The Meaning of Matthew 24, Part 1

by | Mar 4, 2013 | Eschatology, New Testament, Systematic Theology

In their presentations of preterism and futurism both Gary Demar and Jim Hamilton explained their views of Matthew 24. I used my 20 minute response time in the afternoon to address this. I argued that Gary was right about the meaning of generation in Matthew 24:34 and that Jim was right about the Second Coming of Christ in glory at the consummation of the age being in view in Matthew 24:36 and that both were wrong to deny the others’ view of these matters. Here in two parts from More of the End Times Made Simple is my understanding of Matthew 24.

So far I have attempted to emphasize much-neglected passages which teach very clearly the growth and expansion of the church promised by Christ.  It is true that there is another side to this story.  There will be tribulation for the church as well.

One passage is often identified with this aspect of the church’s prospects.  This passage is Matthew 24:1-36. The Olivet Discourse of our Lord is found not only in Matthew 24, but also in Mark 13 and Luke 21.  It has been the subject of great debate.  Thus, the exact nature of what it teaches about the tribulation of the church is also debated.

There are at least four major ways in which it has been interpreted.  First and most familiar in our day is the futurist interpretation.  This view sees the great tribulation and coming of Christ spoken of in this passage as future and focused on the Jews during the final, great tribulation before Christ returns.1  Second and growing today in popularity is the preterist view.2  This view sees the great tribulation and coming of Christ spoken of in this passage as past and fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70.  Often held by postmillennialists, this view sees no reference to any present tribulation of the church in this passage.  It is thought to speak exclusively of the tribulations of the Jews leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem.  Third and also quite popular is the double fulfillment view.  This view sees the great tribulation and coming of Christ as being fulfilled both in the destruction of Jerusalem and in a future tribulation and coming of Christ.  Thus, the tribulation is viewed in its second fulfillment as the tribulation of the church.3  The fourth view is—for lack of a better description—John Murray’s view.  Murray regards the great tribulation mentioned in the passage as fulfilled, but the coming of Christ mentioned as yet future.  He sees these two events as contrasted in the passage.4  This is the view I hold.  It locates the tribulation of this passage primarily in the tribulations of the Jews leading up and including the destruction of Jerusalem, but it also finds descriptions in the passage of the troubles which will encompass Christ’s disciples during the entire interadventual period.  It does not see this passage as focused on a great tribulation of the church at the end of the age.

It is not my purpose to attempt any lengthy rebuttal of the three views that I regard as faulty.  Each of them seem, however, to confront immediately certain serious difficulties.  Let me provide a brief rebuttal to each of these competing views of the passage by pointing out the most serious objections to each of them.

The futurist view in applying this passage to the end of this age fails to give due weight to the obvious reference in vv. 15-28 to the historical circumstances of the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70.  It simply cannot be denied that in the parallel passage (Luke 21) the language used describes the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  It is strained in my view to argue that these parallel passages refer to different events.  It also fails to give due weight to Jesus’ teaching that His return is not imminent at the time of this tribulation (Matt. 24:23-27).  The futurist view assumes that the Second Coming has already begun to occur or is about to occur during the future Great Tribulation.

The preterist view  has a similar problem with what appears to be a clear reference to the coming of Christ  in glory in vv. 29-31.  While the preterist view explains this language in terms of similar figurative language used for historical judgments in the Old Testament, it entangles itself in a number of difficulties in doing so.  First, if such language as we have in the Olivet Discourse can be explained so as not to require a Second Coming of the Christ in glory, it seems hard to find any language in the New Testament which would not be capable of such explanation.  Hence, the preterist interpretation endangers the orthodox doctrine of the Second Coming and is in danger of exegetically justifying its evil twin, Hyper-Preterism.  Second, the reference to the end of the age in Matthew 24 clearly refers in a parallel passage to something more than the end of the Jewish dispensation.  When the disciples ask about the coming of the end of the age in verse 3, this question sets the agenda for Jesus’ response to their questions in the rest of the passage.  The language they use is precisely the same which Jesus used in Matthew 13:39, 40, 49 and 28:20.  When he speaks in parallel language of “the end” in verses 6, 13, 14, he is responding to their question about the consummation of the age.  The problem with the preterist interpretation is that Jesus’ comments about the end or consummation of this age cannot be adequately explained short of wholesale Hyper-Preterism.  Once again the preterist interpretation leads directly to Hyper-Preterism (Luke 20:34-36).  Finally, it appears to me that there is a direct refutation of the preterist view in Luke 21.  In Luke 21:24-27 there is a description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the events which follow it including the exile of the Jews into all the nations and the times of the Gentiles.  Only after these events does Christ return.  This cannot be a coming of Christ in AD 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem.

The double fulfillment view compels us to make identical language refer to two completely different events.  This creates impossible exegetical difficulties.   Hendriksen, in fact, admits that it is impossible to disentangle the language and tell which language refers to what event.5

The attempt is made by the double fulfillment view to explain this by means of the flat perspective of Old Testament prophecy, which we considered [previously in the book]. This means there is a kind of double fulfillment with regard to many Old Testament prophecies.  I have acknowledged that Old Testament prophets were characterized by a flat prophetic perspective with regard to the coming of the kingdom which is now unfolded in the two-stage coming of Christ and the kingdom.  But I am not convinced that this is at all the same thing as the double fulfillment view of Matthew 24.

First, Christ coming in the clouds of heaven may refer to both His ascension and Second Coming because both are aspects of His (single) exaltation.  This is different than being required to somehow find both a past and future fulfillment of the following passage:

Matthew 24: 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.  17 “Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house.  18 “Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak.  19 “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!  20 “But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.

Second, even if it were the same, we have seen that the flattened prophetic perspective has given way now that the kingdom has come.  The least in the kingdom is now greater than John the Baptist in this regard (Matthew 11:11).  If we allow the double fulfillment view to invade the interpretation of New Testament prophecy, how can we know for sure that there is not a third and fourth coming of Christ to follow the second?

Third, the double fulfillment view runs the risk of overthrowing the hermeneutical good sense of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith that says in Chapter 1, paragraph 9 that the true and full sense of Scripture is not manifold but one.

Fourth, how will the double fulfillment view deal with the straightforward language of Luke 21?  Quite clearly, there is no double fulfillment of the parallel passage there.  Luke 21 in chronological sequence deals with the suffering of Christ’s disciples at the hands of the Jews (vv. 16-19), the surrounding of Jerusalem by armies (v. 20), the necessity of distressing flight from Jerusalem before its destruction (vv. 21-23), the actual conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants (v. 24a), the exile of the Jews into all the nations (v. 24b), the times of the Gentiles (v. 24c), and finally the Second Coming of Christ (vv. 25-27).

But the best rebuttal for deficient views of Matthew 24 is the presentation of the proper view.  These faulty views will be best refuted by simply presenting the interpretation of Professor Murray mentioned above.  The following exposition is deeply indebted to his fine treatment of this passage. Here is the outline of Matthew 24:1-36 which Murray provides.

Theme:  The Interadventual Period and the Advent of Christ (Matthew 24 and 25)
 Introduction:  The Disciples’ Questions (vv. 1-3)

  1. I.              The Outstanding Features characterizing This Period (vv. 4-14)
  2. II.            The Great Tribulation during This Period (vv. 15-28)
  3. III.           The Second Coming ending This Period (vv. 29-33)

Conclusion:  The Lord’s Distinction (vv. 34-36)

1Holy Bible: Scofield Reference Edition, ed. C. I. Scofield (New York: Oxford University Press,1917), 1032-33.  Scofield distinguishes Luke 21 which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, from Matthew 24 to which he gives a futurist interpretation.

2J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971) provides a classic preterist interpretation of Matthew 24.

3William Hendriksen, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 846-47; Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), 492-93.  Both Hendriksen and Ridderbos offer forms of the double fulfillment view of Matthew 24.

4John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), pp. 387ff.

5Hendriksen, Matthew, 492-94.

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