I don’t know just where Edna. St. Vincent Millay was standing when she penned the beautiful description,
“All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and look the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.”
I said that I did not know where she was standing when she wrote this beautiful description. I do know however that to see exactly that scene you must stand where she stood. You cannot stand on one of the mountains or on one of the islands and see that whole scene as she saw it. There is only one place to see it and that is to stand exactly where she stood.
In a similar way a proper understanding of Matthew 24 demands that you stand where Christ stood, you must view the future not from the year 1943 but from the year in which our Lord was crucified. You must to some extent place yourself in the disciples’ position, you must imagine yourself a Jewish follower of Christ having heard His words to the effect that Jerusalem shall be left desolate, you must place yourself before the destruction of Jerusalem, before the crucifixion and resurrection. And there in that place, from that vantage point you must listen to Christ’s discourse on the last things. You must see Jerusalem’s end coming with all its awful woe, you must hear the distant roll of the thunder. Only then can you catch the right perspective.
According to the context Jesus had just ended His terrible woes upon Jerusalem that killed the prophets, He had just stated that all the righteous blood shed from Abel unto Zacharias the son of Barachias should come upon this generation, their house should be left desolate. Now Jesus went out and departed from the temple. As they were leaving the temple and Temple Hill (the last rays of the sun were reflecting upon are temple very likely) the disciples pointed out to Him the buildings as they stood there in all their glory. It was as though they meant to say, How can this destruction come, come upon that beautiful house of God? Jesus answered, See ye not all these things? a question which does not mean at all, of course, to call their attention to the temple building; it rather means to ask, Don’t you see all this woe and doom hanging over the temple and Jewish nation? over the nation that had rejected the Saviour and within two days would seal their rejection by nailing Him to the cross. Thus it is that Christ also adds, “Verily, I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
And so the Lord and His disciples slowly moved on and came to Mt. Olivet. From that hill they could perhaps view the temple still better, and perhaps even a large section of the city. Privately they now come to Him and asked, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world? The question consisted of two main parts: the first regarded the time when these things of which He had spoken should take place; the second, consisting of two parts, what shall be the sign of Thy own coming and (together with it) of the end of the world. The discourse that follows in Matt. 24 comprises the answer to the twofold question of the disciples.
Now the great question before us is, What is to be the proper perspective for understanding the signs Jesus gives? Or to put the problem in other words, What is the proper method of interpretation to be applied? Was Jesus only speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, or was Jesus also speaking of the time just prior to His second coming which we now realize was to follow only a long time after Jerusalem’s destruction? Or was Jesus perhaps only speaking of the end time of the world as it still lies in the future? Do parts of the discourse only refer to what is now at the present time still future, while perhaps other parts have been fulfilled?
Hodge in his Systematic Theology, Vol. III, pages 798-800 cogently summarizes the various views and briefly evaluates them, He states, “There are three methods of interpretation which have been applied to this passage. The first assumes that the whole of our Lord’s discourse refers to one question, namely, When was Jerusalem to be destroyed and Christ’s kingdom to be inaugurated; the second adopts the theory of what used to be called the double sense of prophecy; that is, that the same words or prediction refer to one event in one sense, and to a different event in a higher sense; the third asumes that one part of our Lord’s predictions refers exclusively to one of the questions asked, and that other portions refer exclusively to other questions.”
The first of these above mentioned views or perspectives is to our mind definitely out. It refers everything in this chapter to the overthrow of the Jewish polity, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the inauguration of the Church. In that case the chapter has historic interest but it has nothing to say of the future. All that it says is fulfilled, was fulfilled when the Jewish nation met its fateful end and the Church spread out. Even the sign of the coming of the Son of man in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory has no meaning for us. This interpretation is rationalistic, modernistic.
The second interpretation sees in Matthew 24 and its predictions a double sense, that is, a nearer and more distant fulfillment. According to this view the disciples believed that the three events of the destruction of Jerusalem, the second coming of Christ and the end of the world would come at one and the same time. Thus the Lord answers them without seperating the different subjects from one another. He keeps the whole before his mind, and takes the long range of prophecy. The Lord then takes one great end in hand and speaks of all else and what is preparatory only so far as it stands in connection with that end and appears as one of its elements. As Isaiah’s description of Israel’s deliverance from captivity was so framed as to answer both to the redemption of the Jews from their captivity in Babylong and to the greater redemption by the Messiah, so too Jesus’ discourse on the last things in Matthew 24 is couched in terms that have a fulfillment in the final end of the world. Everything accordingly that will be fulfilled fully and finally in the advent time of Christ’s final return had its counterpart in the destruction of Jerusalem.
There is a third method of interpretation. According to this the three individual parts of the disciples’ question are each answered in a seperate portion of the chapter. Some parts, for example, vss. 15-28 deal with the destruction of Jerusalem; others deal with the time just prior to the world’s end, vss. 4-14; still others deal with the very coming of Christ in glory vss. 29-31.
To my mind the second of these views must not be discounted. It is indeed true that prophecy is never history and that historical details given in advance; prophecy always looks ahead and speaks of the more distant future in one breath and in the language of the prophet uttering it. It speaks in the known terms of the distant, as e.g., Isaiah speaks of the New Testament Church as Israel, etc. Prophecy reaches out always to the end, and it can do that since every end is a forerunner and type of the final end. Jerusalem’s destruction and the woes with it is not chronologically one with the final end of the world, but ideologically they are inseparable and the one is a part and forerunner of the other. Certainly whait Christ says in this chapter of the end time is true of the end of the world as well as of the destruction of Jerusalem. An abundance of Scripture could be quoted to show that the conditions prior to Christ’s final return will be as pictured here in Matt. 24. Why then should we limit these predictions to Jerusalem’s end alone?
However, the third view that some portions of the chapter refer more particularly to the end of Jerusalem and others more particularly to the end of Jerusalem, ought to be allowed to stand. In the case of prophecy this is more frequently true. And it seems to me that the chapter itself suggests this quite readily. In the verses 4-14, then, I should say Christ speaks primarily of the signs presaging his final coming. There will arise false Christs and deceive many, there shall be wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes in divers places. These are signs in the world in general, ever present but multiplying as the final end draws near,. Then there are the signs within the Christian community itself—persecution, falling away, false prophets within the fold, lawlessness. Still—to our encouragement—Christ assures us that the gospel shall be preached in all the world, be it for a witness. Only then can the end come, but then it shall come. Now certainly the gospel can hardly be said to have been preached in all the world, except in a very limited sense, when Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 A.D.
In the vss. 15-28 it seems to me that the Lord more particularly speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem. Then the Romans came and wrought frightful vengeance upon the Jewish nation. The horror of that event is well-nigh indescribable. At that time the Jewish Christians fled to Pella in Perea across the Jordan. If the Lord had not remembered his elect from the Jews in those terrible days, and shortened those days for their sake, the destruction would not have stopped until all the Jews, Christians and unbelieving Jews, had been wiped out. In that time some did shout that the Messiah had come (accordng to the conception of the Messiah the wicked Jews had). Jesus warns them not to go forth to the desert to find Him. He will not appear at any particular place. When He comes the Son of man will come as lightning cometh out of the east and shineth to the west. They will not have to go here or there to find Him, He will come in great glory visible to all when He comes. Those that proclaim themselves Messiah’s and beckon the people to rally round them whether in the desert or in a secret chamber are false Christs, only the wicked will follow such leaders, as eagles only swoop down to devour the carcase, rot alone will seek rot.
Of course, even these conditions applicable as they were to the Jews of that time, will be applicable in a sense to the end time.
Finally, the vss. 29-41 speak more particularly of the actual moment of Jesus full and final coming. After the tribulation of those days, typified in the days of Jerusalem’s destruction and fulfilled in the end time, immediately after that, Christ shall appear and gather His elect. The children of God must therefore read the signs of the times and know when these foretokens come to pass that the actual day of Christ’s second advent is at hand, that the summer of grace is at hand. However, the exact day and hour no one knows, nor need we know. We must watch, and therefore Christ adds that those days just preceding His return will be days in which we will need to be watching. For as it was with the wicked world in Noe’s day, so shall it be then. And when Christ comes, only they will be taken unto Him who as Noah are righteous and walk with God, the others will be abandoned.
Watch therefore and be ye ready. And read the signs of the times, for they multiply even in our day.
The day of the Lord is at hand. The summer of grace is nigh.