Saturday, May 14, 2011
Does Matthew 24 Teach a Future Tribulation?
"Jesus left the temple and was going away, when His disciples came to point out to Him the buildings of the temple. But He answered them, 'You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.' As He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?' And Jesus answered them, 'See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in My name, saying, "I am the Christ," and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.'"
- Matthew 24:1-8
Bits and pieces of this passage have been brought into modern parlance, primarily through the work of popular apocalyptic preachers, such as Hal Lindsay. Every time some foreign conflict is mentioned on the news, someone starts spouting about "wars and rumors of wars," and every earthquake is touted as proof of the coming rapture. However, there is very little critical thinking in these usages. Are they actually justified by the text?
My answer is no, they are not justified. Not only do I deny that Matthew 24 teaches a future tribulation, but I even insist that it is about events that happened long ago, indeed, soon after Jesus spoke these words. I suggest that the apocalyptic interpretation is not only not required by the text, but is actually forbidden by it. I can hear all the voices out there, bellowing, "What, are you CRAZY?!?!?!"
First, go a little further down the passage to verse 16, "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." Who is Jesus addressing with these warnings? Not people all over the world, but rather specifically in Judea! That is, He isn't warning of wars in general, but specifically in Judea (the area around modern Jerusalem). Nor is He warning of earthquakes in general, but rather specifically in that same area. This is reinforced by the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." There, Luke paraphrases "abomination of desolation" as "Jerusalem surrounded by armies," a situation that doesn't occur in the many conflicts in our modern era. Thus, the geographical references within the passage forbid its use as is popular in our time.
Second, the time references given by the Lord forbid a futuristic interpretation. Note His very words in verse 34, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." He explicitly states that the events He is describing will occur within the general lifetimes of His audience. Some dispensationalists have tried to get around this verse by referring it to some future generation, in spite of His use of "this generation." However, their interpretations are excluded not only by the "this," though that would be sufficient, but also by other usages in its context. Just before, in Matthew 23:36, Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, tells them, "Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation." He is referring to their judgment. Remember that our chapter and verse divisions are relatively modern, dating from the 1500's; they were not part of the inspired text. Matthew 23 and 24 are a continuous narrative, with no break in time between the "generation" of 23:36 and the "generation" of 24:34. Jesus is telling the hypocritical leaders of the Jewish nation that the hardness of their hearts will soon bring His retribution. When? In the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD, including the demolition of the temple (24:2, "not one stone left upon another") and the ending of the priestly and sacrificial system. Jesus came again, not in the salvific Second Coming that we yet look forward to, but in awful judgment on those who rejected and murdered Him. Matthew 24, describes a horrible tribulation, it is true, but for them, not for today's Christians.