STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 11

Matthew 24:1-35

September 21, 2003

Having completed a series of studies on the motifs of biblical prophecy, the various themes according to which the Bible presents to us its vision of the future, the end of history, and the consummation of the kingdom of God, I want now to spend two Lord’s Day evenings considering what are perhaps the most consequential texts in determining one’s view of the millennium or golden age prophesied in Scripture: Matthew 24 and Revelation 20. There is a third, Romans 11, but we considered that text in discussing the motif of the salvation of Israel or the Jews. Amillennialism, remember, is the view that we are not to expect any golden age of the kingdom of God in this world prior to or after the Lord’s return. The millennium, if one wishes to use the term, is simply the age between Pentecost and the Second Coming and the great prophetic descriptions of the triumph of God’s kingdom, such a time when, as Isaiah puts it, the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or when the wolf lies down with the lamb, apply either metaphorically to this age – a figurative way of describing the progress the gospel has made and is making as it is taken to every tongue, tribe, and nation – or these descriptions should be taken to refer to heaven itself. Bruce Waltke, who is an amillennialist, rightly points out that we often underestimate the extraordinary progress the gospel has made in the world – from a day when believers were counted in the hundreds to today, when they are counted by the hundreds of millions. He thinks the knowledge of the Lord already covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. Anthony Hoekema, another amil, tends to see such prophetic descriptions of the triumph of the kingdom of God as another way of talking about heaven and the world to come. [The Bible and the Future, 178]

We pointed out, in our treatment of the motif of the restoration and salvation of the Jews, that amillennialists spend a great deal of time in Romans 11 because there Paul seems to say that there will be a great movement of salvation among the Jews at or near the end of the age and seems to use such OT prophecies of a golden age to prove his point. Amillennialists need to find another way of reading Romans 11 or their whole theory is in danger of collapse. If Paul is teaching in Romans 11 that there is a great day of salvation still to come in the history of this world, an unprecedented day of salvation, then, manifestly, Paul was not an amillennialist! So they take his statements in another way, a way we said when we looked at Romans 11 may be correct but is assuredly not obviously correct!

But there are two other texts that create similar difficulties for millennial positions and around which swirl similar controversies. The first of these is what is often referred to as “the Olivette Discourse,” the teaching about the end of the age that Jesus gave his disciples as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem and recorded for us in Matthew 24 and its parallel texts in Mark 13 and Luke 21.

Read: Matthew 24:1-35

Text Comment:

v.34 There are, as you may imagine, many interpretations of this statement that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” After all, the generation of the 12 disciples is long gone but Christ has not yet returned. Some, as we shall see, get round the problem by arguing that Matt. 24:1-35 is not about the second coming and says nothing about the Lord’s return. It is only about the events of A.D. 70, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the gospel mission to follow, so v. 34 is simply true. That generation didn’t pass away until everything foretold in the chapter had come to pass. Actually, that doesn’t really solve the problem because the gospel mission wasn’t completed by any means before that generation passed away. But that interpretation has other problems as we shall see and the same problem everyone else has understanding the Lord’s statement at Luke 21:32 where, in the parallel passage, the same statement is made about this generation not passing away until…, but the statement is made after the forecast of some things that were plainly not completed before that first Christian generation passed away, for example, the statement in Luke 21:24: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Many commentators hold that the “all these things” must, in the context, be limited to the things that have been discussed that will happen in the time of that generation, viz. the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. In that case, the current generation would not pass away before Jerusalem is destroyed, but the second coming is not included in the “all these things.” Others suggest that “this generation” is a reference to the people who oppose and persecute the church and this is a promise that we will always have such people to deal with [Morris ad loc]. Others propose that “this generation” is a reference to the Jews and amounts to a promise that God will preserve his ancient people.

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Now, be aware that large books have been written on the interpretation of Matthew 24. I would confuse you not help you if I descended as far into the details of interpretation as I could. So, I’m going to give you simply a sketch of the problem posed by this text and various approaches to it. That will prove challenging enough.

Let me begin by saying that amils and pre-mils have their problems with Matthew 24 but post-mils have the problem! Matthew 24 is the kind of problem for a postmillennialist that Romans 11 is for an amillennialist. Remember, postmillennialism is the view that before the second coming of Christ there will be a great ingathering of the elect, that a revival of unprecedented proportion will occur in the world, and it will be in fact true, in a way it is not now and has never been in history, that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Christ will return post- or after the millennium. We are not now in the millennium, the golden age, as many amils think, but that day will come before Christ returns. There will be a day of salvation like nothing that has ever been seen in the world to this point. The Jews will be saved and vast multitudes of Gentiles after them. This day of salvation will be brought in, as other revivals in history have been brought in, by the Holy Spirit’s blessing of the preaching of the Word and the witness of Christians, but it will happen on a scale that has never been approached before. Real Christians are ordinarily a minority in the world, but in that day it will not be so.

Now the problem Matthew 24 poses for the post-mil is that when Jesus was asked by his disciples, “what shall be the sign of your coming?” he didn’t say anything about a great age of salvation that would precede his coming again. For postmillennialism, the millennium, the golden age of the gospel, will in fact be the most dramatic and important precursor to Christ’s return. It would seem to be obvious that the answer to their question, if postmillennialism were correct, would be something like this: “Well, I will not come again until the great day of salvation has come and the kingdom of God has been brought in with power. You will know the second coming is approaching when you see the kingdom of God have its day of triumph in the world, when the nations as a whole fall under the spell of the gospel and vast multitudes of hitherto unbelieving people all over the world become followers of Christ. But Jesus doesn’t say that.

He says nothing to indicate that any such great day of gospel triumph will intervene between his ascension and his coming again. Quite the contrary, he seems to suggest that the course of the kingdom of God in the world will continue to be one of opposition and conflict, not triumph, until Christ comes again. In other words, many folk reading Matthew 24 have concluded that the Lord Jesus was not a postmillennialist! Just as Romans 11 seems to suggest that Paul was not an amillennialist, so Matthew 24 seems to suggest that Jesus was not a postmillennialist. He did not seem to expect a golden age for the gospel prior to his second coming.

So, for example, the saintly Scottish pastor, Andrew Bonar, who was to become an influential premillennialist in what was largely a postmillennialist 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Church, explained why he abandoned postmillennialism and became a premillennialist by saying:

“…I remember what led me to decision was the calm reading of Matthew 24. That chapter decided me on this subject. I could not see a foot-breadth of room for the millennium before Christ comes on the clouds. It is wave upon wave of tribulation until the Son of Man appears.” [Cited in Murray, Puritan Hope, 195]

Now, obviously, post-mils have heard this argument and have labored to answer it. Some have contented themselves with saying that in answering the question: “what shall be the sign of your coming?” the Lord didn’t say everything, he chose to say just a few things and left out comment on the millennium, the gospel’s golden age (e.g. Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, 80] Most post-mils, however, have felt that an inadequate answer and have labored to demonstrate that Matthew 24 does not pose an unanswerable objection to postmillennialism. Now there are impressive arguments to be advanced for postmillennialism, but this seems to be a punishing objection.

Postmillennialism, in fact, has enjoyed a resurgence in the last 40 years, and recently, in a number of books and articles, there has been a concerted effort to prove that, in fact, there is no problem for postmillennialism in Matthew 24 because the question that Jesus is answering does not concern his second coming but only the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age of the Old Testament. The entire section we read tonight has nothing to do with the signs or precursors of Christ’s second coming.

Can that possibly be so? After all, in v. 29, we read, “immediately after the distress of those days…the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. He will send his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather his elect from the four winds.” Is that no the second coming?

Postmillennialists, however, typically argue that the tribulation described in vv. 15ff., is a prophecy of the events of A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. After all, wasn’t the question that the disciples asked Jesus: when would Jerusalem be destroyed? He made the statement that it would be destroyed and they asked him when that would occur. But then what are we to make of the “immediately after these days” in v. 29 and the following description of Christ’s coming? Christ didn’t return to the earth shortly after A.D. 70? That is the complication. Matthew has added an “immediately after” in v. 29. Christ’s return is said to come immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem, but Christ didn’t return shortly after A.D. 70.

Well, the postmils say, those statements from v. 29-31 contain a series of well-known and often used biblical images. They are poetic symbols not literal descriptions. The “sun being darkened and the moon giving no light” is the Lord’s metaphorical way of saying that Israel will be extinguished as a nation. When the tribulation is over in A.D. 70, Israel as a nation will be no more. And “coming on the clouds” in v. 30 is only another frequently used biblical image of God working in judgment and salvation. The gathering of the elect is then not what happens at the end when the dead in Christ rise, but rather the church’s evangelistic work, the work that has been going on these nearly 2000 years. The term “angels” should be translated more generically as “messenger” for here it means “preachers of the gospel.” Vv29-31 do not describe the second coming but the Gospel mission of the church.

Now, it needs to be said that these postmil scholars have done an impressive job of making the case that such statements as we have in vv. 29-31 could mean something else than the second coming. They could be a description of the advance of gospel through preaching that has been taking place throughout the last 2000 years of history.

But, what needs to be admitted, and postmils writing on Matthew 24 don’t usually admit this, is that there are good reasons to think this is not the natural and most likely understanding of the Lord’s words.

First, while it may be possible to take “end of the age” in v. 3 to mean “end of the OT epoch” or “end of the age in which Israel is a nation,” so that the “end” spoken of came in A.D. 70, this is not the way the phrase is used in Matthew. In Matt. 13:39-43 in the Lord’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares, the phrase is used of the harvest at the “end of the age” and no one denies that there it means the second coming of Jesus Christ. Again, in the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, 28:20, Jesus promises his disciples that he will be with them always, until the end of the age. If you ask how that phrase, “end of the age,” is used in Matthew, the answer seems rather clearly to be that it refers to the end of the age that separates Christ’s two comings, and that, therefore, the end of the age is a reference not to A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem, but to the second coming of Christ.

Second, while it is possible that the Lord’s description, in vv. 15-25, of the great tribulation to come could be applied to the desolations of A.D. 70, it is not certain by any means that such is the most natural reading of his words. In vv. 9-14 there seems to be a description of persecution over a long time, over the entire stretch of this age until the end, the time during which the gospel would be preached to the whole world. Only after those verses do we get the account of the great tribulation to come. A tribulation greater than any that had befell the people of God before or would ever befall them again, cut short so that the elect of God would survive, seems to refer to an event of unprecedented proportion, nothing like what has yet been suffered. I am persuaded myself that that language used here could be accounted for simply by the hyperbole or exaggeration for effect that one finds in biblical prophecy. I am prepared to believe that the description of tribulation given here could be an account beforehand of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. But, I admit there are other problems than simply vv. 9-14 that precede this prophecy of the destruction of the temple. There is nothing in the Lord’s remarks to suggest that this tribulation would befall only the Jewish church and that the Gentile church would escape it altogether or that the largest part of the church, by A.D. 70, would be totally unaffected by this tribulation. In context it seems to be an account of a persecution that befalls the whole church. That is important given the fact that a few verses later, in v. 31, he speaks explicitly of his church being gathered from the four winds…” When this material is linked with other similar forecasts in the New Testament, it is harder still to avoid the impression that the tribulation being described is something that comes nearer to the end of the age and is a marker of the second coming. For example in 2 Thess. 2:3-4 we read that the Lord will not return:

“…until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”

It is possible, of course, that this has nothing to do with the great tribulation prophesied in Matthew 24, but it doesn’t seem likely. There is in both an abomination in the temple. There is opposition to Christian belief on an unprecedented scale in both forecasts and so on. But, of course, this is Paul writing to a Gentile church and it is highly doubtful that he is talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Third, the images employed in vv. 29-31 could, indeed, refer to the gospel’s mission in the world over these two thousand years and counting. Angels could mean “ministers” and other Christian messengers of the good news. But it is not obvious that such is the meaning of these statements. In Matthew 13, again, in vv. 39-42, we read of angels being sent out to gather the elect in a setting in which the reference is unmistakably to the second coming of the Lord. The “trumpet call” is mentioned in 1 Thess. 4:16, together with the archangel, and the descent of the Lord from heaven, again in reference to the Lord’s coming again. The angel who spoke to the disciples at the time of the Lord’s ascension – as he was taken up from them on the clouds made a point of saying that the Lord would return to the world just as he left it. So, if we interrogate the Scripture and as how these images are employed in the New Testament, we would have to say that they are employed as images of the Lord’s second coming, not as images of the church’s gospel mission.

Finally, the Lord’s teaching that immediately follows what we read, the teaching we find in 24:36 through chapter 25 is clearly and unmistakably about the second coming and the end of world history. The master who went on a long journey and was slow in returning; the parable of the wise and foolish virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom; the parable of the talents; the account of the separation between the sheep and the goats; all of this is about the second coming of Jesus Christ but Matthew seems rather clearly to say that in these later passages he is talking about the same thing he was talking about in vv. 1-35. Note that he begins v. 36 by saying “No one knows about that day…” In 25:1 we read again “At that time [tote] or “then”, harking back to the time he had been previously describing and there follows an account of the second coming. In other words, when Matthew elaborates and applies the point he made in vv. 1-35, he seems clearly to be talking about the second coming and its consequences. He seems to be rather clearly suggesting that that had been his subject all along.

Now, it is true that Jesus began by saying that the temple would be destroyed and his disciples asked him when this would occur. In other parallels to this text in Matthew 24, for example in Luke 21:20-24, similar language is used to describe what is unmistakably the destruction of Jerusalem. The description in Matthew is significantly different however, is given a different context, and that has led many to conclude that the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 was, in the Lord’s mind, a prefigurement of the great tribulation that would occur at the end of the world. Many have concluded that here in Matt. 24:15ff. we are given, in language taken from the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a prophecy of a still greater persecution at the end of the age that will presage the Lord’s second coming. That is, of course, something we are well used to in biblical prophecy, of course. A day of the Lord that heralds the still greater day of the Lord. The account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the account of the catastrophe of the end of the age and the return of Christ are described in similar language and, in some texts, even brought together in a single vision of the future. That is only what we would expect given what we have called the prophetic. So, in Matthew 24 we have either a great tribulation brought closely together with the end of the age, the destruction of A.D. 70, or nothing more than simply the statement that Jerusalem would be destroyed, in v. 2, and the rest of the discourse concerned with the events of the end of the age. If you are confused at this point, don’t despair. This text has left a great many careful scholars scratching their heads. Once again, however, take note: the great sweep of its meaning is clear enough. The precise implication of its chronology is what baffles us. Other biblical teaching confirms that there will be a great opposition to the faith immediately before the Lord returns. (There is relatively little disagreement in Biblical scholarship about what things will occur, it is in what order they will occur that is the disagreement.)

Now that is enough of that. But, whatever we do with Matt. 24 and the Olivette Discourse, so far as the question of the millennium is concerned; what are we to do with it more directly? What does it say to us? Assuming as I must that it is speaking primarily about the future and not the past, how does this knowledge of the future bear on our living in the present, which is always the Bible’s interest?

Well, I think, Andrew Bonar captured the point. The kingdom of God will suffer opposition in this world, it always will. The intensification of that opposition near the end of the age, is only the continuation of the theme, more of the same, the culmination of ages of tribulation. Verses 9-14 make that clear. “You will be hated by the nations because of me…and then the end will come.”

You remember how often the Lord warned his disciples of what was to come.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matt. 5:10-12

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Matt. 15:20

“In the world you will always have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Matt. 16:33

And the rest of the New Testament rings the changes on the same expectation and makes the same warning. In 2 Tim. 3:12 Paul writes:

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And as the church moved out into the world, the Lord’s prophesies came true. Acts recounts the persistent persecution of the church, by Jews and by Gentiles. James, Peter, Paul, and many others, died violently at the hands of the enemies of the gospel of Christ. Not every Christian, of course, suffers tribulation and opposition at the hands of unbelievers to the same degree, but the believing Christian church is never the friend of most people in a community for very long. Opposition, deeply rooted in the sinful heart and fueled by Satanic forces, is always near to the surface and frequently breaks out forcefully and violently. The history of the church in the world has been a history of persecution and tribulation. As Theodore Beza said to the French king:

“Sire, it is in truth the lot of the church of God, in whose name I am speaking, to endure blows, and not to strike them. But also may it please you to remember that it is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.” [In Schaff, viii, 859]

And so it has continued to our own day. The number of Christian martyrs, men and women who have died for their faith, in the 20th century is very large; perhaps larger than the number in any other century of Christian history. Their story is often not so well known to us. They need a John Foxe to do for them what that great man did for the history of the persecution of the saints up to the 17th century. Who will tell the story of the little Christian girls who were beaten and had acid poured on their faces in Pakistan a few weeks ago?

When we experience this opposition, even this persecution in our own lives, when we hear of it in the lives of others or in the life of the church in other parts of the world, we remember what our Lord said in Matthew 24: “You will be hated by all the nations because of me” and so it will continue to the “end.” Apparently he means to tell us that bad as it gets sometimes it is not as bad as some day it will become and, even then, at the point it becomes too heavy to bear, the Lord will cut it short for the sake of his people. Knowing what Christians have suffered in the past, we shudder to think of a persecution much more terrible than anything that has been experienced so far! But, it is our lot in this world.

It is also our calling, our dignity, our honor. As Paul says, I want to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. If they persecuted him, let me be a true enough follower of the Lord to draw the world’s hatred of him down upon myself. It is the index of my loyalty and my obedience. Persecution is our lot because the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. To the extent that we are like God, that we reflect his character in our own lives, the world will hate him in us.

This is important for American Christians to know and remember, all the more in a day such as ours. We have been used to Christianity being a favored faith in our land. But no more. That day is over and it does not appear that it will return any time soon. The sneers that used to be private are now voiced publicly; the opposition to biblical Christianity is open and unafraid. Time and time again we now hear people speak in contempt of biblical Christianity. Politicians do; media types, from Ted Turner to the Washington Post reporter; entertainment figures ridicule Christian belief, academic courtesy on American university campuses extends to many outrageous ideas but not to biblical Christianity; even religious figures pour scorn on biblical Christianity. Well, that is what we were taught to expect. After all, they did not ignore him or simply belittle him; they crucified him. So will sinful man always do in the presence of the perfect goodness that condemns him! Guilt and fear produce anger and hatred; they always do apart from the grace of God. That persecution Jesus said would always be our lot in this world and the more we reproduced his life in our own lives the more persecution we would suffer. There is a irreconcilable conflict in the world today between God and the devil, faith and unbelief, submission and rebellion. And so it will be until Christ personally puts a stop to it when he comes again.

We all know this to be true, of course. It is for this very reason that Christians struggle and are reticent to speak to unbelievers about Christ and salvation. We know the average non-Christian will not like us for it. A recent survey indicated that virtually every adult in the United States had been witnessed to by an evangelical Christian and most of them regarded it as an unpleasant experience! What is more, your own heart bears witness to the fundamental distaste of the sinful soul for the very idea of submission to Christ’s lordship and life lived in obedience to his commandments. You find it a great struggle. You want still to go your own way and do what you please. You rebel! How much more someone who has no sense of God’s grace, of Christ’s great sacrifice for him or her, of the debt owed to him for the prospect of everlasting life, who has not yet discovered that the commandments of God are not burdensome and that in keeping them there is a great reward.

The world is precisely as our Savior said it would be. But he also said, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” As Pascal wrote in the Pensees,

“There is some pleasure in being on board a ship battered by storms when one is certain of not perishing. The persecutions buffeting the church are like this.”

When Charles Simeon began his 50-year ministry at Holy Trinity in Cambridge he was persecuted unmercifully in the university community. He had been sent to a dead church by a live bishop to try to turn things around. He was a staunch evangelical among a community of cultured religious unbelievers. He was full of youthful enthusiasm among the jaded know-it-alls that populate universities. They talked about him behind his back, the students interrupted his services by making noise. The congregation itself refused to attend and locked their pews so that those who wanted to hear had to stand around the outside of the sanctuary. It was tough to be hated by so many people as a sensitive young man. But then came this day.

“When I was an object of much derision in the university, I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from His Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text which would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here – what a blessed thing for my encouragement! To have the Cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honouring with a participation in his sufferings… I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow.” [In Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 81]

Well, the Lord’s message for us all is that we too must face persecution. It will be a fact of Christian life until the end of this age. But the fact that he is coming again, should make all the difference to us. They crucified him but he rose again and is coming again to vindicate those who are faithful to him. Be sure that when that day comes, it will find you having been faithful to him, no matter the opposition.