Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the AgeChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age John F Walvoord Sat, 05/24/2008 - 04:03
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part IChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part I John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The Twentieth Century
The twentieth century has been a very remarkable period for the study of the prophetic Word. The first quarter of the century included World War I and the rise of communism with its atheistic philosophy that fits so naturally into end-time events. The second quarter of the twentieth century has as its major event World War II, out of which came some most significant developments. First of all, immediately after World War II the United Nations was formed in 1946, indicating the trend toward a world government. Also, in 1948 the World Council of Churches was organized, a forerunner of the world religion in the end of the age of which the Bible speaks. The state of Israel was also created in that same year by the United Nations, marking the beginning of their regathering and their possession of a portion of their ancient land. Careful students of prophecy become immediately aware that these major events have set the stage for what the Bible calls the end of the age.
The third quarter of the twentieth century has featured the awakening of Asia as a political, international, and military force. The increasing tensions of our day have focused the attention of the whole world upon the Middle East, and the struggle between Israel and the Arab world. In the area of religion. there have been rapid developments with the “God is Dead” doctrine, and increasing moral apostasy. The breakdown of moral standards in our day in society and the conflict between classes, races and nations have made our day a time of crisis. On every hand an increasing tension is evident that seems to point to a coming climax which may not be too far away. In such a climax, of course, careful students of the prophetic Word place first the precious truth of the rapture of the church, an event scheduled by many to occur before the world comes to the dramatic conclusion predicted in prophecy.
The General Content of Matthew 24-25
In the Scriptures, the words of Christ to His disciples on the Mount of Olives delivered not long before He died have dramatic contemporary significance. In this discourse, Christ answered their questions concerning the signs of the end of the age and of His second coming. This revelation becomes increasingly vital to understanding the meaning of events that are occurring today. Matthew 24 and 25 present Christ’s discourse on the end of the age, His predictions of the events which lead up to and climax in His second coming to the earth. In addition, Matthew 25:31-46 reveal the events which immediately follow His second advent. A study of these prophecies will help one to understand the headlines of our newspapers today, and major events and trends of our twentieth century.
The Context of Matthew 24-25
The context of the Olivet Discourse has an amazing similarity to contemporary problems. As Christ dealt with spiritual, theological, and moral apostasy in His day in Matthew 23, He delivered the most scathing denunciation of false religion and hypocrisy to be found anywhere. He calls the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites no less than seven times (Matt 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He calls them blind five times (Matt 23:16, 17, 19, 24, 26), labels them fools twice (Matt 23:17, 19), describes them as whited sepulchers (Matt 23:27), serpents or snakes, the children of poisonous vipers (Matt 23:33), and declares that they are in danger of going to hell. It would be difficult to find words more biting than these words of Christ used to characterize the religion of His day. One wonders what Christ would say about religion today—the radical unbelief of contemporary scholars; the hypocrisy, materialism, and superficiality that characterizes modern Christianity. (Matt 24:2b). When stones as large as were used in the temple are dislodged, it is not through the force of nature. It had to be by human effort. They have to be deliberately torn down, and the disciples were fully aware of this.
The great pyramid of Egypt, for instance, located seven miles southwest of Cairo, has stood for 5, 000 years. It was 1, 000 years old when Abraham saw it. It was 1, 500 years old when Moses saw it, and possibly Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child witnessed the great pyramid when it was already 3, 000 years old. Composed of blocks of stone weighing two or three tons each, many of them much smaller than the huge stones used in the temple, the great pyramid is still a monument to the ingenuity of those who planned and built it and will endure indefinitely. Likewise, unless disturbed by deliberate destruction, the stones of the temple would still be in place in Jerusalem.
But Christ said not one stone would be left upon another. In Jerusalem today, the wailing wall is claimed as a wall of the ancient temple. It is probable that it was a part of one of the outer buildings and not the main structure. The destruction that Christ is talking about here actually took place in A.D. 70, only six years after the temple was completed. At that time the Roman soldiers surrounded the city of Jerusalem when it was crowded with pilgrims. Because of the previous rebellion of the Jewish nation against their authority, they burned the city, destroyed the temple, and literally wrecked it just as Christ indicated, leaving Jerusalem in desolation for more than 150 years.
When Christ predicted the destruction of the temple, the disciples at once recognized that this was important. When Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed in 586 B.C., the events which followed included the captivity—a time of great trouble for the children of Israel. The temple’s destruction as predicted here must also involve great events. How did this relate to the promise of the kingdom? This was a natural question for the disciples, and a question that remains today.
Principles of Interpretation
In the interpretation of the prophecy such as Christ gave to His disciples on the Mount of Olives, the basic principles of understanding prophecy need to be used carefully by any conservative interpreter. One of the things learned in the study of prophecy is that prophecy must be interpreted on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in history. When God predicts future events, they always come to pass exactly as He prophesied. This leads to a second principle in understanding prophecy—that close attention must be paid to what is actually said as the details are very important. Third, the study of prophecy in any area necessarily has to be subject to the context of the entire revelation of the Word of God. No portion of the Bible contradicts any other portion, and prophecy must be interpreted in the background of the total revelation of the Word of God.
Any expositor who approaches a prophetic portion like the Olivet Discourse has various options based upon his own interpretation of other Scripture. Generally speaking, amillenarians, while accepting prophecies of a tribulation as preceding the second advent, tend to generalize rather than to accept particulars of prophecies such as the Olivet Discourse, believing as they do that the second advent is followed immediately by the eternal state. Postmillenarians are forced to generalize even more than amillenarians because of their concept of gradual improvement and Christianizing of the world to the preaching of the gospel, a concept which is expressly contradicted by the trends indicated in the Olivet Discourse of increasing evil climaxed by judgment of Christ at the second coming. Liberals, of course, who deny the validity of prophecy, often take refuge in making the Olivet Discourse a summary of current apocalyptic concepts inserted by the writer as if taught by Christ but actually not a part of His teaching ministry. M’Neile, for instance, states, “Some predictions of Jesus concerning the nearness of the End probably formed the basis upon which a Jewish-Christian writer compiled a series of sayings, many of them couched in the conventional language of Jewish eschatology. This theory of a Small Apocalypse is widely accepted, in various forms by modern writings.” He cites Moffatt, B. Weiss, J. Weiss, Zahn, and others. He adds, “The compiler of it gave some doubtless genuine sayings of Jesus, and also some that reflect a later date when Christians had begun to realize that some delay must be expected before the Parousia.”1
Premillenarians, generally speaking, take the Olivet Discourse as genuine prophecy, an accurate summary of Christ’s interpretation of end-time events given to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Only the premillennial interpretation allows for a literal interpretation of these prophecies as factual predictions of future trends and events.
Relation to the Rapture
Further, it is important for the expositor to determine whether he believes the rapture of the church will occur before the final tribulation or afterward as a phase of the second coming of Christ to the earth. Writers who are posttribulational in their interpretation, even though premillennial, tend to gloss over the details of this prophecy. Even such a careful expositor as G. Campbell Morgan in his exposition of the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, skips entirely Matthew 24:15-22, which in many respects is the most specific sign of the coming of Christ and a major feature of the Olivet Discourse.2 If on the basis of other Scriptures, the pretribulation view of the rapture is supported, the prophecies of Christ in Matthew can be related to other Scriptures in the broad sequence of events bringing the age to a close.
Accordingly, it is important to bear in mind in the study of Matthew 24—25 that the rapture is not mentioned in these chapters, and actually comes before the specific end-time events. The rapture was revealed later in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15, which predict that Christ will come for His church. When He does, Christians who have died will be resurrected and Christians who are living will be translated. Their bodies will be suddenly changed, they will meet the Lord in the air and proceed to heaven. The departure of the church from the earth will obviously cause quite a stir, though the Bible never seems to refer to it directly. Many Christians are in prominent places, and their sudden, mysterious disappearance will, no doubt, cause a lot of questioning. The main effect of the rapture on the world as a whole is that things will begin to happen very fast.
Order of End-Time Events
According to the premillennial interpretation of the prophetic Word, a confederacy of ten nations in the Middle East will be banded together in a political unit (Dan 7:24; Rev 13:1). A man will emerge who becomes their dictator conquering three of these nations, and then eventually the other countries capitulate. He becomes a strong man in the Middle East. While the Bible does not reveal how long this will take, it may occupy only a few months or at the most a year or two for these events to take place. Once the dictator assumes power, he will attempt to solve the problems of Israel in relation to the other nations in the Middle East. He will make a covenant with Israel, apparently guaranteeing their borders and promising protection from attack. This is indicated in Daniel 9:27 as a covenant of seven years made by “the prince that shall come” who is related in verse 26 to the Roman people. In effect, there will be a revival of the ancient Roman empire.
This covenant will be observed for about three-and-a-half years, and somewhere in that first period of three-and-a-balf years another war will break out when Russia attacks Israel (Ezek 38—39 ). The effect is devastating on Russia because her armies are wiped out, apparently by an act of God (Ezek 38:22-23; 39:3-4 ), but the ensuing disruption and the unbalance in the international situation makes it possible for this dictator in the Middle East to proclaim himself a world ruler. The prophecy of Revelation 13:7 is fulfilled, and he rules over every kindred, tongue and nation, a clear reference to a world government.
When this ruler takes power, he takes over everything—the economic wealth of the world (Rev 13:16-17), the political power of the world (Rev 13:7), and he also claims to be God. In the process, he demands that everybody worship him as God (Rev 13:8). He breaks his covenant with Israel and becomes their persecutor (Dan 9:27). As a result of this blasphemy against God, God begins to pour out terrible judgments upon him. Great catastrophies overtake the world, pictured in detail in the book of Revelation 6—19 , climaxing in a great world war as large sections of the world, under the impact of these judgments of God, apparently rebel against his leadership and descend upon the Middle East to fight it out (Dan 11:40-45; Rev 16:12-16).
At the height of this conflict, Jesus Christ comes back in power and glory to reign (Rev 19:11-16), and to set up His kingdom for a thousand years in the earth (Rev 20:4-6). After the thousand years, of course, a new heaven and a new earth are created, and eternity begins (Rev 21—22 ),
According to this brief outline, the rapture occurs first, followed by a brief period of preparation while the stage is set for later events. Then a period of protection for Israel is enjoyed for threeand-a-half years after the covenant is signed with them. The final period of three-and-a-half years of persecution precedes the second coming of Christ, which issues into the thousand-year reign preceding the eternal state.
In Matthew 24—25 the expositor should, therefore, understand that the program of God for the end of the age has in view the period ending with the second coming of Christ to the earth and the establishment of His earthly Kingdom, not the church age specifically ending with the rapture. Both the questions of the disciples and the answers of Christ are, therefore, keyed to the Jewish expectation based on Old Testament prophecy, and the program of God for the earth in general rather than the church as the body of Christ.
The subsequent study of the questions of the disciples and the answers which Christ gave are important additions to other prophecies and are Christ’s own instruction and interpretation of events that will mark the end of the age and the second coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. These will be considered in the discussions to follow.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, 1915), p. 343.
2 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929).
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part II:Prophecies Fulfilled in the Present AgeChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part II:Prophecies Fulfilled in the Present Age John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[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.
The Threefold Question
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.
Prophecy of Destruction of Jerusalem
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.
General Signs of the End
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 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.
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part III:Signs of the End of the AgeChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part III:Signs of the End of the Age John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
Having completed in Matthew 24:4-14 the itemization of the nine signs which will be fulfilled in the present age in general and which will be especially characteristic of the end of the age, Christ now gives specific signs, answering the disciples’ original question. They had asked for the sign of the end of the age and of His coming into His kingdom.
In the interpretation of this passage as in many other prophetic portions, one is faced with the tendency, especially in liberal scholarship, of considering prophecy as actually already history when written and, therefore, not subject to future fulfillment. An outstanding illustration of this is the critical interpretation of the entire book of Daniel. Critics have attempted to prove Daniel a forgery written in the second century instead of the sixth century B.C., and thereby escape the force of the detailed prophecy given by Daniel.
This tendency to explain away prophecy has also extended to interpretations of the Olivet Discourse. Even some evangelical expositors have been influenced by liberal scholars to interpret the Olivet Discourse as fulfilled in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is given credence by the fact that the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem is a part of this prophetic utterance and is included specifically in Luke’s account (Luke 21:20-24). As in all such attempts, however, the discounting of factual predictions of the future involves neglect of the particular exegesis of the passage as there is nothing in history that really corresponds to what is here described in the Gospel of Matthew. Although there is some similarity between the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate conflict preceding the second coming of Christ, there are many distinguishing particulars.
As pointed out in a previous discussion, such an author as G. Campbell Morgan, for instance, finds fulfillment of Matthew 24:6-22 in the fall of Jerusalem1 and Alfred Plummer goes even further to find the fulfillment of the second coming in Matthew 24:15-28 as occurring at the destruction of Jerusalem.2 It is significant that in both cases there is an avoidance of any specific exegesis of the details of the prophecy. Morgan passes over the central statements with almost no mention and Plummer avoids discussion concerning the possibility of the second coming of Christ being fulfilled in A.D. 70. If the second coming is still future, so are the preceding signs.
In the revelation of Matthew 24:15-31, there is obviously a declaration of the immediate signs preceding the second coming of Christ and culminating in the glorious return of Christ to the earth. This is the way it is also presented in Daniel’s prophecy. In the book of Revelation, which practically all expositors agree was written after A.D. 70, there is another prophetic declaration of a future second coming. Certainly none of the divine judgments and other events related to the second coming of Christ took place in A.D. 70, and to hold the position of Plummer or even that of Morgan involves a flagrant spiritualization of the details of this passage as well as ignoring the total content of Scripture relating to the second coming of Christ.
The fact is that the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, but was not preceded by any abomination or desecration such as Daniel relates to the second coming of Christ. In the future conflict relating to the second coming of Christ, it also seems to be clear that at that time neither the city nor the temple are destroyed, and thus the two situations stand in sharp contrast. As Kelly expresses it, “The conclusion is clear and certain: in verse 15 of Matthew 24 our Lord alludes to that part of Daniel which is yet future, not to what was history when He spoke this on the mount of Olives.”3 Further detail will bear out the importance of considering the predictions of Matthew 24:15-31 as still future from the viewpoint of the twentieth century, and as being directly related to the disciples’ questions concerning a specific sign of the end of the age and of the second coming of Christ.
With the age as a whole described generally in the preceding passage, attention is now focused on the climax of the age. It is understandable that the disciples did not anticipate the length of the present age, and it is probable that they assumed that any absence of the Messiah and His return would occur in their own lifetime. At this time they did not have clear revelation concerning the interadvent age, although Christ had given them prophecy on this point in Matthew 13.
The Sign of the Abomination of Desolation
Speaking to the disciples as representatives of especially the Jewish nation in the time of the end, Jesus begins in verse 15 to give them the specific sign of the end of the age which is the great tribulation (Matt 24:21). He said to His disciples, “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:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains” (Matt 24:15-16). Here He is predicting a specific event so clear and so obvious that it will serve as a signal to Israel to flee to the mountains. The event will not be something vague, but it is identified as a prophetic event predicted by Daniel the prophet who called it “the abomination of desolation.”
Jesus Christ did not share the opinion of liberal critics that the book of Daniel is a forgery written by a second century writer. He staked His own integrity on the fact that Daniel the prophet who wrote the book of Daniel was a genuine prophet. He builds His own prophecy of the end time upon what Daniel wrote when He used the expression “the abomination of desolation,” which occurs three times in various forms in Daniel (9:27 ; 11:31 ; 12:11 ).
In Daniel 11:31, a prophecy was written by Daniel in the sixth century B.C. about a future Syrian ruler by name of Antiochus Epiphanes who reigned over Syria 175-164 B.C., about 400 years after Daniel. History, of course, has recorded the reign of this man. In verse 31 , Daniel prophesied his activity: “…they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate.” This would be very difficult to understand if it were not for the fact that it has already been fulfilled. Anyone can go back to the history of Antiochus Epiphanes and discover what he did as recorded in the apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. He was a great persecutor of the children of Israel and did his best to stamp out the Jewish religion and wanted to place in its stead a worship of Greek pagan gods. He killed tens of thousands of Israelites who resisted him, including women and children. He was utterly cruel, and his cruelty helped to precipitate the Maccabean revolt, one of the bloodiest revolts in the history of Israel.
One of the things he did was to stop animal sacrifices in the temple. He offered a sow, an unclean animal, on the altar in a deliberate attempt to desecrate and render it unholy for Jewish worship (cf. 1 Macc. 1:48). First Maccabees 1:54 specifically records that the abomination of desolation was set up, fulfilling Daniel 11:31. In the holy of holies Antiochus set up a statue of a Greek god. This, of course, aroused violent antagonism on the part of the Jews and resulted in thousands of them being killed. In keeping with the prophecy the daily sacrifices were stopped, the sanctuary was polluted, desolated and made an abomination.
In Daniel 9:27 a similar act is predicted as occurring in the future in the middle of the last seven years that lead up to the second coming of Christ. According to Daniel 9:27 “…he [the prince that shall come] shall confirm the covenant with many [Israel] for one week” (literally “one seven,” meaning seven years, as practically all commentators agree), “and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate.” In other words, the future prince will do at that time exactly what Antiochus did in the second century B.C.
In Daniel 12:11, the precise chronology is given: “And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days,” that is, one thousand and two hundred and ninety days until the second coming of Christ. This again is approximately three-and-a-half years with a few days added to it. These statements in the book of Daniel are plain that approximately three-and-a-half years before the second coming of Christ the Jewish sacrifices will be stopped and an abomination or a desecration of the Jewish temple will be committed. As H. A. Ironside expresses it, “Our Lord tells us definitely here that His second advent is to follow at once upon the close of that time of trouble; so it is evident that this day of trial is yet in the future.”4 “Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house; neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes” (Matt 24:17-18). In other words, absolute haste is necessary. They are not to hesitate for anything because it seems clear that the same person, this dictator of the Middle East who has been Israel’s protector up to this point, now becomes their savage persecutor even unto death. They are to flee for their lives in the hope that they can live in hiding until that time when Christ will come back and deliver those who survive.
He also tells them in verse 19 , “Woe unto them that are with child,” or who nurse children in those days. Obviously it would be very difficult for them to leave the comforts of home and flee to the mountains. In verse 20 He warns them, “But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day.” There can be snow in Jerusalem in winter when it would be difficult to leave the comforts of home. The sabbath day, of course, is a day when Jews do not travel, and if they have to flee on the sabbath day their flight will be very obvious. It would be very easy to arrest them.
Then He concludes with verses 21-22 , “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” The declaration that the days shall be shortened does not mean that it will be less than three-and-a-half years because the chronology is quite specific, but shortened in the sense that it is terminated or cut off (ἐκολοβώθησαν). If this time of trouble were extended indefinitely, so severe are the terrible catastrophies of that period of great tribulation that Christ says it would have resulted in the total extermination of everyone living in the world. It is to stop this process that Christ returns to the earth.
The judgments described in the book of Revelation show that Christ meant exactly what He said. The various judgments in the book of Revelation are of great severity. The fourth seal, for instance (Rev 6:7-8), is said to kill a fourth part of the earth’s population. The sixth trumpet (Rev 9:13-21) speaks of a third of the world’s population being destroyed. These two judgments alone would account for half of the world’s population: 25% reduces it to 75%; a third of the remainder would reduce it to 50%. These are only part of the terrible judgments which will overtake the world. Catastrophe after catastrophe occur in the world. The final great world war (Rev 16:12-16) unquestionably kills millions more as the age comes to its close. false prophet. However, because it refers to these imposters in the plural, apparently there will be other false leaders.6 These false leaders will do all they can to deceive people and keep them from following Christ by performing miracles by Satanic power.
Christ warns them, “I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not” (Matt 24:25-26). Why not? Because His second coming will be a very public event. Everybody will see Him. The rapture of the church may be an event that is quite unseen by the world. Although the Bible never calls it a secret rapture because it is not a secret at least to Christians, it will take place very quickly. First Corinthians 15:52 speaks of the rapture as taking place “in the twinkling of an eye.” The world possibly will only be dimly aware that something has happened until it is all over.
The second coming of Christ to the earth is quite a different event. According to Matthew 24:27, it will be a glorious event: “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” Lightning is something that everybody can see, and the glory of the Lord will illuminate the heavens with brilliant light just as lightning illuminates the heavens in a storm. According to Revelation 1:7, “Every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.”
A cryptic statement is made in Matthew 24:28, “For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” What does this mean? When a body dies, the vultures come. Where there is wickedness and moral corruption, judgment must come. It is a natural sequence to the blasphemy and unbelief which characterizes the great tribulation period.
The Sign of the Glory in the Heavens
In verse 29 a more detailed description is given of the second coming. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” This is the climactic display of divine power described as beginning earlier in Revelation 6:12-14: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” These prophecies are literal events and some of the signs preceding the second coming.
The great climax, the second coming of Christ itself, follows: “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” (Matt 24:30). The context refers to signs that precede His coming—the great tribulation, stars falling from heaven, multiplied false Christs who will characterize this period. But now, the sign. What is this sign?
Commentators make this reference to the sign unnecessarily difficult when a simple answer is the best. The sign to conclude all the preceding signs is the blaze of glory in the heavens when Jesus Christ comes back from heaven. The whole world will see His glory. Every eye will see Him (Rev 1:7). It will be a universal revelation. While there will be clouds and the sun and the moon may be blotted out temporarily, the heavens will become alive with the brilliant glory, brighter than the light of day when Jesus Christ comes back in power and great glory.
A very graphic picture of this is given in Revelation 19:11-16. The last book of the Bible has as its main subject the second coming and the revelation of Jesus Christ when He comes. The first eighteen chapters lead up to it and describe the period, especially the great tribulation which anticipates the second coming. Chapter 20 describes the millennium, the period following the second coming. Revelation 21 and 22 reveal the eternal state which will follow the millennium. But chapter 19 , the second coming, is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the great climax of the book of Revelation.
When Christ returns, it will be too late for those who were not ready for His coming. The Bible reveals plainly that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus Christ as Lord (Isa 45:23; Rom 14:11; Phil 2:9-11; Rev 5:13). But it will be too late for those who have not confessed Him before His coming. Although God is a long-suffering God, not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9), there comes a time when even a long-suffering God does not wait. This is brought out in Matthew 24 and 25 .
The second coming of Christ will come in God’s appointed time. When He came the first time, prophecy was literally fulfilled. He was born of the virgin, of the line of David, in Bethlehem. He was
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the Immanuel, God with us, both God and man. These great prophecies were completely fulfilled in Christ. So when He comes again prophecy will be fulfilled. This time He will not come as a babe in a manger but as King of kings and Lord of lords. The graphic account of Revelation 19:11-16 describes the majestic armies of heaven, millions of saints and angels attending Christ as He comes from heaven to claim the earth which is His right to rule, the earth bought with His blood, created by His power, and now to be made His footstool, His place of manifesting His sovereignty as He reigns.
Some have raised the question how everyone will see the second coming of Christ. They point to the problem that the earth is round. The Scriptures reveal that Christ will come to the Mount of Olives (Zech 14:1-4). How is He going to be seen in the United States? Because the earth is round, will only half of the earth see this event? Of course, modern technology has invented television which now can be telecast around the world, but even in that time not everybody will have a television set. Yet Scripture declares “every eye shall see Him.”
A simple explanation of the problem is probably the best. The rapture is an event that occurs instantly, but there is no reason for the second coming to the earth being an instantaneous event. In fact, the Bible pictures just the opposite. The second coming is a very deliberate, methodical event as millions come from heaven to make earth their abode throughout the millennial reign of Christ. Such a procession involving millions of men and angels should take many hours, and in twenty-four hours the earth would make a complete revolution. Accordingly, everybody will have a ringside seat.
A number of modern restaurants have been built at the top of a tower or high building and situated on a revolving platform. In the course of an hour, one gets the whole panorama as the entire room keeps turning very gradually. So it will be when Christ comes back. As the earth turns, every eye will see Him descending to earth.
But the Scripture says, “…then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn” (Matt 24:30b). There will be those in Israel and among the Gentiles who will have turned to Christ during this time of tribulation. Some of these will have escaped martyrdom and will be living when this event takes place on the earth. They will welcome Christ’s return. It is, nevertheless, true that the great majority of the world will have worshipped the beast, the world ruler. They will have received the mark of the beast, blasphemed the name of Christ and spurned His grace. Now their hour of judgment has come. There is no grace for those who have continually spurned grace.
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The second coming is not only a time of judgment on the wicked, but it is also a time of reward and gathering for the saints of God. In verse 31 it is revealed, “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.” Mark expressed it “from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven” (Mark 13:27). This is the gathering of all the saints. Some have taken the “elect” as referring only to Israel (cf. Ezek 20:33-38),7 but other Scriptures indicate the gathering of all the saints of all classifications (Matt 25:31-46). The purpose of the gathering is to assemble all saints for the millennial reign on the earth. This is not the rapture as the rapture has an entirely different purpose—to take the church out of the world. The gathering here is for the purpose of joining with Christ in His reign in the earth in the millennial time.
In this dramatic revelation Christ answered the question, “What is the sign of thy coming and of the end of the age?” He answered it very specifically. He also described the age in general—the things that will characterize the age and grow worse as the age progresses. But the sign is the great tribulation beginning with the abomination of desolation, the desecration of the Jewish temple and the persecution of Israel. Then the other events and signs will follow, climaxing with the final sign when the heavens break open with the glory of God.
Christ will come in fulfillment of His promise given by the angels in Acts 1:11, “This same Jesus…shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” In the ascension He went to heaven bodily. He is coming back bodily. He went gradually; they watched Him. He is coming back majestically and they will be able to watch Him. He went with clouds, and when He comes back He will come with clouds. He went visibly, and when He returns every eye will see Him.
Taken as a whole, the events which Christ describes leading up to and climaxing in His second coming will be unmistakable when they occur. While Christians today may anticipate the imminent coming of Christ in the rapture, it is obvious that the second coming to the earth cannot be fulfilled until the preceding events have come to pass.
With these words, Christ brings to a close the first doctrinal section in which He predicted events to come. There follows a series of illustrations and applications as the theological truth is related to practical considerations for all those who await His coming.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library 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), p. 332.
3 William Kelly, Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, n.d.), p. 442.
4 H. A. Tronside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1948), p. 322.
6 Cf. A. C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1910), II, 205-6.
7 Cf. Gaebelein, II, 211-12.
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part IV:How Near Is The Lord’s Return?Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part IV:How Near Is The Lord’s Return? John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[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.
Problems of Interpretation
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.
Time of Fulfillment: This Generation
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
As in the Days of Noah
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.
The Faithful Householder
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.
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).
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part V:The Parable of the Ten VirginsChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part V:The Parable of the Ten Virgins John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
Matthew 25, the second and final chapter of the Olivet Discourse, is divided into three sections. The first two sections are the familiar parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents, concluding the section of illustration and application which began at 24:32. The final section, 25:31-46, predicts the judgment of the Gentiles after the second coming of Christ.
There is something, however, that ties all of these three sections together, that is, each of the sections emphasizes the fact that when Jesus Christ comes the saved will be separated from those who are lost. Whether it is the virgins, the parable of the talents, or the sheep and the goats of the Gentiles, this is the point that is being emphasized. The second coming is a day of reckoning for those who await His coming in the earth.
The Ten Virgins as an Illustration
In this familiar parable of the ten virgins, our Lord uses the custom of a bridegroom claiming his bride as an illustration of Christ coming for His own. The oriental wedding had three stages: (1) the parents of the bridegroom and the bride would agree on the marriage of their children and the dowry would be paid. This was the legal marriage; (2) sometime later, according to their customs, the bridegroom accompanied by his friends would proceed from his home to the home of the bride to claim her as his own. Traditionally, this procession often took place in the middle of the night. The bride, prepared for his coming, would join the procession which would then return to the home of the bridegroom. and (3) friends would join the procession in order to participate in the marriage feast which was held at the home of the bridegroom. Such a feast would often continue for days depending upon the wealth of those involved. A wedding, accordingly, had three stages: (1) the legal stage, arranged by the parents, (2) the procession, or the bridegroom claiming his bride, and (3) the marriage feast.
In the illustration which Christ uses, ten young virgins, unmarried friends of either the bride or the bridegroom, await the return of the procession from the home of the bride to the home of the bridegroom in order to join in the festivities. According to the custom, they brought with them olive oil lamps which were fitted to poles so that they could be held aloft to illuminate the procession. As Christ unfolds the illustration, five of the maidens are declared to be wise and five foolish. The wise had brought oil in their vessels with their lamps, a supply of oil for the lamps which in themselves did not hold much oil. The five foolish maidens took no oil with them. While they waited for the coming of the bridegroom, they all slept. At midnight, the cry was heard that the bridegroom cometh. This cry was probably made either by the leader of the procession or by the entire company, and constituted an invitation to others to join the procession.
When the maidens heard the procession coming, they quickly arose, trimmed their lamps, and lit them. It was only then that the foolish maidens realized that they had brought no oil. In verse 8 , literally translated, “The foolish said unto the wise maidens, Give us of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” Apparently their lamps had no oil at all, and when they lit the wicks they immediately burned out. The wise replied that they did not have sufficient oil to give them any of their own and instructed them rather to go and buy for themselves. The question of where they could purchase oil at that hour of the night is not answered but they may have awakened some shop owner living near or in his shop in order to purchase the oil. Actually, the text does not say they were successful in seeking oil. Their search, however, took time, and while they were attempting to secure oil the bridegroom came with the procession and entered the bridegroom’s home to participate in the marriage feast. To keep out intruders, the door was shut and locked. Sometime later, the five foolish maidens arrived and called as recorded in verse 11 , “Lord, Lord, open to us.” From within, however, came the word that they would not be admitted. Either there was resentment that they were joining the party late, or there was fear of robbers at that hour of the night. The bridegroom informed them, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.” The application of the illustration is given in verse 13 , “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”
In this illustration of the coming of Christ, as also is true of the previous illustrations in Matthew 24, distinction must be made between interpretation and application. Following the strict rules of exegesis, the context indicates that the subject is the second coming of Christ to the earth not the rapture of the church. Although many expositors have attempted to make this whole discourse apply to the church,1 or at least from Matthew 24:45 make an application of the general truth of Christ’s coming to the rapture of the church, as seen in previous study the evidence is quite insufficient. There is no clear distinction between the illustrations before Matthew 24:45 and those which follow. Neither the church nor the rapture are in view. Inasmuch as the rapture (John 14:1–3) had not yet been revealed, it is questionable whether Christ would have tried to teach His disciples using an illustration of a truth that was not even known to them at this time. Interpretation, therefore, must relate this passage to the context, namely, the doctrine of the second coming of Christ to establish His earthly kingdom.
This is supported by the word “then,” which begins the passage in Matthew 25:1. The time, therefore, is the same time as found in the entire twenty-fourth chapter, namely the time of the second coming of Christ. A. C. Gaebelein argues somewhat at length that the “then” must refer to the church rather than tribulation saints because the previous verses in Matthew 24 also refer to the church.2 His argument, however, is faulty because the evidence that the closing portion of Matthew 24 refers to the present age is lacking. The word “church” does not occur in Matthew 24—25. Lenski who refers the “then” to the period before 24:4 is completely wrong.3
There are some problems in applying the parable of the ten virgins to the tribulation saints as is always true in applying an illustration in its details. The number “ten” may denote completeness (cf. Matt 25:28, Luke 15:8; 19:13–17) as Lenski points out.4 The most significant fact in the entire illustration is that the bride is not in view. The ten virgins are friends who attend the wedding, not the bride herself. If the details of the illustration are to be pressed, it argues in favor of identifying the virgins as the tribulation saints rather than the church. If this illustration is to apply to an event that has not yet been revealed, it would require clear and unmistakable evidence which is lacking in this instance. Accordingly, the contextual argument as well as the nature of the illustration fits more appropriately the application of this parable to the doctrine which has been previously expounded concerning the second coming of Christ to the earth. This general approach also has some support in the textual addition in Matthew 25:1 in the Syriac and Vulgate versions where the close of verse 1 reads that they “went forth to meet the bridegroom and the bride.”5 Whether or not this is an acceptable addition, it seems to imply that the early church distinguished between the bride and the virgins.
In the interpretation of the illustration, care should be taken not to press the details beyond what the Scriptures themselves indicate, but the typical meaning of the illustration to some extent can be established by comparison to other Scriptures. As A. H. M’Neile expresses it, “Almost every detail lends itself to allegorical treatment, useful for the preacher.”6
The portrayal of the maidens as virgins (Gr. parthenos) probably means no more than that they are young, unmarried women, friends either of the bride or the bridegroom who would appropriately be included in the wedding feast. More significant, however, is the fact that the foolish virgins, in contrast to those who were wise, took no oil for their lamps. This is the most important fact of the entire illustration. The lack of oil is interpreted as being unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The symbolic meaning of oil is well established in Scripture as referring to the Holy Spirit, especially as one who sanctifies and sets apart individuals for God, and who reveals the truth of God to believers. The anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament is a well established custom. Likewise, oil fed the lamps in the Holy place of the tabernacle and temple, providing illumination for the work of the priests and visual comprehension of the many typical aspects of the tabernacle and temple as they represent the glories of Christ.
Accordingly, any genuine saint of God has experienced a ministry of the Holy Spirit which has caused his new birth and has introduced him to the truth relating to his glorious salvation. The wise virgins by their supply of oil typically are represented as having such a work of the Spirit, while the foolish virgins lack this preparation.
The theological question of whether tribulation saints are indwelt by the Spirit such as saints in the present church age is not necessarily a problem. It is true that there is no clear indication that tribulation saints are indwelt by the Holy Spirit as are members of the body of Christ in the present age. It is presumed that after the rapture of the church the ministry of the Spirit returns to that which was true before Pentecost, defined in John 14:17 in the words, “He dwelleth with you,” in contrast to what the church experiences that He “shall be in you.” But it is also true that a genuine ministry of the Spirit was experienced by believers before Pentecost, a fact which is unmistakably taught in the Scriptures (cf. Luke 1:41, 67; 2:25), and, although differing somewhat dispensationally from the present age, such a ministry obviously continues after the rapture of the church. In keeping with the omnipresence of the Spirit, which is always true regardless of what special ministries He may perform (such as baptism of the Spirit and the indwelling of the Spirit in the present church age), the thought sometimes expressed that there will be no ministry of the Spirit after the rapture is contradicted by the fact that many will be saved and many will witness to the truth of the gospel, works which would be impossible without the enablement of the Spirit.
The wise virgins properly state that they cannot give of their oil to the foolish virgins. The work of the Spirit in an individual is non-transferable, and each must have his own personal relationship to Christ and to the Spirit. For this reason, in the illustration they are instructed to go and buy for themselves.
The thought of purchase of oil must not be pressed beyond its proper bounds. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not for sale, and is not secured by money (cf. Isa 55:1). What is intended is that they should make proper preparation for the coming of the bridegroom. The possibility that the foolish virgins eventually were able to buy oil should not be pressed to the conclusion that they find salvation. The point is that they are too late. When Christ returns, it will be too late for those who have not previously come into right relationship to Him. This is confirmed by the fact that when they attempt to enter the home to participate in the marriage feast, they are denied entrance.
The fact that the marriage feast follows rather than precedes the second coming of Christ to the earth bears upon the question as to where the marriage feast will be performed. While obviously it is a symbolic feast rather than a literal partaking of food, the implication seems to be that the feast is held in earth either at the beginning of the millennial kingdom or that the millennium itself is regarded as such a marriage feast. A familiar concept that the marriage feast is held in heaven is not clearly taught in Scripture. Rather the implications are always to the contrary. Revelation 19, in announcing the second coming of Christ to the earth, regards the invitation to the marriage feast as the same as participating in the event of His second coming to the earth.
This order of events is also related to the question of whether the Old Testament saints are resurrected at the time of the rapture, or later at the time of the second coming of Christ to the earth. While expositors differ, it is significant that the two most important passages on the resurrection of Israel (Isa 26:19–21; Dan 12:2–3), indicate that righteous Israel will be raised at the time of the second coming along with the resurrection of the righteous dead of the tribulation (Rev 20:4–6). In confirmation that at the rapture only the righteous dead of the present age will be raised is the limiting phrase “in Christ” specified in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “And the dead in Christ shall rise first.” It seems that the work of Christ for His church from beginning to end is an interpolation, and that the work begun on Pentecost concludes with the rapture without reference to the program for either Israel or the Gentile world as a whole. Unquestionably the tendency to relate portions of Matthew 24—25 to the church is an influencing factor in the interpretation of some pretribulationists that the wedding feast takes place in heaven. On the basis of context and the details of this illustration, the view that it relates to the second coming of Christ to the earth and to the division of the saved from the lost, even among a sphere of profession at that time, is preferable. It is significant that even in the time of great tribulation, much as this might be expected to sharpen the faith of believers and discourage mere profession, some looking for the Lord’s return will not be ready.
Although the strict interpretation relates this parable to the context of the second coming of Christ to the earth, a secondary application can be made to the church much in the same fashion that all scriptural truth has application. Those in the sphere of profession today also need to be prepared for the coming of the bridegroom (a far more significant expectation than that of the ten virgins). The preparedness involved is true in both instances. Just as the ten virgins will be tested by the question of a genuine work of the Spirit represented by the oil, so the professing church will be tested at the rapture. Only those baptized into Christ and regenerated by the Spirit of God will be eligible for inclusion in the heavenly union of Christ and the church.
In a modern world where churchianity has so often replaced reality in spiritual things, and church membership and mere outward conformity of religious exercises is substituted for a genuine work of the Spirit, the warning of Christ to the ten virgins may be understood as a warning to the church today. Individuals should search their hearts to be sure that they have a genuine work of the Spirit. In all dispensations, the test is ultimately whether the individual has eternal life of the Spirit of God. Apart from the presence of oil in the lamp bearing its testimony of spiritual illumination, there can be no security in Christ, no certainty of hope, no reward when Christ comes. These timeless truths transcend dispensational distinctions and make the application of this portion of Scripture to present spiritual need appropriate.
1 Cf. G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929), pp. 280-95.
2 A. C. Gaebelein, Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1910), pp. 225-27.
3 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, 1943), p. 961.
4 Ibid., p. 963.
5 Cf. R. V. C. Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 233.
6 Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel according to Matthew (London, 1915), p. 259.
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part VI:The Parable of the TalentsChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part VI:The Parable of the Talents John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is the sixth and concluding illustration that our Lord uses relative to preparedness for the second advent. As in previous illustrations, the interpretation relates to those who will be awaiting Christ’s second coming to the earth rather than the rapture of the church. The application of the principles involved, however, may appropriately be considered by those who are looking forward to the rapture of the church and the judgment seat of Christ. The context is not of a lord who takes his servants from earth to heaven, but rather a lord who returns to the scene of earth and judges his servants.
This illustration does not concern itself with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as seen in the parable of the ten virgins, but rather deals with judgment of works as an evidence of right relationship to the Lord. The parable views life in relationship to service and the proper use of opportunity as evidence of preparedness and expectation of the return of the Lord.
In verse 14, which opens the account, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a man traveling into a far country who calls his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. The reference to “the kingdom of heaven” is omitted from some manuscripts but the parable obviously deals with the period before the Lord’s second advent. It was quite customary in the ancient world for a man to turn his property over to a servant, often a slave, who would administer his business for him in his absence. According to verse 15 , he called in three servants. To the one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, “to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.” A talent is a sum of money, which varied in its value in different periods of history. A talent was actually a weight of money varying from 58 to 80 pounds.1 A silver talent varied from $1000 to $2000 in value. A gold talent could be worth more than $30,000. It is probable that these talents were silver talents, and that they were worth about $2,000 apiece, but if they were gold talents, they were worth about $30,000 apiece. The purchasing power of this money should be viewed in a context of a person who would work all day for 15¢. The value of a talent was much greater in proportion than it is in our modern world. So the five-talent man, if they were gold talents, received $150,000, or if silver, $10,000. In purchasing power today, this would be equivalent to a fortune. The two-talent man, accordingly may have received as much as $60,000, and the one-talent man $30,000, if they were gold talents.
This shows that the master had a good deal of confidence in these men, but he did not hold confidence in them equally. So he gave them different responsibility. In verse 16 , it states that they immediately got busy. “Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.” Then as now in business, it is possible to make money, but it is also possible to lose money. It is obvious that this servant must have been a careful and shrewd businessman in order to be able to double his money. The two-talent man did likewise: “And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.” He also doubled his money. “But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money” (Matt 25:18). Here the word for “money” is the word for silver (Gr. argurion), but may mean any kind of money.2
The account continues, “After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more” (Matt 25:19-20). The work that was involved in this five-talent gain was not easy, but how proud was this moment for the servant as he gave account of what had been committed to him. He could report that he had gained five talents more. And the lord commended him. He said to him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt 25:21).
Then we are told that “He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them” (Matt 25:22). In verse 23 the lord commends the two-talent servant with exactly the same words as the five-talent man. “His lord said unto him, well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
This, of course, introduces an important principle that stewardship is always reckoned according to faithfulness. It is not how much, but how faithful. The five-talent man and the two-talent man had been equally faithful and they received equal commendation. This is a great comfort to servants of the Lord because as they look about they soon find someone who is more successful and more talented, perhaps more intelligent or more wealthy than they are. Obviously, the Lord does not give everyone the same talents. It is not quite true that all men are created equal. Men are created quite unequal, and no two of them are exactly alike in their stewardship. But the important fact is that at the judgment, as illustrated here, it will not be a question of how much or how successful, but how faithful. The lord of these servants expects from them only in proportion as he has given to them. So there is a sense in which everyone has an equal opportunity to be rewarded.
The one-talent man when it comes his turn to report attempted to excuse his inactivity: “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine” (Matt 25:24-25).
There was some innuendo in this reply from the one-talent man. He describes his lord as a very hardheaded, grasping businessman. He tells him that he is the kind of a man who reaps where he has not sown, and gathers where he has not spread. In those days, boundaries sometimes were rather indefinite and they did not always bother to plow a field. They would just scatter the grain and it would grow. When it came to reaping, they were not above taking a little of the seed that had fallen on the neighbor’s property. He said that his lord was the kind of person that got everything he could. He implied that the lord was not completely honest.
The lord of this servant does not bother to deny the charge although he does not accept the verdict that he is a “hard” man. If the servant really believed his lord was hard and grasping he would have been all the more diligent to please him. In any event it was no excuse. Of course, whenever a person fails to do his duty, the tendency is always to find some excuse. That is what this man was doing. As Tasker points out, “The third servant’s estimate of his master as a hard money-making Jew who ‘enriched himself at the cost of others, gathering gain where he had not spent’ (McNeile), was untrue; but the master’s point is that the servant, believing as he did that it was true, ought to have been all the more concerned to see that he had something more to bring to him on his return from abroad than the one bag of gold he had received!”3
But his master answers him abruptly: “Thou wicked and slothful [lazy] servant. Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury” (Matt 25:26-27). The evaluation of the lord of the servant is pointed. Why did not this man put his money out at interest? Probably this would have been safe to do, and he would have had at least some income to report, and that without any effort on his part. But instead of that, he went in the backyard and dug a hole and put the money in the hole and buried it.
Even in our modern day when people bury money in the backyard, it usually has a bad connotation. Perhaps they are trying to avoid tax or perhaps it is ill-gotten gain of some sort, because the normal, respectable thing is to put it in a bank. Why did not the one-talent servant put it in the bank? Commentators generally are vague on this point. His lord said that he was not only lazy but wicked. What was there wicked about this?
This man seems to have given in to some cunning reasoning. It is much like the thinking of Judas Iscariot when he sold his Lord. Judas reasoned, if He is really the Messiah, my betrayal will not hurt anything and I will get my money from the High Priest. If He is not the Messiah, then at least I get the money. This one-talent man reasoned somewhat the same way. His lord was going on a far journey. If the servant put the money in the bank, he would have to register it in his lord’s name. Then when his lord did not come back, his heirs could claim it. He reasoned, however, that if be buried it in the backyard, there would be no record. If his master did not come back, the servant would have it. If he does come back, he could not accuse him of dishonesty because he could produce the talent. It was a cunning that was built upon uncertainty that the Lord was returning. He just did not believe that his lord was coming back. If he had, he would have handled the money differently. This is what the lord meant when be said that he was a wicked servant.
In verse 28 , the instructions are given, “Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which be hath” (Matt 25:28-29).
Verse 29 has been the subject of some misapprehension. When it says, “Unto everyone that hath shall be given,” the natural question is, “To everyone that hath what?” Does it refer to everyone who hath works, or to everyone who has moral character? What is the difference between the one-talent man, and the two-talent man, and the five-talent man?
To be sure, their works are different and their character was somewhat different, but the point of the illustration is the five-talent man and the two-talent man believed their lord was coming back and they worked in keeping with their faith. The one-talent man did what he did because he did not believe. So ultimately it comes back to the question of the reality of faith in the words of their lord. The expression “to everyone that hath” means to everyone who hath faith, everyone who has expectation in his Lord. Works are not the ground of salvation; they are simply the evidence of faith. Here works are presented as an evidence of true faith in the Lord.
Verse 30 concludes, “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This outer darkness could not refer to the destiny of Christians. This one-talent man, while he was given opportunity to trust in his lord and to serve him, did not really believe in his lord’s return. It is typical of those who have heard and rejected the truth concerning the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The unprofitable servant is one who was not saved, not redeemed, and therefore not rewarded for his service. This parable, bringing to a close the application and illustration of the truth of the Lord’s return, makes clear the relation of future hope to present faithfulness. Belief in the Lord’s return is revealed as an important evidence of faith and a practical incentive for faithful service.
1 W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, 1957), p. 811.
3 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 237.
Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part VII:The Judgment of the NationsChrist’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part VII:The Judgment of the Nations John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The disciples had asked in Matthew 24:3 what the signs would be for the end of the age and the coming of the Lord. This question was answered in the section Matthew 24:4-31. The principal sign was the great tribulation which would begin three and one-half years before the second coming of Christ to the earth. Following this prophetic passage, Jesus gave to His disciples a series of applications and interpretations. In Matthew 24:31—25:30 Jesus answered their questions and applied the truth. Jesus then gave the disciples more than they asked for in detailing, in Matthew 25:31-36, the judgment of the nations which will follow the second coming.
While conservative expositors have been in general agreement that the passage deals with a final judgment, considerable disagreement exists concerning the exact nature of the judgment and its relation to the total prophetic plan of the Scriptures. Generally speaking, amillenarians, who believe the second coming of Christ ushers in the eternal state, hold that this is the judgment of all men. Lenski for instance states, “The whole human race will be assembled for the final judgment.”1 R. V. G. Tasker likewise states, “The Son of Man is pictured enthroned in glory as King (34 ) in exercising His divine prerogative as Judge of all nations (32 ).”2 Postmillenarians likewise generally make this a final judgment of all men. Even Alford, a premillenarian, states, “We now come to the great and universal judgment at the end of this period, also prophesied distinctly in order in Rev. xx.11-15 —in which all the dead, small and great shall stand before God.”3 Liberal writers like A. H. M’Neile while raising questions on the genuineness of the passage usually do not dispute that it teaches a judgment which includes “all human beings, those placed on the right hand as well as those on the left.”4
As most commentaries point out, however, this passage in contrast to the preceding discussions in Matthew 25 is not a parable. M’Neile states, “This is not a parable, but a prophetic picture of the Judgment, the only parabolic features being the simile of the sheep and goats in v. 32 , and its metaphorical use in v. 33 .”5
Most interpretations of this passage, however, are built on presuppositions which to some extent require them to ignore what the passage states and what it does not state. A correct exegesis of this passage demands first of all strict adherence to the exact wording of this revelation. If this is done, the thesis that this is a general resurrection breaks down because there is no mention of resurrection or translation and there is no mention of heaven. If on other grounds the premillennial interpretation of Scripture is supportable, this judgment comes as a climax to the prophecies of Christ in Matthew 24 which describe the great tribulation leading up to the second coming of Christ. The nations then would be those who survived the terrible judgments of this period which will wipe out probably a majority of the earth’s population.
A further distinction must be observed in that the Scriptures clearly indicate that God has a separate judgment for the nation Israel (Ezek 20:34-38) and in this case the judgment would include Gentiles rather than the Jewish nation. As will be seen in the exposition this gives a reasonable interpretation of the term “brethren” as in contrast both to the sheep and the goats. Accordingly, on a strict exegesis of this passage, the judgment deals with those on earth among the Gentiles who have survived the tribulation and now await judgment in relation to entrance into the millennial kingdom. It is accordingly not a general judgment, not a judgment of the church which has been raptured earlier, nor is it a judgment of the dead as in Revelation 20:11-15. It is amazing how commentators read into the passage so many facts that are simply not here. Accordingly, the exegesis which follows will pay strict attention to the text itself.
The Judgment of the Nations Described
In describing this judgment Jesus uses the figure of a mingled group of sheep and goats as comprising “all nations” or better translated, “all Gentiles.” According to the passage they are all gathered before Him and the sheep are placed on His right hand and the goats on His left.
Jesus then addresses those on His right hand and invites them to inherit His kingdom. He states, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (25:35-36 ). The sheep described as “the righteous” reply asking when they did this, and the King answers, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (25:40 ).
Then the King addresses Himself to those on the left hand described as goats and commands them, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41 ). He then charges them with not doing the deeds of kindness which he ascribed to the righteous. When they reply, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” (25:44 ), Christ replies, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (25:45 ). The King then commands that the goats be cast “into everlasting punishment” in contrast to the righteous who go “into eternal life” (25:46 ).
Apart from its place in the prophetic program of God, this passage has created problems because of its emphasis on works and because of its silence concerning grace as a basis of salvation. A careful examination of the passage, however, resolves these difficulties.6 judgment should be distinguished from the judgments which will follow throughout the thousand year reign of Christ, it is preparatory and introductory to His reign, and inasmuch as His reign brings “judgment and justice in the earth,” as Jeremiah expresses it, so the throne will be on earth.
The Subjects of the Judgment
A crucial question is the interpretation of the expression, “all nations” (Gr. ethnē). This is defined by Arndt and Gingrich as meaning primarily “nation, people.” It is frequently used in a secondary sense “for foreigners” and for “Gentile Christians” in contrast to Jewish Christians.7 It is sometimes used of Jews (Luke 7:5; 23:2 ; John 11:48, 50, 51, 52; 18:35; Acts 10:22; etc.), but its more characteristic use is in reference to Gentiles as distinguished from Jews as appears particularly in theological passages, such as Romans 11:13; 15:27; 16:4; Galatians 2:12, and in some cases the Gentile character of the word is emphasized as in Romans 3:29; 9:24 . Accordingly it is not justified to dismiss dogmatically as many writers do the particular use of this word for non-Jews.
Here as in other details in this passage an appeal should be made to the particular context. Actually in addition to the sheep and the goats a third class is mentioned as “my brethren” (25:40 ) and referred to again as “one of the least of these” (25:45 ). These are obviously contemporaries of the sheep and the goats and yet are not a part of their number. The only scriptural justification for a third class would be to regard these as Jews in contrast to both saved and unsaved Gentiles. Inasmuch as there is another judgment for Israel in Ezekiel 20:34-38 in a different place and in different circumstances, the conclusion is supported that the sheep and the goats are Gentiles.
In the context of end-time events there have been some preceding judgments on the Gentile world. These are described in great detail in the book of Revelation under the seals, trumpets, and vials. In addition a great judgment takes place according to Revelation 19 on the armies of the world composed of Gentiles who are engaged in the great world struggle at the time of the second coming. These have already been put to death. The judgment here described in Matthew comes later in the sequence of events and deals with Gentiles all over the world on whom the preceding judgments have not fallen. It is obviously necessary to deal with the entire world scene in preparation for the world kingdom which Christ is introducing to the world at this time.
The Basis of the Judgment
One of the theological problems which this passage has introduced is that the separation of the sheep and goats seems to be entirely on a works basis. This has introduced the question as to whether there is more than one way of salvation. Further the works indicated are remarkably simple in their formulation, namely, feeding the sick, giving the thirsty drink, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison. How can such deeds provide a basis for entrance into the kingdom, and even more important, why does the absence of these justify the goats being cast into everlasting fire?
The general teaching of Scripture makes plain that works are never a ground for salvation. Even under the Law where works were so prominent, heaven was never among the promises for obedience and hell promised for disobedience. Passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9 make plain that salvation cannot be by works, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The necessity of salvation by grace and by faith alone is evident in scriptural teaching concerning the universality of sin and the total inability of man to be good in the sight of God (Rom 3:10-12). It is for this reason that Paul argues in Romans 3:21-28 that justification by faith, by grace, and through the death of Christ is the only way a person can be saved. Works, accordingly, can never produce eternal life, can never cure depravity, can never remedy Adamic sin and other human failure.
With this as a background, how can this passage be interpreted? The answer is relatively simple. What is presented here is not the basis or ground of salvation but the evidence of it. It is always true as stated in James 2:26 that “faith without works is dead,” that is, it is not real faith if it does not produce works. Accordingly, while works are not the ground or justification for salvation, they can be the fruit or evidence of it.
A further question arises, however, on the precise nature of these works. Is it true ordinarily that those who feed the hungry or clothe the naked are necessarily saved and qualify for entrance into eternal life? In the present age, obviously this is not the case, as many who have no faith in Christ nevertheless manifest deeds of kindness. How then can these works be related as sure evidences of salvation?
The answer is found in the context of this chapter. These who are here being judged are those who have survived the great tribulation. According to many Scriptures, the great tribulation will be a time of persecution of the Jew referred to in Jeremiah 30:7 as “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” In fact, the persecution will be so great that according to Zechariah 13:8 two-thirds of the Jews in the land will die. There will be a death sentence on all faithful Jews who do not worship the world ruler in the end time.
There will be satanic hatred of the Jewish people at that time, and Satan will once again attempt to exterminate them as he has done in so many previous periods in history. In such a circumstance, for anyone to befriend a Jew to an extent indicated in this passage, that is feed him, clothe him, and even visit him in prison or when he is sick would be extraordinary evidence of works produced by the grace of God. Accordingly, these works of kindness take on tremendous significance as they would involve extreme danger on the part of the person performing them as well as being executed in a time of great deception and hatred of the Jew. Accordingly, for a person under these circumstances to befriend “my brethren,” it would indicate true faith in God and in Jesus Christ and the works, while not the ground of salvation, nevertheless become a clear evidence of it. By contrast anyone who puts faith in Jesus Christ and is looking for His second coming and is aware of His special purposes relating to Israel including the promises of Genesis 12:3 certainly would not ignore his duty and his privilege of ministering to these troubled people. Accordingly, absence of the works indicates lack of salvation just as clearly as presence of the works indicates faith in Jesus Christ.
The Nature of the Judgment
In the context if this judgment occurs at the beginning of the millennial kingdom, it obviously is preparatory. Many other Scriptures indicate that at the beginning of the millennium all adult unbelievers will be purged out and only those who are redeemed will be permitted to begin the millennial reign with Christ on earth. This is brought out in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50). It is likewise clearly taught in Revelation 14:11 and 19:15 . While children born in the millennium will be allowed to continue as long as they profess to follow Christ, only genuinely converted adults will be permitted to enter the millennium at its beginning, whether Jews or Gentiles.
From these facts brought out in the exegesis of this passage it becomes clear that the judgment of the nations is not a final judgment of the individuals who are concerned as they are still in their natural bodies and await either through translation or resurrection a heavenly body later in the program of God. Their eternal life, however, is assured at this point and their days of suffering as in the great tribulation are now over.
Those committed to the premillennial interpretation of this passage on other grounds will find confirmation of this point of view in this passage. It is clear for instance that the postmillennial view with the world gradually being brought to faith in Christ until all acknowledge Him as King is not justified on the basis of this passage. The dual line of development anticipated in Matthew 13 of the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares, the good and bad fish, is further illustrated here in the sheep and the goats. At the time of the second coming of Christ, He does not come to a converted world. As Matthew 24 makes plain He comes to a world that is preaching false doctrine and is persecuting the Jewish people. The postmillennial dream has no support whatever in Matthew 24—25 .
Premillenarians also find support for their view in the fact that this judgment takes place on earth in preparation for a kingdom which, according to the Old Testament, will be a kingdom on earth of righteousness and peace. There is no indication in the passage that the judgment deals with any others than those who are entering into the millennial kingdom and who anticipate a normal life there. While it would be too much to presume that this passage directly teaches the premillennial view, it certainly provides better support for this interpretation than any other.
The question whether the church is raptured before the tribulation (pretribulational view) or at the time of the second coming to Christ to the earth (posttribulational view) is also by implication dealt with in this passage. If a posttribulational rapture took place and the church met the Lord in the air while He was coming from heaven to the earth to set up His millennial kingdom, it is obvious that this judgment would be unnecessary as it would have already separated the sheep from the goats prior to the arrival of Christ to the earthly scene. The fact that Christ has come to the earth, has had time to set up His throne, and gather all nations before Him indicates plainly up to this time that there has been no posttribulational rapture. In the sequence of events relating to the second coming to the earth itself, if a rapture took place prior to the tribulation and a new generation of believers both Jews and Gentiles emerged as Scripture indicates they will, it would provide the people here described as sheep who would be distinct from those raptured. Posttribulationists tend to brush this aside and ignore the implications of this passage, but close attention to the details of this declaration by our Lord tend to support the pretribulation rapture as the only view that can be harmonized with the literal and detailed exegesis of this passage. Posttribulationists consistently avoid this passage in their discussion of eschatology.
The Olivet Discourse is one of the great prophetic utterances of Scripture dealing not only with the age as a whole in its progress and signs of the end but portraying the great truth of the second coming of Christ later to be expounded in greater detail in the Book of Revelation. The practical implications of the eschatological close of the age are clearly drawn in the various parables and in addition the judgment of the nations found only here in Matthew is a fitting climax for the series of events which usher in the kingdom. This prophetic picture also fits beautifully into Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel, that is, to explain why the kingdom was not brought in at the first coming of Christ, and how the kingdom will be brought in in connection with the second coming of Christ. His answer is complete and convincing and forms an important background for the discussion which follows later in Matthew concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, 1943), p. 988.
2 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Tyndale Bible Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 238.
3 Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament, rev. by Everett F. Harrison (4 vols.; Chicago, 1958), I, 254.
4 A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, 1915), p. 369.
5 M’Neile, p. 368.
6 Cf. another discussion of this passage by the author, The Nations in Prophecy (Grand Rapids, 1967), pp. 151-57.
7 W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, 1957), p. 217.