© Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
The Greatness of the Great Tribulation
By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Matthew 24:28
Matthew 24 is a well-known text that speaks of great prophetic judgments. For the most part, the popular approach to Matthew 24 is controlled by futurism. Futurists put all the events of Matthew 24:4ff off thousands of years from Jesus's day and into our own approaching future. But such is categorically wrong for various contextual reasons.
The fundamental problem with the dispensational approach to this passage is its own peculiar theological requirements. Dispensationalists come to this passage with a theological predisposition that hinders contextual exegesis. For instance, while establishing the setting for understanding the disciples's questions in Matthew 24:3, Pentecost writes: "Remember, as mentioned earlier, Jewish eschatology recognized two ages: The first was this present age. . . ; and the second was the age to come. . . . We must note that Jesus was revealing the prophetic program for Jerusalem, the nation Israel, and the people of Israel. He made no reference to the church or the prophetic program for the church. . . . Because of its Jewish context, therefore, this portion of Scripture must be interpreted with reference to Israel and not to the church."
Pentecost is correct in noting that the passage is to be interpreted with reference to Israel -- that is inescapable. But only a compartmentalization of institutions (Israel/ Church) and ages (Church Age/Tribulation) requires a prophetic delay for some Jewish remnant living thousands of years after the ones asking the question. There is an important sense in which Matthew's entire Gospel portrays in great detail the failure of first century Israel. And despite Pentecost, the prevailing drift of Matthew prepares the reader for the Olivet Discourse, which outlines God's holy reflex against the generation that crucifies His Son. Let us consider how this is so.
After giving the account of the birth of Jesus, Matthew's historical record passes by the positive Jewish response to His birth found in Luke. He chooses rather to mention the coming of the Gentile Magi to Jesus and the resistance of Israel's government to Him (2:1ff). Then his attention turns to John Baptist and his message of Israel's pending judgment (3:8-12). After Christ's Temptation (4:1-11), the story continues with reference to Jesus's ministry in "Galilee of the Gentiles" (3:12-17). A strong undercurrent of antipathy toward Israel flows here.
Matthew's first full record of a discourse by Christ deals with Israel's corruption of the Law (5:17-48), the hypocrisy of Israel's leadership (6:1-18), and the contrast of His religious teaching to that of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees (7:13-29).
Then he sets before his reader the healing request by the Gentile centurion (8:5-13), to which Jesus responds: "I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel" (8:10). In that context he speaks of the "sons of the kingdom" (the Jews) being cast out (8:11-12). He warns of great judgment upon Israel (11:20-24), which eventually leads to the religious rulers's assertion that He is of Satan (12:24). Skipping ahead, we note that he warns of the "kingdom of God being taken" from Israel and given to the Gentiles (21:33-45).
Ultimately, He calls down a series of woes upon the spiritual leaders of Israel (23:1ff). He notes that they must "fill up then the measure of the guilt" of their fathers (23:32), for "all these things shall come upon this generation" (23:36). Then he weeps over Jerusalem and says her Temple will be left desolate (23:37-38). Pentecost correctly notes of Matthew 23: "Christ was vividly predicting the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Titus . . . in A.D. 70."
Thus, as one purpose in presenting his gospel, Matthew sketches the dismal spiritual condition of Israel and provides a revelation of approaching punishment. The data fit well with an A.D. 70 judgment and seem to anticipate some sort of account of it. Who could deny that Matthew 23, which introduces Matthew 24, relates to a soon coming judgment upon first century Israel?
Having traversed through Matthew in large strides, we now cautiously enter chapter 24. Regarding Matthew 24, when set in the context of Matthew 23, even Pentecost admits "the discourse is set against the background of the rejection of the Messiah and the imposition of judicial blindness upon that nation." But now the problems begin.
After Jesus leaves the Temple, we read that "His disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the Temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down." Then his disciples asked: "When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matt. 24:1b-3).
At this point Pentecost asserts there is an omission in Matthew's record: "The answer to the first question is not recorded by Matthew, but is given in Luke 21:20-24." He argues that it is in Luke 21:20-24 where we read the "portion of the discourse [that] had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus in 70 A.D." The next two questions (which are really one) are Matthew's concern, he claims: "The entire passage in Matthew 24 and 25 was written to answer this question concerning the signs of Messiah's coming [i.e., the rapture], which would terminate the age."
As in Daniel 9, this gap theory functions as a deus ex machina to save the dispensational system; it brings confusion into a harmonious context. Despite its surface oddity, this is standard dispensational fare. Pentecost repeats this in his more recent book, as do Wiersbe, Walvoord, Barbieri, and others. A few dispensationalists, however, recognize the difficulty of this view and are edging toward a more preterist (past fulfillment) understanding. David L. Turner writes: "The manner in which dispensationalism has traditionally handled this section is thus weak on several fronts. . . . Contemporary dispensationalists should rethink this area of NT exegesis." "It must be concluded that the futurist view, held by traditional dispensationalists, is unconvincing. It does not satisfactorily handle the contextual emphasis on the fall of Jerusalem. . . ." Turner is precisely on target. The problem for the dispensational view is contextual exegesis, which is overridden by the strained theological requirements.
With all the preparation for Israel's coming judgment in his long record, why would Matthew skip over the leading question of the disciples? These are the very ones Matthew records witnessing His weeping over Jerusalem (23:37), hearing Him declare the Temple desolate (23:38), and pointing out to him the beautiful Temple buildings (24:1). This is especially problematic in that their questions are generated by Christ's own statement in 24:2. And since they would have to prepare believers to live through the A.D. 70 holocaust, which literally occurs.
The proposed gap in Matthew's record cannot credibly stand in such a context. Matthew 24 must deal at some length with the destruction of the Temple. The proper understanding is, I believe, that all of Matthew 24:4-34 has to do with A.D. 70.
Paralleling Luke 21:20-24 with Matthew 24:15-21 provides reasonably clear evidence against futurism. The two are not distinct episodes separated by centuries; they refer to the same era, as even a cursory glance will demonstrate.
Luke 21:20-24 reads:
When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days. for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
Matthew 24:15-20 reads:
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day.
Besides, we must ask of the dispensationalist: where is the contextual cue in the Lucan passage that distinguishes the events of A.D. 70 (21:20-24) from those of the future rapture era (21:25ff)? Arbitrary assertion will not suffice. As we shall see, the prophecies easily fit the A.D. 70 era according to careful contextual exegesis.
Perhaps more significant even than Matthew's contextual flow is the Lord's statement in Matthew 24:34: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Here we have an authoritative, clear, and compelling pronouncement of the time of the events recorded in 24:4-31.
The matter before us is "solemnly introduced and emphatically affirmed" by Christ. We should be aware, first, that Christ is dogmatic when he begins a statement with "verily." Hendriksen notes of the word: "In every case . . . in which this word occurs in the New Testament it introduces a statement which not only expresses a truth or fact . . . but an important, a solemn fact, one that in many cases is at variance with popular opinion or expectation or least causes some surprise." Thus, Christ emphatically draws the disciples's attention to what He is about to say -- just as He did in 24:2, where He made the statement that led to the whole discourse.
Second, the dogmatism of His statement is further underscored. He does not just tell them. He emphatically introduces what He is about to say with the declarative: "I tell you." He does not leave the temporal expectation to guesswork.
Third, the literal rendering of the Greek reads: "Truly I tell you that by no means passes away generation this until all these things happen." The "by no means" is a strong, double negative (Gk: ou me) and it is put early in His statement for added emphasis. He is staking His credibility, as it were, on the absolute certainty of this prophetic pronouncement.
But what does He so dogmatically and carefully declare? Whatever the difficult apocalyptic imagery in some of the preceding verses (e.g., vv. 29-31) may indicate (we will get to that later), Jesus clearly asserts that "all these things" will occur before "this generation" passes away.
Basically there are three leading interpretations of the verse before us. Let us consider them carefully.
What is the time frame so dogmatically set before us by our Lord? What does He mean by "this generation"? This is where the heart of the futurist/preterist debate lies. To read Pentecost's latest book, however, the unsuspecting reader would never know there was an issue here demanding resolution. Pentecost just assumes his position.
According to an earlier publication of Pentecost: "the word generation is to be taken in its basic usage of 'race, kindred, family, stock, breed,' so that the Lord is here promising that the nation Israel shall be preserved until the consummation of her program at the second advent. . . . This seems to be the best explanation."
This interpretation is without basis for a variety of reasons. (1) Such a view ends up as a mere truism if "this generation" simply means "Israel as a nation." For then it just says Israel will not pass away until all these things happen to Israel. Besides, in the dispensational view, Israel will never pass away anyway, so the statement would be meaningless on their own interpretive presuppositions.
(2) Though the Greek genea ("generation") is commonly used in Matthew, he never employs it in the sense here. It is found in Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39-45; 16:4; 17:17; and 23:36. It is only with great difficulty that the interpreter may contort any of these references to mean "Israel as a nation."
(3) There are five other instances in Matthew where the word genea is coupled with the near demonstrative to read "this generation." In each of these it clearly refers to the generation then living. These passages are Matthew 11:16; 12:41, 42, 45; and 23:36. In Scripture the idea of a "generation" of people involves roughly twenty-five to forty years.
In more recent writings, Pentecost forsakes his earlier view. He now holds the following position: "Since these signs will all occur in the seven years of Daniel's seventieth week, the generation that sees the beginning of these signs will "not pass away until all these things happened" (v. 34), for they all will fall within a brief span of time. Notice that these will not be signs given to a generation preceding the Rapture. Instead, these signs will be given to a generation that cannot begin until after the church has been translated."
Fellow dispensationalist John F. Walvoord concurs: "The most natural meaning, however, is to take it as normally used as a reference to a period of twenty-five to forty years. But instead of referring this to the time in which Christ lived, it refers back to the preceding period that is described as the Great Tribulation. As the Great Tribulation is only three-and-a-half years long, obviously, those who see the Great Tribulation will also see the coming of the Lord." Walvoord also refuses to consider the most obvious and legitimate interpretation: that it refers to the generation who actually hear Jesus say this and who witness the destruction of the Temple.
Pentecost's new view involves him in question-begging circularity. He considers it obvious that "these signs will be given to a generation that cannot begin until after the church has been translated." Where is the "translation of the church" (i.e., the rapture) in this passage? He must assume his dispensational system in order to reinterpret the passage to uphold the system.
And what of Walvoord's statement that "this generation" actually "refers back to the preceding period that is described as the Great Tribulation"? This also assumes the Great Tribulation did not occur in the first century -- simply because of dispensational requirements. I agree that "this generation" refers back to "the preceding period that is described as the Great Tribulation." But then I believe that passage clearly has Jesus speaking to His disciples almost 2000 years ago, when He ties it to "this generation." The Great Tribulation is tied in with the subject of His discourse: the destruction of the Temple (24:2).
Actually a simple reading of 24:34 leaves the undeniable impression that these things were to occur in the generation of the original disciples. Contextual exegesis helps us resolve the "problem" of the meaning of Matthew 24:34. The phrase "this generation" appears in the very context intimately related to and leading into Matthew 24 (cp. 23:36-38 with 24:1-2).
In Matthew 23:36 "this generation" unquestionably speaks of Jesus's contemporaries, as even dispensationalists admit. Here Jesus is condemning His contemporary adversaries, the scribes and Pharisees (23:2, 13, 14, 14, 16, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29). He specifically comments that His contemporary opponents will "fill up the measure of the guilt" of their predecessors (23:32). They will do this by persecuting His followers (23:34), so that "upon you [scribes and Pharisees] may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed" (23:35). He concludes: "Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation." This employs some of the identical terms and functions as the semantic equivalent of 24:34.
As I indicate above, I agree with Walvoord that those who were to see the beginning of the signs mentioned are to see the Great Tribulation (23:33). But Christ expressly tells who will see those signs: "this generation" (24:34), i.e., the people to whom He is speaking.
We must notice that preceding the destruction of the Temple are certain signs -- signs Jesus urges them not to confuse (24:4ff). The first few He mentions are pre-indicators of the looming judgment (24:8). This point is quite significant because later on He turns to consider His glorious Second Advent (24:36ff). At that juncture He specifically says of "that" distant event there will be no such signs (24:36-44). This would seem evidence enough to divide the passage into separate eras at that point -- but not before.
Because of such observations, one perceptive dispensationalist, D. A. Carson, speaks of the "highly artificial" attempts by fellow dispensationalists to reinterpret the word. He argues it is obvious the word "can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke." David Turner agrees.
Jesus expressly teaches that the prophetic events of verses 4-31 -- "all these things" -- will come to pass in "this generation." And just forty years later the Jewish War with Rome brings the total and final destruction of the Temple (24:2). I agree with John Gill: "This is a full and clear proof, that not any things that is said before [v. 34], relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the end of the world; but that all belong to the coming of the son of man, in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state."
Our study to this point shows that Christ expects the events of Matthew 24:4-31 to come to pass in the first century. Let us now engage the passage verse-by-verse. Commentators obscure the clear evidences from contextual flow and express time indicators due to a few interpretively difficult statements in these verses. I believe these are best understood according to context, rather than theological predispositions.
Before we begin our commentary it might be helpful to comment on the ancient writer, Flavius Josephus. His historical works are extremely helpful for our interpretation of the passage.
Flavius Josephus is a non-Christian, Palestinian Jew, who is an historian of priestly descent. He lives from A.D. 37 to 101, overlapping virtually the entire apostolic era. When the Jewish War against Rome breaks out in earnest in A.D. 67, he initially serves as a general in the Jewish forces. During the War he suffers defeat by the Romans at Jotapata, surrendering to the Roman general Flavius Vespasian. He befriends Vespasian by interpreting a prophetic oracle to mean that Vespasian would one day be emperor of Rome. He then works with Vespasian attempting to get the Jews to surrender and to cease with their hopeless cause.
Vespasian, who becomes emperor of Rome in A.D. 69, sponsors Josephus's writing of his famous book The Wars of the Jews. Josephus writes this about A.D. 75, just five years after the fall of Jerusalem. He changes his name from the very Jewish Joseph Ben Matthias to a more Roman Flavius Josephus, taking on his benefactor's name.
In this work Josephus writes as an eyewitness historian who happens to be in the action on both sides of the conflict. His work is extremely valuable, providing invaluable insights into the events of the War. Many aspects of the War are foretold in John's prophecy in Revelation, as well as in the Lord's Olivet Discourse. Now to the task at hand.
Generally liberal commentators, such as W. G. Khmmel and J. Schniewind, take Jesus's express declaration that the events would occur in His "generation" (Matt. 24:34) at face value. But then they hold that Jesus is mistaken in prophesying the soon occurrence of these events. This is consistent with humanistic rationalism.
On the other hand, dispensationalists are prone to reinterpret the plain interpretation of 24:34 under the pressure of their theological system. House and Ice write: "Since the phrase 'all these things' governs the timing of 'this generation'. . . , one has to determine what 'all these things' are and when they will be fulfilled. Then we will know whether 'this generation' referred to those in Christ's day or to a future generation."
This is incredible. By every objective measure the unambiguous statement "this generation" should govern the timing of the phrase "all these things," rather than the other way around. But according to dispensationalists something other than the clear statement of Matthew 24:34, given for the express purpose of providing chronological information, must inform us when the time will be.
In fact, according to House, Ice, Walvoord, Pentecost and others, Matthew 24:15, which speaks of "the abomination of desolation" and which says nothing about timing, is determinative of the meaning of 24:34. But the meaning of this ambiguous and controversial apocalyptic phrase in 24:15 is predetermined by the dispensational system. In the dispensational system "'the abomination of desolation' could not have been fulfilled in A.D. 70."
The preterist interpreter steadfastly resists such a conclusion. He responds that the question of the interpretation and fulfillment of the difficult "abomination of desolation" should be determined by sound exegesis performed in the light of the clear statement of 24:34. So let us see how the prophecies occur in Jesus's generation.
Jesus begins His answer with a warning to His disciples: "Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matt. 24:4-5). Many dispensationalists take these verses to refer to the first half of a future tribulation week (e.g., Pentecost, Barbieri, English, and Wiersbe). This is the view that we will be countering, even though Pentecost outlines four distinct dispensational views that slice up the passage making piecemeal assignments to different times.
The word "mislead" indicates Christ's concern that his disciples not allow themselves to be led away by some false Messiah. In the first century era the Jews fervently anticipate a conquering Messiah. Jesus warns His disciples not to be caught up in such a Zionistic frenzy.
There are a number of examples of great pretenders who almost certainly made Messianic claims. In Acts 8:9, 10 Simon may be an example of such, for he "bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God."
Such false Christs are mentioned in John's first epistle, where John calls them "antichrists." "Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18). As Robertson notes of 1 John 2:18: "So Jesus taught (Mark 13:6, 22; Matt. 24:5, 15, 24) and so Paul taught (Acts 20:30; 2 Thess. 2:3). These false Christs . . . are necessarily antichrists, for there can be only one. Anti can mean substitution or opposition, but both ideas are identical in the word antichristos." These are the many (polloi) false Christs mentioned in Matthew 24:5, which indicate "it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18).
Another whose name is associated with Simon Magus in church tradition is Dositheus, who even claims to be the Messiah of Deuteronomy 18:18. Justin Martyr mentions Simon, and others who "after Christ's ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods."
Interestingly, such characters play an important role in the religious and cultural foment that leads to the A.D. 67-70 Jewish War with Rome. Schaff comments that: Israel of that era "rose to the most insolent political and religious fanaticism, and was continually inflamed by false prophets and Messiahs, one of whom, for example, according to Josephus, drew after him thirty thousand men."
Josephus mentions the "deceivers and imposters, under the pretence of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes" in the A.D. 50s. He also speaks of "the Egyptian false prophet," who even operates at the Mount of Olives (Wars 2:13:5; cp. Acts 21:38). It is poetic justice that those who rejects the true Christ are frequently and devastatingly duped by false Christs.
The familiar sign that serves as the title to this chapter is found in Matthew 24:6-7: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places."
Dispensationalist Wiersbe comments: "Note that wars are not a sign of the end. There have always been wars in the world, and will be until the very end. Wars of themselves do not announce the end of the age nor the coming of the Lord." It is true, of course, that "wars of themselves" do not announce the end. But because of dispensationalism's large investment in futurism, the profit to be gained through contextual exegesis, which allows wars to be some sort of sign, is wholly lost.
The preterist approach to this passage, however, is quite relevant to the situation of Jesus's hearers, His disciples (24:2,3) of "this generation" (24:34). Not only so, but it exposes the error of Walvoord when he states of Matthew 24: "Postmillenarians have a different problem in that they want to support their view that the world is going to get better and better as the Gospel gradually triumphs; but this passage of Scripture does not support this and, in fact, predicts increasing evil with the climax at the Second Coming." He says this despite admitting in the preceding sentence that there are some evangelicals who "attempt to relate most of the prophecies to the time when Jerusalem was destroyed." In that case the prophecies pose absolutely zero problem for postmillennialists.
As usual, a little familiarity with the cultural and political situation existing in that era is most helpful. "Wars and rumors of wars" do serve as significant harbingers of the end of the Temple (which is the major issue being discussed, Matt. 23:38-24:3). This is because of the dramatically successful Pax Romana, the "peace of Rome."
The Pax Romana begins with Augustus's establishment of the "Age of Peace" in 17 B.C. Origen (A.D. 185-254) speaks of the "abundance of peace that began at the birth of Christ." It is, indeed, a time of an "abundance of peace" that gives stability to the Mediterranean basin and, by the providence of God, allows for the rapid dissemination of the Christian faith.
Interestingly, scholars observe that "in the Roman Empire proper, this period of peace remained comparatively undisturbed until the time of Nero." This is the era of the Jewish War, which results in the destruction of the Temple stone by stone. It is also the time of the Roman Civil Wars, including the infamous "Year of Four Emperors" (A.D. 68-69). The turmoil of this period almost leads to the collapse of Rome. Consequently, as the events begin unfolding up to the Jewish War, the Christians remember Christ's prophecy of the coming devastation of Jerusalem, which will be the Great Tribulation (as we shall see). Thus, the "wars and rumors of wars" are truly signs for that "generation."
The Jewish War is with the Roman Imperial army, including contributions of troops and horsemen from Rome's client kings and allies. During the Roman Civil Wars several nations revolt in an attempt to leave the Empire. It literally is a time of "nation against nation." It is significant that Josephus entitles his most famous work of the era "The Wars of the Jews."
Jesus's era is a time of great peace, known as the Pax Romana. He warns that wars and rumors of wars will disrupt it. The disruptions occur in the latter days of Nero Caesar in the A.D. 60's and lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Christ then warns about famines and pestilences. Matthew 24:7b adds to the warning of "wars and rumors of wars" that "there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places." This, too, is easily applicable to the first century scene.
Acts 11:28 mentions a devastating, empire-wide famine in the days preceding Nero's reign: "There stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great famine throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar." This is probably the famine Josephus mentions as striking Jerusalem: "A famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal" (Antiquities 20:2:5).
There is also the famous famine that rages in Jerusalem during the Roman siege, the one in which men cut open the bellies of neighbors and mothers even eat their own children (Wars 5:10:2-5). This is a sign of covenant curse (Deut. 28:55-57; Lam. 2:20). Thus, these prophecies are particularly relevant to the disciples (24:2-3), who are headquartered in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:1-2).
Classical writers testify to the widespread, recurring famines of the era of the A.D. 50s through the 60s. For instance, of A.D. 51 Tacitus writes: "This year witnessed many prodigies . . . . Further portents were seen in a shortage of corn, resulting in famine. . . . It was established that there was no more than fifteen days' supply of food in the city [Rome]" (Annals 12:43).
Pestilence, of course, follows especially fast in the train of famine, but may arise apart from it. The pestilential woes of Jerusalem during its siege are well known. A most severe pestilence is recorded of that era in Rome, as well: "In a single autumn 30,000 deaths from plague were registered at the Temple of Libitina" (Suetonius, Nero 39). Tacitus writes: "At Rome, a plague devastated the entire population. . . . The houses were full of corpses, and the streets of funerals" (Annals 16:13).
Earthquakes are also mentioned along with the famines and pestilence in Matthew 24:7b:
A particularly dreadful earthquake shakes Jerusalem in A.D. 67. Josephus records this frightful catastrophe: "There broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, and continual lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake" (Wars 4:4:5).
Tacitus mentions earthquakes in Crete, Rome, Apamea, Phrygia, Campania, Laodicea (of Revelation fame) and Pompeii during the time just before Jerusalem's destruction. Severe earthquakes plague the reigns of the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. Others occur in Asia, Achaia, Syria, and Macedonia. Of this era Roman writer Seneca observes: "Perhaps no period in the world's history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem."
As these portents arise on the historical scene, the disciples are to be aware that these are but "the beginning of sorrows." The word "sorrows" here is odines, a term that speaks of birth pangs. And these are but the "beginning" of them.
The use of the birth-pang term is suggestive. It is frequently used by the rabbis as a technical Messianic term in the phrase "birth pangs of the Messiah." The rabbinic phrase refers to the distress that will precede the Messianic era. And though birth pangs are grievous, they presage joy in the morning. In John 16:21 Jesus speaks of the disciples's lamentation over His crucifixion using this same word: "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world."
Jesus employs the term "birth pangs," then, to point to a new beginning even as the Temple era approaches an end. For the disciples these troubles are the birth pangs of the kingdom. And this is important: because of these birth pangs, the future, is bright with hope, even if sore with the pain of labor. As Jerusalem goes up in smoke the unshakable kingdom (Heb. 12:18-28) enters into its own life, quite separate from its "mother" (Israel).
As He tells them earlier: "Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power" (Mark 9:1). This event lay sufficiently far off in the future that some hearing Him would die before it becomes evident "with power." Yet it was close enough that others would live to witness it. This cannot be a reference to the Transfiguration, for that occurs only six days later (Mark 9:2). How many of them will die before that event?
The salvation Christ secures will make victorious headway in the world, expanding the spiritual principle of the New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; 6:17). As the old Jerusalem and Temple era end, the New Jerusalem and new Temple begin in earnest (Gal. 4:23-31; Rev. 21:1-2; cp. Rev. 22:6, 10). The Epistle to the Hebrews clearly speaks of the approaching demise of the priestly old covenant order and the firm establishment of the new in its place (Heb. 12:18-28).
In fact, the New Testament looks with holy anticipation to the final change from the old order to the new order, as the Temple system approaches is dramatic disestablishment in A.D. 70. A major redemptive transformation takes place in the apostolic era between A.D. 30 and A.D. 70. That transition is called "the restoration of all things" (Matt. 17:11), "the regeneration" (Matt. 19:28), the "times of refreshing" (Acts 3:19), the "times of the restitution of all things" (Acts 3:21), the "time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10), a "new heavens and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1; cp. 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:17), "all things new" (Rev. 21:5). Thus, the era that Christ legally inaugurates, the Temple's destruction temporally evidences. Since Christ's coming, the era in which we live is called the "last days" (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:2; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; 1 John 2:18). The last days stretch from the first coming to His second coming. There are no other days to follow, no 365,000 days (i.e., 1000 years) of Christ's reign upon the earth will succeed these "last days." These are the last days.
In verse 9 the Lord warns His disciples that they must expect persecution: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake." The fulfillment of this prophecy by Jewish opposition to the gospel is easily demonstrated in Acts. This is a continuation and expansion of Matthew 23:34-36, which clearly applies to the first century. After the initial Jewish persecution of Christians comes the first Roman onslaught, just preceding the Temple's destruction (A.D. 64-68). The pagan Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Christians in the era of Nero as universally "hated for their crimes."
In verses 10 and 12 we discover a consequence of the persecution: apostasy. "And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. . . . And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold." This, too, may be documented in the apostolic era. Paul laments "that all those in Asia have turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1:15) and "Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:10). He comments that "at my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me" (2 Tim. 4:16; cp. Gal. 3:1-4; 2 Thess. 3:1). "Lawlessness" (Gk: anomia) well describes Jewish conditions around the era of the destruction of the Temple. Josephus says that the Jewish Zealots act "as though they had covenanted to annul the laws of nature along with those of their country" and that "every human ordinance was trampled under foot" (Wars 4:6:3).
John writes of apostasy: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19; cp. 2 and 3 John). The Epistle to the Hebrews indicates a sizeable apostasy from among Jewish converts to Christianity. Tacitus even alludes to apostasy under the Neronic persecution: "First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned."
False prophets are a problem then, as well as false Christs (cp. Matt. 24:5). Peter, Paul, and John all warn about this danger. Even Josephus records false prophets arising among the Jews (Wars 6:5:2-3). In fact, the false prophets in Jerusalem help aggravate the destruction of the city by buoying up the hopes of the zealots. Because of this Jesus urges His disciples to endure these troublesome times (Matt. 24:12). The chaos surrounding the Temple's destruction will eventually end.
Many will write off the evidence for the fulfillment of the general precursory signs as adaptable to any era of history since the inception of Christianity. It is with verse 14 that some argue we are skating on thin ice: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."
Walvoord writes: "Jesus, having described the signs relating to the destruction of Jerusalem, which some of them would live to see, and the general signs of the progress of the present age, then reveals in detail the specific signs which will be unmistakable evidence that the second coming of Christ and the end of the age is near."
Of Matthew 24:14, House and Ice write: "If we look closely at Matthew 24:14 we notice that there are two phrases which modify "shall be preached' -- 'in the whole world' and 'to all the nations.' In the first phrase, the adjective 'whole' indicates that it is the world in its totality that is in view." They then parallel the next phrase to that of Matthew 28:19, arguing for a universal proclamation of the gospel. They ask if preterists are "saying that the gospel was preached before A.D. 70 in the Western hemisphere?"
By keeping in mind the time indicator ("this generation"), the audience (the disciples who ask when the Temple would be destroyed), and the harmony of the preceding signs with the first century experience, we may note that House and Ice's observation is not well taken. Consider the following:
(1) The word "world" here is the Greek word oikumene. It very often means the Roman Empire, as in Luke 2:1 and Acts 11:28: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). "One of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar" (Acts 11:28). Acts 24:5 is quite relevant to our point: "For we have found this man [Paul] a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." The western hemisphere is not in view in either Acts 24:5 or Matthew 24:14.
(2) The phrase "all the nations" is epexegetical, referring to those nations in that particular "oikumene," i.e., those nations subsumed under the imperial authority of Rome. The "world" to which the "gospel of the kingdom was preached" (the Roman Empire) is provided a "witness" to all of its particular "nations."
(3) It is important to remember the contextual setting, again. The whole discourse results from Christ's reference to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the disciples's concern with the end of the Jewish age (Matt. 24:2-3). The "witness" throughout "all the nations" of the "oikumene" is a testifies or testimony especially against the Jews. It witnesses to the coming of the kingdom of Christ, which is presented to and rejected by the Jews.
We must remember that the Jews are scattered throughout the Roman Empire: "Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). In fact, "the Jews, since the Babylonish captivity, had been scattered over all the world. They were as ubiquitous in the Roman empire in the first century as they are now throughout Christendom." This is so much the case that pagan writers complain of the breadth and depth of the Jewish influence.
We should remember that it is to the Jews that John Baptist and Christ preach "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:1ff; Mark 1:15). Hence, the gospel of Christ's redemptive kingdom is "to the Jew first" (Matt. 10:5-6; Rom. 1:16; 2:9,10). Here the King, Jesus Christ (cp. Acts 17:7; Rev. 1:5), promises a universal testimony of the "good news" ("gospel," Gk., euaggelion) of the kingdom to the "world"-wide Jewish presence. According to Acts, the disciples teach "all the Jews throughout the nations" (Acts 21:21) and cause dissension thereby "among all the Jews throughout the world (Gk: oikumene)" (Acts 24:5).
The Jews continually seek signs from Christ. Finally, He gives this conclusive sign: His judgment on the Temple, Jerusalem, and Israel (cf. later exposition of Matt. 24:30). As the disciples spread out over the nations of the Roman Empire, they leave a testimony to the Jews in all nations that Jesus is the Christ. The Jews must turn and be saved, or they will perish (Acts 2:29-41). Their flaming Temple will demonstrate the validity of His prophetic word. Of this verse, Lightfoot comments that "Jerusalem was not to be destroyed before the gospel was spread over all the world. . . . [A]ll men, as many as ever heard the history of Christ, should understand that dreadful wrath and severe vengeance which was poured out upon that city and nation by which he was crucified."
(4) This interpretation is further strengthened by the parallel in Mark 13:8-10, which provides additional insight into Christ's meaning: "These are the beginnings of sorrows. But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. And you will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations." Clearly, the Lord is referring to the Jewish opposition to the disciples by "councils" and "synagogues," which the Book of Acts demonstrates actually happen in the first century.
Now let me point out the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matt. 24:14) in the first century. In Acts 2:5 we have a reference to the representation present at the pentecostal sermon of Peter (one of the original hearers of Christ's Olivet Discourse): "Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven." Using House and Ice's approach, we could dispute Luke's record: surely there were no representatives from the "western hemisphere," were there? (House and Ice would have a problem taking this approach to Acts 24:5, as well.) Yet Luke records that men are there from every nation under heaven -- and the western hemisphere is under heaven. Here we have a gathering before the preaching of the gospel, a gathering that meets the requirements of Matthew 24:14, at least representationally. But there is more.
In Romans 1:8 Paul wrote: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world." Their faith is the Christian faith. And Paul says it is being spoken of throughout the "whole world." Turner attempts to reduce this to a proclamation "among other Christians." But even if this were so, the point remains that it is in fact being spoken of "throughout the whole world," where Christians would be a witness.
Later Paul speaks of gospel preachers: "Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world" (Rom. 10:18). He speaks of "the gospel which has come to you, as it has also in all the world. . . . [T]he gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven" (Col 1:6, 23). Turner discounts these references on the basis that Paul still longs "to take the gospel to previously unreached regions (Spain)." But the point is: If Paul can state Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:6 and 23 as fact in his lifetime, why may we not see these as fulfillments of Matthew 24:14?
Matthew 24:14 is no hinderance at all to the preteristic viewpoint. In fact, it harmonizes beautifully with many other Scriptures -- much more easily than does dispensationalism's view that must run roughshod over the clear statement of Matthew 24:34.
We come now to the most famous and most misunderstood portion of the Olivet Discourse: the abomination of desolation passage (Matt. 24:15-28). The dispensationalist holds that this episode "is still future." Walvoord notes under a discussion of Matthew 24:15-26: "One of the sources of confusion among interpreters of the Olivet Discourse is their attempt to find complete fulfillment of the entire Olivet Discourse in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem." In fact, according to dispensationalists the abomination of desolation has been in our near future for almost 2,000 years (this is due to their doctrine of imminency). For a number of years now dispensationalists have been excited by reports that Jews are presently preparing the stones for the rebuilding of the Temple. Supposedly this is setting the stage for the abomination of desolation.
While dealing with the abomination of desolation, Walvoord offers a table of the "Predicted Order of Prophetic Events Related to Israel." These events are to surround that prophetically significant time. This table seems quite incredible. What are some of these "predicted" and "prophetic" events allegedly revealed in Scripture? I will list two: "2. United Nations recognizes Israel as a nation and allows 5,000 square miles of territory. . . ." "4. [T]he United States becomes her principal benefactor and supplier of military aid and money." Unfortunately, he neglects to provide us with the Bible verses relating to the United Nations, the 5,000 square miles of territory, the United States, and so forth.
Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand). (Matt. 24:15)
In the Old Testament an "abomination" especially relates to the desecration worship, either by outright false worship (Deut. 7:25; 27:15) or by a profanation of true worship (for example, Lev. 7:18; Deut. 17:1). Here in Matthew 24:15 Christ mentions "the holy place" as involved in "the abomination of desolation." Despite Walvoord and other dispensationalists, we may apply this passage to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70. Actually the burden of proof is on the dispensationalist to prove the case for a futurist interpretation, as opposed to the more natural reading of the text by the preterist. This is so for several reasons:
(1) As Jesus utters these prophetic words a Temple is standing in a "holy city" (Jerusalem is the holy city, Matt. 4:5; 27:53). His audience could imagine no other referent. To suppose a future rebuilt Temple here must be proven.
(2) Christ speaks these words in response to the disciples's observations on that very Temple: "His disciples came to Him to show Him the buildings of the Temple" (Matt. 24:1). In fact, this action gives rise to this discourse (Matt. 23:38-24:3).
(3) Christ points to that Temple: "see ye not all these things." He then speaks of its destruction: "not one stone left on another that shall not be thrown down" (Matt. 24:2). This surely involves "desolation" and, as we will show, includes abominable acts. Interestingly, when speaking of Jerusalem's destruction, Josephus uses the verbal form of the noun "desolation," which Christ uses: eremoseos (Matt. 24:21); eremothe (Wars 6:10:1). He even applies Daniel's prophecy to this event: "In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them" (Antiquities 10:11:7).
(4) And of course, the specific time-frame demands an A.D. 70 reference for the "abomination": "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (Matt. 24:34).
It is very important that we compare the Gentile Luke's parallel account in Luke 21:21 with Matthew's very Jewish account. As is often the case with Luke, he uses language more easily understood by the Gentile mind. Rather than employing the obscure Old Testament phrase "abomination of desolation" (from Dan. 9:27 as recorded in Matthew 24:15), Luke writes: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" (Luke 21:20). If it were not for the pressure of an intricate, pre-conceived system (dispensationalism), a mere laying the passages side-by-side should quickly convince even the casual reader that the same identical events in view. But dispensationalists make a radical distinction between Luke 21:20 and Matt. 24:15.
The "abomination of desolation," will be so dreadful it will give rise to desperate flight from the area. This horrible episode will occur "in the holy place." This reference to "the holy place" might seem to speak of just the Temple itself, and nothing more. Surely the Temple is involved, but the reference is broader, speaking of both the city and the Temple. Several problems present themselves to the narrow Temple-only view:
(2) The prophecy calls for flight from all of Judea (the region surrounding Jerusalem), not just the Temple environs. This is why Christ weeps over Jerusalem just before uttering this prophecy (Matt. 23:37). Christ is warning of Jerusalem's devastating destruction, not just the Temple's desecration by profane actions. Flight from the region is prompted by the rising storm of war, not of ritual heresy.
(3) The original Old Testament context mentions both "the city and the sanctuary" (Dan. 9:26). Daniel 9:25 even calls Jerusalem "the holy city" (whereas Matthew speaks of "the holy place"). In fact, the original prophecy pivots on the rebuilding of the city (Dan. 9:25). To limit the reference solely to the Temple, as dispensationalism does, is surely unwarranted. The preceding context of Matthew agrees with Daniel in involving both the city and the Temple (Matt. 23:37-38).
The events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Roman armies are summarily designated the "abomination of desolation." The holy city/place where God is worshiped in his Temple, is to suffer abomination and desolation. Josephus gives us a clear record of this occurring in Jerusalem's last days, especially after Jerusalem is surrounded. It is particularly distressing to the Jew that the abominable Gentile would ultimately enter into the Temple of God, as did the Romans (see below).
When the Jewish War finally heads to Jerusalem, all hell breaks loose. I mean this somewhat literally. Demonism seems to be a real factor in the Jewish War, as a comparison of Revelation 9 and Matthew 12:41-45 shows. The Idumeans within the city stir up revolution within Jerusalem, bringing war into the Temple itself (Wars 4:5): "the outer Temple was all of it overflowed with blood; and that day, as it came on, saw eight thousand five hundred dead bodies there" (Wars 4:5:1). The inner strife is so bad that Josephus calls it "a sedition begotten by another sedition" and "like a wild beast grown mad, which for the want of food from abroad, fell now upon eating its own flesh" (Wars 5:1:1). Hence, Christ's dire warning to flee without turning back. Once Titus begins encircling the city, it will not take him long to seal it off from the outer world (Matt. 24:16-20).
As Titus begins his final march to Jerusalem the Zealots "seized upon the inner court of the Temple, and laid their arms upon the holy gates, and over the holy fronts of that court." They even partake of the "the great abundance of what was consecrated to sacred uses," causing such an uproar that the "Temple was defiled everywhere with murders" (Wars 5:1:2). They "went over all the buildings, and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests, and those that were about the sacred offices" (Wars 5:1:3).
Finally, Titus builds "a wall round about the whole city" (Wars 5:12:1), which leads to those within the Temple performing additional sacrilege: John of Gischala "emptied the vessels of that sacred wine and oil [cp. Rev. 6:6] which the priests kept to be poured on the burnt-offerings, and which lay in the inner court of the Temple, and distributed it among the multitude, who, in their anointing themselves and drinking, used each of them above an him of them" (Wars 5:13:6).
Ultimately, of course, Titus's victory is complete. Once victory is secured, Josephus informs us, "the Romans upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the Temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy" (Wars 6:6:1). Although the "abomination of desolation" involves the destruction of Jerusalem (beginning with its encircling), it also culminates in this final abominable act.
Remarkably this very conclusion seems to be in Christ's mind, when He states: "For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together" (Matt. 24:28 NKJV). The Roman ensigns to which Titus offers sacrifices in the holy of holies are eagles. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) writes of the Roman ensigns: "The camp religion of the Romans is all through a worship of the standards, a setting the standards above all gods" (Apology 16). Certainly this is a grievous abomination.
In Matthew 24:2 the Lord points to the Temple buildings, asking His disciples (Matt. 24:1): "Do you not see all these things?" What He prophetically declares in the following verses has direct relevance to the Jewish Temple of the first century. As He concludes this section of the Olivet Discourse, He does so with a firm: "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (Matt. 24:34). Both the architectural and temporal indicators require a first century focus for the passage.
The "abomination of desolation" prophecy finds fulfillment in the August/September, A.D. 70 destruction of the Temple by the armies of the Roman general Titus. The abomination of desolation is not something we should fear today. The constant expectation of its breaking forth in our day is misguided. This horrible judgment of God punctuates the beginning of Christ's kingdom on earth, not the end of the "Church Age." But there is more in Matthew 24. We now turn to that.
PART 2: THE GREATNESS OF THE TRIBULATION
In our study of the preparatory signs to the great tribulation we see that preterism easily accounts for all the elements of the prophecy recorded in Matthew 24:1-20. But our study is not over. We must now enter into the section of Matthew 24 where some of the seemingly most difficult statements for preterism are found. I hope to show that upon close examination, these verses do not form any barrier to a first century fulfillment of the Lord's prophecy. Indeed, they fit beautifully in the preteristic scheme -- when understood in terms of their biblical context.
Matthew 24:21-22 reads: "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. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened." Futurists almost universally deem this prophetic datum fatal to preterism. By way of introduction let us consider some bold statements futurists make regarding these two verses.
Charles C. Ryrie argues of the great tribulation: "the fact that this period is yet future will be even more evident as the characteristics of the period are given . . . . First, it is a unique period." Then he cites Matthew 24:21.
Gleason L. Archer points to our text as indicating "a level of horrible and overwhelming destruction surpassing anything ever known before."
Douglas Moo comments that it is "the greatest distress in world history." Who argues that A.D. 70 was the greatest distress in world history, considered simply in terms of human loss?
Charles L. Feinberg speaks of World War I and II, then asks, "who can legitimately equate them with . . . Matthew 24:21?" The indication being that if two World Wars did not meet up to Matthew 24:21, surely the Jewish War with Rome did not.
David L. Turner writes that "the stress on the unparalleled nature of this judgment (24:21-22) does not seem to be exhausted by the A.D. 70 destruction, as severe as it was."
John F. Walvoord calls it a "time of unprecedented trouble," a trial that "would exceed any judgment of the past or the future." In fact, "never in the history of the world has there been destruction of human life described here." What is more "the trials and difficulties of that day would be so severe that it would exterminate the entire human race if it were not for the fact that they are cut short by the return of Jesus Christ." "Interpreted literally, the tribulation clearly eclipses anything that the world has ever known by way of destruction."
In his refutation of postmillennialism, Anthony Hoekema cites Matthew 24 as indicating "a great tribulation such as has not been from the beginning of the world and never will be." Hoekema presents this passage as virtually conclusive proof the end times will necessarily be grievous. William Hendriksen concurs with his fellow amillennialist: "Jesus is here speaking about a tribulation that will characterize 'those days,' a tribulation such as has never been and never again shall be, a very brief period of dire distress that shall occur immediately before his return. . . . It should hardly be necessary to add that justice is not done to the concept of this tribulation, which immediately precedes 'the end' of the world's history and which surpasses any other distress in its intensity, if it is referred solely to the sorrows experienced during the fall of Jerusalem."
At this point it I admit the statement by our Lord seems to require something quite beyond the events of A.D. 70 -- but only when taken out of its context (both near [Matt. 24] and far [Old Testament language]). The Lord does say there "has not been [such a judgment] since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be." His warning speaks of the danger "no flesh would be saved." How are we to reconcile such dramatic statements to the A.D. 70 event?
As a matter of fact, reconciliation is possible. And such is much more consistent with both the language and the expectation of Scripture than the futurist approaches to Matthew 24:1-34. Let me list five arguments against the futurist understanding of Matthew 24:21-22, while establishing the preterist approach.
The immediate response to the futurist claims is obvious: Just twelve verses later Christ says "all these things" will happen to "this generation" (Matt. 24:34). And He says this in the context dealing with the destruction of the very Temple then standing (Matt. 23:36-24:3). There is no way a round these facts. We know as a matter of indisputable historical record that Titus destroys the Temple in August/September, A.D. 70. As Jesus bears His cross to Calvary He exhorts the "daughters of Jerusalem" to weep for themselves because of this coming judgment (Luke 23:28-31, cp. Rev. 6:16). Revelation mentions the Great Tribulation in a similar time-constrained context: "And I said to him, 'Sir, you know.' So he said to me, 'These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'" (Rev. 7:14). This is preceded and followed by time statements tying the event to the first century (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6-10). There is no getting around the clarity of these time statements, either in Matthew 24 or in Revelation.
It is fundamentally important for us to understand this passage from the Jewish perspective in Christ's day. The Jewish War with Rome from A.D. 67 to 70 brings about the deaths of tens of thousands of the Jews in Judea, and the enslaving of untold thousands more. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, an eye-witness to the Jewish War, reports that 1,100,000 Jews perished in the siege of Jerusalem (Wars 6:9:3). J. L. von Mosheim, the great ecclesiastical historian, writes that "throughout the whole history of the human race, we meet with but few, if any, instances of slaughter and devastation at all to be compared with this."
But as awful as the Jewish loss of life was, the utter devastation of "the holy city" Jerusalem, the Jews lament even more the final destruction of the Temple of God, and the absolute cessation of the sacrificial system. The covenantal significance of the loss of the Temple stands as the most dramatic outcome of the War. It is an unrepeatable loss: the Temple has never been rebuilt. Hence, any Jewish calamity after A.D. 70 pales in comparison to the redemptive-historical significance of the loss of the Temple.
Josephus mourns the absolute devastation of Jerusalem in several places employing words similar to our Lord's: "Whereas the war which the Jews made with the Romans hath been the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but, in a manner, of those that ever were heard of" (Wars, Preface, 1). "The misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not considerable as they were" (Wars, Preface, 4). "Neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries. . . from the beginning of the world" (Wars 5:10:5).
We must further understand the significance of A.D. 70 from the divine perspective. The Jewish War is the holy judgment of God for the wicked crucifixion of His Son by the Jews. This is clear in the Parable of the Vineyard, which ends: "Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers? They said to Him, 'He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons'" (Matt. 21:37-41).
Luke 19:41-44 is also relevant: "Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, 'If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation'" (Luke 19:41-44).
Just a few verses after Matthew 24:21-22, the Lord mentions the Noahic Flood (vv. 38-39), which destroys the entire world -- except for one family. Even the strong dispensational statements above see their Great Tribulation as stopping far short of leaving only one family alive.
Obviously, Christ's language is not meant literally after all. It is dramatic hyperbole, well justified by the gravity of the situation. Not every Jew dies in the Jewish War. But its devastation is such that God's limiting it prevents the destruction of all of Israel (cp. Matt. 24:22).
This unique-event language of Christ is common stock-in-trade terminology in prophetic writing. Lane comments on Mark 13:19, the parallel verse to Matthew 24:21: "The severity of the distress that will accompany the destruction of Jerusalem is vividly suggested through Semitic hyperbole. It is characteristic of oracles of judgment to be couched in language that is universal and radical. The intention is to indicate that through human events God intervenes powerfully to modify the course of history. The entire world feels the vibrations of that intervention." This is most interesting to the preterist, for it dismantles the futurist argument. The Old Testament has a number of such statements, which support our view that the language is hyperbolic.
Regarding the woe of the tenth plague upon Egypt, the Scripture says: "Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again" (Exo. 11:6). According to dispensationalists the Great Tribulation affects the entire earth. Consequently, it affects Egypt. But this passage says Egypt will never again experience such a terrible event as the tenth plague. But the future Great Tribulation is supposed to be the worst ever for everyone -- including Egyptians.
In a prophecy regarding the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem, God employs language reminiscent of Christ's: "And I will do among you what I have never done, and the like of which I will never do again, because of all your abominations" (Eze. 5:9). Even dispensationalists admit this prophecy is about the Babylonian captivity of the distant past. And this is specifically about Jerusalem, which is very prominent in the Matthew 24 passage.
Daniel speaks of the Babylonian captivity in similar language: "And He has confirmed His words, which He spoke against us and against our judges who judged us, by bringing upon us a great disaster; for under the whole heaven such never has been done as what has been done to Jerusalem" (Dan. 9:12).
Clearly, the unique-event language is common parlance in prophetic literature. We must not interpret it in woodenly literal manner, as is obvious from all the evidence above.
As we continue our survey of Matthew 24:1-36, we return to a familiar theme. In verses 23-26 we hear again a warning regarding false prophets reminiscent of that in verse 11. The Lord to this is a warning of the appearance of false Christs. Christ reiterates to His followers a warning against falling for false promises of escape from the coming A.D. 70 era tribulation: "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it" (Matt. 24:23-26).
It is the natural tendency of the mortal to seek to avoid affliction and danger. As Josephus says of the false prophecies during the Jewish War: "Now, a man that is in adversity does easily comply with such promises; for when such a seducer makes him believe that he shall be delivered from those miseries which oppress him, then it is that the patient is full of hopes of such deliverance." Man has a God-created will to live, for "He has put eternity in their hearts" (Eccl. 3:11). With the onset of the great tribulation many might be overcome by anxiety. False messianic expectations might easily tempt them.
As is evident from the Lord's High Priestly Prayer, however, His people should expect preservation in temptation, not deliverance from it: "I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one" (John 17:15). In essence, the Lord is warning against the notion of an imminent return -- a position history has borne out for the past twenty centuries. His people could expect only false Christs during the first century. The Lord's glorious, bodily return will be in the distant future: "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (Matt. 25:5). "For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. . . . After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them" (Matt. 25:14, 19).
Just before His ascension, Christ deals with the problem of imminence among His often-confused disciples: "They asked Him, saying, 'Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' And He said to them, 'It is not for you to know times [Gk: chronos] or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:7). It is particularly the time factor that is at issue in their question, as is obvious from His answer. This is evident in that: (1) The time element "at this time" is placed early in the sentence for emphasis. (2) The disciples suspect it may be "at this time." (3) Christ's answer focuses only on the time element. The chronos time-reference in Christ's answer indicates a long period of time of uncertain duration. It speaks "of a rather long period of time composed of several shorter ones." In fact, it is found in the plural, multiplying its effect.
Unfounded hope for escape during the perilous times of the first century is fertile ground for messianic expectations. So Christ expressly warns against such. I have already provided biblical evidence for false Christs arising during the apostolic era. Let me now bring in some extra-biblical evidence. These data -- as every other in Matthew 24:1-36 -- have a direct historical relevance to the pre-A.D. 70 era.
In John Lightfoot's encyclopedic research in the Jewish Talmudic literature, we find records of rabbinic interpretations that fuel false Messianic fervor in the first century. Isaiah 56:7 reads: "Before she travailed, she gave birth; before her pain came, she delivered a male child." Based on this the rabbis argue "that the Messias should be manifested before the destruction of the city." Christ's followers are not to fall for such, Jesus warns.
Micah 5:3 reads: "Therefore He shall give them up, until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; then the remnant of His brethren shall return to the children of Israel." From this the rabbis deduce that "the Son of David will not come, till the wicked empire [of the Romans] shall have spread itself over all the world nine months." Clearly a Messianic hope is in the air as the fateful events of the A.D. 60s unfold on the scene of history.
Josephus records for us the following events prior to the outbreak of the Jewish War with Rome. "There was also another body of wicked men gotten together, not so impure in their actions, but more wicked in their intentions, who laid waste the happy state of the city [Jerusalem] no less than did these murderers. These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government; and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there shew them the signal of liberty" (Wars 2:13:4).
Josephus also mentions that "there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place." (Wars 2:13:5).
Of the events during the Jewish War itself he writes: "A false prophet was the occasion of these people's destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get up upon the temple, and there should received miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now, there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God" (Wars 6:5:2). The rabbinic expectations of the sudden appearance of the Messiah fuel the multiplication of and merge with deceptions by false prophets during the Jewish War. This is precisely the scenario Jesus warns about. He does not want His followers to fall to such deceptions.
Interpreting the cause of the Jewish War, Josephus observes: "What did elevate them in undertaking this war was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, 'about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.' The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular; and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination" (Wars 6:5:4). Once again we see how the prophecies of Matthew 24 find fulfillment in the first century. In that these prophecies are for that era (Matt. 24:34), why should we opt for a futurist approach to the matter?
Quite emphatically the Lord warns His disciples He will not come in a visible, bodily manner in those days. He twice states that any report of His physical presence would be erroneous: "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it" (Matt. 24:23). "Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it" (Matt. 24:26). By these statements it is clear that they are not to expect any visible return in that day: He expressly declares that any command to look for Him in some limited particular location would be mistaken.
Yet there will be a "coming" of Christ in that day: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matt. 24:27). This, however, is a spiritual judgment-coming, rather than a bodily coming. The Sanhedrim, who abuse Him during the ecclesiastical trials leading up to His crucifixion, will witness such a judgment-coming. Notice what Christ says to His abusers: "The high priest answered and said to Him, 'I adjure You by the living God that You tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God.' Jesus said to him, 'It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven'" (Matt. 26:63-64).
Here the Lord informs the high priest and the other members of the Sanhedrim present that they will see His coming. The coming they will witness is like that which Isaiah attributes to Jehovah against Egypt: "The burden against Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt" (Isa. 19:1). The LORD did not physically ride on a cloud down into Egypt. Neither is the "coming of the Son of Man" the Sanhedrim will witness a physical coming. Nor is the "coming as lightning" mentioned in Matthew 24:27 a physical coming. It is manifestly a judgment-coming against those who call for His blood to be upon them and their children (Matt. 27:25).
In Matthew 24:27 the Lord speaks of His judgment-coming against Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 23:37-24:2) as analogous to "the lightning [that] comes from the east and flashes to the west." Dispensationalists generally teach that this speaks of the Second Coming. Some see the analogy to lightning in the visibility of His Second Coming, the lightning suggesting "a splendorous, visible event," a "very visible event." Others see the analogy in the speed of His Coming, comparing it to the velocity of lightning: His coming will be "sudden and interventionist," "sudden, like a stroke of lightning." Certainly lightning is a "splendorous" event -- and very fast. But is that the aspect of lightning Jesus had in mind here?
Two alternative interpretations are more likely, given the surrounding context, the full statement of Christ, and the total biblical context. Probably both of these are involved. The local context demands this coming occur in "this generation" (Matt. 24:34). It concerns events associated with the destruction of the Temple (Matt. 24:2). I cannot see how any interpretive approach other than preterism accounts for this temporal delimitation. Unless we are prepared to say Christ physically appeared at the destruction of the Temple, this must be a spiritual judgment.
First, notice the fuller statement of Christ; there is the specific contextual addendum to the lightning reference. It is said to flash (Gk: exerchetai, "come forth") from east to west. Elsewhere when Christ says Satan falls from heaven "like lightning" (Luke 10:18), the direction is clearly in view (given the spatial imagery of Scripture: heaven being up and hell being down). This probably is involved here, in that the destroying armies Christ providentially sends come toward Jerusalem from an easterly direction. This is known from Josephus's record of the march the Roman armies through Israel.
Second, in the wider biblical context, lightning is that which terrifies (Eze. 19:16; 20:18) because so violently destructive: "He also gave up their cattle to the hail, And their flocks to fiery lightning. He cast on them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, indignation, and trouble, By sending angels of destruction among them" (Psa. 78:48-49). Here the "fiery lightning" is equivalent to "angels of destruction." There are numerous examples of such an employment of lightning in Scripture. Lightning is a nerve shattering feature of a violent storm; frequently the Scripture speaks of catastrophic wars as storms (e.g., Isa. 28:2; 29:6; Eze. 38:9).
Matthew 24 surely involves the idea of terrifying desolation. The Lord clearly speaks of destruction (v. 2), war (vv. 6-7), sorrow (v. 8), desolation (v. 15), flight from danger (vv. 16-20), great tribulation (v. 21), and death (v. 28). Obviously the calamitous storm that falls upon Israel during the Jewish War is visible. Yet it is not the Lord Himself who is corporally present, though He directs the Roman armies by His providence (cp. the reference to Cyrus as a bird of prey under His sovereign providence, Isa. 46:10-11). Jesus provides a parabolic description of the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 22:2-15: "But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city" (Matt. 22:7).
The visibility of lightning seems to be merely a side-effect that allows the mention of direction. But even if He intends to emphasize visibility here that does not indicate that it portrays the Second Advent. If visibility is intended, however, our view still fits. For on this approach, the false Christs the Jews vainly look for are in various hidden localities (Matt. 24:26). But these will be overshone by the awesome and public Israel-wide destruction of the very visible Roman armies, whom the true Christ sends to do His bidding. Nevertheless, the other interpretations I suggest above are superior to this view.
In verse 28 we read of the consumption of carcasses by birds of prey: "For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together." This undoubtedly speaks of the dreadful devastation Rome wreaks upon Israel. National, political Israel will be horribly destroyed by the furious soldiers who cruelly ravage the people. The imagery is familiar enough to an agrarian people: the ugly rotting corpse of an animal totally covered by bickering birds of prey.
On another occasion in Scripture a dead body symbolizes Israel: the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. Here she is again portrayed in terms of death. She is morally, spiritually, and covenantally dead in the eyes of God. Previous to the Olivet Discourse, Christ symbolically portrays His death-dealing curse on Israel by cursing the fig tree (Matt. 21:19-20). Shortly thereafter He speaks a parable about His rejection, which the Pharisees foolishly agreed should be recompensed with the destruction of those responsible (Matt. 21:33-41).
Then He speaks of Himself as the "Stone which the builders rejected" (Matt. 21:42). Following immediately upon this, Christ says: "And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder" (Matt. 21:44). Ultimately, upon Israel comes "all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar" (Matt. 23:35).
This judgment comes through the providential instrument of God: the Roman army. Israel is judicially dead; the Roman armies will devour her carcass. This is why Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). This is why God leaves her house desolate (Matt. 23:38). The Spirit of God, which is her life, leaves. Consequently, her capital city and Temple will be totally destroyed.
The Scripture views the body as a wondrous creation by God, inspiring awe among God's people (Psa. 139:13-16; Eccl. 10:5). Because God wonderfully fashions man's body (Gen. 2:7), the bodies of deceased saints in Scripture are treated with the utmost respect and given careful preparation for burial (John 19:40). Only the bodies of vile sinners are loathed enough to forgo their proper preparation for burial, allowing for cremation of their corpses (Gen. 23:19; Lev. 21:9; 1 Sam. 31:12). The death-dealing judgment of God on covenant rebellion often causes a tragic loss of burial arrangements, resulting in animals devouring the bodies of the deceased. This is quite evident in the great covenantal curse in Deuteronomy 28:26: "Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away."
Now why does the Lord portray this judgment with eagles preying upon the carcass? It is interesting that our Lord chooses the word "eagle" (Gk: aetos) here. He could choose a more generic term such as orneon ("fowl"), which John employs in a similar context in Revelation 19:21. Instead Christ chooses the term symbolic of the Roman Empire and descriptive of the Roman ensigns the Roman legions carry before them into battle. Josephus mentions the Roman eagle (Gk.: aetos) Herod affixes to the gate of the Temple to the chagrin of the Jews (Antiquities 17:6:3).
As I note in the preceding chapter, Josephus records the act that lies behind the imagery here: "The Romans, now that the rebels had fled to the city, and the sanctuary itself and all around it were in flames, carried their standards into the temple court and, setting them up opposite the eastern gate, there sacrificed to them, and with rousing acclamations hailed Titus as imperator" (Wars 6:6:1). The Roman ensigns bear the eagle as the symbol of Rome: "Next [came] the ensigns surrounding the eagle [Gk.: aetos], which in the Roman army precedes every legion, because it is the king and the bravest of all the birds; it is regarded by them as the symbol of empire" (Wars 3:6:2; cf. Suetonius, Galba 13). These were "sacred emblems" (ibid.).
Thus, as Jerusalem collapses to her "death," the marauding armies of Rome pour into the city on that fateful day to devour the corpse. Interestingly, Jerusalem is so stripped of her valuables that Josephus writes: "So glutted with plunder were the troops, one and all, that throughout Syria the standard of gold was depreciated to half its former value" (Wars 6:6:1). The soldiers, as bickering eagles, are all over the corpse, picking it apart and gorging on its valuables.
As I continue the exposition of Matthew 24, I will note some remarkable concessions made by recent dispensationalists. These indicate the unwinding of dispensationalism's literalistic hermeneutic, a major element of the historic dispensational system.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken (Matt. 24:29).
Classic dispensationalists deem these words conclusive of the futurity of the Great Tribulation, linking its conclusion with the Second Advent. If we interpret this verse in a woodenly literal sense, the astronomical phenomena are too catastrophic for A.D. 70. I will list some sample explanations of Matthew 24:29 by literalistic dispensationalists in this section of the study. Then I will consider both the proper interpretation of the passage and some recent dispensational concessions allowing the camel's nose of preterism under the tent.
Walvoord: "There will be other unusual phenomena occurring in connection with the second coming of Christ (. . .Matt. 24:29)." "The Second Coming will be preceded by many supernatural events in the skies. . . . (Matt. 24:29)."
Wiersbe: "Those who have confused those two 'sign events' have ended up believing that Jesus Christ returned in A.D. 70!" "The cosmic changes mentioned in Matthew 24:29 precede the return of Jesus Christ to the earth."
Ice: "Matthew 24:29 says 'the sun will be darkened.'. . . The question must be raised: Did the sun literally not shine over the land of Egypt and at the same time shine in the land of Goshen during the ninth plague (Exodus 10:21-29)? Of course. . . . The point is clear: If these events are to happen literally, in a manner corresponding to the Exodus events, then the whole preterist view is wrong. . . ."
Hindson: "The reference to the events Immediately after the tribulation, such as the sun being darkened and the stars falling, etc., refer to the cataclysmic events that will accompany Christ's return at the end of the Tribulation to establish His Millennial Kingdom on earth."
Barbieri: "Immediately following the distress of that period, the Lord will return. His return will be accompanied by unusual displays in the heavens (v. 29. . .)."
Clearly dispensationalism views Matthew 24:29 as referring to a literal, astronomical catastrophe associated with the Second Advent. Just as clearly, such events do not occur in A.D. 70 -- if interpreted literally. How should we interpret this passage?
Once again we must briefly mention the controlling exegetical factor of the passage -- a factor absolutely precluding the imposition of an a priori literalism. Just five verses after the verse before us, Jesus unambiguously asserts: "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (Matt. 24:34).
How then shall we understand verse 29? Rather than interpreting it in a woodenly literal manner, we must interpret it covenantally. That is, we should let Scripture interpret Scripture. I will argue that this passage speaks of the A.D. 70 collapse of political Israel. And since the immediate context demands that these events occur in Christ's generation, we should see if there is biblical warrant for speaking of national catastrophe in terms of cosmic destruction.
Isaiah 13 speaks of remarkably similar events accompanying Babylon's collapse in the Old Testament era. Indisputably, Isaiah has in view the fall of Babylon: "The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw" (Isa. 13:1). "Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them. . . . And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans' pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah" (Isa. 13:17, 19). But how does Isaiah describe Babylon's fall? With cosmic destruction. "For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine. . . . Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place" (Isa. 13:10, 13).
The historical fall of Edom is also described with celestial imagery: "Their slain shall be thrown out; their stench shall rise from their corpses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as the leaf falls from the vine. . . . For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; indeed it shall come down on Edom" (Isa. 34:3-5).
Elsewhere Ezekiel describes the fall of Egypt in history: "'Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him. . . . When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of the heavens I will make dark over you'" (Eze. 32:2, 7-8).
Such imagery, then, indicates that the God of the heavens (the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars) is moving in judgment against a nation (blotting out their light). When a national government collapses in war and upheaval, it is often poetically portrayed "as a cosmic catastrophe -- an undoing of Creation."
In fact, the Old Testament applies this vivid poetic language to Israel's historical judgment. Jeremiah portrays the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in like terms: "At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, 'A dry wind of the desolate heights blows in the wilderness toward the daughter of My people. . . . I beheld the earth, and indeed it was without form, and void; and the heavens, they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and indeed they trembled, and all the hills moved back and forth . . . . For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black, because I have spoken" (Jer. 4:11, 23-24, 29).
Similarly the prophet Joel threatens Israel's Old Testament judgment: "Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain. . .. The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble; the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness" (Joel 2:1, 10).
Consequently, Matthew 24:29 easily applies to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Christ draws the imagery in His prophecy from Old Testament judgment passages. These Old Testament judgments sound as if they are world-ending events. And in a sense it is "the end of the world" for those nations God judges. So is it with Israel in A.D. 70.
Although it was not the case twenty years ago, today there is no hermeneutic reason why dispensationalists may dismiss out of hand the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:29. Even Dallas Seminary's Bible Knowledge Commentary admits that such stellar catastrophic language is applicable to historical judgments. Just a few paragraphs back, I cite Charles Dyer's comments on the use of stellar catastrophism language. Dyer is a leading dispensationalist theologian who allows the symbolic-figurative use of cosmic imagery. Let me cite some dispensational explanations of a few Old Testament cosmic destruction passages from The Bible Knowledge Commentary. (I will parenthetically list the author and page number from the commentary.) The statements below undermine the literalistic hermeneutic of dispensationalism and cripple the argument against a preterist view of Matthew 24.
On Jeremiah 4:23-28: "Jeremiah pictured God's coming judgment as a cosmic catastrophe -- an undoing of Creation. Using imagery from the Creation account (Gen. 1) Jeremiah indicated that no aspect of life would remain untouched. God would make Judah formless and empty. . . . God's imagery was so awesome that some might have though He would totally destroy the land of Israel" (Charles Dyer, 1136).
On Isaiah 13:10: "The statements in 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars. . . sun . . .moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction" (John A. Martin, 1059).
On Ezekiel 32:11-16 (cp. vv. 3-8): "This third section of Ezekiel's lament drops the figurative description of Egypt's destruction (vv. 3-8) and portrays Egypt's fall to Babylon literally" (Charles H. Dyer, 1291).
On Joel 2:10-11: "The army's approach is accompanied by cosmic disorder. The entire world, from earth below to sky above, quivers (cf. shakes and trembles) before the thunderous battle cry of the divine Commander. This cosmic response is a typical poetic description of the Lord's theophany as Warrior. . . If the army in Joel 2:1-11 was in Joel's day, it may foreshadow the army in chapter 3" (Robert B. Chisolm, Jr., 1417).
Strangely, in the same commentary set, but in the New Testament volume at Matthew 24:29, Isaiah 13:10 is mentioned as evidence "His return will be accompanied by unusual displays in the heavens (v. 29; cf. Isa. 13:10; 34:4. . . .)" (Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., 78).
Thus, in the devastation of Jerusalem the divine judgment of A.D. 70 is tantamount to the destruction of the world. In fact, Jerusalem's fall is the collapse of the Jews's world, as it were.
We turn now to consider the meaning of Matthew 24:30-31: "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). This verse, along with all other verses leading up to them from Matthew 24:1, applies to the era of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
It is easy to see how futurists jump to the conclusion that this is referring to the Second Advent -- when we omit the historical episode designate (Matt. 24:2) and the time qualifier (Matt. 24:34). But we should not omit these. Let us see how the several elements of this verse fit nicely into the preterist understanding of the passage.
Here I prefer the Authorized Version (KJV) to most other translations (including the New King James Version), because it follows the Greek word order so closely and translates the passage so accurately: "Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven" (Matt. 24:30a) is the translation of: kai tote phanesetai to semeion tou huiou tou anthropou enourano.
Notice that this does not say: "Then shall appear the Son of Man in the sky." To understand this verse in such a manner is to import a meaning into the text that is not there. What the verse literally says is: "Then will appear the sign." The word "sign" (semeion) is in the nominative case in the Greek: it is the subject of shall appear. The Son of Man does not appear; the sign appears. Then He defines what the sign signifies: it is the sign "of the Son of Man in heaven."
This is extremely important to redemptive history. Christ is responding to the question of His disciples regarding the end of the age (Gk.: aion, "age" -- not kosmos, "world") (Matt. 24:3). Christ's answer is: When the Romans lay waste the Temple (24:6 and 15 anticipate this) and pick apart Jerusalem (24:28). When the government of Israel is in utterly collapse (24:29), then it will be evident that the One who prophesies this destruction is "in heaven."
The Temple's final destruction (which is the main topic of the discourse, Matt. 23:38-24:3), then, serves as the sign that the Son of Man is in heaven. It is His curse upon these things that causes this woe; it is His curse as the Son of Man from heaven that sovereignly brings judgment: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, and the breasts which never nursed!' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us!' and to the hills, 'Cover us!' For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:28-31). He prophesies it; they will experience the fulfilling of His powerful word.
The idea of Matthew 24:30 is parallel in some respects to that of Acts 2:19: "I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: blood and fire and vapor of smoke." Those elements marking the total collapse of Jerusalem -- blood, fire, and smoke -- serve as the sign that the Son of Man was at God's right hand.
Smoke serves as a sign for Israel's armies in the Old Testament: "Now the appointed signal between the men of Israel and the men in ambush was that they would make a great cloud of smoke rise up from the city" (Jdgs. 20:38). In prophetic literature smoke indicates the destruction of a city: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke" (Joel 2:30; quoted in Acts 2:19). In Scripture the bellowing of smoke clouds from a scene of judgment often serves as evidence of that judgment (Gen. 19:28; Josh. 18:20; 20:40; Psa. 37:20; Isa. 14:31; 34:10; Rev. 14:11; 18:9).
In another context and employing slightly different terminology, Christ tells the Sanhedrim who condemn Him: "I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64). In the smokey destruction of Jerusalem, these Jewish leaders should see the Son of Man's position of power in His cloud-judgment (see below).
The sign, then, is that the Son of Man is in heaven, where He comes from (John 3:13, 31; 6:42; 17:5) and ascends to (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; John 14:2,4). Despite the disbelief of the Jews (John 6:32-42), who seek signs from heaven (Matt. 16:1; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16), Christ is from heaven. The era of racial focus (Jew), geographical delimitation (Promised Land), and typological ministry (Temple) are no longer valid. The destruction of the Temple is the final, conclusive sign: the Son of Man is in heaven so that He might be Lord of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:21) in spiritual worship (John 4:23; Phil. 3:3).
The Greek word for "heaven" here is ouranos, which may be translated either "heaven" (the abode of God) or "sky" (the cloudy atmosphere above the ground). Hre it is best to translate it as "heaven." This fits better with the redemptive historical significance of the removal of the earthly Temple and the ascending to heaven of the True Temple (John 2:18-22).
If one disputes this translation, however, the preterist utility of the verse still remains. Suppose we translate the verse: "Then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in the sky." In this case we would apply the sign in the sky to the place of the smoke that ascends from Jerusalem's smouldering remains. That is, if the verse is not informing us of the ultimate reality that Jerusalem's destruction is proof the Son of Man is in heaven, then it would be teaching that the smoke-sign in the sky is an indication He visited Jerusalem in wrath. Either way, preterism sufficiently accounts for Matthew 24:30a, though the initial translation is much preferred.
Consider one of the options Dallas Seminary's commentary suggests: "Exactly what the sign of the Son of Man will be is unknown.... Some believe the sign may involve the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, which may descend at this time and remain as a satellite city suspended over the earthly city Jerusalem throughout the Millennium (Rev. 21:2-3)." This is a strange interpretation, to say the least.
In Matthew 24:30b we read: "Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."
We should provide a lexical insight before we begin our brief exposition. As with the word ouranos (as dealt with above), so the word ge (translated "earth") contains two basic ideas. The word may have either a general referent: the tangible ground. Or it may have a specific referent: a particular land area of a nation.
The Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon gives the following definitions of ge: 1. Soil, earth (see: Mark 4:5, 8, 20). 2. Ground (see: Matt. 10:29; 15:35). 3. Bottom of the sea (not in Scripture). 4. Land, region, country, native land (see: Matt. 10:15; 11:24). 5. The earth, globe (Acts 10:12; 2 Pet. 3:5). (Of course, how to translate each appearance of ge is a matter of contextual exegesis.)
The Rabbis are particularly careful in their description of "the land" (he ge). Edersheim notes: "Palestine was to the Rabbis simply 'the land,' all other countries being summed up under the designation of 'outside the land.'"
The context of Matthew 24 -- involving the Temple (24:2), Judea (24:16), and "this generation" (24:34) -- strongly suggests the proper translation of verse 30b as "the tribes of the land." The reference to "the tribes" reinforces this view, in that it is a common designate for the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Gen. 49:28; Exo. 24:4; Eze. 47:13; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30; Acts 26:7; Rev. 21:12). The Septuagint "with few exceptions . . . has phule [tribe], so that this becomes a fixed term for the tribal system of Israel."
So then, the mourning will befall the Jewish tribes in Israel. They will receive the brunt of God's wrath and judgment for their rejection of Christ. They will have to flee the area if they are to preserve their lives (Matt. 24:16). After which they shall mourn for the loss of their beloved land, government, homes, friends, and Temple.
Here again, though, we may allow a less restrictive translation for argument's sake. Even if someone argues for the translation "earth, world" in Matthew 24:30b, the preterist view is unharmed. Instead of locating the mourning in Israel, where the scene of judgment focuses, this translation speaks of the widespread Jewish mourning throughout the world upon hearing the news. Surely the Jews throughout the world of the day would mourn Jerusalem's fall and the Temple's destruction. Yet, the other translation is contextually preferable.
The final phrase in Matthew 24:30c is: "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." We must recall Christ's interchange with the Sanhedrim at His ecclesiastical trial before His crucifixion: "The high priest answered and said to Him, 'I adjure You by the living God that You tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God.' Jesus said to him, 'It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven'" (Matt. 26:63-64). Here the Sanhedrim are told they would see His coming. As I argue above, this is not a physical, visible coming, but a judgment-coming upon Jerusalem. They "saw" it in the sense we "see" how a math problem works: with the eye of understanding rather than the organ of vision.
Again we must recall that the coming the Sanhedrim (Matt. 26:64) and Israel at large (Matt. 24:30) will witness is like Jehovah's coming against Egypt in the Old Testament: "The burden against Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt" (Isa. 19:1). The LORD did not physically ride on a cloud down into Egypt. I agree with Dallas Seminary's Bible Knowledge Commentary that Isaiah 19:1 speaks of "the impending Assyrian advance" under "God's judgment." Likewise, neither is the "coming of the Son of Man" that the Sanhedrim will see a physical coming.
The preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:30 is soundly biblical. Because Israel rejects her Messiah (Matt. 23:37; John 1:11; Acts 26:7), she is given the smokey sign of judgment from the One who is in heaven. Her mourning is great.
We move now to consider Matthew 24:31: "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."
The surface appearance of an eschatological rapture in this verse seems amenable to the dispensational system. Were we to assume a dispensational type rapture in the future, certain expressions in this verse would seem suggestive of it: "they will gather together His elect from the four winds," at the "trumpet" sound issued by "angels." Yet dispensationalism has such a pandemonium of theological qualifications, historical compartments, redemptive peoples, eschatological phenomena, revelational programs, law principles, and so forth, that this passage really expresses the system's weaknesses, rather than providing it with strength.
Walvoord writes of this verse: "Some have taken the elect here to refer specifically to the elect living on earth, but it is more probable that this event will include all the elect, or the saved, including Old Testament saints, saved Israel, the church, and the saints of the Tribulation period leading up to the Second Coming. Some will need to be resurrected from the dead, such as the martyrs (Rev. 20:4-6) and the Old Testament saints (Dan. 12:2). The church was resurrected, or translated, earlier, at the time of the Rapture. At the second coming of Christ no child of God will be left unresurrected or unrestored, but all will share in the millennial kingdom."
Notice the multiplying of peoples here. The general resurrection of postmillennialism divides people into two classes: the saved and the lost. But when talk of the resurrection arises, dispensationalists herd all the various classes of peoples off to their respective programs, resurrections, judgments, rewards, eternal destinies, and so forth.
For example, notice the following partial listing of judgments by Walvoord: "According to the Scriptures a series of judgments is related to Christ's return. . . . [T]he martyred dead of the great Tribulation will be judged and rewarded [Rev. 20:4]. In addition, Israel will be judged (Ezek. 20:33-38), and the Gentiles will be judged (Matt. 25:31-46). These judgments precede and lead up to the millennial kingdom." Thus, "while all the righteous will be raised before the Millennium, individuals will retain their identities and their group identifications such as Gentile believers and believers in Israel in the Old Testament, the church of the New Testament, and saints of the Tribulation."
In Matthew 24:31, then, Walvoord defines the elect in terms of the various dispensationally imposed categories: "Old Testament saints, saved Israel, the church, and the saints of the Tribulation period." Fortunately, the timing of this resurrection is such that it does not have to account for another group of the righteous: those who die in the millennium after conversion to Christ. Walvoord explains that the "first resurrection" language of Revelation 20 actually "supports the conclusion that the resurrection of the righteous is by stages." These stages include the church at the Rapture, the two witnesses in the Tribulation, the martyred of the Tribulation soon after Christ's return to earth, and the Old Testament saints.
A preferable interpretation of Matthew 24:31 is to view it as symbolically trumpeting the ultimate Jubilee Year. This is the time of the forgiveness of man's ultimate debt; it is the "day of salvation." By employing imagery drawn from the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, the Lord here speaks of the final stage of redemption. This redemptive culmination begins in His earthly ministry (Mark 1:15) and is sealed at the destruction of Jerusalem (Mark 9:1). The levitical Jubilee law is a ceremonial law that symbolically portrays the coming of full forgiveness in the Messiah and the incorporation of the nations into the one people of God (see: Eph. 2:12-21).
The Old Testament Jubilee Year follows after seven consecutive sabbath years. The sabbath year is a God-ordained year of rest for the land every seventh year. The Year of Jubilee occurs after the passing of seven sevens, or after the forty-ninth year. It is the culmination of all of the sabbatical tokens of rest.
In the Year of Jubilee, Israel experiences release from bondage and debt: "And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor's hand, you shall not oppress one another" (Lev. 25:10-14).
The typology of redemption contains in the Jubilee legislation lends it a prophetic utility. Isaiah employs Jubilee language to prophesy of the coming antitypical Jubilee: "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God" (Isa. 61:1-2).
The Lord Jesus Himself introduces the fulfillment of the Jubilee Law in His ministry, when He preaches at the Temple from Isaiah 61: "And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the LORD.' Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:17-21). Thus, Christ's ministry introduces "the Acceptable Year of the Lord" (Luke 4:19), "the Day of Salvation" (2 Cor. 6:6), which the righteous of the Old Testament long to see (Matt. 13:17).
This is why the Lord mentions the "trumpet": it speaks of Jubilee. According to Christ's teaching in Matthew 24:31, following upon the collapse of the Temple order His "angels" will go forth to all nations joyfully trumpeting the gospel of salvific liberation: "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."
The word "angels" here is aggeloi in the Greek. It can be, often is, and should here be translated "messengers," signifying human messengers. It does not refer to supernatural heavenly beings here. (The word clearly refers to human "messengers" in Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52.) All those who know Christ as Lord and Savior will go forth into all the earth proclaiming the message of full and free salvation, the removal of man's ultimate debt to God.
It is particularly after the fall of Jerusalem that the Church is freed from its bondage to Judaism. This occurs so that she might become a truly universal Church, rather than a Jewish dominated Church. The problem plaguing the pre-A.D. 70 church is Zionism, as is evident in Acts 15, Galatians, and Hebrews. This is a serious threat to the universality and advance of the Christian message.
Through gospel preaching by faithful messengers, God gathers the elect into His kingdom from the four corners of the world. The phrase "from one end of heaven to the other" indicates from horizon to horizon (see: Deut. 30:4; Neh. 1:9); it parallels "from the four winds."
The "gathering together" involves both the local assembling of the saints in microcosm (Heb. 10:25; Jms. 2:2 "assembly/gathering") and the universal assembling of the saints in macrocosm (2 Thess. 2:1; cp. Matt. 22:7-13). The proclamation of the gospel is to be worldwide, as the Old Testament prophetically anticipates (Psa. 22:27; Isa. 45:22; Mic. 5:4) and as the New Testament confidently expects (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 13:29; Acts 13:39).
It is important to realize how the collapse of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 effectively removes a great hindrance to the Christian faith. This hindrance is removed (or greatly reduced) in two respects: (1) The Jewish ceremonial laws are confusing to many of the early Christians. Particularly troublesome is circumcision, which some think necessary for salvation (Acts 15; Gal. 5:1-6). There is the growing danger that Christianity will be a mere sect of Judaism, as the Romans originally surmise. With the Temple's destruction, this will no longer be a tendency. (2) The first persecutors of the faith are the Jews (Acts 8:1ff). With the demise of the Jews's strength and the distraction of their energy in A.D. 70, Christianity receives much less resistance from them. Jewish persecution of Christians does not cease entirely (Polycarp is a dramatic case in point), but it does decline significantly.
In this concluding section to our study of Matthew 24, I arrive at the passage containing the verse I dealt with earlier in our introduction.
We come now to verses 31-36, which include the all important key text for the understanding of this section of the Olivet Discourse: verse 34. I want to consider this verse in its immediate setting at this point in order to throw additional light on it.
Matthew 24:31-36 reads: "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. Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near, at the very doors. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only."
A simple reading of Matthew 24:34 provides an unambiguous assertion that all of the things Christ the Great Prophet mentions up to this point -- that is, everything in verses 4 through 34 -- are to occur in the very generation of the original disciples: "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (24:34). Here the phrase "this generation" is identical to the "this generation" phrase of Matthew 23:36. In Matthew 23 the Lord rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees of His own day (Matt. 23:13, 14, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). Then in Matthew 23:36 he assures them: "I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation." The woes He pronounces on them cannot be catapulted 2000 years into the future.
Neither may we project the events of Matthew 24:4-34 into the distant future. In fact, the whole impetus to this discourse is Christ's reference to the destruction of the historical Temple to which the disciples point (Matt. 23:38 - 24:1-3). Here we must remind ourselves that the approaching destruction of the Temple will be preceded by a series of certain divinely ordained signs (24:4ff). The first few signs are general indicators of the final judgment on the Temple: "All these are the beginning of sorrows" (24:8). All of these signs do, in fact, come to pass in the era prior to A.D. 70. Just as surely as fig leaves indicate approaching summer (24:32), so do the events of Matthew 24:4-32 signify the destruction of the Temple.
This point regarding historical signs is important in another way. Following His prophecy of the Temple's demise, the Lord turns to consider His glorious Second Advent (24:36ff). He specifically says of that distant event there will be no such signs: "But of that day and hour no one knows.... As in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.... Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (24:36-42).
With these words the Lord looks beyond the signs just given for "this generation" (near demonstrative, Matt. 24:34) to "that day" (far demonstrative) (24:36). Thus, the Lord's attention turns to His Second Advent at the end of history. Although He gives signs regarding the events coming upon His own "generation," He carefully distinguishes His eschatological coming by the fact of its signlessness.
In a summary fashion we may look to the following evidences for a distinction between the coming of Christ upon Jerusalem in judgment, which is found in Matthew 24:3-34, and the coming of Christ at the Second Advent to end history, found in verses 36ff. Note the following:
(1) Matthew 24:34 functions as a concluding statement: it ends the preceding events. That being the case, the following events relate to some episode not in this generation. Thus, all prophecies before verse 34 occur in this generation.
(2) There is a contrast of the near and far in verse 36: "This generation" versus "that day." It would be more appropriate for Christ to speak of "this day" rather than "that day" if He is referring to the time of "this generation."
(3) Before verse 34 there are signs to the A.D. 70 coming. The time of its approach may be known. After verse 34 signs are replaced by elements of surprise, indicating the coming in view in that section is unknown.
(4) Even Christ Himself does not know the time of the Second Advent (v. 36). In the early section, however, He clearly knows the time of the A.D. 70 judgment, for He tells His disciples that certain signs may come but "the end is not yet" (v. 6). He also tells them these things will certainly happen in "this generation."
(5) In the early section of Matthew 24, the time frame is short: "this generation." In the following section (and into Matt. 25) the reference the time frame is lengthened, anticipating a long delay: "But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming'" (Matt. 24:48). "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (Matt. 25:5). "After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them" (Matt. 25:19).
Some, nevertheless, will try to squeeze datable signs from the text. The classic illustration of this is Edgar Whisenant's writings. Of verse 36, Whisenant argues: "In all four gospels, Jesus never deviated from the day and the hour as the limitation on his church's Rapture. God says what He means and means what He says. You don't have to help God say what God means to say. Jesus said that only the day and the hour was unknown.... The Greek words used by Jesus imply that, we can know the week, month, and year, but we cannot know the day nor hour."
Even Dispensationalists more cautious than Whisenant are tempted here. Walvoord writes: "Though they will not know the day nor the hour, they will be able to comprehend the approximate time because the length of the total period is forty-two months (Rev. 13:5)." Barbieri is a little more vague, but still offers indicators: "The precise moment of the Lord's return cannot be calculated by anyone.... But the period before His coming will be like the time in the days of Noah." Pentecost agrees: "While no one knows the specific day or hour in which Jesus Christ will return, people who properly understand and interpret the signs will know that they are living in the last days."
There are problems with seeking signs for Christ's eschatological coming, however. First, the whole point of Jesus's instruction here is that men ought always to be ready: "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (Matt. 24:42). If He suggests there are historical signs that will point to the particular era (within forty-two months, a decade, or whatever), and if these signs are to precede a still future (to us) eschatological event, then His whole point is undermined. For then His first hearers and those following them for the next 1800 years or so would be under no compulsion to readiness. The signs pointing to Christ's coming would still lay off in the future by thousands of years.
Second, the forty-two month period Walvoord suggests is drawn from Revelation. The temporal context there specifically ties the forty-two months to the first century. According to the Apostle John, the forty-two months of Revelation 11 are to happen "soon," they are "near" (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). In fact, the words in Revelation 11:1-2 are drawn from Luke 21:24, which has to do with the A.D. 70 destruction of Israel (cp. Rev. 11:1-2; Luke 21:20-24; Matt. 24:15-17). Notice that the Greek words for "gentiles/nations" and "tread under foot" in Revelation 11:1-2 show a John's dependence upon the Lord's words in Luke 21:24.
Third, both the terms "day" and "hour" are used in Scripture in a non-literal way. The Greek hemera ("day") may be used in a non-literal sense of an era, such as the Christian era: "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2b). And even hora ("hour") may stand for an expansive period of time: "Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour" (1 Jn. 2:18). Apparently the two words in Matthew 24 indicate we cannot know the extent of the longer (day) or shorter (hour) time period before His Return.
The Lord's Second Advent is absolutely undatable. Christ does not suggest it is merely inaccurately datable.
Although the Olivet Discourse is a favorite of the date-setting doomsayers, it should not be so. These verses, so often set in our near future, actually occur in our distant past. The specific relevance of Matthew 24:1-34 is to the first century. Furthermore, Christ specifically decries the possibility of dating His Second Coming (Matt. 24:36ff).
Many contemporary Christians are convinced that we are living in the last days. Yet our parents and grandparents living through World Wars I and II seemingly had even clearer "signs." Hear the words of an earlier prophetic writer. Writing in 1918 Arthur W. Pink sounds the alarm:
"Brethren, the end of the Age is upon us. All over the world, reflecting minds are discerning the fact that we are on the eve of another of those far-reaching crises which make the history of our race.... Those who look out on present conditions are forced to conclude that the consummation of this dispensation is at hand.... The sands in the hour glass of this Day of Salvation have almost run out. The signs of the Times demonstrate it. 'But,' it may be asked, 'Have not other ages, as well as the present been crowded with signs of distress?' Undoubtedly.... They unduly magnified the evil, and erred in their calculations.... But today, the Signs are so plain they cannot be mis-read, though the foolish may close their eyes and refuse to examine them. What these Signs are we have shown at length in chapter six and if the evidence there furnished has not convinced the reader that the Lord is at hand, then there is little hope that any further arguments drawn from Scripture will do so."
The Greatness of the Great Tribulation
Few themes in eschatology fascinate and alarm the Christian as much as that of the "Great Tribulation." Our Lord's Olivet Discourse presents His followers with a prophetically determined time of great chaos of unparalleled magnitude. Covenantally speaking, that is.
But when is the Great Tribulation?
What is the nature of that prophetic event?
For what purpose does God send it?
These and other such questions are answered within this small book -- and in a way that will be surprising to most evangelical Christians. Surprising not only in the conclusions reached but also in regard to the ease with which they are reached. How could so many have missed it for so long?
The Great Tribulation, argues the author, has already occurred: in the First Century! With meticulous exegetical care, Gentry seeks to prove that the Great Tribulation is related to the events of the Jewish War with Rome from A.D. 67-70. His position is derived from the text, rather than from current newspapers. The view presented within is vitally related to the Jesus' original hearers in a most remarkable way.
Come! Let us reason together!
Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 249. Warren W. Wiersbe, Bible Exposition Commentary, 2 vols. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1989), 2:86. John F. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1990), 381. Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., "Matthew," in John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1983), 76. See also: James F.
Rand, "A Survey of the Eschatology of the Olivet Discourse," Bibliotheca Sacra 113 (1956) 166. H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah, 1989), 293.
David L. Turner, "The Structure and Sequence of Matthew 24:1-41: Interaction with Evangelical Treatments," Grace Theological Journal 10:1 (Spring, 1989) 7. Turner calls his position a "preterist-futurist" view, 26.
Pentecost, Things to Come, 281. Cp. L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 7 vols., (Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1948), 4:316. C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1945), 1034. E. Schuyler English, Studies in the Gospel According to Matthew (New York, Revell, 1935), 179. William Kelly, Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Loizeaux, 1911), pp. 451-453.
Walvoord notes of Matthew 24: "An important notation should be made at this point that the Rapture of the church and the close of the Church Age is [sic] nowhere mentioned in this prophecy." Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 381.
Barbieri, "Matthew," 75. John F. Walvoord, The Nations, Israel, and the Church in Prophecy, 3 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 2:106. Edward E. Hindson, "Matthew" in Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, Liberty Commentary on the New Testament (Lynchburg, Vir.: Liberty Commentary, 1978), 77.
Strangely, House and Ice state of this alleged future event, that it "will occur three and a half years before the second coming of Christ" (ibid., 288). This is strange because two verses later in 24:36 Jesus conclusively says, "No man knows the day nor the hour" of His Second Coming. A predestined three and a half year period, however, would precisely quantify the amount of time that would elapse between the moment of the abomination of desolation and the moment of the Second Coming. Unless they import one of their famous gaps, that is. Such as the gap that can make a prophetic time frame of 490 years (from Dan. 9:24-27) stretch out for over 2000 years. Even more strangely, House and Ice favorably cite Nathaniel West's deriding interpreters who have "numbers that don't count" (ibid., 325). This is despite Daniel's 490 years not counting properly, though Daniel's prophecy is used by House and Ice as an illustration of "literal" prophecy of great "precision" (ibid., 321).
Matt. 2:1-18; Luke 24:21; John 1:20, 41; 4:29; 6:15; 7:27, 31; 11:47-48; 12:34. See also the Jewish apocalyptic literature surrounding the New Testament era: The Psalms of Solomon; 4 Ezra; Apocalypse of Baruch; the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QSb 5:20; 4Q Patriarchal Blessings).
Origen, Against Celsus 6:11. It is not certain when he actually lives, though. Clementine Recognitions 2:8 speaks of him as first a disciple, then afterwards the teacher of Simon Magus. He may, however, have been an early second century figure.
Josephus notes of the Roman Civil Wars of this era: "I have omitted to give an exact account of them, because they are well known by all, and they are described by a great number of Greek and Roman authors" (Wars 4:9:2). For more information see my Before Jerusalem Fell (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 311-314.
For a discussion of the important office of prophet and the inspired nature of Agabus, see my: The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem (2nd ed: Memphis: Footstool, 1990).
See for example: Acts 4:3; 5:18-33; 6:12; 7:54-60; 8:1ff; 9:1-4, 13, 23; 11:19; 12:1-3; 13:45-50; 14:2-5, 19; 16:23; 17:5-13; 18:12; 20:3, 19; 21:11, 27; 22:30; 23:12, 20, 27, 30; 24:5-9; 25:2-15; 25:24; 26:21. See also: 2 Cor. 11:24; 2 Thess. 2:14-15; Heb. 10:32-34; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.
The Neronic persecution is the first and most grievous Roman persecution. It stretches from around November, A.D. 64 to the death of Nero, June 8, A.D. 68. See discussion in my Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), ch. 5.
Ibid. I agree that it is an error to discover the fulfillment of the entire Olivet Discourse in A.D. 70. I do firmly believe, though, that up through verse 33 has found such fulfillment (cf. Matt. 24:34).
The events of Matt. 24:15ff do not begin until after the ever imminent rapture: "It should be noted that the signs [in Matt. 24] are in relation to the second coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation, not to the Rapture of the church which has no signs and is imminent until it occurs." Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 392. But they are especially close now: "Those who read the Book of Revelation [which speaks of the same events as the Olivet Discourse] today and are captured by its graphic revelation should sense that while these events have not yet been fulfilled, they could be very quickly, and the time for preparation for the end-time events is now" (pp. 645-646).
For recent examples, see: See Chuck Stewart and Don Missler, The Coming Temple: Center Stage for the Final Countdown (Costa Mesa, CA: Calvary Chapel, 1990) and Thomas Ice and Randall Price, Ready to Rebuild: The Imminent Plan to Rebuild the Last Days Temple (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1992).
Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, pp. 382-383. Several years ago I noted a non-dispensationalist premillennial theologian suggesting a similar scenario of detailed historic expectations. See my review of J. Barton Payne's Biblical Prophecy for Today in Christianity Today (#23-3) November 3, 1978.
I highly recommend the reading of Josephus's Wars of the Jews, especially Books 4-7, in conjunction with the Olivet Discourse and Revelation. For a few examples, see my Before Jerusalem Fell, ch. 14.
"The eagle was adopted as the standard of the legion, and was carried by the first maniple of the first cohort." Sir Paul Harvey, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937), 49.
 The New Testament strongly emphasizes first century Jewish culpability: Acts 2:22-23; Acts 3:13-15a; Acts 5:30; 7:52; 1 Thess. 2:14-15. They demand that the Romans crucify Him: Matt. 20:18-19; 27:11-25; Mark 10:33; 15:1; Luke 18:32; 23:1-2; John 18:28-31; 19:12, 15; Acts 3:13; Acts 4:26-27.