[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The prediction of Christ that the temple would be destroyed with not one stone left upon another (Matt 24:2) greatly impressed the disciples. This prophecy had come on the heels of similar startling predictions. Christ had repeatedly said that He was to die. (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:18-19 ), and had otherwise implied a disastrous end of His prophetic ministry as in the parable of the householder where the son was killed (Matt 21:33-46), and in His lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23 climaxing His biting denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees. All of this augured ill for the hopes of the disciples to reign on earth with Christ in His glorious kingdom. Such a statement would naturally lead to solemn questions about their hope of Christ fulfilling His role as Messiah and King, and in general it cast somber shadows over the future of both the apostles and the Jewish nation.
Sober thoughts apparently silenced the disciples as they left the temple area, crossed the Brook Kidron and began the ascent to the Mount of Olives. When they paused and were able to look back to the west with its vista of Jerusalem and the magnificent temple, the disciples began to ask questions. According to Mark 13:3 as they sat on the Mount of Olives and rested from their journey Peter, James, John and Andrew—the quartet that formed the inner circle of the disciples—asked Christ privately what He meant by these astounding statements. Matthew 24:3 records the threefold question: (1) “When shall these things be?” referring to the prediction of the destruction of the temple; (2) “What shall be the sign of thy coming?”; (3) “What shall be the sign of the end of the age?” The gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ in their record of how Christ answered their questions. Undoubtedly the Scriptural accounts are a condensation of a much longer discussion.
In Matthew and Mark, only the second and third questions are answered because actually they refer to the same situation. The sign of His coming and the sign of the end of the age are one and the same, and refer to the second coming of Christ and the establishment of His earthly kingdom. The answer to the first question given only in Luke 21:20-24 referred to the destruction of Jerusalem occurring in A.D. 70.
The situation in A.D. 70 was in some particulars similar to that which will be fulfilled in the end of the age in that Jerusalem in both cases is under siege and in distress. The prophecies of Luke 21:20-24 are clearly fulfilled in the first century, whereas the answers to the questions in Matthew and Mark and in Luke 21:9-19 and 21:25-28 have reference to the end of the age. Here the interpreter is assisted by fulfillment in history.
In A.D. 70 Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman armies and destroyed so that not one stone was left upon another in the temple. As predicted in Luke, it was a time of great distress for the people of Israel and their only hope was to flee to the mountains. But as Luke makes clear, many were to fall by the edge of the sword and were to be led captive into all nations, and in the days following capture Jerusalem was to be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. This prophecy has characterized the entire age since A.D. 70. The times of the Gentiles will not be completed until the second coming of Christ when Israel will have its final deliverance and will get permanent possession of the city of Jerusalem.
By contrast, the accounts in Matthew and Mark and portions of Luke 21 that refer to the end time are yet future in their fulfillment and describe the signs which precede the second coming of Christ and the end of the age. It is of interest that for the first time Matthew uses the term “coming” (Gr. parousia) in reference to the coming of Christ. Undoubtedly the disciples had in mind the coming of Christ for His kingdom reign.
In answering the disciples’ questions in Matthew, Jesus first dealt with events which would precede His coming. Expositors are widely separated as to how far these signs were to extend. G. Campbell Morgan holds that the entire section up to Matthew 24:22 relates to the destruction of Jerusalem. Morgan states, “Everything predicted from verse six to verse twenty-two was fulfilled to the letter in connection with the Fall of Jerusalem within a generation.”1 In arriving at this conclusion, he agrees with Alfred Plummer who takes Matthew 24:4-14 as “Events which must precede the End,” and Matthew 24:15-28 as “Events Connected With the Destruction of Jerusalem,” going further than Morgan in making even the second coming of Christ fulfilled in A.D. 70.2
What both Morgan and Plummer fail to comprehend is that the events beginning with Matthew 24:15 clearly are identified with the “great tribulation” (Matt 24:21), which in both the Old and New Testaments is related immediately to the second coming of Christ as a future glorious event. Further, it cannot be demonstrated with any reasonable exegesis of this or other passages that the second coming of Christ was fulfilled in A.D. 70. It is simply not true that the prophecy has been fulfilled to the letter. Accordingly, as will be brought out in later discussion, the interpretation regarding Matthew 24:15-31 as being specifically the end time and related to the second coming of Christ is far preferable and permits a literal interpretation of the prophecy. Significantly, both Morgan and Plummer avoid a detailed exegesis.
Most expositors agree, however, that Matthew 24:5-14 is of different character and not necessarily signs of the end itself. A careful exegesis of this passage (Matt 24:5-14) will demonstrate that it deals with events which are not signs of the end, but only signs of progress. H. A. Ironside expresses a popular point of view that Matthew 24:4-8 are general characteristics of the entire age, and that Matthew 24:9-14 emphasize the particular signs of the end of the age.3 This is an admissible interpretation as the two sections are separated by verse 8 which distinguishes the beginning of sorrows and those which follow the beginning. However, taken as a whole, while the order of the predicted events in Matthew 24:4-14 is climactic and increases in intensity and corresponds to the end of the age, the history of the last 1900 years clearly supports the view that all of these things have in large measure characterized the entire age even though these same characteristics may be present in intensified form as the age moves on to its conclusion. The interpretation will be followed here that Matthew 24:4-14 deals with general signs, that Matthew 24:15-26 are specific signs, and that Matthew 24:27-31 deals with the future second coming of Christ as described in greater detail in Revelation 19:11-21.
False Christs. In beginning His answer to the disciples’ questions, Jesus warns them against being deceived by events which may seem to be signs of the end, but actually are only signs of progress. Christ declares in verse 4 , “Take heed that no man deceive you.” There is no area of theological study where it is more easy to be deceived than in the study of prophecy, and history has carried the examples of many who have erred in their interpretation as subsequent history has proved.
It is very easy to misunderstand prophecy. A person cannot understand prophecy unless he is taught by the Spirit of God. In other words, an intelligent, wise, scholarly person who is not taught by the Spirit of God will never understand the prophetic Word. It is possible, however, for an ordinary Christian without any scholarly preparation, but who is taught by the Spirit of God to understand at least the important things that relate to our hope in Christ.
Christ said, “Let no man deceive you,” and now He explains: “For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matt 24:5). In every century since the first there have been imposters who have claimed to be sent from God, and our twentieth century has had its share. The Devil never seems to run out of counterfeits, and so there have been counterfeit Christs and counterfeit systems of interpretation, and many cults have arisen. Many of them build upon a false interpretation of the prophetic Word of God. In this section there are nine predictions that are not specific signs of the end of the age. Almost every one of them has deceived somebody in the course of the history of the church. The first sign is false Christs.
Wars and Rumors of Wars. Second, wars are predicted as characteristic of this age. Jesus warned, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matt 24:5-7). The twentieth century has had two world wars. In both wars, some have jumped to the conclusion that the war was the final world conflict. Of course, they have all been wrong because World War I and World War II were not the final conflict. After the rapture has occurred, there will be at least two more wars before Christ comes back in power and glory. The warning is, therefore, appropriate. War is not in itself a sign of the end, but only a sign of progress. The words of Christ delivered 1900 years ago have been amazingly accurate, for the centuries since have been full of conflict and war. Almost every year of history has recorded a war somewhere in the world.
Famine. Third, Jesus speaks of famine. Our twentieth century has recorded some of the greatest famines of history, and it has been predicted that in the next decade there will be famines in certain portions of the world due to over-population which will eclipse anything that the world has ever known. Millions of people have died from starvation in our twentieth century.
Pestilence. Fourth, pestilence is predicted. In spite of all the advantages of our modern medicines which have done so much to relieve ills that have come to the human race we, nevertheless, even in the twentieth century have had great epidemics. The prospect of man-made diseases for which man does not now have any resistance is a horrible prospect if they are ever let loose in a time of war and tension in the world.
Earthquakes. Fifth, great earthquakes continue to be recorded. Some believe that the history of earthquakes is such that there is a rising incidence of them. Of course, the Scriptures reveal that present earthquakes will be climaxed by the greatest of all earthquakes just before the second coming of Christ (Rev 16:18-20). But ordinary earthquakes are signs of progress, and terrible earthquakes have occurred in the present generation.
All these, however, are only the beginning of sorrows. In other words, these are not signs of the end but only characteristics of this age. While they may grow worse as the age progresses, these events are not the sign that Christ is coming soon.
Martyrdom. Sixth, there will be many martyrs. Jesus predicted, “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another” (Matt 24:9-10). The disciples here addressed were to experience just such persecution in their lifetime. The first century had its toll of martyrs who were slaughtered by the Roman government—sometimes with terrible tortures, sometimes burned to death. All of the twelve disciples except Judas who took his own life ended their life as martyrs as also did the Apostle Paul. But this is only the beginning. The disciples are viewed as representative of both Christians and Jews who will suffer martyrdom.
In North Africa alone in the last ten years, it has been estimated that there have been 500,000 Christian martyrs. In Congo assassins systematically went from village to village and killed all the men who could read or write, for these were the men who were Christians. They were trying to stamp out any effective, intelligent resistance on the part of those who could provide leadership. Who can tell how many have perished for Christ’s sake in Russia, Red China, South America, Central America, and Mexico in our twentieth century? It is a fair statement that in the last twenty-five years there have been many more martyred for the Christian faith than in any previous similar period in the entire history of the world. Many Christians are simply not aware of how strong the anti-God movement is in the entire world and in our own country. But even this is not the end for the greatest number of martyrs will occur after the church has been raptured. In Revelation 7 a great multitude is described which no man can number, from every kindred, tongue and nation who have gone to heaven from out of the great tribulation having sealed their testimony with their own blood. Martyrdom is a characteristic of the present age, especially the end of the age.
False Prophets. Seventh, false prophets and false teaching will abound. In verse 11 Jesus predicted, “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.” In the last fifty years there has been an amazing increase in the complexity of error. A generation ago error was less complicated. The modernists on the one side denied the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, His resurrection, and His second coming. They were the liberals. On the other hand there were the fundamentalists who affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His death on the cross for our sins, His resurrection, and His bodily return. The issues were relatively clear. But anybody who is reading religious literature today knows that error is far more complex. There is every shade of the rainbow in departure from the faith. Not only is that true, but some have changed the meaning of terms speaking of biblical truth and have given them another meaning. Terms like deity, Son of God, Word of God, salvation, and conversion have been given new meanings. It is certainly true that there are many false prophets. Some who assume the role of a teacher of the truth are actually, as indicated in 2 Peter 2:1, denying the Lord that bought them and leading many to follow their pernicious ways.
Loss of Fervent Love. Eighth, the age will be characterized as one of cooling ardor for God. In verse 12 Christ stated, “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall grow cold.” The demoralizing effect of our age morally, its materialism, its social climbing, its attempt to achieve success in business press upon us as Christians. As a result, Christians sometimes love the world and the things of the world instead of having a pure devotion for Jesus Christ. These verses are being fulfilled in our day. The love of many has grown cold. Like the Ephesian church of old, there are too many who have lost that first love, that fervor for Jesus Christ which characterizes believers when they first come to know Him.
Preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom. The ninth sign is found in verse 14 : “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” It is possible to hold on the one hand that there is only one gospel, and on the other hand to believe that there is more than one gospel. Both positions may be correct. But it is agreed that there is only one gospel of salvation. Their is only one way by which a person can be saved, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who loved man, died for him on the cross, and rose again. If one does not believe that He died for man and that He rose again for him, he is not a Christian in the biblical definition of the term.
But here the gospel is called the “gospel of the kingdom.” The word gospel here is used in its basic meaning of good news, the good news about the kingdom. There is a present kingdom. The King is absent but He does reign in the hearts of those who trust Him. There is a kingdom of God in the world today in the persons of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. But the Scriptures also speak of a future kingdom which will be a kingdom on earth, a political kingdom, a kingdom where Christ will reign. This, of course, will follow His second coming.
If Christ is going to bring a kingdom to earth in His second coming, it is understandable that before He comes there will be a special heralding of the truth of the coming kingdom. This will be the good news that Christ is returning to reign, a message which will encourage those who are afflicted in the great persecution of the end of the age and give them cause to trust in Christ even though they be martyred for their faith. The gospel of salvation will relate them to the first coming of Christ as the ground of their salvation. The gospel of the kingdom will herald the truth of the future coming Christ when the saints will be delivered from their persecutors and the age of righteousness on earth will be inaugurated.
The gospel of the kingdom will be supported by the statement of Matthew 24:13, “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” This statement of Christ must be interpreted contextually as referring to the deliverance of believers in Christ at the time of the second coming of Christ. The expression “shall endure” (Gr. hupomeinas) has in it the thought of “remaining under” or “continuing” in the time of distress until the hour of deliverance at the second coming of Christ. Obviously, those who are martyred do not remain alive unto the end and yet are saved spiritually. The thought is not that deliverance comes as a reward for faithfulness, but rather that those who are true believers who endure the awful tribulation have the certain hope of deliverance at the end of the age.
The salvation that is in view here is not salvation from the guilt of sin, but deliverance from persecution and threatened martyrdom. This is brought out for instance in Romans 11:26 where it declares that “…all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” The deliverance is bodily deliverance of the persecuted at the second coming of Christ. This verse , therefore, is not appropriate in the discussion of eternal security of believers. Those who trust in Christ in the present age will be raptured before the tribulation. Many of those who come to Christ after the rapture will be martyred, as seen in Revelation 7:9-17, where the great multitude seen in heaven constitutes the martyred throng of those who perished in the great tribulation. Verse 13 , however, is a word of encouragement to those who endure the great tribulation in the time of the end, but it is not an applicable exhortation to those who are looking for the coming of the Lord for His church.
Taken as a whole, the opening section of the Olivet Discourse is best interpreted as an enumeration of general signs, evidence of progress of the age, but not clear indications that the end of the age has come. While the modern world increasingly corresponds to these predictions, the specific signs of the end of the age will follow rather than precede the rapture of the church. The fact that the present age, however, fulfills so clearly and in such an intensified way these predictions of Christ is another evidence that the rapture itself may be very near, and that the world is being prepared for the earthshaking events which will characterize the end time after the church has been taken to heaven. The specific signs of the end will be considered next beginning with Matthew 24:15.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929), p. 286.
2 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew (London, 1909), pp. 330, 332. Quotation in italics in original.
3 H. A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1948), pp. 313-18.