Matthew 24 begins with a brief conversation between Jesus and His disciples in the Temple complex in Jerusalem. At that time, Jesus predicted the complete destruction of the Temple. One can fill in some drama in the reaction of the disciples. They appeared to say absolutely nothing—dumbstruck by Jesus’ prediction. After some time, when they were alone with Him outside the city on Mount Olives, they had recovered enough to ask three questions (the second and third tied together):
“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3, all Scriptures English Standard Version unless stated otherwise)
Matthew 24:4 through the end of Matthew 25 is Jesus’ reply to these questions, as recorded in Matthew (parallels in Mark 13:5-37 and Luke 21:8-36).
“SEE THAT NO ONE LEADS YOU ASTRAY”
Jesus’ first admonition is one that all should take to heart. If ever there were ever occasions for deception, it is in interpreting this and other prophetic Scriptures. Paul remarks about evil people that they are “deceiving and being deceived.” (II Timothy 3:13) This gives us a clue that the source of deception is also the source of all other evils.
That understanding reminds us that we must always be in prayer that our hearts will be right before God as we study the Scripture. I believe that a sincere and righteous heart may make a mistake in interpretation. But such a heart will have a righteous attitude about the whole enterprise of interpretation. We will not be boastful or bitterly polemical. We will be willing to be proved wrong, but will humbly hold fast to what we believe is the truth in the face of those who seem to have the majority on their side.
As we consider interpretation of prophetic Scriptures, we need to take the project quite seriously. In my first article in this series, I discussed the fact that lack of interest in eschatology is symptomatic of a spiritual malaise in the church. As we deal with these Scriptures, over and again we observe that spiritual exhortation is at the heart of these Scriptures. We are not simply getting to see into the future. We are receiving warnings, comforting thoughts, and exhortations to encourage us to endure to the end (Matthew 24:13).
Moreover, we can observe that gross distortions of the Christian message often are accompanied by gross distortions of eschatology. The Watchtower Society, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, presents a theology that is far removed from orthodox Christianity. They reject the Trinity, and they do not accept the full deity of Jesus Christ. They have taught that Christ returned “spiritually” in 1914. They have taught that a select group of Jehovah’s Witnesses are the 144,000 that are described in Revelation 7 and 14 (Ridenour pages 114-129).
However, I do not think we have to look to cults and other far-out groups to see deception in the interpretation of eschatological Scripture. People commonly make mistakes in their approach to eschatology.
· The most common error is to choose to ignore the subject. People are frightened or they are overwhelmed by the complexity or they make judgments on certain groups that stress eschatology. Whatever their reasons may be, they choose to avoid eschatology and the Scriptures of eschatology. By doing so, they remain ignorant of an important segment of the counsel of God.
· Some people overemphasize eschatology. They tend to judge all Scripture on the basis of their personal eschatological perspective. This can distort their understanding of important Scriptural teaching. It also can deprive them of a foundation for discernment of eschatological teaching.
· Many have succumbed to the temptation to set dates. Jesus told us we would not know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:42), yet many cannot resist setting dates.
· Some people are quick to make judgments about certain teachings because they have observed obnoxious behavior in some adherents of those teachings. This is the ad hominem logical error.
· Some people are quick to interpret current events in eschatological terms.
I believe Jesus was especially warning about the final item in the list when He warned about deception in regards to the timing of eschatological events.
INTERPRETING JESUS’ REPLY:
A RANGE OF APPROACHES
There are a number of interpretative approaches to this complex passage. I shall briefly introduce some of those approaches.
1. A Passage Fraught with Problems: R. V. G. Tasker wrote the commentary on Matthew in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries—a collection of evangelical commentaries that has been very helpful to me over many years. But Tasker approaches the Olivet Discourse through eyes of scholars (in many cases solid in their orthodoxy) who only see the “problems” of the passage. The following are quotes from his first paragraph on the passage: “In this very difficult section the evangelist has brought together sayings of Jesus which foretold the downfall of Jerusalem and the final coming of the Son of man [sic] in judgment…[Scholars] have found it extremely difficult to say with any degree of certainty which parts of the chapter contain an answer [to when the destruction of Jerusalem would take place] and which parts are a response to their supplementary question [what will be the sign of the His coming and of the end of the age].” In a footnote, Tasker refers to the “problems raised by this chapter…” (Tasker page 223)
2. A Prediction of the Judgment on Judaism—the True Parousia: J. S. Russell published his book in 1878 that established the interpretive theory that came to be known as Preterism. In that book he contended that the Parousia was evidenced by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. He claimed that this event was Jesus’ coming in judgment upon the nation of Israel and that constituted the Second Coming, or Parousia, of Jesus Christ. His book surveyed the entire New Testament (together with some Old Testament Scriptures). In his commentary of Matthew 24-25, he said: “What we contend for is the unity and continuity of the whole [Olivet] discourse…The theme is the approaching consummation of the age…the woes which were to overtake that ‘wicked generation,’ comprehending the invasion of the Roman armies, the siege and capture of Jerusalem, the total destruction of the Temple…along with this we find the true Parousia,…the judicial infliction of divine wrath upon the impenitent, and the deliverance and recompense of the faithful.” (Russell, pages 63-64)
3. A Description of the Tribulation Period and Beyond: Dwight Pentecost is a representative author of the Dispensationalist school of interpretation. He understands this passage to be focused on prophecies that are pertinent to the nation of Israel: “The first event in Israel’s program for the end of the age is the tribulation period, described in Matthew 24:4-26.” (Pentecost, page 277) He does not believe that any of this material applies to the church: “Consistency of interpretation would seem to eliminate any application of this portion of Scripture to the church or the church age, inasmuch as the Lord is dealing with the prophetic program for Israel.” (Pentecost, page 278)
4. A Prediction of Events of the First Century that Foreshadow the Future Events that Focus on the Second Coming of Christ: G. Eldon Ladd has carefully looked at this and other passages with a scholar’s eyes, but also has tempered his approach with a conviction of traditional prophetic teaching. He recognizes that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is certainly an element in the Olivet Discourse. However, the events of the first century do not exhaust or fulfill the prophecy that Christ gave in His discourse. He quotes C. E. B. Cranfield: “‘in the crises of history the eschatological is foreshadowed. The divine judgments of history are, so to speak, rehearsals of the last judgment and the successive incarnations of antichrist are foreshadowings of the last supreme concentration of the rebelliousness of the devil before the End.’” (Ladd, pages 198-199)
5. A Prediction of Events that Will Affect the Church: One of the most controversial subjects of prophecy study is the timing of the rapture/resurrection. The Dispensationalists, of whom Pentecost is a representative, generally believe in a “Pretribulation” Rapture. Some Dispensationalists, while accepting many of the tenets of that school, believe in a “Post-tribulation” Rapture. Robert H. Gundry is a representative of this group. He believes that Jesus’ discourse was directed especially to the church, as He spoke to the Disciples as the future Apostles of the church. Thus, he believes that Jesus described a Post-tribulation Rapture in Matthew 24:31 (Gundry, pages 129-139).
6. My Own Approach: It is easy to describe one’s interpretation as “objective,” but I recognize that, when one has a certain preconception, it is impossible to avoid being influenced by that preconception. I was introduced to the Post-tribulation Rapture idea about 30 years ago. As I have studied Scripture over the years, I have generally confirmed that theory for myself. So, I approach this passage with a tentative idea that Jesus is describing events that culminate in His future Second Coming and the Rapture/Resurrection of the saints. Nevertheless, as I study other students of prophecy, I recognize that they often make strong arguments for their positions and one must take them seriously. As I progress through this passage, I hope that I can look at critical evidence with an open mind and make decisions based on Scriptural evidence and not simply based on my own bias.
Gundry, Robert H. The Church and the Tribulation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Publ. House, 1973.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B.
Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1974.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publ. House,
Ridenour, Fritz. So What’s the Difference? Ventura, CA: Regal Books (Gospel Light),
Russell, J. S. The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our
Lord’s Second Coming. (Google Internet Book) London: Daldy, Isbister
& Co., 1878.
Tasker, R. V. G. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Vol. 1 of Tyndale New
Testament Commentaries. General Ed. R. V. G. Tasker, Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1961.
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