Can you explain how postmillennialists reason through Matthew 24?

by | Jan 24, 2023 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

Can you explain how postmillennialists reason through Matthew 24?

ANSWER

Thank you for your question. Seriously. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study and come to a better understanding of one of Scripture’s more difficult passages. I hope what I say will be helpful to you.

First, a point of clarification. Interpreting Matthew 24 isn’t, properly speaking, a question of pre-/post-/amillennialism. As their labels suggest, those systems of end-times interpretation (eschatology) primarily have to do with what the “millennium” at the end of Revelation is, and what that means for the trajectory of history as we approach the Second Coming. Technically, the controversy in Matthew 24 is a debate between “futurist” and “preterist” interpretations of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. In layman’s terms, the question is: How much of what Jesus says in Matthew 24 is yet to be fulfilled (futurism), and how much has already been fulfilled (preterism)? Since Jesus says nothing about any kind of millennium in this passage, applying any term with -millennial to our interpretation can introduce a lot of unnecessary confusion.

All that to say, I’m going to be careful not to give an answer just because it conforms to a particular system of eschatology. I’ll just do my best to give what I think is a good interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, and I’ll focus on some of the more controversial parts. What I’ll say does differ from most premillennial interpretations of the passage, which typically understand Matthew 24 as mostly unfulfilled. The explanation I’ll give aligns more closely with typical postmillennial and amillennial interpretations of the passage. But understand, one person who uses a particular label may not even believe the same things as the next guy who uses the same label!

Verses 4–26: Fulfilled

I believe Matthew 24:4–26 all has to do with events leading up to and culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in AD 70. This event is immensely important in understanding the New Testament, but it has sadly been lost from our historical consciousness. You can read a little bit about it on Wikipedia. It was horrible, every bit as horrible as Jesus describes in Matthew 24. We have a detailed record of it because of the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus who was alive at the time. Mounting conflict between the Jews and their Roman rulers led to war and eventually to a brutal siege and invasion of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers who tore the temple apart stone by stone—just as Jesus prophesied.

In the tense years leading up to that cataclysmic event, Josephus gives record of false christs who arose in Israel at that time, claiming to be the Messiah. There were also famines and wars and earthquakes. And we know from the New Testament itself that the apostles began to be rejected and persecuted by their own people, just as Jesus warned they would in Matthew 24:9.

We must not overlook the significance of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It was not just a sad historical event in the life God’s chosen people. It decisively marked the end of the Old Testament era with God’s judgment on the Jews because of their rejection of their heaven-sent Messiah. Note, however, God’s mercy to withhold that destruction until decades after Jesus’ death. He could have wiped His people out the day after they crucified the Lord of glory; instead, He sent His apostles to preach the gospel of the kingdom. Sadly, the Jews persisted in rejecting their King, and God’s judgment didn’t wait forever. He sent the Romans (just like He’d sent the Assyrians and the Babylonians before) to punish His people for their rejection of Him and His Son.

What about verse 14? “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

We have come to assume Jesus must have meant that the gospel needs to reach the remotest island in the Pacific Ocean before Judgment Day can happen. I don’t think the apostles would have interpreted “the whole world” that way, even after Jesus’ resurrection, and I don’t think we should either (at least not in this passage). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians that their faith was being proclaimed “throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). Similarly, he wrote to the Colossians that the gospel at that time was “constantly bearing fruit and increasing” “in all the world” (Col. 1:5–6). Because of this, I think the most natural way to understand “the whole world” is as representative of many places across the face of the earth, and not as utterly comprehensive.

In the same vein, when the apostles speak of “all the nations,” they’re generally referring to all peoples of the earth in contrast to just the people of Israel. The gospel had already been preached to the nation of Israel when Jesus said the things recorded for us in Matthew 24. He was telling His disciples that the gospel needed to go out as a testimony to the rest of the world (i.e., to the Gentiles) before the end of which He was speaking would come. And that’s exactly what happened. For several decades following Christ’s death, the gospel spread across the face of the earth and testified to the nations that Jesus is Lord, not just of the Jews, but of every nation. It was important for this to happen before the destruction of Jerusalem, so that the gospel of the kingdom would not die (in a manner of speaking) along with the Jews in Jerusalem.

What is the “abomination of desolation” in verse 15?

I believe this is referring to the presence of Roman armies in the holy city Jerusalem, and ultimately in the temple itself, which was an absolute desecration of that place. Gentile armies were an abomination to the Jews, and the temple remains desolate to this day ever since its destruction at that time. There are many specific theories about the historical details of what exactly the Romans did to desecrate the temple. In the end, I don’t see any reason this phrase has to be understood as describing the end times.

Verses 27–31: Unfulfilled

I believe Jesus begins to transition to speaking of His second coming when He says His coming will be like lightning in verse 27. This is in contrast to what He has been saying up to this point about the coming of false prophets, whose coming would precede the destruction of Jerusalem. He has not been describing His second coming thus far, and He essentially says here, “When I docome again, you’ll know it; it won’t be like what I’ve been explaining to you.”

These verses are generally considered the most difficult to interpret. Those who argue for their being already fulfilled rightly point out that such cosmic apocalyptic language (e.g., stars falling from the sky, as in v. 29) is often used in Scripture to refer metaphorically to world-shaking events, and not primarily to visible meteor showers or eclipses. The Apostle Peter seems to do this in his sermon in Acts 2. He tells his hearers that what was happening at Pentecost in Jerusalem on that day was “what was spoken of through the prophet Joel,” including the fact that God would “grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood” (Acts 2:16, 19–20).

We might be disappointed that Luke does not go on to record that “the people looked into heaven and saw a solar eclipse and a meteor shower happening at that very moment!” If we are, I think we’re missing the point. Instead, we should hear what Peter says and realize the cosmic significance of what was happening that day. Jesus’ death and resurrection not only reshaped the history of mankind, they shook the cosmos. The apostles saw Jesus ascend into heaven, and with their preaching they made known to all creation that He had been given all rule and all authority in heaven and on earth, which is to say, throughout the entire universe.

I take it for granted that things were happening in the heavens at that time, perhaps even with the stars themselves, though it may be hidden from our knowledge. Remember, a star hurtled through heaven and guided the Magi to Jesus after He was born (Matt. 2). The sun went dark when Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:33). I can only imagine what may have been happening in the heavens when the resurrected Jesus ascended to His throne. My point isn’t to speculate about things God hasn’t revealed to us. My point is to get us to understand the cosmic significance of our Lord Jesus Christ conquering death, undoing the curse, and restoring man to his proper place as lord of the earth. Angels throughout the entire universe rejoiced when that happened. The moon turning to blood is actually rather insignificant compared to the Word of God going forth with power on the day of Pentecost. Christ is Lord of all!

Still, in the end, it seems most likely to me that verses 27–31 do in fact refer to Jesus’ second coming, especially when the emphasis in these verses seems to be on the very visible return of Christ on the clouds. (There are preterist ways of explaining why this too has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem, or perhaps with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, but I find these interpretations unconvincing.)

Verses 32–35: Fulfilled

I think verses 27–31 were an aside about Jesus’ second coming, but that He returns to His first topic (the events leading up to AD 70) in 32–35 with the parable of the fig tree. This is made clear by Jesus’ statement in verse 34: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” To me, this statement is the death blow to a completely futurist interpretation of Matthew 24. I can find no persuasive biblical justification for arguing that “this generation” could mean anything other than the generation of the apostles whom Jesus was speaking to.

Now, if you’re paying attention, you might point out that I just said verses 27–31 refer to Jesus’ second coming. But if that’s true, how can I say that verse 34 refers to the apostles’ generation? I think the best answer is that Jesus is making a distinction here between two events—the destruction of Jerusalem and His second coming—and that He makes that distinction clear with the words “these” and “that.” “All these things” in verse 34 refers to the first near-at-hand things of which He has been speaking; “that day and hour” in verse 36 refers to His more distant second coming.

What about verse 33? Doesn’t it say, “when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door”?

Actually, the Greek does not clearly say “He” is near. It’s ambiguous what exactly Jesus is saying is near, which we can see in the KJV’s translation of this verse: “when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.” In other words, Jesus could be speaking of an event being near, and not necessarily of Himself. And that actually makes sense when it’s an event—i.e., summer—that is near in His fig tree parable.

The interpretation gets more challenging here because Jesus is transitioning from talking about one event to talking about another. But I think the ambiguity is intentional on His part. Why? I think our Lord wants us to take seriously what He says to the apostles’ generation and find application in it for ourselves; and He wanted the apostles to take seriously what He was speaking to future generations and find application in it for themselves.

Verses 36–44: Unfulfilled

By the time we get to verse 36, Jesus has described in great detail what “things” were to precede Jerusalem’s destruction. He seemed to know what was coming, and He told the apostles exactly how to know when that event was going to take place. Because of this, I don’t think it makes sense for Him to be referring to most of what He spoke about earlier in the chapter when He says, in verse 36, “of that day and hour no one knows.” If no one knows when the second coming will be, He must have been speaking of a different event when He basically told the apostles, “Here’s exactly how you’ll know.” In contrast to this, He says that no one knows the timing of “that day and hour” when referring to His second coming. The fact that they do not know (and He doesn’t even know!) when “that day” will be shows that it is something different than what He was explaining to them earlier. When talking about His second coming, Jesus focuses on the surprising and sudden nature of His appearing, which stands in great contrast to everything the apostles were supposed to expect in their own generation as they anticipated the destruction of the temple.

Verses 45–51: How Should We Then Live?

Many of the lessons for the apostles’ generation and for our generation are the same. This becomes evident with Jesus’ parable about the faithful and unfaithful slaves at the end of Matthew 24. Even though Christ did not return during the apostles’ lifetime, they were to live as faithful servants of a master who could return at any time. And that is 100% true of us today. Incidentally, one of the possible dangers of the postmillennial worldview is losing sight of the fact that Jesus will come like a thief in the night, when we do not expect.

When all is said and done, let us be found doing Christ’s will at all times, and let us prepare the next generation for His coming.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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