The Times of the Gentiles
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
Recent events in the Middle East have focused attention on the political and prophetic significance of Israel’s possession of their ancient capital of Jerusalem. For the first time since A.D. 70, Israel is in complete possession of the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding territory. Under these circumstances, it is only natural that attention should be focused upon the prophecy recorded in Luke 21:24, “And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” Does the present occupation of Jerusalem signify, in keeping with this prophecy, that the times of the Gentiles have come to an end? A superficial study of this passage would seem to indicate that this is the case, and that now Israel is moving into a new phase of its long history. Careful students, acquainted with the history of the interpretation of this verse , however, sense the danger of reaching too hasty a conclusion. As a matter of fact, there are a number of important considerations which affect the interpretation of this passage.
The Question of Definition of Terms
Expositors, pondering the meaning of Luke 21:24, soon become aware of the fact that this term, “the times of the Gentiles,” is found only here in the Bible. The problem of definition of terms, therefore, becomes an acute one, inasmuch as in this passage we have only the description that Jerusalem “shall be trodden down by the Gentiles” as indicating the character of this period. Under these circumstances, a variety of definitions may be expected depending upon the theological presuppositions of the interpreter. the Gentiles. Normally, this is not related to inheritance of spiritual blessings, although premillenarians recognize that during the period of the times of the Gentiles there may be special blessings allotted to Gentile believers. Alford considers the times of the Gentiles as “the end of the Gentile dispensation.”5 Alford finds that the plural of times corresponds to the plural of Gentiles,6 and ridicules Meyer’s view that the time indicated is the period in which the Gentiles shall have completed their experience of wrath.
Under premillennial interpretation, the physical possession of Jerusalem becomes of central importance. The fact that Israel was dispossessed of their ancient city in A.D. 70, and has today repossessed the city, therefore, becomes a matter of physical and prophetic significance.
Relation to “The Fullness of the Gentiles”
In attempting to define the expression “the times of the Gentiles,” it becomes exegetically important to determine what relation, if any, there is between this term and that found in Romans 11:25 where it is stated: “Blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.” The tendency on the part of many postmillennial and amillennial writers is to equate this with the times of the Gentiles, making them both refer to the same period of time.
The determination of the meaning of the phrase “the fullness of the Gentiles” is, in itself, an exegetical problem of no small moment. There are just as many divergent views of this term as there is of the expression “the times of the Gentiles.” Because of their interrelationship, however, it is impossible to clarify one without defining the other.
The eleventh chapter of Romans deals with the subject of Israel’s future. The chapter is introduced with the question, “Hath God cast away his people?” The point of view is taken that Israel, for the moment, has been set aside and that Gentiles are in the place of primary blessing. The theme of the chapter , however, is that the time will come when Gentile blessing will cease and Israel again will be blessed of God. The argument is summarized in Romans 11:12: “Now if the fall of them [Israel] be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fullness?” In other words, the present “fullness” of the Gentiles is contrasted with the future “fullness” of Israel.
It is with this background that we come to Romans 11:25, where it is stated, “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own, conceits: that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.” It is clear from the passage that the contrast is between the culmination of present state of the Gentiles and the future state of Israel.
The word fullness (Gr. pleroma) is given a variety of meanings by expositors. Some envision a great revival among the Gentiles at the close of the age, as does Charles Hodge in keeping with his postmillennial point of view.7 Hodge states, “It is not Paul’s doctrine that all Gentiles who ever lived are to be introduced into the kingdom of Christ. Nor does it mean that all the Gentiles who may be alive when the Jews are converted shall be true Christians. All that can be safely inferred from this language is, that the Gentiles, as a body, the mass of the Gentile world, will be converted before the restoration of the Jews, as a nation.”8 A number of other expositors take it as referring to the large number of Gentiles who are saved with the emphasis on quantity rather than time.
The time element, however, is clearly indicated by the word “until.” This definitely introduces a time factor, contrasting the present situation to that which will follow when the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.
When the two concepts, “the times of the Gentiles” and “the fullness of the Gentiles” are compared, it becomes evident that the times of the Gentiles is primarily a political term and has to do with the political overlordship of Jerusalem. By contrast, the term “the fullness of the Gentiles” refers to the present age in which Gentiles predominate in the church and far exceed Israel in present spiritual blessing. It becomes clear, therefore, that, while the two concepts may be contemporaneous at least for much of their fulfillment, the termini of the two periods are somewhat different. The times of the Gentiles will end only when Israel will permanently gain political control of Jerusalem at the second advent of Christ, whereas the fullness of the Gentiles will be completed when God’s present task of winning Jew and Gentile to Christ is completed.
The final decision presupposes a system of theology, and the interpretation necessarily depends upon it. Accordingly, amillenarians and postmillenarians usually make the two periods end at the same time, namely, at the second coming of Christ. Premillenarians, who distinguish the rapture occurring before the time of tribulation from the second coming of Christ to the earth which follows the tribulation, bring the period of the fullness of the Gentiles to a close at the rapture of the church. Obviously, because the passages in themselves are not completely definitive, any expositor necessarily has to refer by way of reference to his larger scheme of prophecy and its fulfillment and interpret the passages accordingly. However, in the nature of the fact that the close of the interadvent period will bring terrible judgment upon the Gentile world, it is reasonable to assume that the period of Gentile blessing will end before the period of Gentile judgment comes. In any event, it is safe to say that the two terms do not mean precisely the same thing and do not have the same characteristics, and it is better, therefore, to interpret the two terms in the light of their context.
Termini of the Times of the Gentiles
As already indicated, the time period involved in the times of the Gentiles varies greatly with many expositors. Generally speaking, most expositors bring the times of the Gentiles to a close with the second coming of Christ, and the variety of opinions concentrate more upon the time of its beginning. Because the expression is cast in the context of a future time when Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and destroyed, a prophecy fulfilled in A.D. 70, many have concluded that the times of the Gentiles will begin at that time, as does Lenski.9
A close examination of the passage in Luke 21, however, does not indicate that the times of the Gentiles began with the destruction of Jerusalem. The passage deals only with the time of conclusion of the times of the Gentiles, not its beginning. For this reason, a sound judgment in the matter must be based upon the total teaching of the Bible concerning the relationship between Gentiles and the people of Israel.
Here, many expositors find the answer in the prophecies of the book of Daniel which trace the course of Gentile power from Nebuchadnezzar, 600 B.C., to the coming of the Son of Man from heaven which, according to the premillennial interpretation, is fulfilled by the second coming of Jesus Christ to the earth to reign. Both from the prophecies of Daniel and the New Testament, however, it is clear that Gentile dominion does not end until the second coming of of Jesus Christ to the earth. The tensions between Israel and the Gentile world cannot be finally resolved until Jesus Christ Himself returns to reign. This, accordingly, casts its light upon the interpretation of Luke 21:24.
With this as a background, the question now can fairly be faced. Is the present occupation of Jerusalem by Israel the terminus ad quem indicated in Luke 21:24? Has, as a matter of fact, the predicted sway of Gentiles over Israel ceased?
A careful survey of the Scriptures indicates that the present occupation of Jerusalem must necessarily be temporary. Gentiles are still in a dominant position in world politics and the fullness of the Gentiles has not yet been brought in. The rapture of the church has not taken place.
According to the premillennial interpretation of the end of the age, there is a period still ahead, anticipated in Daniel 9:27, in which a future ruler in the Mediterranean area will make a covenant with the people of Israel for seven years. If this futuristic interpretation is correct, Israel, in the nature of this covenant, will still be under Gentile supervision in the broad sense of the term. As commonly interpreted, the period of peace introduced by the covenant will terminate after it has run half its course and the period of great tribulation will follow. According to the predictions of Christ Himself, Israel will then be forced to flee to the mountains (Matt 24:16) and Jerusalem will again come under the tramp of Gentile feet. It is also clear from Zechariah 14 that Jerusalem will become the bone of contention and the source of a great battle just before the second coming of Christ.
In view of these prophecies, it can hardly be said that Jerusalem, today, is delivered forever from the overlordship of Gentile political power. The fact is that the entire Holy Land will be overrun by the Gentile forces in the final great world conflict. Under these circumstances, it may be concluded that it is hasty to assume that the times of the Gentiles have been completed. If the term itself refers to the entire period of Gentile overlordship over Israel, it can hardly be construed as being completed in contemporary events.
The study of the Scriptures, however, does support the idea that the present reoccupation of Jerusalem by Israel is a matter of tremendous Biblical and prophetic importance. This is not that the times of political overlordship are ended, but it does provide the necessary interlude of Jewish possession to make possible the situation described at the end of the age where Israel, for a time at least, is at peace under covenant relationship with her Gentile neighbors and able to have a temple in which sacrifices once again are offered as indicated in Daniel 9:27. The presence of the Jews in Jerusalem, their ancient city, may be the last preparatory step prior to the important sequence of events that lead to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Christians who believe that the rapture of the church will occur before these events find their ultimate fulfillment have additional reason to hope that the coming of the Lord is indeed near.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
5 Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, I, 637.
7 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 588.
9 Lenski, p. 1021.