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Volume 8, Issue 2: Eschaton

Matthew 24: Prophecy of Destruction - Part 1

Jack Van Deventer

Matthew 24 is an ominous chapter in which Jesus foretells of tribulation associated with the following events: the complete destruction of the temple, false christs and false prophets, wars, famines and earthquakes, persecution of Christians, increased lawlessness, the gospel preached to the whole world, the abomination of desolation, unprecedented tribulation, and the heavens shaken.

How are these events to be understood? And what is the timing of these events? Two main interpretive approaches are futurism (these events will be fulfilled sometime in the future) and preterism (they have been fulfilled in the past).
Futurists argue their position by pointing out that these events could not have been fulfilled in the past because (1) the gospel has not been preached to the whole world, (2) there has not been an unprecedented tribulation, and (3) the sun has not been darkened, the moon has not failed to shine, nor have the stars fallen. Futurists affirm that a very simple literal interpretation of the Bible makes these conclusions rather obvious. Moreover, they argue that wars, famines, earthquakes, and false prophets are on the rise, adding credibility to a future (and perhaps soon) fulfillment.
On the other hand, preterists defend their interpretation by pointing out that (1) Christ was speaking specifically to His disciples in reply to their questions in verse 2 (Jesus tells them "you will hear", v. 6, and "when you see," v. 15). (2) The immediate context of the passage requires a near fulfillment. With respect to the timing of these events, Jesus declared, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place" (v. 34). (3) The destruction of the great temple by multiple armies under Roman command in A.D. 70 fits Jesus' description exactly: "Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (v. 2).
Still, the preterists have a lot of explaining to do. How about the objections (above) raised by the futurists? Certainly it is impossible for the gospel to have been preached worldwide. Or is it? What do the Scriptures say? Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote "your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world" (Rom. 1:8) and that the voice of gospel preachers had gone "to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world" (Rom 10:18). To the Colossians, Paul wrote of "the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as it has also in all the world" (Col. 1:5-6). Later, Paul added that the gospel "was preached to every creature under heaven" (Col. 1:23).
The tribulation spoken of by Jesus in verse 21 is said to be beyond anything that has been or will be, so how could such a tribulation be fulfilled already?1First, the carnage surrounding the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was massive indeed. Jewish historian Josephus estimated that 1.1 million Jews were slaughtered. Second, Gentry notes that the larger and more important aspect of this tribulation was the covenantal significance of the loss of the temple: the holy judgment of God for the crucifixion of His Son by the Jews.2The covenantal implications to Israel are noted in the parable of the vineyard, where Christ warned, "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder" (Matt. 21: 43,44).
Futurists argue that the prophecy in verse 29 has not been fulfilled: "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken." Preterists respond that the sun, moon, and stars symbolize governments (Gen. 1:14-16). For a modern example, Americans have fifty stars on their flag symbolizing fifty state governments. Preterists contend that the strict literalism of futurists misleads them because they fail to understand the scriptural use of these terms in a prophetic context. For example, the fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 B.C. was prophesied in terms of the sun, moon, and stars going dark (Is. 13:9-10); the fall of Edom was prophesied in terms of the heaven wearing away and the sky rolling up like a scroll (Is. 34:4); Amos foretold of the destruction of Samaria (722 B.C.) by saying the sun would go down at noon and the earth would go dark in broad daylight (Amos 8:9); and the destruction of Egypt involved pr ophecy of darkened sun, moon, and stars.3 Jesus used the same terminology in Matthew 24, perhaps even quoting these passages.
Given the abundance of fulfilled Bible prophecies involving the sun, moon, and stars to illustrate impending judgment, preterists wonder what scriptural justification futurists have for a literal fulfillment of these events. Why should Matthew 24:29 be taken literally when all the O.T. passages using the same wording were clearly symbolic of immediate, widespread destruction?
More discussion of Matthew 24 will follow in subsequent issues. However, the main point to observe here is that, in general, the hermeneutical difference between futurists and preterists is that futurists tend to weight literalism more heavily while, relatively speaking, preterists are more inclined to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

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