By Dan King
We have under consideration, in this study, one of the most oft-abused of chapters in the Bible. Especially is this so given the current popularity of doctrines which concentrate upon the things that are to happen in the “last days” of the world. With this interest in final events, there has ever been a mood to abuse the “difficult” portions of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). Matthew 24 is one of those which fit into this. category. Admitting it is difficult to understand does not equal saying it is impossible, however. Given careful study and comparison with other biblical literature of the same type, the chapter yields its meaning quite readily. The fact that diligence and deep study are required will prove a hindrance to the lazy; that much of it is incredibly simply will be a stumbling-block to the man who wants to make of it a dark mystery.
As we shall see, some things about this chapter are surprisingly simple. Speculators have made complex a good deal that is straightforward and plain. Premillennialists and dispensationalists are the chief culprits. Those saturated with these errors really cannot be expected to produce an accurate commentary of any text which seems to lend itself to their hypothetical system. This portion of the Bible is no exception to that rule.
Further complicating matters for us in the present investigation is the view, of recent vintage, and spread by some among us, that offers an almost allegorical interpretation of the last portion of the chapter. They see the whole as accomplished in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and State, and some from their number view the end of the Hebrew economy as the single decisive event of the New Testament. It is our intention to give this view a thorough examination in this article, and to supply what we hope the reader will consider a refutation of its major arguments. Though it may seem a bit old-fashioned for some readers, we offer below a defense of the “traditional” approach to Matthew 24, that nurtured on the pages of the older commentaries, and – we still believe – attested by the overwhelming bulk of the evidence, external and internal.
Premillennial Perversions of Matthew 24
The “signs” that were to portend the fall of Jerusalem have universally been taken by premillennialists as being the identifying marks of the “end time.” Eschatology holds a fatal fascination for them anyway, and Matthew 24 has become one of their principal targets. In every book that comes off the presses from the hand of a self-styled “prophecy expert” you will find numerous references to Matthew 24. We may take as representative the comments of one of their most vocal and popular advocates on the contemporary scene, Hal Lindsey, product of the dispensational Dallas Theological Seminary:
As Christ told of the world conditions that would immediately precede his coming, He said, “For then there will be great tribulation (affliction, distress and oppression) such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved” (Matt. 24:21, 22).
In other words, this period will be marked by the greatest devastation that man has ever brought upon himself. Mankind will be on the brink of self-annihilation when Christ suddenly returns to put an end to the war of wars called Armageddon (The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 44).
Jesus Christ also pinpointed the general time of His return when His disciples asked Him two important questions. “What will be the sign of your coming?” they wanted to know. And “What will be the sign of the end of the age?”
The coming referred to in the question above is commonly referred to as the second advent of Christ. It was only natural that they wanted to know what signs would indicate his return to set up God’s promised Kingdom.
In answer Jesus gave many general signs involving world conditions which he called `birth pangs.’ He said that these signs, such as religious apostasy, wars, national revolutions, earthquakes, famines, etc., would increase in frequency and intensity just like birth pangs before a child is born.
One of the great signs He predicted, however, is often overlooked. He speaks of the Jewish people being in the land of Palestine as a nation at the time of His return. He speaks of `those who are in Judea’ fleeing to the mountains to escape the great battles that immediately precede His return (Matt. 24:16).
Another statement of Jesus demands a national existence with even their ancient worship restored. `Pray that your flight may not be… on a Sabbath’ (Matt. 24:20). This indicates that the ancient traditions regarding travel on the Sabbath would be in force again, thus hindering a rapid escape from the predicted invasion.
Even the Temple has to be rebuilt according to the sign given in Matthew 24:15. . . (Ibid., p. 54).
Jesus said that this would indicate that He was ‘at the door,’ ready to return. Then he said, `Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’ (Matt. 24:34 NASB).
What generation? obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs – chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years.’If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so (Ibid., p. 54).
In our study of Matthew 24, several things must be explained properly to prove the premillennial-dispensational approach a pure deception:
(1) The true context of Jesus’ remarks in the chapter.
(2) The correct application of the questions as asked by the disciples and answered by Jesus.
(3) The meaning and duration of the `generation’ of v. 34.
(4) The connection of the modern state of Israel to Matthew 24.
(5) The proper interpretation of Jesus’ metaphors as they stand in the broader stream of prophetic tradition.
To these five things, then, we turn our attention.
Matthew 24: Text and Context
The first three verses of this chapter set the stage for all that is said later on.
And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when his disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And he answered and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (NASB).
It seems the disciples were proud to show off this masterpiece of human architectural skill to their master. It is no wonder, for it was popularly said that “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a fine building.” Josephus gives a full description of the structure in his Antiquities of the Jews 15.11. This Temple was the pride and glory of the Jews the world over. It was four or five times the size of its predecessors, and was from 20 BC till 64 AD in the building process. Josephus says the stones were 50 ft. long, 20 ft. wide, and 16 ft. thick. They were cut of white and green-spotted marble. It glistened in the sun “like a white mountain” in the distance as one approached from afar. They surely considered it built to last, maybe even forever! But Jesus dashed their hopes with His few words which heralded God’s retributive act of judgment. He portrayed the coming destruction as absolute, leaving no vestige. Josephus (Wars of the Jews 7.9) says Titus in counsel with his generals declared his plan to save the edifice as an ornament to the Empire. But one of the soldiers in his zeal climbed upon the shoulders of one of his fellows and tossed a burning torch into a golden window. Titus, hearing it was aflame, attempted to get it stopped, but to no avail. In the Talmud, tractate Taanith, ch. 4, it is said, “that Turnus (Terentius) Rufus, one of Titus’ captains, did, with a ploughshare, tear up the foundations of the Temple.”
In spite of the valiant defense of the city made by the zealots and other Jewish patriots, and even in spite of the efforts of Titus and his generals, the utterances of Jesus were brought to complete fulfillment in 70 AD! What could have provoked such an awful act of judgment by God? The Babylonian Captivity of 70 years was visited upon by the Jews for the sin of flagrant idolatry. But the severest imaginable punishment was meted out upon the Jews in 70 AD and thereafter: their city was razed to its foundations, the Temple was left in utter ruin, the nation was carried captive into other countries or else slaughtered on the spot, those who survivied were banished from their homeland for nearly two millennia, perennially persecuted, they became a hiss and a byword among the peoples. Alexander Campbell asked a Jew on one occasion, “Have you not been led to suspect that, as this evil came upon your nation shortly after your rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, that probably it came upon you on that account?… Did not Moses say, that if you would not obey that prophet of which he informed you, that such a calamity would befall you?” [Millennial Harbinger, Vol. I (Dec. 6, 1830), p. 565]. The terrible tragedy of the “holocaust” (as Jews are want to call it) of the last World War, brings home anew the reality of God’s fearsome judgment of His recalcitrant people. This is just one more instance, though, of what began with God’s rejection of Israel in 70 A.D.
The questions asked by the disciples were three in number: (1) When shall these things be? (2) What shall be the sign of thy coming (presence)? (3) What shall be the sign of the end of the world? The disciples’ error was that of a false synthesis, i.e. putting things together that do not belong together. They figured a devastation so catastrophic as to include the total leveling of a structure of the magnitude of the Temple must surely herald the end of the world. As it was it only heralded the conclusion of the Jewish economy. We ought not be surprised to find them confused over a thing like this, since they were still completely in the dark as to the spiritual nature of the kingdom even after the resurrection of Jesus, to the point of asking out-of-sorts questions on that issue in Acts 1:6-8.
Comparison with Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7 (the parallel accounts) show that the only distinction between them lies in the ommision by the other two writers of the line, “and of the end of the world (age)?” Mark records it this way, “What shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?”, and Luke has it thusly: “Teacher, when therefore shall these things be? And what shall be the sign when these things are about to come to pass?” Exclusion of the third question, about the end of the world, is followed up by deletion of the final section which actually describes the events at the end of the age (Matt. 24:37ff.).
The conclusion which must be drawn, therefore, is that this section which Matthew alone records is given in reply to the last question. Since it does not occur in the others, all three questions cannot be mere “Semitic parallelism, saying the same thing three times” as Stanley Paher argues (If Thou Hadst Known, p. 65.). Luke records the section, or (more likely) a similar dialogue, at Luke 17:22-37. The context and subject matter there clearly demonstrate its connection with the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Jerusalem’s fall is nowhere in sight or mind. Making them fit into the scheme of 70 AD is, to my way of thinking at least, a rather transparent case of proof texting.
Going back to the disciples’ question for a moment, the identical expression (sunteleias tou aionos, “end of the world”) occurs several other times in the book of Matthew (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 28:20). It does not appear in the other gospels. I think that it is safe for us to assume that it means the same thing whenever it is used unless there is proof to the contrary. Of course, the word aionos may mean either “world” or “age,” and the phrase itself may refer either to the termination of a period of history or of all history. The other usages of this expression all point to a meaning encompassing the conclusion of all history, i.e. the “end of the world” of the older translations. The reader may judge for himself: “the enemy that sowed them is the devil: and the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are angels. As therefore the tares are gathered up and burned with fire; so shall it be in the end of the world …. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:39, 40, 49); and, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). Clearly the disciples thought of the conclusion of the world’s history when they used this line. It was left to the Lord to clarify matters on that count with respect to the fall of their Temple and its lack of connection with the end of the world. We believe He did just that, explaining it so that it could be understood.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 11, pp. 343-345
June 2, 1983