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Matthew 24: A Very Misunderstood Passage

Matthew 24 is called the Olivet Discourse. It is Jesus’ own discussion of eschatology and is often the center of criticism. In this sermon, Jesus makes the single most controversial prediction of his earthly ministry: he predicts the end of the age and says that it will occur within the lifetime of his hearers.

Obviously, we’re still here so many contend that this prediction didn’t come true. Faced with that dilemma, the leading prophecy experts (Tim LaHaye, Thomas Ice, and others) say that “generation” doesn’t refer to Jesus’ hearers at all but some far distant generation.

I read LaHaye’s book Are We Living in the End Times? (Tyndale House Publishers, 2000) many moons ago. I didn’t know anything about prophecy and only a tiny bit about hermeneutics. If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized just how poorly LaHaye’s arguments are constructed. Let’s focus just on the issue at hand: did Jesus predict that the hearers of his prophecy in Matthew 24 would see the fulfillment?

LaHaye answers that with an emphatic no. Through some hideously complicated eisegesis, LaHaye argues that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 isn’t the hearers of Jesus’ message, but the generation alive when Israel is reformed as a nation. That happened in 1948. A biblical generation is around 30 years. Obviously, 1978 also came and went and LaHaye recognizes and addresses that problem. He says that “generation” refers to the length of the generation at the time in history when Israel reforms. People are living a lot longer nowadays and therefore 50 to 100 years from 1948 is the more likely timeframe.

Standard biblical hermeneutics teaches that the first consideration in understanding a passage is the audience to whom it is directed. Ask, “How would this audience have interpreted Jesus’ words?” And with that in mind, there is no other conclusion that you can possibly come to: Jesus meant that his hearers would see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

Again, since we are still here, that interpretation seems to present a serious problem for Christianity. After all, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness because the founder of that organization made numerous failed prophecies. It would be a double standard to say that I reject a religion purporting the same basic message as Christianity on the basis of a failed prophecy by its founder if I excuse Christianity’s Ultimate Founder on his failed prophecy.

The trick is that Jesus isn’t a failed prophet. Let’s start at the beginning of the Olivet Discourse to find out why Jesus isn’t a failure.

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mt 24:1-2)

Here, Jesus is foretelling the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He’s saying that it will be complete and utter, so that “there will not be left here one stone upon another.” Remember this point. The whole context of this passage hinges on the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus then goes on:

As he sat 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 close of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mt 24:3-8)

The question was asked immediately following the prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which means that what the disciples are really asking him about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Second Temple Age. The Messiah was supposed to usher in a golden age of closer community with God. He was to do this by saving us from our sins, which are what separate us from God in the first place. The Jews believed that he would also end the oppression of the Jewish people and usher in a New World Order with him at the head of it. Jesus, however, was to be exalted as a heavenly ruler rather than an earthly one.

Notice the parallel here with the book of Samuel, when the people wanted an earthly king and God tried to explain that a heavenly king was all that was needed. The people resisted and rejected that idea. Now is the time for Jesus to fulfill that word of God, and become a heavenly ruler–not an earthly one.

He starts by warning us of false Messiahs. And, as atheists are fond of reminding us, there were many messianic pretenders roaming near the end of the Second Temple Age. Jesus was one of many, Christianity’s critics are quick to point out. And that is true. Here, Jesus reminds his followers not to be fooled by these folks.

The wars and famine that he predicts are the beginning of the birth pangs, that is, the beginning of a new age. So we have the Temple’s destruction, wars, and famines. Moving forward:

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt 24:9-14)

After the Temple’s destruction, the wars, and the famines, next we have tribulation and death for the name of Jesus. Jesus warns that apathy will increase with the increasing lawlessness, and urges his followers to stay strong and endure to the end. Salvation awaits those who do!

Next, the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world. Only then will the end come.

So, it goes:

  1. Temple destruction
  2. Wars
  3. Famine
  4. Tribulation and martyrdom
  5. Apathy
  6. Proclamation of Gospel message to the whole world
  7. End of the Age

Jesus then moves on:

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place ( let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, 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 cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Mt 24:15-28)

First, what is the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel? Let’s journey back to the book of Daniel to find that out first.

Once the abomination of desolation comes to pass, Jesus is telling his listeners to run away, and run fast. Don’t even pause to grab the stuff in your house, or the cloak waiting for you after completing work in the field.

Then Jesus warns again, more sternly than before, of false prophets. His Second Coming is in view at the end of this passage, and he says it will be very, very obvious. People will know what it is when they see it. Jesus says:

“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 heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Mt 24:29-31)

Is this the Second Coming? Nope. But this passage does obliterate the usual notion of a pre-trib Rapture (not that I believe in the Rapture, but that’s for another discussion). Jesus says “Immediately after the tribulation . . . .” Note that he specifically says after. Then he describes a series of signs: the sun will be darkened, the moon won’t give its light, stars will fall, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The so-called “Rapture” occurs after the tribulation, the heavenly shake-up, and the sign of the Son of Man. Finally, then we see the gathering of the elect from the four winds. Not before.

Here’s the misunderstanding: Jesus says “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man. . . .” This has a sign in view, not the actual coming of the Son of Man. And what could that sign be? I submit it for your approval that the sign he’s referring to is none other than the specific, unmistakable prediction made at the beginning of this passage. The fall of the Second Temple, which we know to have occurred in 70.

The fall of the Second Temple is an unmistakable prophecy, and will vindicate Jesus as a true prophet. True prophets of God bat .1000 on predictions. The language associated with that passage are signs of victory, and shame for opponents. It doesn’t indicate that Jesus was expecting to return at that point, just that he was expected to be vindicated by that prophecy. This is important for the meaning of “generation:”

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 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 will not pass away. (Mt 24:32-35)

These things are the signs that the end is near, not necessarily here. When Jesus says that this generation (his hearers; there really isn’t any other valid interpretation) won’t pass away before these things come to pass, he’s referring to all of the hoopla surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple, summarized in the seven points I listed above.

Here’s where the argument comes: (7) is the end of the age, so why are we still here? Because the age that Jesus means is the Law of Moses, and the destruction of the Temple means that it can no longer be observed in its entirety. This new age is the Church Age, the age of being saved by the grace of God through our faith, rather than strict adherence to the Law. “Heaven and earth shall pass away” are not in view when Jesus says that “this generation will not pass until these things” happen. Heaven and earth passing are different animals altogether, and in the very next verse Jesus says that he doesn’t even know when that will be.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on January 2, 2011, in Bible Thoughts, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m “all aboard” for 3 of the 5 points of Calvinism. I disagree with Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the saints. I’m more in accord with Augustus Strong on the atonement: sufficient for all, efficient for the elect. Regarding the last point also known as Eternal Security, such a doctrine ignores too many plain Bible teaching to the contrary. A simple example is Judas.

    Regarding Preterism, I was a little surprised that Reformed theologians were leaning that way, which also tends towards Replacement theology and Postmilleniallism, all of which I believe to be error that Calvinists of the past didn’t endorse, if memory serves.

    The Preterist interpretation is a “lesser of two evils” attempt to give an honest interpretation of Matthew 24. I agree that LaHaye, et al., are being dishonest, including their view that the fig tree is Israel or that the Rapture was taught in the Olivet prophecy. I believe in the Rapture but Jesus never really taught it Himself; people have “read it into” His words.

    The answer to the Matthew 24:34 problem was published years ago by Bullinger in Companion Bible (1920?). Clarence Larkin covers it well in his Dispensational Truth (1918). Their viewpoints are supported by Strong’s Greek dictionary and Young’s Literal Translation. Some websites that discuss this are: http://theantisblog.com/2009/01/16/conditional-deferment/ http://www.scriptureresearch.org/publications/Vol_4_No_04.htm http://worldofthebible.com/Bible%20Studies/Prophetic%20Postponement.pdf

    Here is Companion Bible on Matthew 24:34 http://www.companionbiblecondensed.com/NT/Matthew..pdf

    I haven’t read all of the preceding websites, but i did scan them to see their prevailing viewpoint and I think you’ll find them helpful.

    The crux of the issue in Matt. 24:34 is two Greek particles that aren’t readily translatable into English along with the Subjunctive Mood, which doesn’t translate into English well either. The conclusions that are to be drawn from this fits perfectly into the dispensationalist view of the Church Age vs. Israel.

    • I should have made it more clear that I’m not a preterist. However, I’ve written elsewhere that I’m a historicist and the most popular page on my site bar none is my explanation of the demon locusts described in Revelation 9. Historicism is a seriously under-appreciated viewpoint. That’s probably because the main proponents of it are Seventh Day Adventists, and they grew out of a small cult formed by William Miller in the mid-1800s. No one wants to be associated with a cult, after all.

      Google Steve Wohlberg for more information. He’s the loudest voice on the historicist front. Although I should point out that historicism is about the only viewpoint of Wohlberg’s that I actually endorse.

      Though I’m not a preterist, I do think that there’s something to the interpretation that the Olivet Discourse is solely about the destruction of the Second Temple in 70. I’m going to take a peek at your links, however, because my view of eschatology shifts around a little bit here and there. It’s not my primary area. I mainly wrote this article and the one about Danie’s Seventy Weeks in reply to a specific unbeliever I encountered on Yahoo! Answers. I e-mailed him regarding some errors he made in his de-conversion from Christianity, and I had to develop the eschatology in more depth than I had for an e-mail. So I shared my ideas with all.

    • One additional note: you’ve picked an odd two points to reject. If they only reject two points, most people reject unconditional election and limited atonement. The close third is eternal security. As it happens, the two that you reject are the ones I’ve spent the least time defending; all I have is this article on eternal security.

      Also, you said, “I was a little surprised that Reformed theologians were leaning that way, which also tends towards Replacement theology and Postmilleniallism, all of which I believe to be error that Calvinists of the past didn’t endorse, if memory serves.” I have two replies to that. First, I’m not a typical Calvinist and hold views that are outside of the mainstream Reformed. And second, J.P. Holding, the guy I’ve linked to on preterism, is also not a Calvinist. Holding mostly holds to his own views gleaned from a keen and close study of NT social values and the writings of the Context Group. Calvinism is incompatible with that research.

      I espouse portions of what the Context Group says, but I also lean heavily back on Calvinism, especially the variety described by the Westminster Confession of Faith–minus infant baptism.

  2. Sorry I never replied. Apparently I had to confirm a subscription, so never got the messages.The historical interpretation was the tradition of the Protestant church for many years. I think its interesting that Bible verses and esp. prophecy can have more than one fulfillment: for example, the abomination of desolation, Elijah’s return before the Day of the Lord. There are some interesting interpretations and applications to historical events of the various trumpets and bowl judgments. I take the demon locusts and the horsemen from the Abyss literally and of future events.

    Thanks for your links… it’s been a couple days since I explored them, but I found some good writers in the process. I think there is too much scripture proving unconditional election to deny that its true. People think its “not fair”, until they realize that if God didn’t choose someone to be saved, no one would receive Christ as Savior due to the “T” total depravity. I think my view is most in line with the preponderance of scripture on this topic. I’m thinking that the Westminster Confession was a standard “hyper-Calvinism” system that includes reprobation as well. I’ll have to refresh my memory.

    Let me know if you have questions about the “conditional” predictions that Jesus made about His soon coming.

  3. [Re preterism’s critics, latch on to this riveting composition I discovered on the web.]

    Pretrib Rapture Pride

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Pretrib rapture promoters like Thomas Ice give the impression they know more than the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, the greatest Greek New Testament scholars including those who produced the KJV Bible, the founders of their favorite Bible schools, and even their own mentors!
    Ice’s mentor, Dallas Sem. president John Walvoord, couldn’t find anyone holding to pretrib before 1830 – and Walvoord called John Darby and his Brethren followers “the early pretribulationists” (RQ, pp. 160-62). Ice belittles Walvoord and claims that several pre-1830 persons, including “Pseudo-Ephraem” and a “Rev. Morgan Edwards,” taught a pretrib rapture. Even though the first one viewed Antichrist’s arrival as the only “imminent” event, Ice (and Grant Jeffrey) audaciously claim he expected an “imminent” pretrib rapture! And Ice (and John Bray) have covered up Edwards’ historicism which made a pretrib rapture impossible! Google historian Dave MacPherson’s “Deceiving and Being Deceived” for documentation on these and similar historical distortions.
    The same pretrib defenders, when combing ancient books, deviously read “pretrib” into phrases like “before Armageddon,” “before the final conflagration,” and “escape all these things”!
    BTW, the KJV translators’ other writings found in London’s famed British Library (where MacPherson has researched) don’t have even a hint of pretrib rapturism. Is it possible that Ice etc. have found pretrib “proof” in the KJV that its translators never found?
    Pretrib merchandisers like Ice claim that nothing is better pretrib proof than Rev. 3:10. They also cover up “Famous Rapture Watchers” (on Google) which shows how the greatest Greek NT scholars of all time interpreted it.
    Pretrib didn’t flourish in America much before the 1909 Scofield Bible which has pretribby “explanatory notes” in its margins. Not seen in the margins was jailed forger Scofield’s criminal record throughout his life that David Lutzweiler has documented in his recent book “The Praise of Folly” which is available online.
    Biola University’s doctrinal statement says Christ’s return is “premillennial” and “before the Tribulation.” Although universities stand for “academic freedom,” Biola has added these narrow, restrictive phrases – non-essentials the founders purposely didn’t include in their original doctrinal statement when Biola was just a small Bible institute! And other Christian schools have also belittled their founders.
    Ice, BTW, has a “Ph.D” issued by a tiny Texas school that wasn’t authorized to issue degrees! Ice now says that he’s working on another “Ph.D” via the University of Wales in Britain. For light on the degrees of Ice’s scholarliness, Google “Bogus degree scandal prompts calls to wind up University of Wales,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “be careful in polemics – Peripatetic Learning,” and “Walvoord Melts Ice.” Also Google “Thomas Ice (Hired Gun)” – featured by media luminary Joe Ortiz on his Jan. 30, 2013 “End Times Passover” blog.
    Other fascinating Google articles include “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “X-raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving in Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” and “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism” – most from the author of “The Rapture Plot,” the most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history.
    Can anyone guess who the last proud pretrib rapture holdout will be?

  4. I have zero doubt as to the Pre-Trib rapture teaching being most likely true having studied it nearly 40 years. I base it on the scriptures, not upon statements or beliefs of Church fathers. Their beliefs, whether right or wrong, don’t change what is written. So, all of this historical drama matters nothing.

  5. The Real Morgan Edwards

    by George Wilson

    In 1995, in a 24-page booklet on 18th century pastor Morgan Edwards, evangelist John Bray claimed that Edwards taught a pretrib rapture in his 1788 book titled “Two Academical Exercises….”
    Those echoing Bray include Thomas Ice who wrote “Morgan Edwards: Another Pre-Darby Rapturist.” Edwards’ 1788 work can be found on the internet.
    In order to claim that Edwards held to pretrib, candidates for the I-can-find-pretrib-earlier-in-church-history-than-you-can medal – including Bray, Ice, LaHaye, Frank Marotta etc. – have intentionally covered up Edwards’ “historicism,” his belief that the tribulation had already been going on for hundreds of years. (How can anyone in the tribulation go back in time and look for a pretrib rapture?)
    Here’s proof of Edwards’ historicism and its companion “day-year” theory which can view the 1260 tribulation “days” as “years.”
    On p. 14 Edwards described the Ottoman Empire (which was then already 400 years old) as the Rev. 13:11 “beast.” On p. 20 he defined “Antichrist” as the already 1000-year-old “popery” and the “succession of persons” known as “Popes” – his other Rev. 13 “beast.” He necessarily viewed Rev. 13’s 1260-day period as 1260 literal years in order to provide enough time for his two “beasts.”
    On p. 19, while discussing “the ministry of the witnesses” of Rev. 11, he allotted “about 204 years” for their “years to perform” – years impossible to fit into a 3.5-year period!
    What about Edwards’ rapture? On pp. 21-23 he wrote about “the appearing of the son of man in the clouds, coming to raise the dead saints and change the living, and to catch them up to himself….The signs of Christ’s appearing in the clouds will be extraordinary ‘wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines,’ &. (Matth. xxiv. 6-8.)….The signs of his coming, in the heavens will be ‘the trump of God [I Thess. 4:16], vapor and smoke, which will darken the sun and moon [Matt. 24:29],’…and also cause those meteors called ‘falling stars’….
    Right after his combined rapture/advent (!), Edwards said: “And therefore, now, Antichrist…will…counterfeit the preceding wonders in heaven…causing ‘fire to come down from heaven’….And that godhead he will now assume, after killing the two witnesses….Now the great persecution of the Jews will begin…for time, times, and half a time….”
    Thomas Ice’s article on Edwards (see first par. above) quoted only the first 27 words in the above quotation, ending with “to himself.” This sort of unethical revisionism is constantly employed by many pretrib defenders.
    Not only had most of Edwards’ historicist tribulation occurred before his combined rapture/advent, but his Antichrist kept raging for 3.5 years even after the Matt. 24 signs! No wonder his tutor advised him to correct his thesis!
    To read Edwards’ complete work, Google “[PDF] Two Academical Exercises…www.breadoflifebiblestudy.com.”
    For more info on Edwards, Google “McPherson Page” (click on a reproduction of “Cover-Ups”). Also Google “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by historian Dave MacPherson.

    [Saw foregoing on the net. Much of the Bible is history because God values it. Blessings.]

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