BY Neil Earle
“Apocalypse Now” shouted the front page of Newsweek’s double issue for March 28 - April 4. “Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Nuclear meltdowns. Revolutions. Economies on the Brink. What the #! Is Next?” the leader continued.
To mention revolutions and earthquakes in the same breath turns many Bible students back to the passage in Matthew 24 wherein Jesus details the signs of the end of the age to his disciples. Jesus had said that the majestic temple they were so impressed with would be thoroughly sacked – not one stone would be left upon another. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places,” Jesus said (Matthew 24:7).
This is part of the famous Olivet Prophecy (given on the Mount of Olives) – still viewed by many Christians as the keystone of all futuristic prophecy. It is the chapter most often taught as overall chronological blueprint of signs to look for before the Lord’s dramatic and visible return. But…this seemingly simple straightforward reading is challenged by Matthew 24:6. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”
That makes sense. Horrific as the Sendai Earthquake was there was a far worse quake in its effects that devastated 2/3 of Tokyo and 4/5 of Yokohama in 1923 and left 140,000 dead. After all this came the worst human disaster ever – World War Two which left some 50-55 million people dead. Prophecy teachers must not be hasty and give misleading impressions to people who look to the Word of God for answers when severe tragedies strike. Again, Matthew 24:8 breaks the flow of the Olivet Prophecy with the statement “all these are the beginning of birth pains.”
So true. The world sees a succession of disasters human and natural and wonders what’s happening? Yet Christians cannot rush in where the Bible will not tread. Jesus did not return even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This teaches us caution. And yet…and yet there has always been something haunting about Matthew 24, this memorable chapter, a text Gordon Fee labels “Jesus and the Future.” Matthew 24 is written in a rushing narrative pace with a mixture of historical events and authoritative pronouncements that takes your breath away. But for all that there is a careful order and deliberation behind the text that is usually omitted by fast-talking preachers of prophecy. First of all – which end is Jesus talking about? And where does he place his main concern? This chapter deserves a careful re-reading. An outline will help.
Matthew 24:3 — The Preface Question: “When shall these things be?”
Matthew 24:4-7 — Initial Signs
Matthew 24:8 — Pause and Summary Comment
Matthew 24:9-14 — Warnings/Instructions for the Church
Matthew 24:15-25 — Warnings for First Century Judaea
Matthew 24:26-28 — Further Warnings Against Deception
Matthew 24:29-31 — Heavenly Signs
Matthew 24:32 – 25:1-46 — Parables and Warnings Keyed to Judgment
This prophecy is thus more complex than first supposed and actually continues to the next chapter. There is a real concern throughout for the church as much as with current events. After verse 8, Jesus zeroed in on the fate of the early disciples. Matthew 24: 9-14. “You’ll be persecuted, killed, and betrayed, “Jesus warned. “Hang in there because this Gospel of the Kingdom will go out to the whole world. Then the end will come.”
Did these things occur? Yes. James of Zebedee was executed within a decade (Acts 12:2). Paul’s sufferings are legendary. But…did the Gospel go out to all the world in the first century? Yes. Note Romans 10:8, ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world’
But what “end” did Jesus have in mind? The next section shows us.
Matthew 24:15-25 graphically pictures the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70A.D. Jesus cites the famous Daniel prophecy of the “Abomination of Desolation,” an event Orthodox Jews know from Hanukkah. It was a historical event which threatened the extinction of the Temple system some 150 years before Jesus’ time (Daniel 11:31). This finally happened under the Romans in 70AD, as Jesus had elsewhere predicted (Luke 19:41-44). The Temple was razed and there was not one stone left upon another and Jesus was confirmed as a Prophet. Before the city’s fall dissension and deception were rife – coups and countercoups, assassinations and bizarre religious happenings.
Church historians mention the strange and eerie prophets and holy men who arose in Jerusalem before 70A.D. even to the point of strange voices and signs in the heavens such as a star shaped like a sword hovering over the city. Eusebius and the early Christian church saw all this as fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Mathew 24:15-28 (Ecclesiastical History, Chapter VII, VIII).
It was the “end” all right – the end of the Temple system and the priesthood that had rejected the Messiah. It was almost the end of Judaism, certainly the end of Jewish control of Jerusalem for almost 1900 years. By seeing Matthew 24 as a striking confirmation of Jesus as the Prophet from Nazareth coming in judgment on the Jerusalem who had rejected him, we can read this from Matthew’s perspective – the rejected Jesus was the true Messiah.
It is thus not difficult for Bible teachers to make a strong case for most of Matthew 24 to have been fulfilled in the first century with the events leading up to and including the desolation of Jerusalem. The apostle Peter even felt the heavenly signs and strange sights in the heavens were recalled by the strange astronomical events at Jesus’ death (Acts 2:17-21). He also believed that all the prophets were speaking about the days they were passing through (Acts 3:24). This clears up that important statement in Mark’s version of the Olivet Prophecy – “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mark 13:30). Now we can see why this text has been so “hard” for prophecy teachers to explain. We have to place ourselves in the first century context.
Another enigmatic text is in Matthew 24:30 about the disciples seeing the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. Surely this is a reference to our Lord’s Second Coming, isn’t it? But Jesus links this sign to an event described in Daniel 7:9-14, one like the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven to receive kingly glory from the Ancient of Days. However, as N.T. Wright has long since pointed out, this reference is not to Jesus coming back to the earth in the clouds but to him approaching his Father (the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7) to receive kingly glory and dominion (The New Testament and the People of God, pages 291-297). Jesus used the same prophetic terminology when on trial before the High Priest (Matthew 26:64). It was well-known in First Century Judaism as a prophecy or word picture of the Messiah receiving his kingdom by divine appointment. Christian writers in the earliest centuries applied Daniel 7 and Matthew 24:30 to Jesus’ dramatic ascension after his resurrection.
That is, the destruction visited upon Jerusalem for crucifying its Messiah in 70AD was viewed as the ultimate evidence that this Jesus of Nazareth who had been treated as a common criminal was indeed the Son of Man, now accepted and received into the heavens as the Ascended Lord.
There, in thumbnail form, is the briefest synopsis of the great Olivet Prophecy. It is concerned much about the fate of Jerusalem, Jesus’ role, and the church in the First Century. That generation passed away and it was fulfilled as Jesus had said. Matthew 24 is not a vehicle to scare people about foreboding events to fall on people who have already suffered enough. No. Once again it has a lot to do with showing forth Jesus as the Head of the Church, the Savior of the World and the Ascended King and High Priest. That is always the Gospel writer’s brief.
However, we should not dismiss the fact that our Lord plainly said he would return bodily, visibly and powerfully for the judgment of the nations (Matthew 19:28: 25:31-32). Let’s let Michael Green, a former assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury, sum it all up in his commentary for The Bible Speaks Today series:
“Matthew has a tremendous amount of teaching in these two chapters about the return of Christ…Why is this important? Because it is all of a piece with his emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom has come with the first coming of Jesus. It has been inaugurated, but it has not yet been consummated. Disciples are citizens of two countries. They belong both to this age and the age to come. They live at the intersection of the ages. Hence the glory and the shame of the Christian life and the Christian church…
“The kingdom inaugurated at the first coming of Jesus will be consummated by his return at the end of history. Then his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. History is not
‘A tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing’ (Shakespeare)
It is, in a real sense, his story. He made this world. He came to dwell in it. He will return at the end of history to wind it all up. That is the Christian hope. History is moving steadily towards that grand day. We shall not go out like a light. We shall not be blown sky-high in a nuclear holocaust. We shall not destroy the earth by our environmental vandalism.
“This world will not, however, go on forever. Jesus will come again, not this time to suffer but to reign…Matthew does nothing to encourage detailed millennial expectations or speculations about the rapture. He steadily fixes our eyes on the King…At the end we shall see Christ as he is…And that is something to look forward to…It is good news” (The Message of Matthew, pages 250-251).