly wait for things to happen today that were prophesied to transpire in the first- century.
Over the next 30 years I fear many will leave the faith or at least shrink back from it, because they will eventually succumb to the beliefs of the theological liberals who tell us that the Bible is not inspired. Why will believers retreat and fall prey to those who don’t respect Holy Scripture? Because the predictions of our modern day soothsayers continue to go by the wayside. Many have not moved from being nominal believers to become effective disciples. They subsist on the elementary principles and do not forge ahead to be faithful Bereans (Acts 17:11) testing everything against the light of God’s Word.

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Hebrews 5:12-14 (ESV)

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
Hebrews 6:1 (ESV)
The problem, as I now realize after 33 years of struggle, is not with the the God-breathed Words of our Creator but with the faulty interpretational grid of man—who continues to ignore Scriptural relevance to the original audience.
This has lent credence to skeptic’s books like the Da Vinci Code since interpretation has become a matter of personal preference, removed from the realm of studious study based upon sound hermeneutical principles. In the mid 60’s AD, Peter warned his faithful followers of engaging in “private interpretations” and we still languish in the same errors today. Works like the Da Vinci Code would have little enticement if we recognized principles like audience relevance, the analogy of faith (interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture) and paid close attention to scriptural detail.
Let me briefly show you what I mean using a passage from 2 Thessalonians and then move on to intent of this post—reading the Olivet through the eyes and in the sandals of the first century believers. Consider the following passage from 2 Thessalonians 1. I’m going to embolden specific words to shed light on the audience at hand.

6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESV)

The immediate reflex for me was to personalize this passage—to bring it into my world. The assumption is that God is going to repay with affliction those who inflict ME and therefore inflict vengeance on MY oppressors. This may apply as a generalized principle but out of context we lose sight of what the Apostle Paul was conveying. The problem is that I’m not part of the Thessalonian Church and God never made that promise specifically to me. We must not lose sight of this fact.

By moving these verses into a modern day context, we fail to realize that Paul’s offering specific comfort to the persecuted Thessalonian Church, letting them know that God will avenge those who afflict them. We know historically that God made good this commitment adhering to Jesus’s “this generation” proclamation. During the ensuing 3 ½ year tribulation that began in the spring of AD 66 and terminated in the fall of AD 70, Jerusalem was obliterated and the oppressors witnessed God’s judgment first-hand. There’s no doubt that the Thessalonians were comforted by God’s faithfulness!

1,100,000 Jews died during the siege and another 80,000 were taken captive by Titus and the multinational force. God’s wrathful outpouring was evident to all!

What’s the lesson for us? How do we make application? By realizing that God is faithful to do exactly as promised within the time frame promised. Therefore, we know that if God was faithful to the first century believers who were in serious need of vindication, God will be faithful to us in our time of need. The problems come when we assume that the “flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” is to occur sometime in our future against those that may afflict us. This cannot be the case since the context of this passage forces us to confine Paul’s promised vindication to the oppressors of the Thessalonian believers in the latter part of the transition period, between the writing of 2 Thessalonians and the terrible day of the Lord in AD 70.

“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25 (ESV) (don’t forget that the YOU is not 21st century believers!) “The Day” was approaching rapidly. How soon would “all these things” be fulfilled? (Luke 21:22)

You (those living in the 60’s AD) need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised. 37For in just a very little while, “He who is coming (Jesus) will come and will not delay. (Hebrews 10:36-37 NIV) We can either choose to believe that God was faithful or we can continue to believe the rhetoric of the modern day prophecy experts…
Let’s take a look at another passage. As you read, consider who is speaking; who the passage is addressed to; what promises were made; to whom the promises were made; and the relevance to the surrounding time and conditions.
I’ll add some bracketed comments just to help us remember that this passage was not written directly to us. Put yourself into the mind of one of the audience members and transport yourself to the Mount of Olives in 30 AD. Picture the magnificent Temple edifice on the massive platform that currently supports the the Dome of the Rock. (click on the photo for perspective)

1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus said to them [not you & I], “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you [Jesus’ disciples], not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” [verse 34 tells the time frame when this was to take place]

3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age [not the end of the world as in the KJV]?” 4 And Jesus answered and said to them [not me & you] : “Take heed that no one deceives you [the disciples]. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. [in their day not 2,00 years future-and we have record of many who did come in this manner]

6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled [who is the “you” who should not be troubled?—The disciples] ; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet [end of what? End of the World? No, the end of the age] . 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. [all happened like clockwork – Acts speaks of much of this] 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows. [When was this all to happen? Verse 34 tells us]

9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you [kill whom?—the disciples], and you [disciples] will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. [and they did]

12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. [from the ensuing temporal destruction that would befall Jerusalem in the tribulation of AD 66-70] 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world [Has this happened yet? See Col 1:6;23] as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come [the end of the age not the end of the world].

15 “Therefore when you see [not us you but the disciples] the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” [Luke tells us (Luke 21:20) that this desolaton will be the result of the armies that surround the city] (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea [not Brandon or Opelika – no reason to spiritualize this text] flee to the mountains [in Florida!].

17 Let him who is on the housetop [not too many hanging out on housetops today in Tampa, FL or Kokomo, IN] not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field [Do you work in the field? Not a lot of folks do today. This is where people who pride themselves with the “literal” approach to interpretation, immediately take flight from the natural when it is not called for by the text] not go back to get his clothes.

19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! [wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference today—for goodness sakes, pregnancy virtually poses no problems today compared to 2,000 years ago!] 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath [travel is not impeded in the winter or on Saturday in this day and age but it surely was then].

21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. [I’m thankful they were shortened but the watchful Christians fled to Pella 3 1/2 years earlier]

23 Then if anyone says to you [the disciples], ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. [the Kingdom was not to come with “signs to be observed” (Lk 17:20-21)]24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you [not us] beforehand. [they were supposed to know the season of His return]

26 Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ [I guess Matthew’s referring to the the desert of Valrico-just kidding!] do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. [Lk 17:20-21] 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west [figurative judgment language scattered throughout the OT], so also will the coming [parousia-an arrival with a consequential presence] of the Son of Man be.

28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. 29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light [much like Isaiah 34:4:]; the stars will fall from heaven [much like Isaiah 13:10], and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes [don’t have many tribes in Tampa!] of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds [just like in the OT, they never physically saw the Lord when He came on the clouds. But they certainly were aware of His presence!] of heaven with power and great glory.

31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you now that summer is near. [a clear indication that they were to know the timing, just not the actual day or the hour of His return]

33 So you also, when you see all these things, now that it is near–at the doors! [James 5:8-9 is quoting this] 34 Assuredly, I say to you, [not those of us living in 2008] this generation [not 50 generations from then!] will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Matthew 24:1-34 (NKJV)

Can you “see” how audience relevance shapes the way you read the Word? This makes all the difference in the world when interpreting Scripture. A passage like the Olivet, that may appear future to us when not considering the relevance to the audience at hand, is clearly meant for the generation that received it.

And those who consider a potential double fulfillment (occurring then and again in our future), need to read the passage carefully. It’s rather difficult to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom “in all the world” twice (unless of course we consider future planetary exploration! 🙂 And how can there be double portions of “those days had not been cut short, no one would survive“? And how can it be that an event “never to be equaled again will reoccur?
To be quite frank, it seems to me that the only reason anyone would attempt to make this double fulfillment argument, is due to an expectation created by an immovable furturistic paradigm. At that point we enter dangerous waters because we willingly read into the Word instead of determining what it actually says. I would rather deal with the consequences of a changing paradigm than craftily manipulate the Scriptures to fit my potentially flawed presuppositions.
Lastly, we must never lose sight of the reason for the “all these things” that were to come upon the generation that killed the Messiah. Matthew 24 cannot be correctly understand without the benefit of Matthew 23 where Jesus’ tirade against the “brood of vipers” ended with “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate.”

So as you read the Word always consider context and remember that little phrase: “The Scripture was written FOR us but it was not written TO us.”
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