About a month ago, I wrote a post about taking the Bible out of context and asked a couple of important questions ... Are we willing to read the Bible from the context of the New Testament writers? Or are we only willing to accept the doctrines we've been taught in our denominations or by modern-day writers and theologians? Because I have to tell you that I recently had to re-think my understanding when I decided to take another look at the eschatology of Matthew 24.
First, we need to come to an agreement on the term eschatology. The term comes from two Greek words meaning "last" (ἔσχατος) and "study" (-λογία). In short, it is the study of "end things". Webster's dictionary says eschatology means "the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind." The study of "end times" by the Christian community goes all the way back to the teachings of the Christian apologists, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165), Tertullian (c. 160–225), and Origen (c. 185–254). The Puritans in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with German scholars in the 20th century, brought us various theological belief systems regarding the Second Appearance of Christ on the earth. But I think it is safe to say that Matthew 24 has caught the attention of most Christians as the primary source for their interpretation of when the "End Times" occurs and what it will look like. But is the interpretation correct?
I, for one, accepted the prominent theory that all of this chapter in Matthew foretells the signs we should be looking for; signs that will indicate that Jesus is about to return. But I was encouraged to read it again and take from it only the context within which Jesus is speaking. When I paid close attention to the actual verbiage and the grammatical tense of His Words, I realized that there were actually two timelines that Jesus discusses.
The first happens in Matthew 24:1-14. The second timeline is from verse 15 to the end of the chapter. As I came to that understanding, I realized that much of what I had understood as the characteristics of the End Times was, if not flawed, at least only partially true. The Bible didn't support what I had been taught in Church; or what I had heard others speak; and especially what I, myself, tried to make it mean. Let me show you what I'm talking about....
At the end of Chapter 23, Jesus is berating the religious leaders in Jerusalem, calling them a brood of vipers for what they will do to prophets and wise men He sends them. He curses them with the pronouncement that all the righteous blood shed upon the earth will come upon them. He asks how they will escape being sentenced to hell, and then makes the declaration that "all these things will come upon this generation".
Now, if you are a 21st century Believer interested in eschatology and the End Times, I know you've been taught that "this generation" is a future proclamation for us. But that's not what Jesus is saying! In fact, His disciples came to Him on the Mount of Olives and ask Him, "When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
We need to stop right here and get a couple of things clear. First, note that Scripture says end of the age! Many versions of the Bible (King James, Geneva Bible, Douay-Rheims) say "What will be the sign of the end of the world." That has led to a huge misconception of what Jesus is going to talk about and to whom He is speaking! Remember, the disciples have been with Him for nearly three years. He has told them of His coming death and resurrection, and He has also told them that there are some of them standing with Him "who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). Remember ... what has been His primary message? "The Kingdom of God has arrived!" and "I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent." The Disciples may not yet understand its full implication, but they are well immersed in His Kingdom message. And they have seen the Pharisees demand signs from heaven [in Matthew 16:1] and heard Jesus tell them, "You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah". And we know that sign was given to them [in that generation] with the Lord's three days in the grave.
So, let's return to Chapter 23 where Jesus berates the Pharisees. Among the seven "Woes!" that Jesus pronounces against them, He makes it clear that they will be judged for shutting the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For they neither enter themselves nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matthew 23:13). Jesus has been preaching the Kingdom of God for three years and they still don't get it! What they don't understand is that the old religious system is ending and the Age of the Kingdom is here! And, furthermore, all these things will come upon this generation ... not our generation or some future generation -- but the generation to whom He is talking!
So, what does He actually tell the Disciples is coming? Their house will be left to them desolate ... there will not be left one stone upon another that will not be thrown down ... many will come in His name, saying, 'I am the Christ', and will lead many astray ... wars and rumors of wars ...nation will rise against nation ... kingdom against kingdom ... famines and earthquakes in various places ...
I, for one, have mistakenly interpreted that to be a dual prophecy. Here's how my thinking went: Obviously, the statement made to the Pharisees that their house would be left desolate, combined with Jesus's declaration to the Disciples that not one stone would be left upon another, refers to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the destruction of the old religious order.
But Jesus actually says in 24:8, [about those things just mentioned] ... This is how the first contractions and birth pains of the new age will begin!” He is speaking of the new age of the Kingdom that He has brought with Him! And, in fact, these were signs that did occur in that generation. I did some research and found this article that lists the revolts and rebellions that happened in the First Century, and during the lives of the Disciples. The wars and rumors of wars prophecy came true! There were 50,000 slain in Mesopotamia; 20,000 butchered in Caesarea; 10,000 in 50 AD during Passover; 50,000 killed in Alexandria in 66 AD; 20,000 died in Syria; and within one-and-a-half years, four Roman emperors were killed.
Jesus's prophecies of famines and earthquakes in that generation is supported by Scripture. Acts 11:28 tells us that a prophet named Agabus "stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)." This famine actually took place in Syria between 46 and 47 AD. Again, it happened in that generation. Of course, there is the earthquake that took place at Jesus's crucifixion, as well as the earthquake in 62 AD that destroyed the city of Pompeii, and may have been a contributing factor to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
But look what else He says will be coming in that generation... In Matthew 24:9-13, Jesus says, "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."
Well, we certainly know that the Disciples [in that generation] suffered persecution and all but John were put to death for their faith in Jesus. They did endure to the end of their lives and their salvation is assured. And most of us are familiar with the story in Acts 8:9-11 which tells us of Simon, a great magician, who astounded the people of Samaria with his astonishing displays of magic arts. I don't know for sure, but I imagine they closely resembled the acts of Jesus (healing the sick and casting out demons). The Bible tells us, "Everyone, from the least to the greatest among them, was dazzled by his sorcery, saying, 'This man is the greatest wizard of all! The divine power of God walks among us!' "
But Simon wasn't the only one. Acts 5:36-37 also tell us of a man named Theudas "who rose up claiming to be somebody", and of another man who rose up, Judas the Galilean, "who got people to follow him in a revolt". History also records the names of Simon Bar Giora and Simon Bar Kochba as self-declared Messiahs. But when we let Scripture interpret Scripture, we see that the Bible attests to Jesus's prophecies of "the things" that would come upon that generation.
As I re-read and studied the Bible, I saw what was right in front of my eyes all these years but I was too blind to see it. The English Standard Version actually tells us that Matthew 24:3-14 are Signs of the End of the Age. But all my previous understanding had come from teachings that said it was the "end of the world". And so I interpreted the signs of false prophets, wars, famines, earthquakes etc. to be something that those in the generation of Jesus's return would recognize. But that is not reading the Bible in context! Jesus clearly was talking to the Disciples and their generation!
But I do not want to end this Part 1 without mentioning the last sign Jesus gives. This sign leads us into Part 2 of my Eschatology theory. In verse 14, Jesus says, 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.
Here Jesus is still talking about the end of the religious system. But, folks, we still have the religious system with us. Our present-day religious system doesn't recognize that the Kingdom of God is on earth. It doesn't embrace healing and casting out demons as assignments for followers of Jesus. It doesn't acknowledge our power and authority to take back dominion of the earth. It elevates the Gospel of Salvation above the Gospel of the Kingdom. I want you to consider this ... Jesus's mission wasn't to get you to Heaven. It was to get you to bring Heaven down to earth! It was to establish territory for the Kingdom of God and to leave us as ambassadors representing our King.
Once the Gospel of the Kingdom is proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, then the centuries-old religious system will end and the Everlasting Age of the Kingdom will endure! In the rest of Chapter 24, Jesus begins to speak of how that will come about with the Coming of the Son of Man. So, stay tuned for the rest of the story!
Isaiah 29:13 These people honor me with their words while their hearts run far away from me! Their worship is nothing more than a charade! For they continue to insist that their man-made traditions are equal to the instructions of God.