By Dan King
The Signs of the Destruction
Matthew 24:4-33 relates the signs which were to give warning to the disciples of Christ that the fall of Jerusalem was imminent. They were not to be the signs of the end (v. 6), as the dispensationalists argue, but of the beginning of sorrows (v. 8)! We shall list them as they were offered by Jesus, discussing them in his order.
(1) False Christs (v. S). Josephus says that the days before the Roman devastation of Jerusalem were times when importers were in abundance. “The land was overrun with magicians, seducers, and importers, who drew the people after them into solitudes and deserts to see the signs and miracles which they promised to show them by. the power of God.”
(2) Wars and Rumors of Wars (vv. 6-8). The years before 70 AD were years of instability and insurrection both in Palestine and throughout the Roman world. In June 68 AD, Nero died and a blood-bath ensured; three emperors arose in quick succession (Galba, Otho, Vitellius); each died violently. The last murder (within a year) brought Vespasian to the throne. He was the emperor who dispatched Titus to Jerusalem to carry out his fateful mission.
(3) Persecution of the Saints (vv. 9-10). The first wave of persecution occurred in Palestine at the hands of the Jews. The second came at the instigation of Jewish leaders in the diaspora and unhappy pagans. The third wave began in 64 AD under Nero, who blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. The book of Acts records the murder of Stephen (chap. 7), the persecution of Saul of Tarsus (8:1-3; 9:1-2), the death of James by the hand of Herod (Acts 12:1-2), numerous instances of persecution of Paul and his associates as they worked in different localities to spread the gospel, and even evidences the beginning of Imperial persecution in the imprisonment of Paul and his trial before Nero.
(4) False Prophets (v. 11). Such men were many in number in the days before the final war. Times of great instability have always bred them in abundance. False prophets among the Christians also arose. Their presence is confirmed in the New Testament at Corinth (2 Cor. 11:13-15), Galatia (1:7), etc.
(5) Departures from the Faith (vv. 12-13). Each false prophet and challenge to the truth naturally brought losses numerically.
(6) Gospel to All the World (v. 14). Most premillennialists try to make much of the fact that mass communication today is necessary to fulfill the letter of this sign. The invention of television and radio, satellite communication, etc., make this a possibility, according to them. But this expression has the meaning it has elsewhere: it refers to that portion of the world then known and ruled by Rome (cf. Lk. 2:1). Paul says that this feat was already accomplished in his own day: “The truth of the gospel… is come unto you; even as it is also in all the world bearing fruit and increasing… the gospel which ye heard, which was preached in all creation under heaven’. . .” (Col. 1:6, 23).
(7) The Abomination of Desolation (vv. IS-20): This was to be the signal for Christians to flee the place – destruction was near at hand. “When therefore you see… then let them that are in Judaea flee. . .” (w. 15-16). What this “desolating sacrilege” was precisely has been debated in modern times. Whether it was Titus and his soldiers in the proximity of Jerusalem or in the Holy places with their pagan emblems, or yet some sacrilege which we do not know about that they committed – we cannot be sure. Perhaps the clue of Mark is a help, when he says: “the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be. . .” (13:4). Some have surmised that this is a reference to the Zealots installing in the final days of the sanctuary the imbecile Phannias, an unrighteous man, who thus “usurped a position that was not his.” I am sure they had less difficulty understanding what this meant than do we.
(8) Great Tribulation (v. 21). The bloodshed at the fall of Jerusalem and her Temple along with the other cities and towns of the land at the coming of Titus and his Tenth legion in 70 was utterly indescribable, shocking to our sensibilities. Josephus gives us some impression of the horrors of that time in his history, but written history can never truly capture the red of blood or the sight of carnage. Neither can it give a true impression of the agony of human suffering in the wake of such an awful tragedy.
(9) Apocalyptic Signs (vv. 29-31). On account of its graphic symbolism some authors wish to assign this portion of the chapter as answer to the final question and see it in connection with the speech without explanation. Too, it takes no notice of similar language in the Old Testament prophets. Actually each expression has its counterpart in Old Testament prophecy.
There is also the problem of Christ’s use of the word “immediately” in the context of the events of 70 AD: “But immediately after the tribulation of those days. . .” (v. 29). The view which makes this refer to the end of the world is forced to either ignore this word or assume Jesus was mistaken about it. The modernist does the latter without a blink of the eye. Those who have respect for Scripture would be better served by a more reasonable way of reading it.
Since most people are not overly familiar with the figures of biblical prophecy, we will include here a brief series of parallels from the Old Testament. The stars becoming dark, the moon not giving its light, etc. (v. 29), is paralleled in the picture of the fall of Babylon (Isa. 13:10), the fall of Idumea (Isa. 34:4, 5), and the judgment against Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8. The “sign of the Son of Man,” the coming, etc., have parallels in the day of judgment on Egypt and Ethiopia (“a day of clouds”) in Ezekiel 30:3-4; in Ezekiel 19:1 Jehovah rides on a swift cloud to bring judgment on Egypt. The picture of His “coming” is consistent with other quotations from Jesus which do not necessitate an actual physical return but instead a “presence” in some event or happening (cf. Matt. 16:28; 26:64). This “coming” cannot be the second coming, for Luke 21:27 and Mark 13:26 refer it to the fall of Jerusalem. See also Isaiah 19:1 and Zephaniah 2:7. The “Gathering of the Elect” (v. 31) is a figurative picture of the Christians fleeing the city. Comparison may be made with Zechariah 2:6ff.; Hosea 1:11, etc. When the revolt against the Romans broke out in 66 AD, the Christian community (having been warned by Jesus) forsook the city and fled to Pella, one of the cities of the Decapolis. Christians did not return until after 135 AD.
(10) The Lesson of the Fig Tree (vv. 32-33). As the fig tree gives obvious and incontrovertible proof of the nearness of summer, so the signs which Jesus gave would indicate the end of the Jewish state. The “signs of the times” were, therefore, indicators of the fall of Jerusalem and were fulfilled in the years preceding 70 AD. They do not refer to the end of the world or to the second coming of Christ. To argue for a “second fulfillment” (as do all premillennialists) is to make a case without any scriptural support whatever. The proof of this view must come from somewhere besides the Bible, because it cannot be found therel Some claim “the language transcends what happened in 70 AD,” but in doing so they ignore the essential nature of prophetic language, which is regularly hyperbolical. We would urge the reader to spend some time in the prophets, reading their messages and paying special attention to their use of figures and symbolism. Study of the prophets, you will find, is the best possible refutation of false theories having to do with prophecy.
Time of Fulfillment: One Generation
Jesus said that within one generation Jerusalem would come under attack and the Temple would be devastated (vv. 34-35): “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” All that He had mentioned in His foregoing remarks, the signs and signals of Jerusalem’s catastrophic demise, all these were to take place before the end of one generation. Attempts by dispensationalists to make “this generation” and end-time generation are doomed to failure on account of the context. If I said to you that certain things would happen before the end of “this generation,” would you not understand me to be speaking of the generation in which we today live? Of course you would. Why would we want to take the words of Jesus any differently? I suggest to you that we would not – unless we were bent upon proving something which Jesus Himself did not say or intend by his words. Premillennialists know “one generation” in the Bible is roughly forty years (Hebrew dor, Greek genea), the time between a man’s birth and the birth of his son (though some are now saying it is seventy to avoid the passage of time since the beginning of the modern state of Israel in 1948). Among the Greeks a “generation” was from 30 to 33 years (Herodotus 2.142; et al.; Heraclitus, ch. 11). They avoid, or attempt to avoid, the conclusion “this generation” meant the one in which the hearers lived by assuming the ones who should see the signs would be distinct from those first hearers. But that generation did see the signs and did flee the city just as Jesus warned them to do! Jesus spoke in the year 30 AD, the fall of Jerusalem occurred in 70, so the forty year mark was very precise. We cannot find a single reason for looking for another fulfillment of this great prophecy. In point of fact, it stands as a testimony to the power and foreknowledge of Christ, who predicted the event in such great detail during a time of peace and prosperity many years previous.
All sorts of mental gymnastics have been attempted to avoid the plain meaning of Christ’s words. Some who reject premillennialism but think this portion alludes to the second coming of Christ (McGarvey, Fourfold Gospel, p. 632) see it as a reference to “the Jewish family or race,” so that it “becomes a prophecy that the Jewish people shall be preserved as such until the coming of Christ.” The Greek word genea does at times have the meaning “race, stock, or family,” but the context is too clear to allow it to have this definition here. The entire sentiment and mood of the first portion of the chapter was such as to give the hearers the distinct impression they would live to see that of which the Lord spoke. If this is not true, then Jesus definitely gave the wrong impression by what he said, and we are not ready to say that.
What is the relation of Matthew 24 to the existence of the modern state of Israel? Simply put, there is none. The return of Israel to her land, the existence of a modern state, the rebuilding of the Temple, etc., are nowhere mentioned in this chapter or its parallels. The Israel of Jesus’ day, the nation of Jesus’ day, the Temple of Jesus’ day, and the generation of Jesus’ day – these are the indisputable objects of Christ’s words!
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 369-371
June 16, 1983