Saturday, January 10, 2009

Interpreting Matthew 24

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.” (Matthew 24:1, ESV)

Matthew chapter 24 is an interesting chapter. Jesus says some remarkable things that different groups interpret in various ways -- I'll discuss four:
All Jesus describes in Matthew 24 has not happened yet and happen sometime in the future.
All Jesus describes in Matthew 24 happened in the past around 70 AD.
Failed Preterist
Jesus and the Gospel authors meant the words to fit within the disciples' generation, but one or more of the prophecy failed. This is popular in a growing segment of skeptical biblical scholars.
Some of what Jesus said in Matthew 24 happened in 70 AD. Some of it continues to happen. Some if it has not happened yet. Jesus returning in glory with loud trumpets has not happened yet.

Each of these views have problems. I am assuming that Matthew was written prior to 70 AD, although it does not make that much difference if passage was written later. I will concentrate on what the original audience probably thought about the passage. Looking at the disciples reaction to Jesus' words provides clues how those hearing this in the first century would think about the passage. I they would understand it in the following way:
  1. The events are going to start within the normal life span of the disciples (v. 34).
  2. The gospel will be preached to the whole world before the end happens (v. 14).
  3. Events listed as birth pangs that will signal that the end is coming, but the end is not here yet (v. 6-7). These birth pangs include:
    • False Christs.
    • Wars.
    • Famine.
    • Earthquakes.

  4. Events which will defile the temple and Jerusalem, called the abomination of desolation, will signal a great tribulation is imminent. People with Jewish heritage then would remember Antiochus Epiphanes and his desecration of the Second Temple. Those who are alert will be able to see the signs and flee (v. 15-20).
  5. The comming of Christ will be sudden and visible to all (v. 27). It will have the following properties:
    • All nations and tribes will see (v. 30).
    • It will be unmistakable, accompanied by loud trumpet, great glory (v. 31).
    • All the elect is seperated from the non-elect and gathered at this time (v. 31).
    • Accompanied by abrupt changes in the heavens (v. 29).

  6. No one knows the time of Christ's return (v. 36), and it seems this will be the case until just before Christ's return.
  7. The events seem to all take place in quick succession (v. 29).
  8. All that is described will absolutely occur (v. 35).

None of the various views (Futurist, Preterist, Failed Preterist, Eclectic) appear to fit the list of observations perfectly. People in each perspective will claim with correct analysis, their view will fit perfectly. So far, I have not seen any analysis that perfectly explains Matthew 24. I am not saying that there is no correct analysis or the correct way that Matthew 24 should be understood which would eliminate all the issues -- I'm sure there is. Perhaps its been in front of my nose all the time but in my stupidty and stubborness I do not see it. 

I'll walk through each of these and discuss these observations. I'll look at the strengths and weaknesses of each view.  I will start with the Futurist veiw, followed by the Preterist view, the Failed Preterist view, and finally the Eclictic view. The view that I refer to as Failed Preterist is not a term to be derogatory about the Preterist view. It simply refers to a people who view that Jesus predicted the end of the world within the disciples' lifetime and think that Jesus was wrong. I examine the Eclectic view last because it picks things from the Futurist view and Preterist view.

There are two types of Futurists: Historical Premillennialists and Dispensational Premillennialists. Dispensational by far is the most popular view today, although it is a a relatively young view. Historical Premillennialism had supporters for it dating almost all the way back to the "apostolic fathers". Historical does not have the concept of the rapture of the church.

Strengths -- Futurist's strengths are their concern for upholding the literal reading of the Bible. However, the futurist's blind spot is not recognizing how much they alagorize and symbolize the Bible. The strengths include:

  1. Recognizes the gospel goes to the entire world (2).
  2. Recognizes the birth pang aspects of many of the signs (3).
  3. Recognizes the terrible tribulation accompanying the abomination of desolation (4).
  4. Recognizes the coming of Christ will be visible to all (part of 5).
  5. Recognizes the events take place in quick succession, in the span of less than a decade.
  6. Commitment to these prophecies being true and will come to pass.
Weaknesses -- While futurists claim to read the Bible literally, there are many ways where the read passages outside of their plain, ordinary sense. With respect to Matthew 24, there problems are:
  1. The events happen in the distant future for the disciples, violating (1). None of that generation will be alive for these events. There has to be some creative exegesis to get around this issue.
  2. For Dispensational Premillennialists, there will be a seven year warning when Christ's second coming will occur, violating (6). When the secret rapture of Christ happens, there will be a seven year count down to when Christ will come again in visible glory. Historical Premillennialists do not have this problem, because there is no secret Rapture for them.
Preterists' greatest strengths are their serious commitment to the prophecy being fulfilled within the same generation of the disciples. Preterist try to follow the literal sense of the Bible. Of anyone, Preterists are the one who understand the nearness of escatological language in the Bible.

Strengths -- The Preterists have a number of strengths:

  1. The events were going to complete by 70 AD, well within the normal life span of the disciples (1).
  2. The recognition of birth pangs (3). Preterists recognize that there would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famine that would point to the future return of Christ, but would not mean it would happen immediately. That said, the birth pangs and relatively short, historically speaking, only lasting a few decades from when Christ made his prophetic statements.
  3. Recognizing the terrible tribulation accompanying the abomination of desolation (4).
  4. The coming of Christ is sudden -- but not visible to all (5).
  5. No one could predict when Christ return until the Roman army blockaded Jerusalem (6).
  6. The events take place in quick succession (7).
  7. The Preterist view asserts that all the Christ predicted did come true (8).
Weaknesses -- Preterism has a couple of major weaknesses:
  1. The gospel was not close to being preached to the whole world in 70 AD (2). The gospel did not reach the northen european tribes, extend throught Africa, throughout Asia, the Americas, and Australia. Preterists claim that peoples from all the known world were present at Pentecost and so that was the intent of the preaching prophecy.
  2. The coming of Christ was not visible to all in the world in 70 AD (5). R.C. Sproul and Gary DeMar claim that Christ made the appearence that was talked about in Matthew 24. However, the appearance was not accompanied by great glory for all the world to see. It was not loud (with trumpet call). Sproul talks about how Josephus writes that there were signs in the clouds around Jerusalem at the destruction of the temple. Even if Josephus' signs in the sky are to be taken as the manifestation of Christ coming in the clouds, it was not visible outside the environs of Jerusalem. The rest of the world did not take note of it that day.
Failed Preterist
The major weakness of the Failed Preterist view is their low view of scripture. Usually this view is the position of radical skeptics to the Christian faith.

Strengths -- The primary strengths of this view is that it holds that Christ and the very early Christians believed in all that Christ is said to have predicted in Matthew 24.

Weaknesses -- The major weakness of this view is that while Jesus might have gotten the destruction of the temple right, he did not get his second coming correct. Thus people holding this view believe that Jesus failed in his prophecy.

Eclecticism is almost a middle ground between Futurism and Preterism. It picks the strengths of Futurism and Preterism while trying to avoid the major weaknesses of either.

Strengths -- The strengths of this view include:

  1. This recognizes Matthew 24 predicts the destruction of the temple that happened in 70 AD. The destruction occurred well within the normal lifespan of the disciples (1).
  2. This recognizes that the gospel will be preached to the whole world before Christ returns (2).
  3. Recognizes there will be birth pangs that will signal that the end is coming (3). For the Eclectic view, the birth pangs are recognized as a long process, spanning millennia. They argue that these pangs remind us that we are to be ready at all times.
  4. Recognizes there will be a terrible tribulation accompanying the abomination of desolation (4). With the Preterist, the Eclectic view recognizes that Jesus was referring to destruction of the temple in Matthew 24.
  5. Recognizes that the coming of Christ will be sudden and visible to all (5).
  6. Recognizes that no one will know the time of Christ's return (6).
  7. Affirms that all that is described will absolutely occur (8).
Weaknesses -- The weaknesses of this view are:
  1. The biggest weakness of this view is that there is a very long interval from the start of the great tribulation to the time that Christ returns (violating 7).

As I evaluate the various perspectives, I immediately rule out Failed Preterism because I believe that all of Christ's words will happen. Secondly, I rule out Futurism because it is very obvious to me that Jesus was referring to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD in Matthew.

I am left with Preterism and Eclectism. I greatly respect both views. Between these two, I think Eclectism is the stronger position because Preterism fails to see how that the appearance of Christ in Matthew 24 is the second coming of Christ that everyone will see. Christ's appearance is described in such strong terms, in Matthew 24, and elsewhere, that I cannot see any real corresponence to the events of 70 AD to Christ's appearance as described in the passage. Further, I do not see the advance of the gospel to all the world in Preterism that is told in Matthew 24.

So I am left with Eclictisim. But what about its major weakness, the huge discontinuity between the tribulation of the destruction of the temple and the second coming of Christ? I admit this is not easily dismissed, but compared to the problems of Preterism with Matthew 24, this is not nearly as huge of a problem in my mind. Breifly, I see this as an aspect of "telescoping" in biblical prophecy, where one aspect of prophecy is fulfilled but the other is fulfilled later. Many of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah show this. The Messiah was described in some ways as a suffering messiah, but also in other ways  a victorious ruler. Christ's first coming showed more strongly the suffering nature of the prophecies. Christ's second coming will show the victorious aspects of the prophecies. Think of it as looking across a valley to a moutain range. As you survey the vista all the mountains look like one chain. However, if you drive to the range you discover what looked like one range is actually a series of mountain ranges, one after another, seperated by many miles. A similar thing is going on with the prophecy of Matthew 24. From the initial perspective of the disciples, the destruction of the temple and the end of the world looked one and the same to them. A careful examination of Jesus' words actually show these are seperate concepts. Our experience of two thousand intervening years show the expansion of this prophecy.

I analogize the positions of Futurism, Preterism, and Ecleticism with the great theological story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Once upon a time, Goldilocks on one fine morning was walking in the woods and came the House of the Three Escatological Bears. The bears were out on their morning walk and in a deep passionate discussion of the fine points of end times. They were so absorbed in their discussion that the bears forgot to shut the door and left their breakfast of porridge on the table.

Goldilocks entered the front door and smelled the porridge. She got up on the Futurist Bear's chair and sampled the bowl, "Oh my, too hot with the cares of the future and escaping from them in a Rapture."

Goldilocks then moved over to the Preterist Bear's chair and tasted the porridge. "Oh my, too cold. The porridge was put in the bowl too long in the past. No warmth."

Goldilocks then moved over to the Eclictic Bear's chair and tasted the porridge. "Oh my goodness! this is neither too hot or too cold, it tastes just right."

Now, I know many of you right now are thinking of another line were it was said you are neither hot nor cold. Just goes to show you how analogies break down.

This is my initial look at Matthew 24. It makes the most sense to me. As I have discussed this topic with others I've seen people are place different weights on the strengths and weaknesses I've listed above. There is much more analysis that needs to be done than what I spent in this brief blog entry.


  1. Use Scripture to Interpret Scripture

    Had the gospel been preached to the whole world as was indicated in the generation of Matthew 24? Matthew and the entire New Testament was written in context of the whole world as was then known. New Testament letters mention that the Gospel has gone to the whole world.

    "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world." Rom 1:8 NKJV

    "Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world."
    Rom 10:18 NKJV

    [Message] “has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth.” Col. 1:6 NKJV

    “If indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Col. 1:23 NKJV

    Earl, above is one reason I can subscribe to partial preterism--that part of history has been fulfilled in Revelation, but not all of history. We wait for the rest of Revelation to be fulfilled while we are serving our Lord who sits upon the throne on high.

  2. Of the two preterist weaknesses, the gospel to the whole world is the less pressing. That is what I argued when I was in the partial preterist camp. I put it in the similar class of issue that the eclectic has with prophetic telescoping and Matthew 24.

    What about Christ coming in great glory and loud trumpet call, gathering the elect as described in Matthew 24? That happened in 70 AD? How do you use scripture to interpret scripture on this?

  3. Earl,

    Since weakness (1) in the Preterist view has been addressed, allow me to offer some insight into the second weakness from Russell (p. 59 in the pdf):

    "The commonly received view of the structure of this discourse, which is almost taken for granted, alike by expositors and by the generality of readers, is, that our Lord, in answering the question of His disciples respecting the destruction of the temple, mixes up with that event the destruction of the world, the universal judgment, and the final consummation of all things. Imperceptibly, it is supposed, the prophecy slides from the city and temple of Jerusalem, and their impending fate in the immediate future, to another and infinitely more tremendous catastrophe in the far distant and indefinite future. So intermingled, however, are the allusions- now to Jerusalem and now to the world at large; now to Israel and now to the human race ; now to events close at hand and now to events indefinitely remote; that to distinguish and allocate the several references and topics, is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible."

    This actually addresses both weaknesses, if you think about it. Not specifically, of course, but presuppositionally.

  4. It wouldn't let me link to the pdf, so you can cut and paste:

  5. Oops, let me try again...


    Very interesting right from the great Preterist himself! So what Russell is saying is that some things described in Matthew 24 did not happen in 70 AD (such as the gathering of the elect). This is huge! Russell admits to a telescoping view in this passage. New Kid, Bill, do you agree?

  6. Earl,

    Russell is actually arguing against a telescoping interpretation of the sermon. He offers three objections to such an interpretation:

    1. "Is this the manner in which the Saviour taught His disciples, leaving them to grope their way through intricate labyrinths, irresistibly suggestive of the Ptolemaic astronomy - ’Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb’? Surely so ambiguous and obscure a revelation can hardly be called a revelation at all, and seems far more befitting a Delphic Oracle, or a Cumaean Sibyl than the teaching of Him whom the common people heard gladly."

    2. "Perhaps we shall be told, however, that it does not signify whether the disciples understood our Lord’s answer or not : it was not to them that He was speaking; it was to future ages, to generations yet unborn, who were destined, however, to find the interpretation of the prophecy as embarrassing to them as it was to the original bearers. There are no words too strong to repudiate such a suggestion. The disciples came to their Master with a plain, straightforward inquiry, and it is incredible that He would mock them with an unintelligible riddle for a reply. It is to be presumed that the Saviour meant His disciples to understand His words, and it is to be presumed that they did understand them."

    3. "The interpretation which we are considering [a telescoping view] appears to be founded upon a misapprehension of the question put to our Lord by the disciples, as well as of His answer to their question."

    He elucidates:

    "Now, let it be considered how utterly improbable it is that the disciples should have had any such scheme of the future mapped out in their minds. We know that they bad just been shocked and stunned by their Master’s prediction of the total destruction of the glorious house of God on which they had so recently been gazing with admiration. They had not yet had time to recover from their surprise, when they came to Jesus with the inquiry, ’When shall these things be ?’ etc. Is it not reasonable to suppose that one thought possessed them at that moment- the portentous calamity awaiting the magnificent structure, the glory and beauty of Israel?"

    As for the gathering of the elect, etc:

    "How can anyone pretend, it is said, that the sun has been darkened, that the moon has withdrawn her light, that the stars have fallen from heaven, that the Son of Man has been seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory? Did such phenomena occur at the destruction of Jerusalem, or can they apply to anything else than the final consummation of all things?

    To argue in this strain is to lose sight of the very nature and genius of prophecy. Symbol and metaphor belong to the grammar of prophecy, as every reader of the Old Testament prophets must know. Is it nor reasonable that the doom of Jerusalem should be depicted in language as glowing and rhetorical as the destruction of Babylon, or Bozrah, or Tyre? How then does the prophet Isaiah describe the downfall of Babylon?"

    See Isaiah 13:9-10, 13; 34:4-5 and Micah 1:3-4. Russell will go on to make the point that verses 28-31 are all set within the context of verse 34. I would further note, as an important Preterist premise, that just because a prophecy has come to pass doesn't mean there's nothing it can provide us today. In other words, that prophecy is fulfilled doesn't mean it has no contemporary use or application.

  7. Jared,

    Thanks for the further info. Perhaps the term "telescoping" is loaded with baggage, particularly Dispensational baggage. Russell does see that not all of the Olivet Discourse takes place in 70 AD. That was a big misunderstanding I had of Russell.

    In a variety of ways I can see the Preteristism of Russell and the Eclectic perspectives are not that far apart in principle.

  8. Homework: Google "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "America's Pretrib Rapture Traffickers," and "Pretrib Rapture - Hidden Facts." Marian

  9. Thanks, Marian. I did what you said. Bill, Earl and I have pretty much dismissed the left behind/dispensational/pretrib rapture business.

    There was a point for me. The homework that you gave me led me to

    I am still have my homework to study Historic Premil and to contrast it with Posttrib.

    Thanks again for reading this blog.

  10. Don't forget there is one other hermeneutic which you failed to mention: Partial Preterist. Namely, those who see part of the prophecies as fulfilled and part as unfulfilled. For example, there are those who believe the Abomination of Desolation was fulfilled when Jerusalem was pillaged and The Temple destroyed in 70 AD but believe that the references to Christs Second coming are still future. Still problematic to some degree as it requires so-called 'prophetic telescoping' inserted between the destruction of The Temple and the darkened sun and moon, stars falling etc.

    Of course, we know that such telescoping takes place with regard to Last Days events. For example, Acts 2 where Peter says "this is that" meaning that Joel's prophecy is at least partially fulfilled with the Pentecostal outpouring of God's Spirit. Then he goes on the refer to the sun turning to darkness and the moon into blood which did NOT happen on the Day of Pentecost.

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