Jesus presented the “Olivet Discourse,” which is found in Matthew 24-25 and in parallels in Mark and Luke, as a reply to His Disciples’ questions concerning his prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem. The introduction to the Discourse—which includes Jesus’ prediction of the destruction and the Disciples’ questions—is in Matthew 24:1-3. All of the remainder of the two chapters is Jesus’ reply. The reply consists of a direct response to their questions (Matthew 24:4-31) and then of a series of commentaries, sometimes using parables and allegories (Matthew 24:32-25:46).
As I begin considering Jesus’ response, this article will first discuss a little of Jesus’ warning against deception. Then, I shall begin discussing Matthew 24:5-14 by examining some of the commentary from the Preterist perspective. In the articles to follow, I hope to discuss the same passage from other viewpoints as well as to give my own conclusions.
Jesus’ begins His reply with a warning: “Watch out that no one deceives you.” (24:4) As we look at His entire “answer” in 24:4-31, we see several sources or occasions to be deceived:
1. False christs and prophets (24:5, 11, 24)
2. Calamities (24:6-7)
3. False rumors of Christ’s secret presence (24:23, 26)
4. Deceptive signs and wonders (24:24)
The nature of these deceptions especially has to do with exactly what the disciples were asking about: the coming of Christ and the end of the age. False christs and deceptive signs and wonders will deceive those who think Christ Himself has come back. Or these false christs and prophets will deceive people into thinking that the end of the age has come and the Age to Come has arrived. Calamities will bring people to panic and make them believe that the End of the World has come. (This has been the record of history.) False rumors of Christ’s secret presence will unsettle people so that they disrupt their lives to go find Jesus in the desert or somewhere else.
Incidentally, the subtlety of deception can take us unawares. Recently, Christianity Today had an article about a “Second Coming Christ” (Olson and Smith). The authors describe how a widely respected Christian leader from Korea has been called by some the “Second Coming Christ.” This title carries the idea that, in the last days, a second manifestation of the Christ is needed and is provided by this man. This development is a carry-over into mainline evangelical organizations from the teachings of the Unification Church. This development helps us to understand Jesus’ prediction that many “will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:5, Scripture quotations from English Standard Version, unless stated otherwise)
Jesus does not want His followers to be deceived about these matters. Much of His “answer” in 24:4-31 develops a time line and forecasts a set of developments that will keep people on an even keel.
THE PRETERIST INTERPRETATION OF
This approach was pioneered by J. S. Russell. The Preterist view understands the Olivet Discourse to be an expansion of Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem. This view considers that all of Christ’s predictions are confined to events that occurred in the first century. Russell understands the coming of the Son of Man to be equivalent to the destruction of Jerusalem. That event is “the end.” I shall critique the Preterist position in detail at another time. In this present article, I shall just address part of one point: The general developments that Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:5-14 require more time than the 40 years from AD 30-70.
This period of 40 years is the approximate time span from the Olivet Discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem. Russell attempts to defend his position by citing incidents during this period that would correspond to Christ’s predictions (Russell, pages 69-72). He mentions several false Christs during this period, and he can give examples of famines and earthquakes.
However, I find that his reading of the passage fails to capture the spirit of it. It seems to me that Jesus is painting with a broad brush. He is characterizing a whole period of history and not a tiny time frame. Notice for example, in verse 6, Jesus says that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed…” Then, in verse 8, looking back at all of the developments, Jesus says: “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Now, if we are looking at a span of 40 years, and we consider events in that tight time frame, events would not seem to be the beginning of birth pains.
For example, in trying to relate the “wars and rumors of wars,” Russell states that “in the reign of Caligula great apprehensions were entertained in Judea of war with the Romans…” (Russell, page 69) This was because the emperor was contemplating putting his image in the Jewish Temple. This is not a good support for Russell’s thesis for two reasons. First, it is not a good example of “wars and rumors of wars.” Second, it is not the beginning of birth pains (especially if you agree with Russell that the actual birth is the destruction of Jerusalem). It is a development that was leading directly to the Jewish rebellion. Actually, the forty years after Christ’s passion were mostly within the period from 37 BC to AD 180 that Gibbon labeled Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. This period was considered to be a relatively peaceful period within the Roman Empire (though it continued to have some external warfare). The period immediately before the fall of Jerusalem was a turbulent 12 months (AD 69, “the year of the four emperors”) within the Roman Empire. But that does not seem to measure up to the kind of upheaval that Jesus was predicting. (See Wikipedia article on Pax Romana.) The Jewish rebellion itself, roughly AD 66-73, was mostly localized within the Palestine area.
After describing developments in the world at large in verses 5-8, in verses 9-14, Jesus made a series of predictions of developments with regard to the church. One could characterize these developments as “troubles from without and troubles from within.” The developments that Jesus listed are as follows:
· Persecution in all the nations
· Internal conflict and betrayal accompanied by stumbling in the faith
· False prophets
· Love grown cold among “the many”
· World-wide preaching of the gospel
I do not believe these predictions were fulfilled from AD 30 to 70.
There was persecution throughout that period (though persecution was more severe under Domitian and later). Much of the persecution early on came from Jews, and Nero did persecute the Christians for a few years.
Our knowledge of the church in this time period comes mostly from the Pauline and general epistles. Though there were problems within the churches, there was not the kind of disloyalty and hatred and stumbling in the faith that Jesus portrays. Note that He predicts that “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) The word “many” is actually “the many” (hoi polloi) and can be translated “the majority.” That would not describe the churches that Paul wrote to. By AD 70, no church had been in existence more than 40 years. Paul’s first missionary journey was about AD 46-48 (NIV Study Bible, chart on page 1702). That means the oldest of churches that he founded would be less than 25 years old. These churches were fresh with the joy of receiving the gospel. Even the most troubled of churches (Corinth) would not be described in the terms that Jesus used.
The churches of Asia Minor that Jesus addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 were certainly churches that were beginning to have troubles. Ephesus had lost its first love (Revelation 2:4). Smyrna was not rebuked (Revelation 2:8-11), but Pergamum had “people there” who had fallen into idolatry and immorality, although it does not appear to be the situation of the majority (Revelation 2:12-17). Thyatira also included persons who were involved in immorality and idolatry. It is also not clear if these were a majority. As with Pergamum, Christ rebuked the church for tolerating the evil leaders who were leading people astray (Revelation 2:18-29) Sardis does seem to be a church that was pretty far gone (as was Ephesus), since it is described as “dead.” Jesus says that there were a “few people” who had not lost their faith (Revelation 3:1-6). Philadelphia was not rebuked and was given the promise of an open door, though it was a weak church (Revelation 3:7-13). Laodicea was certainly a church that had been sapped of vitality, and Jesus described it as “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:14-22). Of the seven churches, I count 3 (Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea) to be quite far in spiritual declension. I count two (Thyatira and Pergamum) in considerable danger. I count two (Smyrna and Philadelphia) to be weakened but spiritually pure. This does not seem to me to be a picture of a universal church that has become cold and is filled with hatred and dissension. Moreover, keep in mind that many (including myself) believe that Revelation was written at the end of the first century, not around AD 70. So, there is not evidence from the condition of the seven churches to support Russell’s theory that Jesus’ predictions regarding the church were fulfilled.
Perhaps the most awkward of Russell’s attempts to force a correspondence of the 40-year period in the first century to Jesus’ predictions is when he contends that verse 14 was fulfilled by AD 70. Matthew 24:14 quotes Jesus: And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
First, Russell cites Colossians 1:6 and 1:23 (Russell, pages 70-71). These verses are as follows:
(6) [the gospel] which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,
(23) if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
First of all, Paul’s statements can be understood to be hyperbolic or somewhat generalized. The note in the English Standard Version Bible on 1:23 says: “In all creation is a general statement meaning that the gospel has gone widely throughout the Greco-Roman world, to both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Col. 1:6).” Also, it is obvious that Paul did not consider that he himself had completed his own mission at the time of the writing of Colossians. I am relying on the New International Study Bible and English Standard Version to justify my statements. Support may be found in the introductions to Romans and Colossians in those study Bibles as well as the notes to specific verses. Paul expressed in Romans 15:23-24 and 15:28 a desire to go to Spain. He wrote of that desire as he wrote Romans around AD 57. Sometime later he went to Rome as a prisoner and spent a couple of years imprisoned at Rome. From that imprisonment he wrote Colossians. He had not yet reached Spain at that time. Many believe that after he was released from prison he went to Spain. Later, he was again imprisoned and executed about AD 68. From all that Paul wrote, we do not consider that he would idly express a desire to go to Spain (in his epistle to the Romans) and four or five years later forget that hope and write that the gospel preaching program was complete (in his epistle to the Colossians), though he knew fell that he had not yet reached Spain. It is true that the “world” of that day usually only encompassed the Roman Empire. However, Spain was an integral part of the Roman Empire, so Paul knew well that the gospel had not been preached to the entire world when he wrote Colossians.
If we now go back to Jesus’ prediction, we consider whether His prediction was fulfilled by AD 70. This is Russell’s contention (Russell, page 71). Russell contends that it need not be pressed to the “extreme letter.” I believe that is fair. Jesus is not predicting that every person would have heard the gospel, but He does predict that it would be preached to all the nations. But something on the order of establishing a beachhead would need to be accomplished. From Map 15 of the English Standard Version, by the end of the first century, Christianity had spread through Italy on the northern side of the Mediterranean Sea and less far than that on the south side. Though Paul probably went to Spain, his effectiveness there would be limited, since he was soon arrested and returned to Rome. Hence, I do not think one can make the case that Jesus’ prediction had even been accomplished by AD 100 and certainly not by AD 70.
I summarize by saying I do not believe that Russell made a good case that Matthew 24:5-14 was fulfilled in the period from AD 30 to 70. I base this conclusion on the fact that the period AD 30 to 70 was not characterized by the turbulence of nations that Jesus predicted, nor by the degenerate conditions in the church that He predicted. Furthermore, His prediction of the evangelization of the world had not been fulfilled by AD 70.
In the next article I shall consider the Dispensationalist approach to Matthew 24:4-14.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 235413-235415). Good
News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Barker, Kenneth L., gen. ed. The New International Version Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (International Bible Society), 2002.
Olson, Ted and Ken Smith. “The Second Coming Christ Controversy,” Christianity Today,
September, 2012, pagination unknown.
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.
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