The Meaning of Matthew 24, Part 2

by | Mar 6, 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.

Following the outline specified [previously], let us now examine the teaching of Matthew 24:1-36.

Introduction:  The Disciples’ Questions (vv. 1-3)

Matthew 24:1 And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 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.” 3 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?”

The Olivet Discourse is the answer to the disciples’ questions found in v. 3.  As Murray says, “…we should most probably regard the disciples as thinking of the destruction of  the temple and the coming (parousia) as coincident…”  In other words, it seems clear from their questions that the disciples assumed that destruction of the temple could mean nothing less than the end of the world.  This confusion could not go uncorrected.  As we shall see, it does not.

I.              The Outstanding Features characterizing This Period (vv. 4-14)

Matthew 24:4 And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. 5 “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. 6 And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. 8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. 9 Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name. 10 And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. 12 And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved. 14 “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.

These verses give an overview of the entire interadventual period (the period between Christ’s first and second advents).  The mention of the end in verses 6, 13, and 14 in comparison with verse 3 shows that Christ’s perspective in these verses reaches out to the very end of the age and His own Second Coming.  It is clear from these verses, therefore, that the gospel age will be characterized by tribulation.  War, famine, earthquake, tribulation, apostasy, persecution, false religions, increased lawlessness, and the waning of affection for Christ will be the age-long experience of the church of Christ.

II.            The Great Tribulation during This Period (vv. 15-28)

Matthew 24:15 Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; 18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 19 But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! 20 “But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath; 21 for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. 22 And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 “Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 “If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go forth, or,‘ Behold, He is in the inner rooms, ‘do not believe them. 27 For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Having given the big picture, verses 15-28 focus on the event of most concern to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Murray notes,  “In verse 15 it is not as apparent as it is in Luke 21:20 that Jesus is dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem.  In the latter the reference is explicit:  “When ye see Jerusalem encompassed by armies, then know ye that its desolation is drawn nigh.”  All the language of the passage clearly describes the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and gives warnings about it pertinent to Jesus’ first century Jewish disciples.

In particular the warning against believing that an imminent or secret appearance of the Messiah is to be associated with these events must be noticed.  This makes clear that it is not a period just before the consummation of the age that is in view.

Some have found an objection to the interpretation here defended in the strong language of Matthew 21:21 and 22.  Many have felt that such language could only describe the so-called great tribulation at the end of the age.

  • This objection presses the language to ridiculous, literal lengths never intended by the Lord and ignores the possibility of the use of legitimate hyperbole by the Lord.  (For examples of hyperbole see Matt. 5:29; 23:24; John 12:19; Luke 14:26; Mark 9:23).
  • It also is forced to ignore the plain reference of the rest of the passage to the events of AD 70.
  • Unless one adopts a strictly futurist view, one (say a proponent of the double fulfillment view) is forced to allow that some fulfillment of this horrifying prediction must have occurred in AD 70.
  • This interpretation also displays ignorance of the massive and horrifying massacre of the Jews at this time.  A reading of Josephus account is recommended.1
  • This objection also fails to appreciate the covenantal ramifications of this event for the Jews.  In this event the wrath of God came upon them to the uttermost (1 Thessalonians 2:16).

III.           The Second Coming ending This Period (vv. 29-33)

Matthew 24:29 But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, 30 and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. 32 “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.

With this section of Matthew 24 one of the major difficulties with Professor Murray’s view is confronted. Murray recognizes this and says:

When we come to verse 29, we encounter some difficulty.  For ‘the tribulation of those days’ might appear to refer to the ‘great tribulation of verse 21 which is associated particularly with the desolation of Jerusalem.  How could it be said that, immediately after 70 A. D., the events specified in verses 29-31 took place?”

To put the problem in other words, verse 29 seems to say that immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem the coming of Christ in glory occurs.  How then can verses 15-28 refer to a destruction of Jerusalem that took place in 70 A. D. and verse 29 refer to the future coming of Christ in glory?

Very properly Murray once again finds the solution in the parallel passage in Luke 21.  He shows that Luke inserts words of Jesus not recorded by Matthew that wonderfully help to clarify the meaning.  Here are the words that Luke inserts between what is recorded in Matthew 24:28 and what is recorded in Matthew 24:29.

Luke 21:24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

These words make very clear that “the tribulation of those days” mentioned in Matthew 24:29 includes not only the Jews’ falling by the edge of the sword, but also their being led into captivity, the times of the Gentiles, and thus, the entire interadventual period.  The comments of Murray at this point are exceedingly helpful:

Luke includes an observation in Jesus’ discourse not included in Matthew’s account, and it belongs to what precedes Matthew 24:29, and must therefore be inserted.  The observation given in Luke 21:24 is that “Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”  So, in view of this element, it is apparent that our Lord’s delineation extended far beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and the events immediately associated with it.  Hence the period  “those days”, in Matthew 24:29, must be regarded as the days that extend to the threshold of what is specified in verses 29-31.  But, apart from Luke 21:24, it would be reasonable, even on the basis of Matthew’s own account, to take the expression “the tribulation of those days” inclusively and not restrictively, “Those days” could properly be taken to mean the days preceding that of which Jesus now proceeds to speak, the days depicted already in verses 4-14, and “the tribulation” not exclusively the “great tribulation” of verse 21, but the tribulation which, according to the earlier part of the discourse, is represented as characterizing the interadventual period as a whole.2

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

Matthew 24:34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away. 36 But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.

Murray begins his treatment of these verses by a lengthy treatment of the meaning of generation in verse 34.  He argues that it is “wholly untenable” to make this word mean race rather than generation.  He uses three arguments.  First, he argues that in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ) this Greek word translates a Hebrew word that means generation and not race.  Second, he argues that if Jesus had intended to say race, another and clearer Greek word was available.  Third, he argues that the meaning of the word generation in the New Testament is “clearly that of the living generation, or the generations in succession to one another”.

In particular Murray notes at this point the clearly parallel use of generation in the near context, Matthew 23:36.  Notice this statement in its context.  It seems beyond doubt that this parallel use is meant of the then living generation of Jews.

34 “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city,  35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  36 “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.  37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.  38 “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!

With this understanding of the word, generation, required in verse 34, Murray then addresses the obvious question raised by the verse.

How, then, are we to resolve the question posed by the events specified in the preceding context, especially in verses 29-31, which did not occur in the generation of which our Lord spoke?3

Murray’s reply to this question is to argue that there is a contrast intended in verses 34-36 between the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of Christ in glory. Matthew 24:34-36 is often misunderstood because people do not appreciate the contrast that Jesus intends in these verses.  Verse 34 must be contrasted with verse 36 or the entire meaning of the passage will be mistaken.

That there is a contrast intended in these verses is plain from three things high-lighted in these verses.  First, the fact that verse 36 begins with the word, but, must not be overlooked.  This conjunction in Greek commonly is used to introduce a contrasting thought.

Second, the contrast in the two different demonstrative pronouns used in verses 34 and 36 respectively must not be overlooked.  “These” is the immediate demonstrative pronoun used to designate something relatively near at hand.  It is appropriately used to describe the relatively near occurrence of all the things associated with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.  It is so used throughout the passage (Matt. 23:36; 24:3, 8, 33).  “That” is the remote demonstrative pronoun used to designate something that is relatively distant.  It is appropriately used to designate the day and hour of Christ’s coming in glory. 4

Third, the contrast in the matter of time signs also cannot be overlooked.  ”This generation” as Murray shows is clearly a reference to the then living generation of Jews.  Thus, a general time sign is given for the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem.  When Jesus says that “no one knows” including Himself of the day and hour of His return, there is a plain distinction introduced as to time signs between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ.  No time sign of any kind is given for the Second Coming.  (There are signs, but no time signs of the Second Coming.)

1For a summary of Josephus’ description and an extended response to the objection in question, cf. J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Presbyterian and Reformed,1971), 112-120.

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

3John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), pp. 387ff.

4H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1967) pp. 122f.

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