The end of the week brings thoughts of the end of the age. At least for me it does, as I finalize a message for tomorrow on Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse.
A lot could be said about this passage, but what gets my keyboard going today is Craig Blomberg’s comments in the NAC regarding the identity of the “great distress” (NIV) in Matthew 24:21. He says,
The concept of a period of unparalleled distress (based on Dan 12:1) causes problems. If these two verses simply depict the horrors surrounding the war of A.D. 70, it is hard to see how v. 21 could be true. If they point to some end-time sacrilege, just before the Parousia, then it is hard to see how Matthew allows for a gap of at least two thousand years between vv. 20–21.*
I think he is correct that these verses cannot describe the war of A. D. 70. There’s too much history of violence to identify that event as “unequaled from the beginning until now, and never to be equaled again.” Not to mention, the Bible describes a period just before the end that is even worse than A.D. 70. It might be that A.D. 70 is a type of some sort, or a downpayment of sorts on that which is to come. But it is not likely the referent of Jesus’ words.
It is the second part of Blomberg’s argument that is more troubling. He says it is hard to see a gap of almost two thousand years between vv. 20-21.
But why? That such a gap is possible is clearly testified to in the OT where the coming of Christ is pictured as one event when in fact we know it as two events.
An example of this is Isaiah 9:6-7:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.
The period between the birth of the Son and his eternal kingdom of justice and righteousness is at least two thousand years. So if this two thousand year gap can be seen between two verses in Isaiah 9, why can it not be seen between two verses in Matthew 24?
I don’t pretend this is an easy passage. Everytime I read it, I feel as if I have more questions than answers. But that doesn’t stop me from drawing enough conclusions from the text to preach it to the Lord’s assembled people.
In the end (no pun intended), there is much that we do not know.
I tend to think that Matthew 24 describes events that are generally characteristic of “the last days” as marked by the return of Christ to heaven. This is the church age. This age culminates in a period of The Tribulation (which is not to be confused with tribulation). The Tribulation in Scripture is a defined period of time in which events such as the ones described in Matthew 24 actually increase and intensify around the world, and end with a very visible and unmistakable coming of the Lord in power and glory.
I have yet to see a convincing exegetical explanation for how it can be otherwise.
Having said that, two points follow:
First, Christ in Matthew 24 shows us that eschatology is not some insignificant add-on to Christianity and the gospel which we are to talk about only when forced to. No, Christ actually brings the subject up, and likely baits his disciples into asking for more information about it. (I could say more about this to defend it, but I won’t here, except to suggest that the disciples, upon hearing Christ’s prophecy of temple destruction, may have recalled Zechariah 14:1-2).
Too many today are treating eschatology with the old and tired “panmillennial” joke—as in, it will all pan out in the end. I think Scripture is too clear for such a trivial treatment. While I can share good Christian fellowship with brothers and sisters who disagree with me, I don’t think that makes this insignificant, if for no other reason than Christ devotes a major section of his teaching to it in Matthew.
Second, I don’t think Christ’s intent was to encourage us to read the newspaper as an appendix to Matthew 24. The events of the Middle East do not help us understand Christ’s words here.
Blomberg takes a strange shot at “the unrelenting pessimism of traditional dispensationalism” (357). I wonder what he means. I find traditional dispensationalism to be extremely optimistic. After all, we are the ones who think the world will get better when it has a righteous branch of David ruling it, and further, we do not share the overwhelming burden of trying to bring it in. Is there anything more optimistic than a great restoration that we do not have to bring about?
I personally find amillennialism to be extremely depressing. I read the OT with interest and see a world that seems amazing. And then I look around and think, “This is it”? This is what God meant? I know most amillennialists, good and faithful brothers, see those promises fulfilled in the eternal state. But I cannot reconcile the eternal state with the words of the OT. I am a premillennialist primarily because of the OT.
I could find a bit more hope in postmillennialism because at least there is the promise of a brighter day. But the hopeless burden of working towards that end is depressing.
My hope rests on the fact that God will do as he said, restoring the world and everything in it, reigning in peace and justice, punishing the wicked, and bringing prosperity once again to his people Israel and to the worshippers of the one true God.
In the end, I think we can conclude four basic things from Matthew 24.
First, don’t let wickedness and danger around you freeze your love (v. 12). That danger is not limited to the Tribulation. It is a real danger now. The tendency towards complacency in the face of danger and persecution is real in all ages.
Second, don’t let wickedness and danger around you cause you to quit (v. 13). Endurance in the face of trial is necessary for salvation. That’s a hard verse, and one that a lot of people want to minimize. We dare not. True faith is at the last persevering faith. Don’t despair. That doesn’t mean perfect faith. It simply means real faith. Faith in God and his promises ultimately and finally wins.
Third, don’t let wickedness and danger around you cause you to not preach the gospel (v. 14). The promise that the gospel will be preached in the whole world is part of our commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It happens before the end. Though many dangers, toils, and snares await those who take the gospel to others, we dare not quit before the end. Keep preaching wherever you are.
Fourth, keep watching for the return of Christ. Matthew 24 closes with a parable, and several parables continue into Matthew 25, all on the theme of watching while we wait. There is a kind of servant who beats on the slaves and eats and drinks with pleasure and ease because he doubt the master will come back now. He is surprised by the master’s return, and is punished for it. The faithful servant keeps watching and is blessed.
So brothers and sisters, though we may not be entirely clear about the precise identity of the events Jesus describes or entirely clear about the order in which they will take place, let us be as those who love with heat, who persevere in faith, who preach with boldness, and who watch with alertness for we do not know the day and the hour of his coming.
*Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992, 360.