Thursday, January 10, 2013



MATTHEW 24:23-31

            I thank all of you who have stayed with me as we have been crawling our way through Matthew 24-25.  This present article will study the views of J. S. Russell on 24:23-31 (Russell, pages 75-83).  The reason that I grouped verses 23-25 with verses 26-31 is that the matter of deception in verse 26 appears to be a particular instance of the general warning of deception in verses 23-25.  I agree that, more properly, the earlier verses are a part of the description of the Great Tribulation, but I believe that the subject of deception forms a transition between the Great Tribulation and the Parousia. 

            Russell’s commentary on the whole span of these verses is “hit and miss.” By that, I mean at times he addresses a verse specifically and at other times he simply discusses issues in general and ignores the content of the verse.  He begins by returning to his theme that the whole passage is a unit that focuses on one event that would occur within a generation:  “The very first word [of verse 23] is indicative of continuity—‘then’ [tote]; and every succeeding word is plainly addressed to the disciples themselves, for their personal warning and guidance…[Our] Lord gives them..what they might live to witness with their own eyes…a vivid description of what actually occurred.”  Jesus’ predictions of deception in verses 23-26, he believes, are fulfilled by some examples that Josephus gives of false prophets during the siege of Jerusalem (Russell, page 75).  He emphasizes a very sad example of how false prophets deceived the people that was told by Josephus (Whiston, page 741).  A “prophet” had urged people to come to the Temple area where they would see signs of their deliverance.  About 6,000 people end up in a building where they were burned to death by the Romans.

            Russell also sees a fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions of verses 27-28 in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions:  “Our Lord forewarns His disciples that His coming to that judgment-scene would be conspicuous and sudden as the lightning-flash…[and commenting on the gathering of eagles] that is, wherever the guilty and devoted children of Israel were found, there the destroying ministers of wrath, the Roman legions, would overwhelm them.”  (Russell, page 76)

            Russell’s main comment on verse 29 is that it must be understood to connect directly with the preceding material and cannot be construed to apply to a last-days event:  “the phraseology absolutely forbids the idea of any transition from the subject in hand to another…The section before us connects itself most distinctly with the ‘great tribulation’ spoken of in ver. 21…and it is inadmissible to suppose any interval of time in the face of the adverb ‘immediately.’” (Russell, page 77)

            He argues that the phrase in verse 30, which is translated “all the tribes of the earth” (King James Version) should be translated “all the tribes of the land.” (Russell, page 77, see also Tasker, page 230).  The Greek word ges can be translated either as “land” or “earth.”  The Old Testament reference is to Zechariah 12:10: 

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”  (Scripture quotations from English Standard Version unless stated otherwise)


            In his commentary, Russell devotes a great deal of space in quoting and criticizing Dean Alford who attempts to develop a “double-fulfillment” interpretation of the passage.  Russell believes such theories have no scriptural warrant (Russell, pages 77-78).

            He then takes up the problem of the supernatural celestial signs and events that Jesus predicts, especially in verses 29-31.  He poses the question from an imaginary objector:  “How can any one pretend, it is said, that the sun has been darkened, that the moon has withdrawn her light, that the stars have fallen from heaven, that the Son of man has been seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory?” (Russell, page 79)  Note especially that he includes not only the celestial signs but the “coming” of Jesus:  Most of what is predicted in verses 29-31 he explains in his answer to the imaginary objector.  He answers by saying that poetic metaphor and hyperbole, especially using nature phenomena to depict human catastrophe, is the very language of prophecy.  To illustrate his point, he quotes various Old Testament prophets who used such language.  For example, he (Russell, page 81) quotes Isaiah 13:9-10:

Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it.  For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.

He argues that the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple—which ended the centerpiece of the Hebrew religion—was so catastrophic that “the imagery employed by our Lord…is not inappropriate to the dissolution of the Jewish state and polity which took place at the destruction of Jerusalem.”  (Russell, page 81) 

            He then reinforces his argument concerning the overall interpretation of the Olivet Discourse.  His argument is centered on the element of time.  So, these predictions of verses 29-31, Russell understands to be events that will occur in the lifetime of the disciples.  He offers as evidence a passage from earlier in the gospel story—Matthew 16, especially 16:27-27:

”For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.  Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This is an “event which he [Jesus] expressly affirms would be witnessed by some of his disciples then living.” (Russell, page 82)  He invites the reader to compare this passage, especially verse 27 with the words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, Matthew 24:30b (“the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”)  He does not, however, specify what event this language refers to other than the destruction of Jerusalem.  He includes both the celestial signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars AND the coming of the Son of Man with power and glory as all “imagery…not inappropriate to the dissolution of the Jewish state…which took place at the destruction of Jerusalem.”  (Russell, page 81)  One is left with the conclusion that Russell considers that the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 is “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30b

            Finally, Russell offers an explanation for verse 31, the gathering of the elect.  “Again, the sending forth of his angels to gather together his elect corresponds exactly [to]…the ‘harvest,’ at the end of the aeon, as described in the parables of the tares and the dragnet (Matthew xii. [sic] 41-50 [chapter xiii was meant]).” (Russell, page 82)  Russell hammers home his theme of the time element:  “…they alike [the prophecy of Matthew 24 and the parables of Matthew 13] speak of the close of the aeon or age, not of the end of the world, or the material universe; and they alike speak of that great judicial epoch as at hand.  (Russell, page 82)  Two questions come forward from these quotations.  First, what does Russell mean by “great judicial epoch” or “harvest” or gathering of the elect?  Second, why does he say this event (since he equates all three) is at hand?

            To understand how Russell draws these conclusions, we follow Russell back to the preaching of John the Baptist, in which John warns of a coming judgment: 

The existing aeon, therefore, was the Jewish dispensation, which was now drawing to its close.  It is indeed surprising that expositors should have failed to recognize in these solemn predictions the reproduction…of the words of Malachi and of John the Baptist.  Here we find the same final separation between the righteous and the wicked;…the same gathering of the wheat into the garner; the same burning of the chaff…Can there be any doubt that it is to the same act of judgment, the same period of time, the same historical event, that Malachi, John, and our Lord refer to?  …[We are brought to the conclusion that these all] refer to the same catastrophe…when Jerusalem literally became “a furnace of fire” and the aeon of Judaism came to a close in the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.”  (Russell, pages 23-24)

Thus, Russell equates all the predictions—of the Day of the Lord, of the end of the aion (Greek for “age” or “world with respect to the age”), of the “coming” of Christ in power (and judgment)—to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem (question 1).  In his earlier discussions of these predictions, he had already made the case that this event was to occur within a generation, and so he can make the statement with ease that Christ’s predictions in Matthew 24:29-31 were at hand (question 2).



MATTHEW 24:23-31

            The Matthew 24:34 Trap:  When I first learned about Preterism, through R. C. Sproul and Hank Hanegraaff, I noted that their approach to the interpretation of prophecies of the end-times had a single starting place:  Matthew 24:34, which reads:  “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  Although Russell does not admit that this verse is a major influence on him, the effect of its influence is evident.  The “trap” begins by making this verse be the controlling factor for interpretation of the Olivet Discourse.  This means that one must look for an event that fulfills Jesus’ prophecies and that occurs within a generation of the Discourse—about 40 years.  The AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple appears to meet that demand. 

            While this strategy appears to solve interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, as well as other Scriptures, in fact it also creates a trap.  The trap is that the single event has the burden of fulfilling every prophecy.  As I analyze Russell’s comments on the passage before us, I believe that trap is quite evident.   The fact is, this trap does not seem to give Russell the least discomfort.  In fact, he maintains with the consistency of a superhero his insistence on using his scheme to explain every prophecy in the New Testament.  Modern followers of Russell are not so brave, and they prefer to call themselves “partial Preterists” (or moderate Preterists).  This allows them to use Russell’s method to explain away prophecies that make them uncomfortable, such as the Great Tribulation.  At the same time, they can cling to prophecies that evangelical consensus holds to, such as the Second Coming of Jesus.  (See Sproul, pages 158-170.)  For a dramatic instance of how the trap affects Russell’s interpretation, see his discussion of the rapture in I Corinthians 15:50-58 (Russell, page 208-211).

            Verses 23-25:  Russell focuses on two points:  the time element and the role of false prophets.  He is correct that the word “then” connects these verses in time with the material in verses 21-22.  He also makes some note of the role of deception.  But he ignores the content of the deception that Jesus predicts.  It is not simply deceiving people.  It is deceiving people about the Christ.  Russell refers to Josephus’ description of false prophets during the siege, but this description makes no mention of Christ or any false Messiahs. 

            Verse 26:  Russell does not address this verse specifically.  In fact, it is an important transition verse.  Verses 23-25 are concerned with deception that goes on during the Great Tribulation.  Verse 26 carries that theme forward to anticipate what comes next.  Although modern translations usually use “so” for the Greek gar, this word is often translated by the strong word “therefore.”  So, Jesus is saying:  “Look, I am warning you that there will be all kinds of deception from false prophets and prophets, trying to get people to chase after a rumor about me or some false Christ.  Therefore, if they say “He is outside the city” or “He is hidden in the city,” don’t believe them and go chasing after those rumors or deceptive teachings.  Because there will be all kinds of false Christs and prophets.”  This sets up what follows.  But Russell, because he is focused on only one event, ignores such details.

            Verses 27-28:  Because of the Matthew 24:34 trap, Russell “doubles back” on the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem as the interpretation of these verses.  Yet, it seems obvious to me that Jesus is giving an account of a series of events.  Verses 21-22 focus on the Great Tribulation.  Russell has interpreted that to be the destruction of Jerusalem.  Verses 23-25 can be attributed to the same time frame as verses 21-22.  However, verses 27-28 now anticipate a new event with verse 26 forming a transition.  To paraphrase verses 26-28:  “There will be deceptive rumors about the location of the Christ, but when He comes, no one will mistake His arrival.  It will be like an enormous bolt of lightning lighting up the sky from east to west.”  I shall grind on this a bit more.  If the deceptions have been going on within the time frame of verses 21-22, then an event that is obvious and public must be a new, unitary event that forms the terminus for the previous time frame.  One cannot say people will be deceived about a hidden Christ if His cataclysmic, lightning bolt arrival has already happened (or is in the process of happening.  The table below illustrates this.

Coming of
Gathering of


I believe Russell blunders in his interpretation.  Careful reading of these verses make it impossible for 27 (especially) to be equivalent to 21-22, because the “hidden Christ” deception cannot occur after the fact of the “lightning-bolt coming.”  He makes this mistake because he is in the Matthew 24:34 trap.  He has only one historical event—the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem—to explain and fulfill every prophecy.  So, he has to keep “doubling back.”  I have ranted enough. 

            Russell ties the eagles of the Roman legion standards to Christ’s saying in verse 28.  First, it appears to me that this saying is an adage that Jesus applies to His point.  Second, the Greek word aetoi (singular aetos) can mean “eagle” or “vulture.”  Since a dead body is mentioned, “vulture” would be the better translation.  The meaning of the adage seems to be:  “Where there is an attraction, it draws a crowd.”  So, Jesus may be reinforcing what He has already said—that His coming will be a very public event.  However, there is another possible view of this verse.  In Luke 17:20-37, there is a brief passage that repeats some of the material in Matthew 24.  In that passage, Jesus talks about two people being side-by-side (in bed, at the mill) and “one will be taken and the other left.”  The disciples ask, “Where, Lord?”  Their question, in context, is:  “Where will the one—who is taken—be taken?”  Jesus answered with the same adage.  He appears to mean that people will be taken in judgment that brings death and a circling of vultures.  So, it is possible a similar meaning applies in Matthew 24:28.  At any rate, Russell’s application to Roman legions does not seem to hold up.  This is especially true since I have already demonstrated that his time frame for verse 27 is incorrect.  

Verses 29-31:  Russell attacks interpreters that try to divorce verses 29ff from the previous material, since verse 29 begins with “Immediately after the tribulation…”  I have no argument with him about that conclusion.

He argues that the word “land” rather than “earth” should be used in verse 30, so that only the land and people of Israel is the subject.  He quotes Zechariah 12:10 as a verse that Jesus may have been referring to.  Although he may be correct in this assertion, it does not necessarily advance his Preterist thesis, as I shall discuss shortly.

His main concern in interpreting these verses is to demonstrate that these are examples of poetic imagery that is common in prophetic Scripture.  He gives an adequate number of examples—some of which are very similar to the language that Jesus uses—to make his point.  However, he ignores the details of the wording of these verses and the flow of chronology that they relate.  In fact, Jesus has been telling a story:

·         Gospel preached to all nations (14)

·         Abomination of Desolation (15)

·         Flight to the mountains (16-20)

·         Great tribulation (21-22)

·         Deception about the Christ (23-25)

·         False reports of the hidden Christ (26)

·         [Commentary anticipating the coming of Christ (27-28)]

·         Celestial signs (29)

·         Sign of the Son of Man (30a)

·         Mourning of the tribes (30b)

·         Coming of Son of Man on clouds with great glory (30c)

·         Sending of angels to gather the elect (31)

The natural understanding of Jesus’ words is that He is giving a sequential account of events.  However, Russell has only one event—the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem—to account for the fulfillment of all of these events.  He is insistent on the significance of adverbs and prepositions such as “then” and “immediately after” to make the point that one cannot separate parts of Jesus narrative from other parts, but that it is one complete narrative.  That is a valid point.  But, at the same time, he ignores the significance of those same adverbs in advancing the narrative through the chronology.  So, the celestial signs are not said by Jesus to refer to the Great Tribulation (which Russell identifies with the destruction of Jerusalem).  Jesus says those sign take place immediately after the Great Tribulation.  “And then,” Jesus says, the sign of the Son of Man will appear and the tribes will mourn and the Son of Man will come on clouds.  These are described by Jesus as separate events, not new symbols to describe the same event that is described in verses 21-22.  So Russell may be correct that a certain amount of symbolism is used in 29-31, but, if that is true, the symbolism is tied to a different set of events than the event of verses 21-22.

            Two additional comments from Russell need to be examined.  One I have already mentioned—his restriction of the tribes who mourn (verse 30) to the tribes of the “land”, i.e. to Israel.  His implication is that the tribes will mourn because of the destruction of Jerusalem.  However, I have already established that this event is depicted by Jesus to occur after the Great Tribulation of verses 21-22.  Thus, whether all the tribes of the earth or only the tribes of Israel mourn at the sign of the Son of Man, they will not be mourning at the time of the destruction of Israel.  Moreover, if one reads Zechariah 12:10, one is struck by the content of that verse.  It says that “when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him…”  This does not correspond to people looking at the destruction of Jerusalem and mourning.  It depicts a people who finally see the truth about the One they had originally rejected and crucified.  It depicts a people who are coming back to the Lord in repentance, not a people devastated and in shock and, yet, with no recognition of the relationship between the destruction of Jerusalem and their rejection of Christ.  So, once again, Russell’s “hand-waving” arguments do not hold up.

The second comment from Russell is his identification of the gathering of the elect with the destruction of Israel.  He is making an equation among three predictions:

Separation of wicked from
Righteous in Parables of
Weeds and the Net
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43,
The gathering of the
Matthew 24:31
The destruction of Jerusalem,
AD 70


Although a case may be made that the two panels on the left are equivalent, exegesis of Matthew 24 precludes their equivalence to the AD 70 event.  I have already made the case that the events of Matthew 24:29-31 happen after the events of 24:21-22.  So even if one accepts 24:21-22 to be the AD 70 destruction, it cannot be the same as the gathering of the elect.  Since the separation of the wicked from the righteous in Matthew 13 bears some resemblance to Matthew 24:31 and no resemblance to 24:21-22, the events of Matthew 13 very likely are not equivalent to the destruction of Jerusalem.

            The climax of the passage:  If one reads the entire passage, Matthew 24:1-31, the obvious climax is found in verses 30-31.  This is the coming of the Son of Man in power and glory.  A natural reading of this passage is that Jesus has given a chronology that leads to this climax.  I have just been arguing that the complex of events of 21-22 is a step along that chronology and not the focus of the passage.  Nor is there any warrant to “double-back” at every turn of the narrative and refer everything back to one event.  The most natural explanation for this passage is that the climax of Jesus’ narrative is His future Second Coming.  This understanding accords with the concept of Jesus’ Second Coming foretold by the angels in Acts 1:11.  I believe that this is the center of gravity of the entire Olivet Discourse and that it should be what governs interpretation of the passage.  I believe that rule for interpretation plays an important role in interpreting the next passage, Matthew 24:32-35.

            In analyzing Russell’s interpretation of 24:23-31, I believe that I have demonstrated that the “Matthew 24:34 trap” indeed trapped Russell into making profound errors of interpretation.  These errors seriously undermine the validity of his entire theory that the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem is the key to understanding New Testament prophecies.

NEXT:  Dispensationalist views of Matthew 24:23-31



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Russell, J. S.  The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our

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            & Co., 1878.

Sproul, R. C.  The Last Days According to Jesus.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1998.

Tasker, R. V. G. The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  R. V. G. Tasker, gen. ed. The Tyndale

            New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ.

            Co., 1961.

Whiston, William, trans. The Works of Josephus, by Flavius Josephus.  N. p.:  Hendrickson

            Publ., 1987.









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