PMW 2020-051 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

As I offer my fifth contribution in this series on the role of the great tribulation in postmillennialism, we come now to consider several interpretive difficulties. At least, verses that seem difficult to apply in the first century.

Jesus expressly states that all these things shall occur in “this generation” (Matt 24:34). Regardless of how difficult a first-century fulfillment may seem for some of Jesus’ statements, his clear time frame statement control our interpretation of the passage. Let us consider the troublesome issues that arise in the remaining prophecies.

Gospel proclamation

Many opponents of the first-century analysis point first of all to Jesus’ statement regarding the preaching of the gospel: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matt 24:14). How can we explain this statement? The “whole world” heard the gospel? This looks like a formidable objection against a first-century fulfillment. But looks are deceiving.

Actually, the meaning of the Greek word oikumene (“world”) here does not necessarily refer to the entire planet. We may glean many examples of a more restricted meaning from various Scriptures. For instance, in Acts 24:5 Luke records the Jewish opposition against Paul in that they charge him with causing dissension among the Jews “throughout the whole world.” Surely this means their world, the world of their experience, the Roman empire.

But even more significantly the New Testament informs us that the gospel is preached throughout the entire known world of that day: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom 1:8). Paul even writes that “the gospel . . . has come to you, just as in all the world” (Col 1:6, cp. v 23). Interestingly, in this statement he uses the word kosmos which can and often does speak of the entire world. Yet he declares that the gospel has come “in all the world.”

Thus, in the Matthew 24:14 Jesus simply states that the gospel will be preached in the entire known world of that day before these events reach their climax. That is, it will not be limited to Israel, as was his ministry (Matt 10:6; 15:24).

Abomination of desolation

What are we to make of his statement regarding the dreaded “abomination of desolation?” In Matthew 24:15 the Lord states: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place.” This prophecy is often associated with a world-ruling Antichrist in the future.

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Contrary to popular opinion, though, this must also occur in the first century. We see this from the following evidence: (1) This “abomination” stands in the “holy place,” i.e., the temple standing immediately before them (cp. Matt 23:38—24:2). (2) His audience could imagine no other locality, for Jerusalem is the “holy city” (Neh 11:1, 18; Isa 48:2; 52:1; Dan 9:24; Matt 4:5; 27:53) (3) Christ is responding to questions pertaining to that very temple (cf. Matt 24:1). He even points to the temple as he answers (Matt 24:2). That holy place will be dismantled by the Roman soldiers within forty years, a generation.

The “abomination of desolation” is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by pagan Roman armies. Luke’s parallel account makes this clear. He takes Matthew’s Hebraic language and interprets it for his Gentile audience: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand” (Luke 21:20). He tells us what the abomination is: Jerusalem being surrounded by Roman armies for the purpose of decimating her temple.

The Romans encircle Jerusalem on at least two occasions: under Vespasian in the initial siege and later under Titus not long before the Temple’s final destruction. Of Vespasian’s siege Josephus comments:

“And now the war having gone through all the mountainous country, and all the plain country also, those that were at Jerusalem were deprived of the liberty of going out of the city; for as to such as had a mind to desert, they were watched by the zealots; and as to such as were not yet on the side of the Romans, their army kept them in, by encompassing the city round about on all sides.” (Jewish War 4:9:1 §490)

He writes that later Titus builds “a wall round about the whole city” (Jewish War 5:12:1 §499).

After the first surrounding, the Christians are to flee from Judea. In God’s providence, Vespasian withdraws from the siege when Nero dies; the Christians then had the opportunity to escape. The early church father Eusebius notes that:

“The people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Ecclesiastical History 3:5:3; cp. Matt 24:16; Epiphanius, Of Weights and Measures, 15)

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Debate book on the nature and timing of the great tribulation. Both sides thoroughly cover the evidence they deem necessary, then interact with each other.

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When the Roman soldiers finally obtain the upper hand in the temple, Josephus records how they raise their ensigns in the temple, bow to their to pagan deity, and offer incense to Caesar:

“The Romans upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the Temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy.” (Jewish War 6:6:1 §316)

Thus, we see what the Lord means by “the abomination of desolation.” We are now ready to focus on the direct statement mentioning “the great tribulation.” But I am weary. So I will offer that study next time!

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  1. Jason Elliott July 1, 2020 at 4:23 am

    I would also like to bring up the parallel passages of Mark 13 and Luke 21 where the apostles are clearly asking about when the buildings of the temple will be thrown down, and do not mention the “end of the world” as in Matthew 24. If we see these as parallel passages, along with Revelation 6, I think we are cornered into a first century fulfillment of the signs given. I think many Christians misapply Matthew 24 because they believe the signs are for Christ’s 2nd coming however these signs indicate the end is NOT yet, which gives the prophecy in Isaiah 2:2-4 some teeth regarding the ceasing of wars among the nations even if we apply them throughout the New Testament age. Also, these signs would be so vague they would be meaningless if applied throughout history up to the coming of Christ. When Jesus changes his focus to the distant passing away of the heavens and earth at his 2nd coming, he gives no signs but instead implores his followers to be working in the kingdom and praying. The lost world will be completely taken by surprise by Christ’s 2nd coming while those who are truly watching and waiting for him will say, “FINALLY HE HAS COME!”.

  2. Kenneth Gentry July 6, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Actually, I believe Matthew provides the most detailed presentation of their question. And thus, this leads to the view that I presented.

  3. Leonardo November 9, 2020 at 11:00 pm

    then what would be the “end” mentioned in verse 14? if the end of the age refers to the second coming of Christ, what would be the “end” of verse 14 which, it seems, was fulfilled in the first century?

  4. Kenneth Gentry November 10, 2020 at 8:23 am

    In the Olivet Discourse we see the English word “end” several times (Matt. 24:3, 6, 13, 14, 31). In the disciples’ question in 24:3, the word they use is sunteleia.

    But in 24:6 and 14 the word telos is used. In those two verses it appears to refer to the “end” of the temple, which Jesus had prophesied (24:2). For Jesus notes that after the nations have received the testimony of the gospel of the kingdom, then “the end [telos] will come.” And the key sign of this is the disciples’ seeing the abomination of desolation (v. 15) upon which they are finally to flee out of Jerusalem (24:16-18).

    However, in 24:13 the word “end” (telos) speaks of the end of a Christian’s life after his having endured persecution.

    Finally, in 24:31 the word “end” is akron, which is irrelevant to our discussion. It simply means “to the farthest point” (i.e., of the sky).

    Thus, the word sunteleia is uniquely used in 24:3 and is therefore seems to be intentionally distinguished from the telos of vv. 6 and 14. This distinct usage appears to show the disciples’ confusion and how Jesus deals with it. There must be a reason that sunteleia only occurs in the disciples’ question, after which Jesus warns them not to be misled (vv. 4, 5, 6) for several things will occur that are but the beginning of the birth pangs that lead to the temple’s destruction (v. 8).

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