Issues in Bible Prophecy (2): The Gospel Proclaimed to All Nations, the End, and The Coming of the Son of Man
In my last post, I introduced the subject of Bible prophecy by emphasizing two critically important aspects of it: timing and historical context.
With regard to timing, we said that if we want to understand the prophecies of the Bible correctly, we must pay close attention to time indicators or time texts. Often, the prophecies of the Bible contain information concerning when the prophecy in question will be fulfilled. Some are very specific: within a year (Isa. 21:16), a little more than a year (Isa. 32:10), in three years (Isa. 16:14), in 40 years (Ezek. 29:11, 13), in 65 years (Isa. 7:8), in 70 years (Jer. 25:11).
There are also prophecies with time indicators that are less specific: “in just a little while” (Hos. 1:4); “before your eyes and in your days” (Jer. 16:9), “the days are near,” “In your days” (Ezek. 12:23, 25). These refer to prophesied events that were to take place soon after the prophecies were given.
If we should take any of these prophecies and say that we should look for them to be fulfilled in our day, then we wouldn’t be handling the text very well. The same is true with the prophecies of the New Testament that have clear time-indicators. The prophecies we have in mind from the New Testament are the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation. Many people simply ignore the time indicators. In the Olivet Discourse, the time text is Matthew 24:34, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” A generation in Scripture is 40 years. So all of these things that Jesus just mentioned must have already been fulfilled. They must have been fulfilled by ad 70. That was the year the Romans destroyed the city and the holy temple. That that was the very thing Jesus spoke about in Matthew 24:1-2. No doubt stunned by this statement, the disciples asked, “When will these things be?”
This view of the passage is called the preterist view. The word “preterist” has to do with grammar, with the tense of a verb. It refers to an action that has already happened in the past. The preterist view of prophecy is just the opposite to the futurist view, which refers to an approach that looks for a fulfillment of the prophecy in our future.
We are all preterists with respect to certain prophecies and futurists with respect to others. For example, we are all preterists with respect to Isaiah 7:14, “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This has already been fulfilled. So has Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant, “Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” etc. And we are all futurists with respect to the prophecies that foretell the resurrection and the final judgment. Keeping in mind the time-texts (in those prophecies that have them) and the historical context goes a long way to help us determine the difference.
The time text of the Olivet Discourse, “This generation will not pass away until all things take place” (v. 34), together with a knowledge of the history of the first century, provides us with convincing evidence that the prophecy has already been fulfilled.
Even as I say this, I’m sure that many elements of the prophecy have come to your mind that lead you to think the prophecy must relate to the future, like what Jesus says in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
The Gospel Proclaimed throughout the Whole World
It may come as a surprise to learn that this portion of the text has already been fulfilled, and an even greater surprise to learn that it was not fulfilled only recently, but nearly twenty centuries ago. We have no less an authority for this than the word of God itself. In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul made this remarkable statement, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing” (Col. 1:5-6). A little after, in the same chapter, he spoke of “the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (v. 23).
We find the same testimony in his greeting to the Christians of Rome. He wrote, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8; cf. ; ).
We must be careful to understand the words of Scripture as the Biblical characters themselves used them. The question is not, “How do we understand such language today but, “How was such language used and understood in the first century?”
An interesting passage in this respect is Luke 2:1, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Did Augustus take a census of the Chinese? The Native Americans? The Aborigines of Australia? The obvious meaning is that he took a census of those who lived within the Roman Empire. The fact is, the Roman Empire was “the world” for those who lived within its borders. This is not to say that they were unaware of the world beyond the borders of the Empire. They surely were. But the empire was for all practical purposes the whole world to them.
All that was necessary, therefore, for the fulfillment of Christ’s prediction was that the gospel be preached throughout the Roman Empire. Paul claimed that this was done in his day.
Matthew 24:14 also speaks of “the end.” “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end shall come.” The end of what? The end of Jerusalem. There is a biblical precedent for speaking this way, for speaking of the fall of Jerusalem as “the end.” This is just the language used by Ezekiel to speak of the fall of the holy city to the Babylonians 600 years earlier:
And you, O son of man, thus says the Lord God to the land of Israel: An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations... An end has come; the end has come... (Ezek. 7:2-3, 6)
The Collapse of the Universe
Another element of the Olivet Discourse that causes some people to hesitate to accept a preterist interpretation is the cosmic language used in Matt. 24:29.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
This sounds like the collapse of the universe, a cosmic cataclysm. But the same language was used in the Old Testament to describe other judgments of God in history. In fact, a collapsing universe is one of the most frequently used biblical images of judgment. Consider, for example, the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Wail, for the day of the Lord is near;
As destruction from the Almighty it will come! ...
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
Cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
Will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light...
Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them...
(Isaiah 13:1, 6, 9-10, 17)
The prophecy refers to the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians in 539 bc. It’s a prophecy of judgment that took place almost 2,600 years ago, yet it speaks of its fall in the same cosmic language. For other examples, see Isaiah 34:4-5; Ezek. 32:7-8; Amos 8:9; Mic. 3:6; etc.
The Coming of the Son of Man
Another element of the Olivet Discourse that gives some people pause in accepting the preterist interpretation (the view that it has already been fulfilled), is what Jesus says in Matthew 24:30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” This is probably the primary reason why the Olivet Discourse has been so widely interpreted as referring to the Second Coming rather than to the destruction of Jerusalem ad 70. Before we jump to that conclusion, however, we should consider what he says in Matthew 16:27-28, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done."
Surely, this must refer to the second coming, right? The Son of Man coming in the glory of the Father with his holy angels dispensing judgment? But let’s read on. In the very next verse he says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Here is a reference to “the coming of the Son of Man” which clearly cannot be understood of a still future event. There is an unmistakable time qualification attached to it. The Son of Man would come before all the apostles would “taste death.” Surely it is unnecessary to ask whether any of the twelve are still living? There must, then, have been some event within the lifetime of at least some of the apostles to that Jesus was referring to. Some say it was the transfiguration in the next chapter (Matt. 17:1-8). Others have suggested the Day of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). But neither of these two suggestions seems adequate. Neither was a judgment event. The only event that fits the expression and falls within the parameters of time indicated, is the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70.
In terms of our present discussion, however, it matters very little whether one interprets Jesus’ statement in this passage as referring to the Transfiguration, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or the destruction of Jerusalem. The point is, Matthew 16:27-28 proves that the expression, “the coming of the Son of Man,” does not necessarily refer to the coming of Christ at the close of human history. In this passage, in fact, it cannot refer to it, for the “coming” was to happen before all the apostles should “taste death.” Therefore, by analogy, the fact that Jesus refers to the coming of the Son of Man in the Olivet Discourse cannot be offered as proof that the prophecy must refer to the end of time.
Another thing to consider is the fact that the “coming” of God in salvation/judgment, like many of the other expressions in the Olivet Discourse, is common in the Old Testament to speak of historical judgments. The prophet Isaiah announced judgment upon Egypt in terms strikingly similar to what we find in Jesus’ prophecy.
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence
Doesn’t this sound like Jesus “coming on the clouds” in the Olivet Discourse? The fact is, the Bible is full of references to the “coming” of God in salvation and/or judgment (Isa. 31:4; 35:4; 40:9-10; 26:21; 59:19; Mic. 1:3; see also Ps. 18:4-9).
In my next post, we’ll look at two more elements of the Olivet Discourse: the abomination of desolation and the great tribulation.