The Last Days: What Does the Bible Teach?

On September 16, 2006 I was privileged to attend the Pacific Northwest Reformation Conference at the Lynden United Reformed Church. The theme of the conference was The Last Days: What Does the Bible Teach? Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary California and professor of church history, spoke on the topic “Jesus Our Prophet: Matthew 24”. Following is a synopsis of Dr. Godfrey’s lecture, taken from my notes.

Matthew 24 is a prophecy pronounced by our great Prophet, the Lord Jesus Christ. The setting for this prophecy is the Temple of God, as is described for us in the first three verses of the chapter:

And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Matthew 24:30,31 seems to be a clear description of Christ’s second coming:

And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

The difficulty of interpreting this passage is evident when one reads verse 34:

Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

Dr. Godfrey first defined three erroneous interpretations of Matthew 24.

Error 1 – The Futurist Option

According to proponents of the futurist option, all of Matthew 24 still is awaiting fulfillment. The futurists take verse 34, “this generation”, to mean that the Jewish race will not pass away until all these things come to pass. Proponents of this view include some Dispensationalists and Harold Camping, who teaches that the age of the church is past, and that Christians should leave the organized church.

Error 2 – The Preterist Approach

The preterist believes that the prophecies of Matthew 24 have all already been fulfilled in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. A problem for the preterists is found in verses 30 and 31 of Matthew 24, since the Son of man (Christ) has not yet come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. The preterist reading of Matthew 24 is not natural, but contrived.

Error 3 – The Double-fulfillment View

According to this view, there is a sense in which all of Matthew 24 has already been fulfilled. However, in a sense, some of Matthew 24 yet remains to be fulfilled. Proponents of this view note that the prophecy of Daniel had both present and future fulfillments. Since Daniel and other Old Testament books often present types and shadows of New Testament occurrences, a double fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies is expected. However, we have no example of a New Testament prophecy having two fulfillments.

Correct Interpretation

To properly interpret Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24, the context in which He speaks must be understood.

In Matthew 23:37,38, Christ pronounced words of woe and condemnation to the hypocritical leaders of Israel:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

For generations, one people and one land had been at the center of God’s redemptive work. Now, Christ proclaims that it’s over for Israel. Christ had just pronounced this woe against the Jews when, ironically, His disciples, overcome with Jewish pride, point out to Him the beauty of the temple (Matthew 24:1). In response to His disciples in Matthew 24:2 Christ reiterates the woe, telling them that the temple days are over:

And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

The disciples then proceed to ask Christ two questions:

1. When will the temple be destroyed? (Tell us, when shall these things be? – Mt. 24:3a)

2. What will be the sign of Christ’s second coming? (And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? – Mt. 24:3b)

In the remainder of Matthew 24, Christ speaks of these two events, answering the two questions asked by His disciples. Part of the time, Christ talks about when the temple will be destroyed. Part of the time, Christ talks about His second coming. Christ is also intent that the disciples remember what they should believe and how they should live in the present time, for He warns in Mt. 24:4: Take heed that no man deceive you.

In Matthew 24:5-14 Christ gives a list of things that shall occur before His second coming. This is the way things will be on earth until He returns. These things are not measurable or dateable:

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours 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. All these are the beginning of sorrows. 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. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.

In Matthew 24:15 Christ switches topics to tell His disciples a sign which will precede the desecration of the Temple:

When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand) . . .

This desecration did take place when the Romans offered pagan sacrifices in the holy temple.

It is very possible that the great tribulation spoken of by Christ in Mt. 24:21 refers to this time of the destruction of the temple. It is certainly true that there have been times when more people have died in times of suffering, but this time is especially noteworthy because it marks the failure of Israel. The greatest tragedy of all time is the betrayal of God’s own Son by God’s own people. With the destruction of the temple, the old economy of God’s special relationship with the Jews ended. Whenever Christ says, “all these things”, He is speaking of the destruction of the temple.

In Matthew 24:23-28, Christ’s warning to His people is, “Don’t be deceived.” “Don’t worry about missing My second coming, because it will be visible and compelling.” One thing we do know about the second coming of Christ is that no one can know the day or the hour, and it will be an hour that we don’t expect. Christ states in Mt. 24:36, But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. His exhortation to us is, “Be ready.” Matthew 24:42,44:

Watch therefore: for ye know not that hour your Lord doth come . . . Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.

Two things are important for us:

  1. Don’t be deceived by a false teacher.
  2. Be ready. Be faithful, and live a life committed to God now.

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