DISPENSATIONALIST VIEWS OF
1. THE JEWISH NATURE OF THE PASSAGE
Dispensationalists tend to focus on Israel in their interpretations of prophecy. For example, Pentecost quotes Chafer as follows:
[Christ]…spoke of a hitherto unannounced period between His two advents and indicated its distinctive features (Matt. 13:1-51), and predicted a yet future time of “great tribulation” and defined its character (Matt. 24:9-31). (Pentecost, 129)
In this quotation, the “parables of the kingdom” in Matthew 13 are understood to characterize the period between the two advents from the Jewish perspective as the “mystery” phase of the Kingdom of God. The fact that the church is present during this period is almost considered to be extraneous. Then, just before the Second Advent, the Tribulation will take place as a part of the prophetic program for Israel. The church, Dispensationalists believe, will be raptured out of the world before the Tribulation period starts. Thus, Pentecost considers the entire Olivet Discourse to be about and for Israel (Pentecost, 278). The meat of the Discourse, which gives the specific chronology—Matthew 24:4-26—is understood to be “signs [to Israel] that will herald His second advent” (Pentecost, 464).
Walvoord also understands Matthew’s gospel and especially the Olivet Discourse to be about Israel:
An important note should be made at this point that the rapture of the church is nowhere mentioned in this prophecy…Matthew’s gospel does not discuss the church age as such but rather the whole inter-advent Age from the first [to the second coming]…and therefore deals with the great tribulation at the close of the present age. (Walvoord, pagination not available on Kindle version)
Pentecost believes that Matthew 24:4-26 is a description of the Tribulation period (Pentecost, 278), which he believes is the “first event in Israel’s program for the end of the age” (Pentecost, 277). I shall review briefly some terminology. The term “Tribulation” can refer to the entire seven-year period before the Second Coming of Christ. This period is also understood to be Daniel’s 70th Week that was forecast for Israel. The actual period of most intense suffering is understood to take place in the second half of that period. This is that period of “great tribulation” predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24:21-22. That 3 ½ year period may also be referred to as the “tribulation.” (See Pentecost on page 170.) Pentecost believes that Matthew 24:4-8 describes the first half of the 70th Week, and 24:9-26 describes the second half (Pentecost, 278-279).
Walvoord gives a description of the deception that will take place during the Tribulation period:
There will also be deceitful signs and reports that Christ has already appeared. [Quotes 24:23-24]… According to Matthew 24:26, there will be reports that Jesus has appeared in the desert or has been revealed in the inner room, but believers are urged not to believe this. (Walvoord, page not available)
2. SECOND COMING AND ASSOCIATED EVENTS
Pentecost, for the most part, follows the chronological narrative that Jesus lays out in His predictions:
Following the description of the tribulation period the Lord carries the chronology of events a step forward by describing the second advent (Matt. 24:30-37). Concerning this second coming several things are mentioned. (1) It will take place “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29). The events of the tribulation age continue until the second advent of Messiah, whose coming terminates it. (2) It will be preceded by signs (v. 30). What these signs are is not revealed. Many signs have preceded this one, as described in verses 4-26, but this is a unique sign which will herald Messiah’s advent. (3) This coming will be sudden (v. 27 ) and (4) it will be evident (v. 30), at which time His power and glory will be manifested throughout the earth. (Pentecost, 280)
Notice that Pentecost creates some confusion in this paragraph when he discusses “signs.” Why he uses the plural in two sentences and the singular in the following sentence is not clear to me. It is possible he was thinking about (what I call) the celestial events of verse 29 when he uses the plural and the unique “sign of the Son of man” in verse 30 when he uses the singular. It does appear that he separates the “sign of the Son of man” from the actual Second Coming. The following is part of a complex discussion of the “campaign of Armageddon”:
With the King of the South defeated by the armies of the Beast and the northern confederacy defeated by the Lord upon the mountains of Israel, we find two opposing forces drawn up in battle array—the armies of the Beast and the armies of the Kings of the East. Before this battle can be joined there appears a sign in the heavens, the sign of the Son of man (Matt. 24:30). What this sign is is not revealed, but its effect is. It causes the armies to turn from their hostility toward each other to unite to fight against the Lord Himself. [Quotation from Revelation 19:19]…It is at this point that the armies of the Beast and the east are destroyed by the Lord (Rev. 19:21). (Pentecost, 357)
Notice that Pentecost understands the sign will occur before the Lord actually comes to earth. Walvoord, on the other hand, does not separate the two events:
The final sign will be the appearance of Christ Himself in the sky in His return to earth [quotes Matthew 24:30]…Revelation 19:11-16 describes the scene in greater detail. It should be noted that Matthew was not talking about the rapture of the church, which is described in totally different language (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16). The final sign is the glory of Christ Himself in the skies…The nations will grieve because it is the time of judgment for rejection of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
The Second Coming is referred by Jesus in 24:27 as the “Parousia.” This word is usually translated as “coming.” Pentecost has an extensive quote from Walvoord on the use of this term (Pentecost, 157). Walvoord mentions various Scriptures that use the term “Parousia.” He labels these uses in three categories—“general” use, reference to the Second Coming, and reference to the Rapture of the church. The following are the Scriptures with his categorization:
1. General use: I Corinthians 16:17, II Corinthians 7:6-7, Philippians 1:26
2. Rapture: I Corinthians 15:23, I Thessalonians 2:19, 4:15, 5:23, II Thessalonians 2:1, James 5:7-8, II Peter 3:4, I John 2:28
3. Second Coming: Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; I Thessalonians 3:13; II Thessalonians 2:8; II Peter 1:16
(Incidentally, there are a few other uses of the term in the New Testament. These would all fit in the “general” category.) Walvoord’s point is that “Parousia” is a non-technical term, since he can establish that it has uses in the “general” category. He believes that, because it is a non-technical term, it can refer to either the Rapture or the Second Coming. So, the use of “Parousia” in a sentence does not prove that only one particular event is in view.
As Pentecost analyzes the Olivet Discourse, he is convinced that the Second Coming of Christ will be a literal event of Christ’s returning to the earth in a manner that all can see. Note this is a pronounced difference from the view of Russell, who identifies the Second Coming (or Parousia) of Christ as the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. This was an event in which, if Christ was present, He was invisible and not at all obvious. The following is Pentecost’s assessment of the visibility of Christ’s return:
The second advent will be visible. Repeated references in the Scriptures establish the fact that the second advent will be a full and visible manifestation of the Son of God to the earth (Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7 Matt. 24:30). As the Son was publicly repudiated and rejected, He shall be publicly presented by God at the second advent. This advent will be associated with the visible manifestation of glory (Matt. 16:27; 25:31), for in the completion of judgment the manifestation of sovereignty God is glorified (Rev. 14:7; 18:1; 19:1). (Pentecost, 393)
Walvoord agrees with Pentecost: “The point is that the second coming of Christ will be a very visible event.” (Walvoord)
Pentecost understands the Second Coming to be an event especially relevant to Israel: “He promises the second advent, at which time the kingdom program with Israel will be resumed (Matt. 24:27-31).” (Pentecost, 464) Also, he says, “This period [70th week] will be terminated by the second advent of the Messiah (v. 27).” (Pentecost, 280) This fits into the general scheme of Dispensationalism, which understands that the church will be raptured before the Tribulation and God will then deal with Israel, not only during the Tribulation but also during the Millennium. However, Walvoord has a bit different emphasis, as we shall see when we consider the concept of the gathering of the elect.
I shall avoid at this time a consideration of the topic of the “Day of the Lord.” Pentecost includes the events of the Tribulation/70th Week as well as the Second Coming all in the Day of the Lord (Pentecost, 231).
Pentecost interprets verse 31 to be the regathering of Israel. First, he refers to the promises:
A great body of Old Testament prophecy is concerned with the restoration of the nation to the land since the covenants could not be fulfilled apart from this regathering. That this regathering is associated with the second advent is observed from the words of the Lord: [quotes Matthew 24:30-31] (Pentecost, 504)
Then, he applies this to Matthew 24:31:
Verse 31 suggests that the event to follow the second advent will be the regathering of Israel. They had been scattered because of the anger of Satan (Rev. 12:12) and the desolation of the Beast (Matt. 24:15), but, according to the promise, they will be regathered to the land (Deut. 30:3-4; Ezek. 20:37-38; 37:1-14). This regathering is through special angelic ministries. The “elect” of verse 31 must have reference to the saints of that program with which God is then dealing, that is, Israel (Dan. 7:18, 22, 27). (Pentecost, 280)
Note that Pentecost uses 4 lines of evidence to come to his interpretation of 24:31. First, he believes that Old Testament promises indicate that Israel will be regathered to the ancient Land. Rather than apply these to the gathering of Israel into the modern-day nation, he applies these promises to the time of the return of Christ. Second, he believes that internal and external evidence demands that the Olivet Discourse be applied specifically to Israel. Fourth, he applies the mentions of the scattering of God’s people in Matthew 24:16ff and Revelation 12:12 to the condition of Israel at the time of Christ’s return. Fourth, verse 31 itself refers to a gathering of the “elect,” and he connects this gathering to gathering of Israel to its own land at the time of Christ’s return.
Walvoord has a very different understanding of verse 31:
When Christ comes to earth, He will send out His angels to assemble the elect: [quotes 24:31. 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…Some will need to be resurrected from the dead…At the second coming of Christ no child of God will be left unresurrected or unrestored, but all will share in the millennial kingdom. (Walvoord)
3. INTERPRETATION OF 24:28
Pentecost has an interesting and surprising interpretation of verse 28. Perhaps this is a verse that invites creativity.
In the parable of the ten virgins, the Lord is indicating that…the next event will be the judging of living Israel on earth to determine who will go into the kingdom. This has been anticipated in Matthew 24:28, where unbelieving Israel is likened unto a lifeless corpse which is consigned to the vultures, a picture of judgment. (Pentecost, 282)
Two things are striking about this interpretation. First, one wonders why this “anticipation” would be offered by the Lord in the context of different subject matter. Second, one is struck by how close this corresponds to Russell’s interpretation (see previous article). Russell saw the lifeless corpse of Israel surrounded by the standards of the Roman legions. My discussion points to a very different interpretation.
1. SUMMARY STATEMENT
“Taken as a whole, the revelation of Matthew 24:4-31, with parallel passages in Mark and Luke, answers the questions that the disciples had raised.” (Walvoord)
Although this summary statement is not very impressive, it says more than it appears. In fact, Walvoord believes that the Olivet Discourse does answer the three questions of the Disciples (from his Dispensationalist perspective). He believes that the Luke account gives additional information not included in Matthew. Especially, Luke includes the description of “Jerusalem surrounded by armies.” This, he believes answers the first question of the Disciples: When would Jerusalem and the Temple be destroyed? The latter two questions—concerning His coming and the end of the age—are answered by the Discourse as it is given in Matthew.
COMMENTS ON DISPENSATIONALIST VIEWS
In a critique of Dispensational thought, Anthony A. Hoekema (an amillennialist) makes the following observation:
The really basic interpretative principle underlying Hoyt's essay seems to be this: The Old Testament provides the key for the interpretation of the New Testament. [Herman A.] Hoyt builds his case for the future restoration of Israel as a nation primarily on Old Testament prophecies and then proceeds to interpret the New Testament in the light of his literal interpretation of these Old Testament prophecies. But he ignores New Testament teachings which show that the future of believing Israel is not to be separated from the future of believing non-Israelites. (Clouse, 107)
This quotation is from The Meaning of the Millennium. Four Views. Herman A. Hoyt may or may not be an able representative of “Dispensational Premillennialism,” (as his chapter is titled), but I believe that Hoekema’s critique is close to on target. The Dispensationalists are very strong on “literal” interpretation of the Bible. Pentecost begins his book by contrasting the allegorical with the literal method of interpretation (Pentecost, 1-15). But, Hoekema demonstrates several failings to use literal methods in Hoyt’s essay, especially when it comes to New Testament interpretation. What Dispensationalists are adamant about is that Old Testament prophecies must be fulfilled literally. They do this sometimes with the sacrifice of New Testament principles.
Moreover, Dispensationalists are adamant in separating God’s program for Israel from the program of the church. This idea revolves around the idea of the Pretribulational Rapture. The church, in their view, will be raptured before the 70th Week/Tribulation begins. From that point on, the church is pretty irrelevant in prophecy. Once this method of interpretation is accepted, then Dispensationalists can, in some cases, be fairly consistent in their interpretations of Scripture.
However, in many cases, they simply assume that their case has been made on other grounds, and that they are justified in “reading into” (eisogesis) a passage what they believe it means. Thus, the whole assumption that the Olivet Discourse is really about and for Israel is not established by internal evidence from the passage.
· The passage is from a Christian gospel, written by a Christian for the Christian church.
· The Discourse was spoken to a group of Jesus’ disciples who would become the founding Apostles of the church. They would teach and preach the message of salvation through Jesus. The evidence is very strong that Peter was martyred by the Romans, indicating he had considerable contact with the Gentile world.
· I have discussed the practicalities of Jesus’ warning in 24:16-20 having any impact on Israel at large, and this is negligible.
· That the passage is a message for the church in the last days—or throughout history—is natural.
· There is certainly Jewish terminology in the passage, but this is true throughout all of the gospels.
· I shall develop in more detail in other places the basis for believing that the Rapture and the Second Coming occur at the same time.
Thus, Dispensationalist belief that the Olivet Discourse is a set of signs FOR ISRAEL of the approach of the Second Coming is not necessarily a correct understanding.
I do believe that Pentecost and Walvoord have some insights into the passage that are correct. Walvoord (as I noted) pointed out the deceptions concerning Christ (verses 23-26). Although neither he nor Pentecost explicitly note this, it is important to get Jesus’ point: the false reports imply a “hidden” coming of Jesus, when in fact His coming will be an event that no one on earth will miss (verse 27). As a bolt of lightning lights up the sky for all to see, so Jesus’ sign and His return will be seen by all. This visibility of Christ’s coming is a point that both Pentecost and Walvoord do not miss.
I also believe that their understanding of the Second Coming as prophesied by Jesus in verses 27 and 30 reflect a natural reading of the passage. J. S. Russell and other Preterists try to interpret the “coming” of Jesus as a visitation of judgment on the Jews in AD 70. Their interpretation would fit in the category of a “hidden coming” of Jesus. Jesus said there would be no mistake when He returned. Everyone will know that He’s back. The Dispensationalists have got that right.
I find their discussion of “signs” somewhat confusing. Note that there is some disagreement between Pentecost and Walvoord. I tend to agree with Pentecost that the “sign of the Son of man” in verse 30 seems to be separated from the actual coming of Jesus. Walvoord believes the sign and the coming are one and the same. Whether Pentecost is correct in saying that the sign is what causes the warring factions to join forces against Christ is something I am not prepared to discuss. However, it does appear that the passages in Revelation and Daniel neither support nor undermine his speculation.
Walvoord, as he is quoted by Pentecost, tries to make a case that Parousia (used in verse 27) can refer either to the Rapture or to the Second Coming—which he understands to be events that are separated by seven years. He first makes the point that the word can be used in a “general” sense. Consider the following (quotations from English Standard Version):
· I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence…(I Corinthians 16:17)
· But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus… (II Corinthians 7:6)
· For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (II Corinthians 10:10)
· So that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:26)
· Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…(Philippians 2:12)
· The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders…(II Thessalonians 2:9)
These uses shade between “coming” and “presence.” They employ a Greek word that often was used to describe a visit of a high official. Incidentally, it is also used in connection with the Lawless One or Man of Sin in II Thessalonians 2:9.
Walvoord lists—besides its use in Matthew 24—three other instances where Parousia is used in reference to the Second Coming. They are as follows:
· I Thessalonians 3:13: So that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
· II Thessalonians 2:8: And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
· II Peter 1:16: For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
I notice that Walvoord has a question mark after II Peter 1:16. He questioned his own judgment. I believe Peter is referring to the first coming, though the Second Coming may have been in mind.
In the other two instances, there are references to the Rapture close by. In I Thessalonians 4:15, the Rapture is quite evident: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” The other use in I Thessalonians is 2:19: For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” Though Walvoord labels this as referring to the Rapture, it is difficult to see how he distinguishes it from 3:13 (quoted above). Walvoord considers II Thessalonians 2:8 to refer to the Second Coming, but, in the same chapter, is usage that he believes refers to the Rapture, II Thessalonians 2:1: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers…”
The truth is, Walvoord imposes upon these examples the Dispensationalist theory of the Pretribulational Rapture. I believe an objective study of these will recognize that a Post-Tribulational Rapture theory will just as consistently fit all of these examples. When the latter theory is used, the term “Parousia” refers in every case to the same event: the Second Coming of Christ at which time all believers will be raptured. If this is the case, “Parousia” is being used as a technical term. This would apply to its use in Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39. The fact that it is also used in a general way does not negate its use in a technical sense. Many words in English are used both technically and generally. For example, “resistance” has a specific technical meaning in electricity, but also can be used in common speech to mean a hindrance or impediment.
Walvoord and Pentecost do not appear to agree on the interpretation of verse 31. Pentecost believes this verse predicts that living Israelite believers (those who have become believers during the Tribulation) will be gathered back to Israel by angels at the time Christ returns to earth. Walvoord believes that the “elect” of this verse refers to all those who have been saved—living or dead, Old Testament or Gentiles or Hebrew, church age or Tribulation period. He is not saying they will all be resurrected at that time. I would infer (from general Dispensational beliefs) that he envisions that each category will have a separate destiny, but that they all converge at Christ’s return.
· Church age Christians will be resurrected or raptured just before the Tribulation. They will return with Christ at the end of the Tribulation at the Second Coming.
· Old Testament saints and those Tribulation period believers who have died will be resurrected at the Second Coming.
· Living Israel will be gathered at the Second Coming.
I believe that the term “gather” can include the Rapture of the church. Notice that the verb form is used in Matthew 24:31 and the noun form is used in II Thessalonians 2:1. The latter case is considered by Walvoord to refer to the Rapture/Resurrection of the church (as discussed above). Notice that in Matthew 24:31 Jesus includes elect from two areas: from the four winds and from one end of heaven to the other. This could include living Christians (Gentile and Jew) and those who have died in Christ. All certainly are the elect of God.
Quite frankly, I am a little taken aback by Pentecost’s take on verse 28. He says it anticipates the judgment of living Israel to determine whether they will enter the Millennial Kingdom (as quoted above). As one reads these words of Jesus, they are somewhat strange. I believe, however, that they cannot be disconnected from what has already been said. Notice the sequence of His words:
· Verses 24-25: false prophets and false Christs
· Verse 26: false rumors about a hidden Christ
· Verse 27: the vivid visibility of the return of Christ—unmistakable
· Verse 28: an adage using a visual picture of vultures circling overhead around above a dead body.
It seems to me that the context points to verse 28 as a reinforcement of what Christ has already said: He won’t be hidden in the desert or in the city. Just as vultures can find a dead body and become a crowd of circling birds, so Christ’s return will be an event the whole world will know about. I recognize this interpretation still leaves one a bit dissatisfied, but I cannot buy into Pentecost’s interpretation.
I shall comment at another time (when I consider the parallels to Matthew 24) more extensively on Walvoord’s (and Pentecost’s) belief that Luke answers the question about the destruction of Jerusalem and Matthew answers the questions about Christ’s coming and the end of the age. I believe there may be something to this idea.
NEXT: INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 24:32-35 (especially verse 34—which is an important key in this passage)
Clouse, Robert G. (ed) The Meaning of the Millennium Four Views. Downers Grove, IL:
Intervarsity Press, 1977.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 235445-235449). Good
News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publish. House, 1958.
Walvoord, John F. Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain Times.
Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook. Kindle Edition, 2011.
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