Reign, Return, and Rapture (Part 1): Exposing Matthew 24
Growing to Understand Hard Sayings
Matthew 24 is likely one of the hardest chapters to interpret in the Bible. Certainly the widely varied interpretations of it speak to its inherent difficulties. Having said that, I came across an astute observation from a 17th century Biblical scholar named Matthew Henry. He wrote of Matthew 24, “Christ preached this prophetical sermon in the close of his ministry, as the Apocalypse is the last book of the New Testament, and the prophetical books of the Old Testament are placed last, to intimate to us, that we must be well grounded in plain truths and duties, and those must first be well digested, before we dive into those things that are dark and difficult; many run themselves into confusion by beginning their Bible at the wrong end.”
The point is, drink some milk before reaching for the t-bone. Christ didn’t start his ministry with so challenging a word. He began with the beatitudes, a sermon most children could understand. So, having worked through the majority of what Jesus said in his recorded lifetime, it’s now our time to chew on steak (not that we haven’t already).
Three weeks ago, I began studying this chapter, knowing it would demand a greater allotment of prayer and meditation than any other week’s text. After three days of prayer, study, and meditation centered on the destruction of Jerusalem, the advent of Christ, and the final judgment, I heard a knock on the front door while helping Miranda get Judah ready for bed. It was well after dark, and we never have visitors out here in the evenings, so the timing was odd. So I looked through the window and saw a young man—a stranger—standing on the porch with a book in his hands. After opening the door, I asked him how I could help, and he said he only came to bring me a book. Odd.
Anyways, after a brief exchange, he got on his bicycle and left without much explanation. So I went in and opened the book, and guess what the title was for the first chapter? “The Destruction of Jerusalem.” I got chills. I share that story to say, God hears you when you seek after his wisdom through prayer and study. Interestingly, after reading that chapter, it didn’t really do anything for me other than confirm thoughts I had already gained through my study. The book itself was very little help, but the power was in the confirmatory response it had to my prayer. Of the 118 weeks we’ve studied Matthew, what are the odds that a total stranger would bring a book of which its contents matched up with this point in our study? God hears you. Now let’s hear him.
Christ told the disciples, “The temple will soon be destroyed, and not a stone will be left on another” (paraphrase of 24:2). Now let’s pick up in verse 3: “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 end of the age?”
There are two questions asked in unison: (1) When will these things (i.e., the destruction of the temple) be, and (2) what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?
Now I think the disciples thought these two questions were one and the same. In other words, they understood the destruction of the temple as a parallel event to Christ’s final return, the end of the age. This isn’t an accurate conception, but it’s all they could see from their vantage point. It was natural to think that way because Jesus had spoken about his return on numerous occasions; and just before this point, in 23:38-39, he said to Jerusalem, “See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
So they connected the desolation of Jerusalem with his final return, and asked, “When will [the destruction of Jerusalem] be, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”
Jesus takes to answering both of their questions—even the question they didn’t think to ask. In essence, they asked, “When will Jerusalem be destroyed, and what will be the warning signs of it, the end of the age.” And Jesus answers when Jerusalem will be destroyed, AND he answers when will be the end of the age. But he makes clear they are not the same event.
Do Not Be Led Astray
Now, due to the inherently difficult nature of Jesus’ message in Matthew 24, notice what he says before any attempt to answer their questions (v. 4): “See that no one leads you astray.” What a fitting word. He goes on (v. 5), “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” Then verse 11: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” Then verses 23-27: “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christ’s 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.”
You know what this tells me? These statements tell me that concerning the return of Christ and the end of the world, there will be much confusion and much abuse. There’s hardly two scholars who can agree on what Jesus means in Matthew 24—confusion. And there have been immeasurable false predictions concerning Christ’s advent—abuse.
Speaking of the abuse done to this chapter, there’s a whole field of Biblical research which suggests Christ already returned, and there’s no future coming to claim his own. It is formally called Realized Eschatology, though it’s known by the AD 70 Doctrine. Using this chapter, some are setting out to say, the final return of Christ already happened, and there’s no future word for Christians living in 2018. This is the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21, they say.
If that’s true—if this world is the glorious realization of a city where death has been abolished, where tears cease to be, where thieves no longer break in and steal—then I’m out. I’ll spend my days eating and drinking and partying if this is all there is (read 1 Corinthians 15:32 for Paul’s rhetoric).
The point is, be cautious when studying this chapter. Don’t jump to any conclusions. Crawl to conclusions through long hours of prayer and meditation.
Not a “Second Coming,” but a Second, Third, Fourth
Let me show you why realized eschatologists exist. There’s hardly a New Testament scholar who doesn’t think verses 15ff refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Let’s read it:
“15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 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. 22 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.”
In Luke, Jesus says, “20 But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
So, pairing these passages together, the desolation Jesus foretells is the mark of Jerusalem’s imminent demise. “When will these things be? When will Jerusalem be destroyed?” Answer: When you see Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem.
Now, here’s where we meet trouble. In verses 29-31, Jesus says, “Immediately after those days (the days of Jerusalem’s destruction) 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.”
Throughout Matthew, that word “immediately” is translated “at once” because there’s no delay. So, Jesus says he’s returning immediately after Jerusalem is destroyed. And realized eschatologists say, “See, Jesus already came.” I get that. Exegetically, I get that. But here’s where the reasoning is flawed…
Jesus told his apostles in Matthew 10:23: “23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
In other words, Jesus said, “I will return before you have opportunity to evangelize all of Israel. And yet, all of Israel was well evangelized before AD 70! In Acts 1:8, just before his ascension, Jesus told his apostles, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, you will be my witnesses throughout all of Israel and far beyond Israel. In fact, we know the apostles not only evangelized all of Israel, but they also evangelized Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Not long after Saul’s conversion, Acts 9:31 remarks, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
So, when Jesus told his disciples, “I’ll come back before you have opportunity to evangelize all of Israel,” we know that he came back before AD 70.
Then, in Matthew 16:28, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
And finally, Jesus said, “Immediately after the [destruction of Jerusalem]…they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.”
So, he’s saying, “I’ll come before you evangelize all of Israel; and I’ll come immediately after AD 70.” But then, in Matthew 24:36, he says, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Then he says in verse 44, “Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
What’s happening? There are stages of development in the return of Christ. Throughout Matthew, there have been several promises of Christ’s return, all of which mark a different stage in the overall development of the kingdom.
With the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom after his ascension into heaven, he has “come” in various ways, none of which are the final, decisive coming to call home the saints. One word from the Apostle Paul confirms this understanding: “25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).
The whole of 1 Corinthians 15 deals with the actual, literal, physical resurrection from the dead to transpire at the end of time. And Paul is saying, if death still reigns (and it does), then Christ is still reigning in his kingdom, and he has not come back in the final judgment to claim his own.
Next week we will spend more time looking at the specifics of the text in Matthew 24, but we needed to get a solid overview before diving into the details.
As an encouragement before our departure, consider this: Jesus promised to come back before his disciples could evangelize the small nation of Israel. He did so on the day of Pentecost when he gave them his Holy Spirit. Jesus promised to come to the world immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. He did so when the whole world saw the destruction of a nation living in direct hostility to Christ. His kingdom’s presence could grow in increasingly big ways after no longer having the opposition of the Pharisees and rebellious high priests. So if he came back in those instances, just as he promised, what does that say of his promise to come one final time to call us all home?
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