Matthew 24 is Written to the Church
(It's all about the Church)
By Doug Shearer
It's time to rethink the notion that the church will escape the suffering and hardship that scripture tells us will accompany The Tribulation. Why? First, because there's an ever growing suspicion among evangelicals - a suspicion underscored by Dr John Sproule of Grace Theological Seminary - that pretribulationists might have it wrong; that we haven't adequately probed the weaknesses that plague pretribulationalism; and, second, because the consequences of getting it wrong are profoundly significant: the church - especially the American church - will not have prepared believers to bear up under its impact.
Even committed pretribulationists
Even committed pretribulationists are rethinking the notion that the church will be spared all the hard times arising from The Tribulation; not that they believe the rapture won't occur before the onset of Tribulation, but that the church won't be spared the anguish and distress leading up to The Tribulation, what Jesus in Matthew 24:7-8 calls the "birth pangs."
This week I will be taking up the doctrinal significance of Matthew 24 -and the differing interpretations pre and post-tribulationists give it.
Let's begin with Matthew 24:2-3 ...
- And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you,
- There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
- Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age.
Bear in mind here that Jesus has just pronounced judgment on Jerusalem - back in Matthew 23:37-39 ...
- O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that kills the prophets, and stones them who are sent unto you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not!
- Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
- For I say unto you, You shall not see me henceforth, till you shall say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Jesus' prophecy in Matthew 24 is a follow-up on the judgment he pronounced back then. And, indeed, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans under Titus a mere thirty seven years later in 70 AD.
Mark's Gospel identifies the specific disciples who have sought out Jesus here in verses 1-3 - Peter, James, John, and Andrew, his closest disciples..
- And as he sat upon the Mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,
- Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?
No doubt, the disciples, a bit stunned by Jesus' prediction of the Temple's impending destruction, want to pursue the matter further. And what follows is the Olivet Discourse.
Pretribulationists insist that the Olivet Discourse describes events that have no bearing on the church or the church age. Why? Because those events, taken together, comprise The Tribulation; and the church, so they assure us, will have been raptured before that takes place.
But that's a hard pill to swallow. Why? Because of the obvious: here in Matthew 24, Jesus is speaking to his disciples - indeed, his closest disciples - soon to be commissioned the founding apostles of the church. Isn't it reasonable to assume, therefore, that the Olivet Discourse is freighted with staggering significance for the church? Would Jesus - with just a few short hours left to be with his disciples - spend it on a teaching that has no bearing whatsoever on the church or the church age? No bearing whatsoever on the prodigious responsibilities they are about to shoulder?
How, then, do pretribulationists make their case?
- The Disciples
- What They Represent
Pretribulationists go out of their way to underscore what's patently obvious: that here in Matthew 24 the church is yet to be established. From that, they make an unwarranted "jump" ...
... that because the Church Age hasn't formally begun, the disciples here in Matthew 24 aren't representative of the church, but of Jewish believers left behind after the rapture of the church.
But, then, does that mean the truths of John 17 aren't meant for the church either? After all, John 17 and Matthew 24 both record events that took place during the last week of Jesus' ministry - at least two months before the Day of Pentecost. If in John 17 Jesus is preparing the disciples for the task of shepherding the church, what possible justification is there for suggesting that he isn't pursuing the same goal in Matthew 24?
Let's be clear: there is no sharply defined, transparently obvious boundary separating the Mosaic Order from the Church Age - nor the Church Age from the Millennial Kingdom. Indeed, a good case can be made for arguing that the transition to the Church Age was underway from the very inception of Jesus' ministry; and that Jesus began preparing his disciples immediately for the responsibilities they would be shouldering then. Examples abound:
- Jesus announces the "new birth" to Nicodemus - a truth that's clearly linked to the long prophesied New Covenant announced by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel - John Chapter 3.
- Jesus declares that he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 61 - that in Him a new age is dawning - Luke Chapter 4.
- Jesus tells John's disciples that the Mosaic Order is being superseded - that new wine requires new wineskins - Mark Chapter 2.
- Jesus tells his disciples that John's ministry closes out the Mosaic Order - Matthew Chapter 11
... all events that took place early during Jesus' Galilean ministry - long before he began his final ministry in Judea and Jerusalem.
- The Narrowing
- Focus of Jesus' Ministry
Finally, in Matthew 16, the church itself is revealed to the disciples - and quite explicitly so - though, of course, its exact nature and characteristics remained obscure.
- And Simon Peter answered and said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
- And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed are you, Simon Barjona: for flesh and has not revealed this unto you, but my Father who is in heaven.
- And I say also unto you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
- And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 16:16 -19
Very few expositors doubt that from this point on, Jesus began to narrow the focus of his teaching ministry to the one goal of preparing his disciples to shepherd the church: that fewer and fewer matters extraneous to that one goal were allowed to intrude. And that makes it all the more unlikely that at the very close of his ministry, when we might justifiably expect him to be focused almost exclusively on the task of training his disciples to shepherd the church, Jesus would divert so much of his attention to a matter totally unrelated to that task - two whole chapters of recorded instruction - including the follow-up parables from Matthew 24:32 through to the end of Matthew 25.
That the disciples here in Matthew 24 are representative in nature is made clear in verse 15 ...
- Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place ...
... where it's obvious that Jesus knows that none of the disciples to whom he's speaking will be alive when the Abomination actually occurs. Yes, the disciples are representative; but they're not representative of Israel, they're representative of the church - meaning, of course, that it's important for believers to ...
- watch for the signs heralding the approach of The Tribulation, and
- to take careful note of the events which will occur during that awful span of time - and to be prepared to endure them.
No other option
A logically consistent pretribulationist, however, has no option but to insist that Matthew 24 bears no concrete, existential relevance for the church. After all, once again, the church will have been raptured before its onset. Is it possible that such passages amount to little more than sops meant to sate our curiosity? That's awfully hard to buy into!
And what about the Book of Revelation? Isn't the Book of Revelation addressed specifically to the church? Of course it is. John 1:4 reads ...
- John, to the seven churches which are in Asia.
And doesn't the Book of Revelation include a detailed description of The Tribulation - including specific instructions telling believers what to expect and how to bear up under its impact? If that's the case - and it clearly is so - then what's the justification for suggesting that Matthew 24 - or, for that matter, any other passage of scripture describing The Tribulation and the signs heralding its approach - has no bearing on the church - no relevance? There is none!
I've sketched out a Venn diagram to illustrate just how groundless it is to insist that Matthew 24 can't be addressed to the church in light of the fact that Revelation is specifically addressed to the church. If you're unfamiliar with Venn diagrams, don't bother. The point is made without it.
The Tribulation Is Not ... A Time of Wrath Only... It's a Time of Grace as Well
What we've been looking into for the last several weeks is the possibility that the church won't be raptured prior to The Tribulation; that, instead, she will be on earth during that awful span of time - witnessing against the "Great City" (Revelation 11:8 inter alia) and proclaiming grace to anyone willing to acknowledge his sins and cry out for mercy.
It's a possibility that more and more evangelicals have been grappling with - one that John A Sproule, President of Grace Theological Seminary in Illinois and himself a pre-tribulationist, took note of as far back as the early 1970s - when he pointed out that a decided shift was then occurring from pre-tribulationalism to post-tribulationalism: in his own words "it's becoming a recurrent theme" that can no longer be ignored.
- Even Pretribulationists are
- rethinking this issue
I went on to point out that even committed pretribulationists are rethinking the notion that the church will be spared all the hard times arising from The Tribulation; not that they believe the rapture won't occur before the onset of The Tribulation, but that the church won't be spared the anguish and distress leading up to The Tribulation, what Jesus in Matthew 24:7-8 calls the "birth pangs." For a graphic depicting the "Birth Pangs Era," press this link.
A Time of Wrath Only ...
Many evangelical scholars insist that the entire seven year Tribulation is a time of divine wrath only; and because the church has been promised deliverance from God's wrath, surely the church will have been raptured before The Tribulation occurs.
However, scripture makes it clear that during The Tribulation salvation will occur on an unprecedented scale - with uncounted millions brought to Christ - both Jews and gentiles. The Tribulation, therefore, is both a time of wrath and a time of grace - both. And if both, The Tribulation is, in this one sense, no different from any other epoch in human history - with ...
- some persons spurning God's offer of forgiveness and reconciliation and, consequently, being delivered over to the wrath that has already been pronounced against them (John 3:16); and
- others thankfully seizing God's offer of forgiveness and reconciliation and, consequently, escaping the wrath that was inherently their lot (John 3:16).
If salvation is occurring throughout The Tribulation - and not just here and there, but on a grand scale - it's not possible to write off the church's presence on the grounds that it's a time of wrath only.
But for many pre-tribulationists that's not the end of it. Backed into a corner, some of them trot out a subtle caveat - that it's the church that will be spared The Tribulation - and the church is composed only of believers redeemed since Pentecost and before the Tribulation. Believers redeemed during The Tribulation are not included in the church. It's a distinction that acknowledges the presence of believers during The Tribulation - that the Tribulation is not a time of wrath only - but, nevertheless, rescues the church itself from its suffering and anguish.
One of the verses - indeed, the primary one - they draw upon to make their point is Revelation 3:10, taken from Jesus' letter to the Church of Philadelphia ...
- Because you have kept my command to persevere, I will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole earth, to test those who dwell on the earth.
However, there are several obvious weaknesses that pre-tribulationists face in making their case, not the least of which is the very restricted scope of this promise. It's made only to overcomers. Not to all believers, but only to believers who persevere!
- In the case of Philadelphia, yes, it's made to the whole church, but only because, clearly, the church is composed primarily of overcomers.
- In the case of the other churches, it, like all the other reward/promises listed in Revelation 2 - 3, is made not to the whole church, but only to the overcoming remnant of those churches.
Clearly, then, Revelation 3:10 is a very shaky foundation upon which to build a case for the pre-tribulational rapture.
But that's not the all of it ...
- That believers brought to Christ during The Tribulation aren't included the Church!
- That they're nothing more than single, isolated individuals with no real corporate identity!
Wow! That's not a very defensible proposition.
In short, pretribulationists rescue their interpretation at the expense of denying fellowship in the Body of Christ to believers saved by faith in Jesus after the onset of The Tribulation. Once again: Wow! Surely that's a bit of a stretch! Since the death of Christ and the Day of Pentecost, to be saved is to be saved into Christ - and that means into the church, which, after all, is the Body of Christ. Since the Day of Pentecost, how can anyone be saved without being saved into the church?
Moreover, if believers brought to Christ are not saved into the church, what is the basis for their communion with one another? If not the church, what? Israel? No, that's not possible - because Israel isn't spiritually reconstituted until the very end of the Tribulation. What we have then is ...
- The church raptured and no longer on earth, and
- Israel, on earth, but not spiritually reconstituted until after the Tribulation - and even then accessible only to Jews, not gentiles.
Evidently, we're left with a "null set."
Some pre-tribulationists, however, suggest that God has indeed provided a third collective, albeit only by implication and nameless. But here again, that's a stretch. After all, the Book of Revelation reveals only two entities at the end of time into which believers are incorporated: the Church and Israel. No other!
- And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
- Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
- And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:
- On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.
- And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
No, the church will indeed cross the threshold of The Tribulation, passing through its entire seven year span of time, witnessing against the Great City and preaching grace to anyone willing to confess his sins and avail himself of God's unfathomable mercy.
It's quite simple: to be saved is to be saved into the Christ, and that means saved into the Church which is the Body of Christ; therefore, if believers are on the earth during The Tribulation - and that's unquestionably the case - so too is the church on earth during The Tribulation.
The relationship between personal and corporate salvation - that one cannot stand without the other - is explored in detail in my book, Calvin on the Ropes - with a forward by none other than Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, himself a committed pre-tribulationalist. You can find it on pages 17 - 25, with the summary on page 25. Purchase it onAmazon.com.
The Continuity between Revelation Chapters 1-3 and Revelation Chapters 4-22
Many evangelical leaders are convinced that the church will be raptured before the onset of The Tribulation - that, consequently, there's no need to prepare believers for its hardships. It's an interpretation that gained ascendancy in America over a hundred years ago - especially so following the publication in 1909 of the Scofield Reference Bible with its many footnotes promoting a pre-tribulational viewpoint.
However, there are several reasons for believers to reconsider the notion that they will escape the hardship and suffering of the The Tribulation.
- Pretribulatonists Rethinking
- the Inevitability of Hard Times
Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, a committed pre-tribulationalist and a highly reputed scholar, points out in his study The Footsteps of the Messiah that the lead-up to the actual Tribulation is fraught with many of the very hardships and trials that will occur during The Tribulation itself: world-wide war, famine, global epidemics, and large scale natural disasters (Matthew 24:7-8).
He goes on to insist that the events which together comprise the lead-up to The Tribulation, what Jesus calls "birth pangs," have been occurring since at least World War I - and have been intensifying ever since - to the extent that they are now impossible to ignore.
The implication is obvious: church leaders - even those convinced that the church will be raptured prior to the Tribulation - should be preparing their respective congregations for hard times ahead; that, in short, the church is not being well served by leaders who fail to do so.
- Rethinking the Entire
- Pre-tribulationist Viewpoint
Perhaps, however, the church won't be raptured before the onset of The Tribulation - that, more specifically, a pre-tribulational point of view is erroneous; that, instead, we should be preparing ourselves to endure not only the lead-up to The Tribulation, but The Tribulation itself. It's an argument that's gaining an undeniable foothold within the evangelical community.
- A New Take on
- the Book of Revelation
One of many obvious weaknesses that dogs the pre-tribulationist viewpoint is the apparent discontinuity between the first three chapters of Revelation and the rest of the book.
The first three chapters of the Book of Revelation are focused almost exclusively on the church - describing seven types of churches which will characterize the entire span of time extending from the Day of Pentecost to the Rapture. Jesus is walking among them, pointing out their respective strengths and weaknesses, calling them to account, and warning them to remedy their shortcomings.
Then, abruptly, beginning with Chapter Four, the focus is radically shifted - from the church to a description of the specific events that together comprise The Tribulation. Nothing more is said about the church, at least not explicitly, until the end of Chapter Twenty Two - which is exactly what prompts many pre-tribulationalists to insist that the church is not on earth during that awful span of time.
But that explanation begs the question: Is the Book of Revelation actually two books stitched haphazardly together with little or no thought given to continuity?
- Book One: A description of seven types of churches - benchmarks we can use to evaluate the condition of the church.
- Book Two: A description of the Tribulation - interesting and, indeed, intriguing, but of no concrete value for believers - because, of course, the church will have been raptured before The Tribulation occurs.
But the discontinuity is only apparent - if we revise our take on the over-all purpose of Revelation.
- Changed Perspective ...
- A Courtroom Drama
We can all agree that the Book of Revelation brings us to the culmination of redemptive history; that God is about to judge the world, bringing to an end the Age of Grace. But that judgment, to be valid, requires two witnesses (Deut. 19:15); and that's what Chapters One through Three are all about: God is preparing the church to be one of the two witnesses needed to seal the judgment he's about to render. In short, the Book of Revelation is essentially a courtroom drama - with the church called to be a witness for the prosecution. What we have, then, is ...
- Chapters One through Three - God is "prepping" the church to provide a faithful and true witness;
- Chapters Four through Twenty Two - God (a) is passing judgment against the world, (b) is pronouncing a just sentence, and, finally, (c) is following through with the execution of that sentence - the outpouring of his wrath.
That, of course, begs the question, "If the church is one of two witnesses required to render a valid judgment in a Jewish Court of Law, what about the second witness?" What we have, then, is ...
- the church is a witness in belief, having been "prepped" by Jesus himself in Chapters One through Three to faithfully and courageously witness in behalf of God against the world's unrighteousness.
- Israel is a witness in unbelief, whose very existence, even in unbelief, testifies (1) that God is unconditionally faithful to His Word, and (2) that he has, through Israel, once again broken into history and is confronting the world on its own terms.
- The Church's On-going
- Proclamation of Grace
Though the Book of Revelation is focused on judgment and casts the church in the role of validating God's accusations against the world, it doesn't play down the church's on-going proclamation of grace, which continues until her rapture at the end of The Tribulation. The Book of Revelation echoes with Shouts of Grace! Grace! (Zechariah 4:7)
Doug Shearer's blog can be found at www.discipleshipproject.us