Sunday, May 05, 2024

Between 14 and 15

The Lord Jesus had just left the temple, prophesying its complete destruction. He sat down on the Mount of Olives, allowing the disciples to come to him privately and ask, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Three questions, and it’s not entirely apparent that the Lord answered them in the order they were asked. Over the ensuing centuries, much debate has resulted as Christians tried on various interpretations of his answer, comparing scripture with scripture.

Matthew 24 and 25 are all of a piece. People tend to read them, including the parables of chapter 25, as if the Lord is addressing his disciples in their capacity as members of the (then-future) church, because, well, that’s what we do; we instinctively make everything the Lord said about ourselves. Suppose, however, that the Lord was actually addressing his disciples as representatives of the devout remnant of Israel. In our present age, that remnant is part of the church, quite indistinguishable from it — with the exception that a Christian Jew has a personal investment in the national restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant that no Gentile believer is fully equipped to enter into.

Who Were Daniel’s People?

If we believe our Lord was talking only to the church, we are going to run into a lot of confusion as we work our way through the passage. For one thing, we will find the church going through the great tribulation, as so many sadly do. We will wonder about all the references to Judea and the Sabbath, which have nothing to do with the vast majority of us. We will be perplexed by the references to Daniel 12, including the “abomination that makes desolate”, the taking away of the “regular burnt offering” (for which a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem is a prerequisite, since nobody is sacrificing today). We will wonder why the context in Daniel mentions Michael, the great prince who has charge of “your people”, which is absolutely, indisputably a reference to the Jews, not you and me.

The phrase occurs seven times in Daniel. “Your people” were brought out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand. “Your people” had become a byword in Babylonian exile. “Your people” are associated with “your city”, plainly Jerusalem. “Your people” are the subjects of the seventy weeks prophecy. “Your people” are destined for a time of trouble such as has never been since Israel became a nation. All these revelations came in response to Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9, which was entirely concerned with the timing of the end of the seventy years of “desolations of Jerusalem”, the literal, physical city. This was the question to which the angel Gabriel came to provide an answer, and we can be sure he didn’t pull a bait-and-switch on poor Daniel, substituting a spiritual fulfilment in the church for the long-expected restoration of national Israel. In order to answer Daniel’s question properly, Gabriel was compelled to walk him through not just the near-term return to the land, which would take place almost immediately, but the far superior permanent spiritual restoration of the nation, which even today has yet to take place.

The Disciples and the Remnant

No, the end-times prophecies of Daniel concern the ultimate fate of the Jews as a national entity. The presence of a reference to them in Matthew, particularly “the abomination that makes desolate”, should be the final straw that compels us to reconsider whether what the Lord Jesus said to his disciples in response to their question has very much to do with the church at all.

Today, the faithful Jewish remnant worships in Christian churches all over the world. When the trumpet sounds, Jews and Gentiles alike will answer the call to meet the Lord in the air. The dead in Christ — including Peter, James, John and all the rest, Jews and Gentiles alike — will rise first and precede us as we receive our resurrection bodies. For a moment, perhaps even for an hour or two until the word gets out, there will be no believers on the entire planet, including the Jewish remnant. From that point on, every person with a genetic connection to Jacob who comes to faith in Christ will not be part of the church as we now know it, but part of a godly future remnant of Israel, and there will be lots and lots of them in short order.

So then, if the Lord was indeed addressing his disciples as representatives of the godly Israelite remnant, a great many of the interpretive issues that perplex Christians reading the passage resolve themselves. The Lord can speak to his disciples as soon-to-be-Christian Jews in verses 4-13 and, equally, as representing those alive during the great tribulation in verses 15-28, because the remnant in our age is indistinguishable from the church.

A Progress Report

So where are we right now in the prophetic timeline laid out in Matthew 24? I would estimate we are between verses 14 and 15:

Verse 5, “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” Check that one off. It’s been going on for centuries. Wikipedia’s list of messianic claimants is massive, and we can be sure they have missed some. There will be more coming, I’m sure, but these words of our Lord, as spoken, are already fulfilled even if the frauds stopped their obscene claims to divinity right this second.

Verse 6, “wars and rumors of wars”. Check that one off too. For every potential war, there will always be multiple rumors. Trying to track those would be the ultimate exercise in futility. Even the number of actual wars in history is staggering. But depending on how you define “war”, from the time of the Lord’s prophecy until AD1000, our world averaged 25 wars per century. (All estimates wildly approximate.) From AD1001-1900, it averaged 152 wars per century, or more than one per year. The 20th century matched that figure of 152 wars before 1920, encompassing the two deadliest and most widespread conflicts in human history, and the 21st century looks set to top all its predecessors. However you measure it, it is evident the trend is escalating, not slowing down. Nobody could ever say that one hasn’t been fulfilled!

Verse 7, famines and earthquakes. Check. Our world has had no shortage of either since the first century. There is no real way to estimate accurately the historical frequency of either famines or earthquakes over the last 2,000 years, but researchers conclude famines killed 128 million people between the 1860s and 2016 alone, for which we do have decent records. Last year, 1,712 earthquakes occurred with a magnitude of five or more. Between 2000 and 2022, the annual low was 1,341 and the high was 2,481.

Verse 9, persecution and martyrdom of believers. Check. An Italian journalist estimates the number of Christians killed because of their faith in Christ in the 20th century at a staggering 45 million. Secular human rights organizations downgrade that to a more likely 15-20 million. Either way, more Christians died for their faith in the last century than in all the previous centuries of Christian persecution combined. The last few generations of pampered Western believers are the exception, not the rule, and nobody argues the situation is improving.

Verse 10, apostasy, betrayal, hatred. Check. Though difficult to measure, the documented increase in persecution of believers over time is ample evidence of the world’s growing hatred of Christians, and increased persecution goes hand in hand with denials of faith and betrayals.

Verse 11, false prophets proliferate. If, as I believe, the prophetic gift ceased with the completion of the scripture, all self-styled prophets today ought to be considered false. Yet The New York Times claims “Christian prophets are on the rise”, and it certainly seems to be the case, despite questionable track records of predictive success.

Verse 12, increased lawlessness, causing expressions of Christian agape love to wane. Check. The numbers are disputed, but there’s no doubt about the general trends: church attendance is down, many who still attend go to be entertained rather than to worship, giving is down, hospitality is rare, divorce is up, and so on.

Verse 14, the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world. Did the Lord mean that every single people group as we define them today must have a continuous stream of gospel truth bombarding it for this to be fulfilled, or that every inch of the known world must be evangelized in every generation? I would think it’s unlikely. But realistically, with the advent of the internet age, we must be close. Despite plenty of false teaching, the truth is more accessible to the average person searching for it than at any time in human history. Third-worlders without a decent pair of pants have working cellphones that access the internet. So has this happened? Some say no. Some say yes. We ought also to factor in that many of the cultures in greatest darkness today have already had their gospel opportunity and squandered it, returning like dogs to their vomit. Islam took root in territory where the gospel had been preached and churches had existed for almost seven centuries. Europe is increasingly secularized, despite millennia of faithful witness. God is unfathomably gracious, but do we really expect the world to receive more light when it expresses no interest in what it has already received?

All these predictions have been fulfilled, or incredibly close, and all within the church age.

The Next Step

The next step in the Matthew 24-25 prophetic timeline is the abomination of desolation. For that, we need a revealed man of sin and a functioning, rebuilt temple. Will you and I still be around to see both of these? We may not be able to be dogmatic, but I don’t think so.

It looks to me like from verse 15 on, the Lord Jesus was speaking to his disciples as representatives of the post-rapture godly remnant of Israel. When we understand that, an otherwise-difficult passage can be reconciled with many other pieces of the prophetic puzzle.

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