Sunday, February 17, 2008

Are we REALLY living in the end times? Part 3: Matthew 24

One of the most pivotal passages in the New Testament occurs in Matthew 24. In this famous passage, was Jesus really giving a preview of the end times? Or was He talking about something that was going to happen before His apostles’ generation literally passed from the earth?

To set the scene:

The Lord had just had an intense discussion with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in the temple courtyard. Previously, He had chased the money changers and defilers out of “HIS” house. Now, the Lord proclaimed woe on them and labeled them blind vipers and hypocrites.

He declared that He would send them “prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.” (Matt 23:34-36)

He then declared that “your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:38, emphasis added). It should be taken as a chilling foretelling of what He was about to say.

Peter, John and the rest followed Jesus and wanted to know what He meant. Jesus pointed to the temple, which He had just said was no longer God’s (for what else could your house mean?) and said, in effect, that the temple would be destroyed—and this time, He wasn’t talking about His own body.

What did the Lord mean? they asked. What would be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? And on the Mount of Olives, Christ explained that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed soon and anyone living there would be slaughtered; the age of Israel would end. They would know then that He was God.

Here is the passage in full:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 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. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time 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 appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.

"So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

"Immediately after the distress of those days " 'the
sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'

"At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

"Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be
at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in
charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

These verses do not refer to a 21st century end times as far as the LaHaye/Darby/Lindsey model posits. They may seem like they do, and it’s entirely understandable if you read them solely from the standpoint of dispensationalism. But if you keep it in context, not only with Matthew 23 but also the Old Testament, you can understand how the Lord is referring primarily to the terrible persecution of the Christians by Caesar Nero, leading up to the annihilation of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The last 10 or so verses, however, are post likely prophesies about the last days, and only Christ knows for certain. After all, the Bible is written to specific people yet is still for us, thousands of years later. The latter verses do seem to deal with the end of the world, not just, or even with, the end of Jerusalem and the temple system. After all, some of them seem like they would square with some of Daniel 9 and especially 2 Peter 3:10. But for the immediate moment, when Jesus’ followers asked the questions, His answers definitely applied to quickly impending events.

Hank Hanegraaff says that you absolutely cannot read/study the New Testament unless you have “the song” or “the music” of the Old Testament singing in your mind. What he means by that is that you have to read the Bible for all that it is worth, and understand it in a much richer and fuller context than, sorry to say, the shallow “Left Behind” sensationalism of the Tim LaHayes of Christiandom. (And even, I’m sorry to say, John MacArthur, who I respect tremendously but who I think is absolutely wrong about his complete interpretation of the end times. He certainly knows the Old Testament, much more than me, but his conclusions no longer make sense.)

Here’s why.

End of the age
The dispensationalists and Left Behind theologists say that this “end of the age” is the end of the so-called “church age,” which was inaugurated at Pentecost. The “end” comes with the rapture and the start of the tribulation. But that’s not what Christ is referring to. Instead, the actual end of the age is the end of the sacrificial/temple system. Christ, of course, was the ultimate sacrifice, the unblemished Lamb. But those who never believed in Christ continued the sacrificial system. The destruction of the temple was to put an end to that age of sacrifices forever.

Ends of the earth
Dispensationalists claim that only in our age of modern technological wonders can the gospel be actually preached to the “ends of the earth.” But that’s not what the Bible itself says! Acts, Peter and Paul all attest to the gospel being preached to the furthest extent of “the earth,” which then was the Roman Empire. Paul talked of going to Spain, it’s thought he even went to Roman England, other apostles went into Africa, others went into parts of Asia, and so fourth. When you understand the language of the Bible, and know when to take the Bible at its literal word, you won’t need to make such fantastical leaps as claiming that the gospel could only be preached to the “ends of the earth” in the 21st century.

Wars, earthquakes, etc.
Don't, please, think that the 20th and 21st centuries respresent the only times in human history when the earth has experienced numerous "wars and rumors of wars," nations fighting each other, earthquakes, famines, etc. etc. that the Lord mentions. They were as commonplace then as they are now. Don't also assume that false Christs arise only today. They existed before Christ even came and they existed shortly after He came. Acts describes some of the purveyors of false gospels.

So, if you think that "wars and rumors of wars," etc., and only apply to the end times, you will make a leap of logic that defies natural and written history.

Apocalyptic language
At that time, the only scripture that existed was the Old Testament (which, of course, wasn’t yet called the Old Testament). Christ, as Lord and God, naturally was master of what went into that scripture, considering that all scripture was His story, by His admission. Therefore, Jesus would be naturally intimately familiar with what His prophets wrote and said and also how they said it. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc. all used apocalyptic language when discussing or relaying the Almighty’s words of judgment. Compare what Jesus says in Matthew 23 to the entire books of Ezekiel and passages from Isaiah, Psalms, Jeremiah and other prophets. For example, see Isaiah 9:8 through 10:11, where the Lord, through Isaiah, describes his anger against the people and what will become of them. Or see Ezekiel chapter 14 for an even greater apocalyptic description.

Throughout Matthew 24, Jesus uses a mixture of hyperbole, simile and plain language to foretell the terrible things to come and what was undoubtedly the dawning realization of survivors that Jesus was indeed correct.

Often, the Lord proclaims that a judgment will happen of the likes never seen before and never to bee seen again. Of course, the Lord is no liar nor is He inconsistent. He is using language to convey the deadly seriousness of the judgment.

And surely no judgment upon humanity could possibly have been greater than the Flood, when all of humankind and all land animals were wiped out except those on the ark—and no fanciful writing from Lindsey or LaHaye could possibly make their great tribulations any worse than that!

Clouds appear throughout the Old Testament in relation to divine judgment. For example, when the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy against Egypt, He says to say, “For the day is near, the day of the Lord is near—a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations.” (30:3)

When Jesus used that imagery, His apostles immediately knew what He was talking about. People like Tim LaHaye obviously don’t, and neither do people like Mr. Ehrman, who are quick to proclaim Jesus a false prophet because He didn’t return in 70 AD on the clouds—but that’s because He never said He would! Jesus was employing a familiar image, but it is a mistake to think that in A.D. 70 He was actually going to be descending to earth. He is actually ascending to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. It’s an analogy, not an actual image that people were to have seen.

Now, will He descend to earth on clouds in glory at the end of the ages, if the passage is also doubly prophetic in nature? Well, we could see in our lifetime. It's definitely possible.

“This generation”
Jesus was speaking literally when He said that “this generation will certainly not pass away.” Why in the world would He be talking about Jews born in 1948, more than 19 centuries later? It makes absolutely no sense! As Hank Hanegraaff illustrates beautifully in the Apocalypse Code, you have to engage in serious grammatical acrobatics to believe that a president of the United States doesn’t know the meaning of the words “is,” “alone” and “sex.” Likewise, you need to seriously twist things around if you think the Lord of all creation doesn’t know how to use the Aramaic versions of the words “this generation,” “soon” and “you” (more on the latter two in a later post). When He said “this” generation, He meant the people alive at that time with Peter, James and John.

Remember, they were asking Jesus to tell them when these things would occur—“these things” meaning the end of the temple in Matthew 23. And He told them, in language and terms they easily recognized. If He meant to say “you won’t live to see it” and “it will happen for the generation alive in 1848 or 1967,” He would have used a term such as “70 times 7” or a similar phrase to denote a great distance of time.

Another example: When Jesus transfigured before Peter, James and John, He had previously told them that “some who are standing here will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1; Matt 16:28 says “…until they see the Son of Man come into His kingdom.) There are two ways to take this passage. The first is that what the three saw in the transfiguration was the glimpse of the kingdom. But another way too look at this is to tie it to Matt 24, where Jesus talks of the “sign” of the Son of Man and etc. Peter might have already been executed by Romans by the time Jerusalem was destroyed, but James and John were still probably alive. (I’m not making a hard argument concerning the Transfiguration, just an intriguing guestimation.)

The “abomination of desolation”
Actually, there were two such events. Daniel prophesied one, which took place in 168 B.C. when the Syrian King Antiochus desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus refers to what Titus will do in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem falls and the final temple is desecrated. I have a hard time accepting that this refers to a far future event, because I have a hard time believing that there will be another temple built in the far future (that discussion is to come in a later installment).

The annihilation of Jerusalem in 70 AD was one of the most terrible events in all antiquity. Josephus gives a chilling account, no less horrible than what the Lord said would happen. The Romans destroyed the city and killed more than a million people at the end of 3½ years of a great tribulation inaugurated by Caesar Nero—the real beast of Revelation. More on that next time.

It’s easy to see why people would take this entire passage as a foretelling of the end of the world, and it may very well be—but it is primarily, if not solely, a prophesy about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age of the temple/sacrifice system. If you are thoroughly versed in Old Testament language and prophesy, you’ll recognize that the Lord’s pronounced judgment was not unique, but “typical” of all of His past (and fulfilled) judgments.

In the next part, I’ll examine the identities of “the Beast” and “the Antichrist.”

Supporting links/books
(I’ll repeat these in every post):

I have read all of these books:

Gary DeMar, End Times Fiction and Last Days Madness

Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?

Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth