[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
In the opening portion of Matthew 24, our Lord answered the questions which had been raised by His disciples concerning the end of the age and His own coming into His kingdom. In Matthew 24:4-14 He dealt first of all with general signs which would characterize the age as a whole. Then in Matthew 24:15-28 revelation was given of the particular signs of the great tribulation which would begin three and one-half years before His second coming. The great tribulation was to be climaxed by the second coming of Christ, the glorious event when the heavens would break forth with the glory of God and Jesus Christ would return in power and glory to the earth.
Having completed the answers to the questions, and having expounded the doctrine concerning the end of the age, Christ proceeds to illustration and application. It would seem at first glance that illustration and application would not present too many problems of interpretation, and yet in this passage, rather strangely, commentators who are quite similar in their points of view in prophecy, have differed considerably in their exposition of this last portion of Matthew 24. Some special problems of interpretation must be taken into consideration in the study of this chapter .
In brief, the problem is whether these illustrations are interpretations of the preceding prophecies or whether they are applications. In a word, do they expound the subject of the second coming or is this application to us who live in the present age? Students of the Bible agree that any passage in addition to its primary interpretation has other applications. The Old Testament, for instance, has application to our generation even though its primary revelation was to those who first received it.
This problem is illustrated in the parable of the fig tree opening the section. “Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors” (Matt 24:32-33). The most popular interpretation of this passage considers the fig tree as a type or illustration of Israel. With this in view, they point to the fact that Israel is back in the land and that this constitutes the budding of the fig tree. Therefore, the presence of Israel in the land is taken as the conclusive proof of the nearness of the Lord’s return.
William Kelly, for instance, writes, “The fig tree is the well-known symbol of Jewish nationality. We saw it, in chapter 21 , bearing nothing but leaves…. Here it is the tree, with renewed signs of life—Jewish nationality revived.”1 A. C. Gaebelein likewise writes: “The fig tree is the picture of Israel…. In Matthew xxi , we see in the withered fig tree a type of Israel’s spiritual and national death. But that withered tree is to be vitalized. The fig tree will bud again…that now we behold Israel like a budding fig tree, signs of new national life and in this sign of the times, is certainly not wrong. It tells us of the nearness of the end.”2
Other commentaries either omit any reference to this as G. Campbell Morgan and W. C. Allen, or attempt to apply it to the destruction of Jerusalem as R. V. G. Tasker.3
In interpreting the Bible one can accept the general theology reflected in conclusions even though he does not accept the interpretation which leads to it. In reading a number of commentaries that take the position that the fig tree is Israel, a rather astounding fact was demonstrated. Most of them offered no proof. They accepted their interpretation as self-evident. It may be questioned whether the Bible ever authorized the use of a fig tree as a type of Israel. In Jeremiah 24:1-8 good and bad figs are used to illustrate the captivity. The good figs are those who were carried off in captivity, and those who were left in the land at the time of the captivity were the bad figs. This is also mentioned in Jeremiah 29:17. The fig tree itself is not mentioned in this passage. In Judges 9:10-11 the fig tree is obviously not Israel. Most passages speak of literal fig trees, without typical meaning.
In the New Testament, one of the most common passages referring to a fig tree is found in Matthew 21:18-20, with the parallel account in Mark 11:12-14, and the interpretation of it in Mark 11:20-26. A careful reading of these verses, however, reveals no reference to Israel whatever. As a matter of fact, the fig tree does not represent Israel there any more than the mountain does. The cursing of the fig tree was used as an illustration of the sovereign power of God, and this power is available through prevailing prayer. The interpretation that the fig tree represents Israel even though held by many reputable scholars is not authorized in any scriptural text.
If the fig tree does not represent Israel, what does it represent? Here the context becomes the determining factor. The context in Matthew 24 does not mention the restoration of Israel. Many other Scriptures predict the restoration of Israel, but Christ was not illustrating this doctrine here. It seems instead that He was using a natural illustration. Fig trees bring out their leaves rather late in the spring, and when a fig tree begins to bring out its new leaves it is an evidence that summer is near. In other words, Christ was using an illustration from nature. He goes on to say, “So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near [that is, the coming of the Lord was near], even at the doors” (Matt 24:33). Now what are “these things”? He is referring to the prediction of the great tribulation. This, Christ says, is just as definitely a sign that Christ’s coming is near as when a fig tree puts out its leaves it is a sign that summer is near. In other words, it is an illustration from nature.
Lenski, although hampered in his interpretation by his amillennial view, is correct that “all these things” (Matt 24:33) refers to the preceding context beginning in Matthew 24:3.4 More specifically, it refers to the great tribulation which is the specific sign of the end. Students of prophecy may be encouraged to believe that the present restoration of Israel to the land in the twentieth century is a preparation for the end, but this is not what Christ is presenting in this passage. The illustration should relate to the express teaching. In the absence of any specific Scripture making the fig tree a type of Israel, it is better to interpret the fig tree as a natural illustration which is quite common in Christ’s teachings.
The following verses also have caused some problems: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:34-35). Liberal critics who do not accept the deity of Christ or the accuracy of the Word of God believe that this is an illustration of where Jesus Christ was wrong. They point out that a generation is usually considered from 30 to 100 years. This prediction, they say, was that the fulfillment would come within the span of a generation; therefore, when Christ did not come it showed that He had an ill-founded hope and was actually in error concerning the fulfillment of His Messianic mission.
Conservative amillennial scholars like Lenski relate “this generation” to unbelieving Jews, stating “this type of Jew will continue to the very Parousia… Here, therefore, is Jesus’ own answer to those who expect a final national conversion of the Jews either with or without a millennium.”5 Lenski here violates the context, as the context is not concerned with Jewish rejection but Gentile rejection at the second coming in the preceding period of the great tribulation. Strangely, the premillenarian Kelly also takes generation as referring to unbelieving Israel.6
Tasker relates the passage to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and hence takes “this generation” as referring to those alive at that time.7 However, “all these things” goes far beyond the destruction of Jerusalem as it includes the future second coming of Christ. The liberal point of view that Christ was in error as well as the interpretation of Lenski and Tasker do not fulfill the demands of the context.
Scholars who accept the Bible as the Word of God and who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior reject the idea that Jesus Christ could be wrong. This would contradict His omniscience as God. While Christ did not pronounce on every subject, and sometimes spoke from the standpoint of His humanity, nevertheless He would never teach an error. So another explanation is necessary.
Three very good and plausible explanations of what this prophecy means have been offered. First of all, according to Arndt and Gingrich, the word translated “generation” (genea) can under certain circumstances be considered equivalent to the word nation, or race. Arndt and Gingrich have as the first meaning, “…those descended fr. a common ancestor, a clan (Jos., Ant. 17,220), then race, kind… The meaning nation is advocated by some in Mt 24:34 ; Mk 13:30 ; Lk 21:32 ;…”8 Hence, some have concluded that the meaning is that Israel will continue to exist until all these things are fulfilled. A. C. Gaebelein concurs with this interpretation.9
This is a good explanation and is based on sound scholarship. Arndt and Gingrich prefer, however, another explanation, that it means “age” or a “period of time” without specifying how long. Hence, the meaning would be, “This age shall not pass…”10
There is a third explanation which is simple and appeals a great deal to some interpreters. The term generation is understood to mean just what it normally means, namely, 30 to 100 years, or a generation, a life span. But the generation referred to in the expression “this generation” is not the generation to whom Christ is speaking, but the generation to whom the signs will become evident. In effect He is saying that the generation which sees the specific signs, that is, the great tribulation, will also see the fulfillment of the second coming of Christ. On the basis of other Scriptures, teaching that this period is only three and one-half years, this prophecy becomes a very plausible explanation.
Then He concludes, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35). Here the specific statement is made by Christ that His prophecies are certain of fulfillment. Prophecies outside the Bible by false prophets have not been fulfilled, but Christ as a true prophet will have His prophecies fulfilled. Therefore, what Christ has revealed here will be certain of fulfillment.
Through verses 32-35 , the passage is dealing with what the reader can know with certainly. Note should be taken of the expression, “ye know that summer is nigh,” and “ye know that it is near, even at the doors.” This is what one can know. Beginning at verse 36 , He reveals what cannot be known on the basis of prophecy. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” This passage has caused some problem because it seems to imply that Christ Himself does not know the hour of His coming, “but my Father only.” In Mark 13:32 it definitely states that the Son does not know the day or the hour of His coming. The explanation, of course, is first of all that students of prophecy can only tell the approximate time of His coming as it is going to be about three and one-half years after the beginning of the great tribulation. Even with that information provided in the Bible it is not clear as to the day or the hour. The approximate time is given, but the Scriptures do not reveal the day or the hour.
How can we explain that Christ did not know this? There are a number of instances in the Bible when it seems that Christ speaks from His human consciousness. While this may be difficult to understand because our experience is limited to the human consciousness, Christ was both human and divine. He had a full human nature as well as a full divine nature. He was all that man is apart from sin, and He was all that God is. He was the God-man. He was the Immanuel. But how can it be explained that there are some things that Christ did not know?
The answer is that Christ did not know this in His human consciousness. For instance, in Luke 2:52 it records of Christ as a child that He increased in wisdom and stature. There is no problem with His increase in stature because He was born as a babe and grew. But how can an omniscient God increase in wisdom? Obviously, He cannot, so the reference must be in relation to His human consciousness. He increased in wisdom as a man. According to Hebrews 5:8 He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. Here again, God does not learn, but Christ in His human nature can learn. While such things puzzle theologians, the best explanation is that such references refer to His human nature and not to His divine nature. As Lenski comments, “In their essential oneness the three persons know all things, but in his state of humiliation the Second Person did not use his divine attributes save as he needed them in his mediatorial work. So his divine omniscience was used by Jesus in only this restricted way. That is why here on Mt. Olivet he does not know the date of the end. How the incarnate Son could thus restrict the use of his divine attributes is one of the mysteries of his person; the fact is beyond dispute.”11
Beginning in Matthew 24:37 an illustration why no one can know the day or the hour is given. Christ uses the illustration of Noah and the ark. “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt 24:37-42).
The emphasis here is on what we do not know. We know that the Lord is coming, and those living in that time can know that the coming of the Lord is near, but they cannot know the day or the hour.
This is illustrated in the days of Noah. According to the scriptural record, Noah was instructed to build an ark because a flood was coming. Noah shared this information with those who were about him. As they watched Noah building the ark, they knew the flood would not come that day because the ark was not finished. Gradually as the ark became more and more complete, they could sense that the possibility of a flood was coming nearer. The day came when the ark was finished. Then as they watched, they could have seen Noah put the animals into the ark. Observers could have sensed that the flood was drawing near, although they could not know the day or the hour. As they continued to watch, they would have seen Noah and his family enter the ark. Then the Scriptures state that God shut the door. Now when all this happened, the flood could begin. But even then, they could not predict the day or the hour. All they knew was that it could come any day.
This illustration is used in relation to the signs of the second coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. Some hymns speak of Jesus Christ coming to the earth today. This is accurate in reference to the rapture of the church, for which there are no warning signs. Actually Christ does not come to the earth at the rapture. Believers meet Him in the air and return to heaven (1 Thess 4:17). Christ never touches the earth at the rapture, but at His second coming, after the predicted great tribulation, according to Zechariah 14, His feet will touch the Mount of Olives from which He ascended. Then He will actually come to the earth. According to Matthew 24, Jesus Christ cannot come to the earth today because in a sense the ark is not finished. The signs have not yet taken place that must precede it, and the many prophecies that relate to the period preceding the second coming of Christ must be fulfilled first.
People who are living in that period after the church has been raptured can watch prophecy being graphically fulfilled, including the great tribulation and the final world war. They can know definitely that Christ’s second coming is near, but they still cannot know the day nor the hour. That is the point of His illustration.
The illustration of Noah and the ark also implies the necessity of being ready ahead of time. In other words, it is too late to prepare when the event takes place. The warning here was to hear and to heed the prophecies that predict the future events and to be ready for Christ when He comes.
Verses 40 and 41 have also puzzled expositors. They state, “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” Because of the similarity of this event to the rapture of the church, even though up to this point there has been no revelation of the rapture, there have been some who have taken this as proof that the rapture will take place at the time of the second coming of Christ, that is, after the tribulation. Alexander Reese who wrote probably the most learned posttribulational book, The Approaching Advent of Christ, seizes upon this as one of the proofs for a posttribulation rapture. In other words, he holds that the church will be caught up after the tribulation but not before the great tribulation.
The context of these verses makes very plain that this is not the rapture. According to Matthew 24:39, those who lived in Noah’s generation knew not until the flood came and took them all away. Now who are taken away? The point is that Noah and his family stayed on earth, and the people who were taken away were taken away in judgment. It is just the reverse at the rapture. At the rapture, the person taken is taken in grace and mercy. The person who is left is left to judgment. But at the second coming it is reversed. The person who is left is the righteous one who qualifies to enter the kingdom. The person who is taken is taken in judgment, and the illustration brings this out. Those taken away are taken away by the flood.
In Alexander Reese’s discussion of this he admits that the illustration teaches that the one taken is taken in judgment. He defends his posttribulational interpretation by referring to the fact that the different verb is used of “taken” in verse 40 than in “they took them all away” in verse 39 . He states that the Greek word paralambano translated “taken” in verse 40 is always used in the sense of “take home” and hence refers to the rapture or the removal of believers.12
The Greek verb paralambano is a common one, occurring 50 times in the New Testament. In making his interpretation, Reese neglected to check out these references. The verb has no technical or theological meaning and must be interpreted by the context. That it is always used in a friendly sense is, however, in error. In John 19:16 this same word is used in reference to Christ being taken to the cross, that is, taken in judgment. It is therefore an error to define it in Matthew 24:40-41 as Reese does. Just as Christ was taken to Calvary to be executed or judged, so these described here, like Noah’s ungodly generation, will be taken in judgment when Christ returns. Such worthy expositors as Kelly, Gaebelein, and Ironside reject Reese’s interpretation.13
Because those living in that day will not know the day or the hour, the exhortation is given in verse 42 to watch. In this whole section the emphasis is upon watching and preparedness. Readers are exhorted to watch for those events before the second coming of Christ. Christ concludes, “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Matt 24:42). They should be watching for His coming because they do not know the specific time.
An illustration of preparedness is given in verse 43 , “But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man comcth” (Matt 24:43-44). These words, of course, are addressed to those who will be living in that time. One understands that when a thief comes, he does not come on schedule. One may suspect that he will come at night, or in the early hours of the morning. In the ancient world normally thieves came at night when it was dark and recognition was less likely and when those in the household would be sleeping. But He says if the householder, the one responsible for the house, would have known exactly when the thief would have come, he would have been there to nab him. But because he does not know when he comes, he will have to be constantly on the alert. That should be the attitude of those who are waiting for the second coming of Christ.
In verse 44 and following, He puts the emphasis here not simply on watching, but on readiness. Christ told His disciples, “Therefore be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing” (Matt 24:44-46). Many expositors beginning at verse 45 have said that the exhortation changes from exhortation to those who will be on earth just before the second coming to those who are in the church who will be waiting for the rapture of the church.14 This is a very popular idea, but again no proof for change of subject is suggested.
There is practically no difference between this illustration and what has gone on before. Christ, having taught the truth of the second coming to the earth at a time when He had not even announced the rapture of the church, which was first mentioned in John 14 the night before His crucifixion, would hardly apply a truth like this to the rapture of the church at a time when the disciples knew absolutely nothing about it. Preferable is the interpretation that the subject of the second coming to the earth is continued in verse 45 in the same strain as in the previous verses. In other words, He is still illustrating and still implying the truth of Christ’s second coming to the earth.
Christ declared that a wise servant is one who is ready when his lord returns. The illustration is a very apt one because wealthy people in the ancient world often would put their household and their goods in the charge of a capable slave who would be a good business man. He would leave his household in his charge, but of course with the instructions to be ready when he returned. The wise servant who believes his lord is coming back, but knows not when he is coming, will see to it that his house is always in readiness. So He says, “Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods” (Matt 24:46-47). But then by contrast, suppose the servant argues that since he does not know when the lord is coming he does not need to be ready. Christ continues: “But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:48-51).
Punishment was often severe for slaves. A slave had no rights, and the owner of a slave could put him to death even by torture if he wanted to do so without violating Roman law. Sometimes they would do just that in order to bring fear into the hearts of others and make them faithful. So these are not just words here when it speaks in verse 51 of cutting him asunder and appointing him his portion with the hypocrites. The servant who was unfaithful and who was not ready for his lord’s return would experience the judgment of his lord when he came. Of course, that is exactly what the Bible teaches about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Those that are not ready will be punished. A righteous judgment will be applied on a world that for the most part is not looking for the Lord’s return and is not ready for His coming kingdom on earth.
In consistency, all of these illustrations should be interpreted as having a primary application to those who will be living in that time just before the second coming of Christ. They will need exhortation to be faithful, especially under the pressures of the situation in which they will find themselves.
Having interpreted this as concerning that particular time, it may be understood that there is an application to Christians who live today. There are many similarities between the expectation of the rapture of the church and the experience of the second coming of Christ. When the Lord comes for us, it also is unexpected and to some extent more so than it will be when He comes to earth to reign. The church has no dates, chronological structure, and nobody on the basis of Scripture can predict with absolute certainty the century of the rapture of the church. There may be reasons for leading us to believe that the Lord may be coming very soon, but nobody on the basis of Scripture can predict with absolute certainty the time of the rapture of the church.
God left the time of the rapture unrevealed purposely. Down through the centuries those that have been walking with God, even though they did not interpret prophecy from the premillennial viewpoint, nevertheless were characterized as looking for the coming of the Lord. The early church fathers bear witness to the fact that devoted Christians in that day were anticipating the coming of the Lord any day—morning, noon or night. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles states, for instance, “Observe all things that are commanded you by the Lord. Be watchful for your life. ‘Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning, and ye like unto men who wait for the Lord, when He will come, at even, or in the morning, or at cock-crowing, or at midnight. For what hour they think not, the Lord will come; and if they open to Him, blessed are those servants because they were found watching….’“15
John Calvin, the great reformer, likewise looked for the imminent return of Christ. In commenting on 1 John 2:18, Calvin writes, “But the Apostle not only fortifies the faithful, lest they should falter, but turns the whole to a contrary purpose; for he reminds them that the last time had already come, …In the same way it behoves us to comfort ourselves at this day, and to see by faith the near advent of Christ, …nothing more now remained but that Christ should appear for the redemption of the world.”16 Even though Calvin did not follow premillennial truth, he nevertheless did believe in the imminency of the Lord’s return.
The same is true of Martin Luther and other great Christians of the past. Martin Luther wrote, “I think the last day is not far away.”17 He also wrote, “The world runs and hastens so diligently to its end that it often occurs to me forcibly that the last day will break before we can completely turn the Holy Scriptures into German. For it is certain from the Holy Scriptures that we have no more temporal things to expect. All is done and fulfilled.”18 Again, Luther states, “…Christ’s coming is at the door, …”19 It is the normal position for people who read the Word of God with appreciation and insight to be looking for the coming of the Lord. It is principally in the last few centuries that there have been those who have said that Christ cannot come soon. The Bible tells us to be watching and looking for His return, and we are exhorted to be looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Just as those who live in that day described in Matthew cannot know the day or the hour, those living today cannot know the day or the hour. Just as they are exhorted, therefore, to be ready before He comes, so we too are exhorted to be ready before He comes. It makes a tremendous difference in the outlook of our Christian faith if we really believe that Jesus Christ could come any day. It puts an entirely different view on life, on our plans for the future, on our accumulation of wealth, on our use of time, on our faithfulness in prayer and in witnessing. If the possibility that today is our last opportunity, it gives an urgency to every conceivable duty or privileged service that Christians may have. That is why the Bible speaks of the coming of Christ for us as a purifying hope, and the statement is made in 1 John 3:3, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” That is why it is called a comforting hope in John 14, because believers have the comfort of seeing their Savior and their loved ones in Christ soon without any further separation. That is why it is a blessed or a happy hope because it is going to be the realization of our faith and creed as we have put our trust in Jesus Christ.
While this passage as far as interpretation is concerned relates to other people and other situations, because of the similarity, those living today, too, can gather by application these exhortations. Insofar as they are appropriate for our approach and our expectation of the rapture of the church, we can apply them to our daily experience and challenge ourselves to serve the Lord faithfully until He comes.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 William Kelly, Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1911), p. 451.
2 A. C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1910), II, 213-14.
3 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew, (New York, 1929), p. 286; Willoughby C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew, The International Critical Commentary (3rd ed.; Edinburgh, 1912), p. 259; R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Tyndale Bible Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 227.
4 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, 1943), p. 951.
5 Lenski, p. 953.
6 Kelly, pp. 451-52.
7 Tasker, p. 227.
8 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Cambridge, 1957), p. 153.
9 Gaebelein, pp. 214-15.
10 Arndt and Gingrich, p. 153.
11 Lenski, p. 955.
12 Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ (London, n.d.), p. 215.
13 Kelly, pp. 453-55; Gaebelein, pp. 216-17; H. A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1948), p. 325.
14 So, Kelly, pp. 456-57.
15 Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7.2.31.
16 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. and ed. by John Owen (Edinburgh, 1855), p. 189.
17 Martin Luther, Table Talk, Luther’s Works, ed. and trans. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1967), LIV, 427.
18 Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr. (ed.), A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia, 1943), p. 245 (citing Luther’s Correspondence, Vol. II, No. 869, pp. 516 f.).
19 Ibid., p. 247 (citing “On War Against the Turk,” Works of Martin Luther, V, 118).