Recently I have had the privilege of teaching Matthew 24, verse by verse, in the mid-week Bible Study of our church. In doing so it has been impressed upon me once more how relevant this chapter is to the whole concept of the New Covenant.
Unfortunately sensational paperbacks and certain erroneous teaching that has been around for almost two hundred years, have marred people’s understanding of this chapter. So much so that some have even suggested that the Gospel writers were confused, and that they mixed up teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem with teaching about the Second Coming of Christ. But it is not the Gospel writers who are confused. They operated under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is generally recognized that they compiled their Gospels from the memories of the Apostles and various records (Luke 1:1-4). When they did so they sometimes differed from one another in the order in which they presented their records, and even occasionally in the exact wording. This is, of course, a sign of genuine records, unlike identical copies which simply indicate that they are just that, copies.
Understanding and interpreting Matthew 24 correctly helps us to understand prophecy in general and the Book of Revelation in particular. In fact, it helps us to get a better understanding of the whole subject of eschatology. Especially does it make clear and decisive the break with the old age, the Old Covenant, and it emphasizes the complete newness of the New Covenant.
One of the errors of Dispensationalism is to insist on the complete distinction between Israel and the Church. In fact it is probably true to say that the characteristic feature of Dispensationalism is the complete separation between Israel and the Church. There is a difference, of course, between Old Covenant Israel and the Church, but it is not what Dispensationalists assert. An understanding of the relationship between Israel and the Church is vital to an understanding of the New Covenant,
First of all, it is essential to remember that the infant church was entirely Jewish. All the early Christians were Jews or proselytes to Judaism. For years the infant church was regarded as a sect of Judaism, both in Judea and in Rome. The twelve apostles were Jews. The 3,000 converted on the Day of Pentecost were Jews and proselytes. It was not until about ten years after Christ’s Ascension that Peter reluctantly went and preached to Cornelius (Acts 10). And it took a dramatic three-fold vision to make him ready to go. When he returned from that epoch-making mission he was called before the Apostles and elders to explain himself. (Acts 11). Furthermore, it took a long time to get this prejudice out of Peter, who lapsed into Judaistic separationism and had to be rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11ff.). In those early days it took a long time to get the ideas and practices of the Old Covenant out of these first Jewish Christians (See Acts 15 and the Epistles to the Galatians and the Hebrews).
Moreover, even the Apostles, taught as they were by Jesus, were very slow to realize how radical were the changes that had to take place. When they came to recognize Jesus as the Messiah they hoped for, they could not understand that he had to die (Matt. 16:21-23; Mark 8:31, 33; 9:31, 32; 10:33-34), nor did they at first believe that he had risen from the dead (Mark 16:11-14; Luke 14:11, 25: John 20:9, 25). Therefore, it is important to realize that in the situation recorded in the first verses of Matthew 24 the disciples had no idea about Christ’s death, resureection and ascension. So there is no way that they were asking about what we call “The Second Coming.”
Slowly these Jewish Christians came to believe and rejoice in their risen Lord, but it took some time for them to understand how much things had changed (see Acts 1:6). They no doubt thought that their religion would continue more or less as before but with their Messiah ruling over Israel from Jerusalem. But that was not to be. Time and time again God had warned his people that disobedience, unbelief and rebellion would result in disaster (See Deut. 28:15-68 and many other warnings throughout the Old Testament). Finally Jesus himself announced the doom that would descend upon Israel (Matt. 21:33-43; 23:29-38; 24:1, 2ff).
There was continuity, however. The early Christians were, by and large, the faithful Remnant of Israel. It was this Remnant, those who received Jesus as Christ (John 1:12, 13), who formed the New Israel into which Gentile believers were later grafted (Rom. 11:17).
Now when we turn to Matthew 24 there are several things we should bear in mind. First, there were no chapter divisions in the original manuscripts. These were inserted, as far as we know, by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died about 1227 AD. For the most part these divisions are helpful, but occasionally they were probably made in the wrong place. Matthew 24 is a case in point. The chapter neatly divides between verses 35 and 36. From verse 36 onward the text deals with the Last Things, the Return of Christ and the Day of Judgment. This portion belongs rightfully to chapter 25 which is about the Day of Judgment. Here is the evidence for that statement.
First, in verse 36, Jesus said that these things, that he had been talking about, would happen to the generation then living. This confirms what he had said in 21:43 and 23:36. Matthew 24:1-35 is all about the terrible massacre and horrific destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the great tribulation, as Jesus called it (v. 21). It was those specifically in Judea who were warned to flee (v. 16).
Secondly, notice the “But” at the beginning of verse 36. This signals a change of some sort.
Next, compare the phrase “that day” which contrasts with “those days” of verses 19 and 22. The phrase “that day” is frequently used of the Day of Judgment and the return of Christ.
Observe also that no one knows when the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment will occur (v. 36), but Jesus had given several signs which would precede the destruction of Jerusalem (verses 4-31), and he actually implied that the disciples would know when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed (vv. 15, 16). He said that they would recognize when it was about to happen (v. 33; cf. Luke 21:20).
When Jerusalem was destroyed, it brought to an end the Temple, the priesthood, the Old Testament ritual and the Old Covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34; Gal. 4:21-31; Heb. 8:7-13 and chapter 9, etc). Quite apart from the fact that these events constituted God’s judgment on apostate Israel (days of vengeance, Luke 21:22), it is virtually certain that if the Temple and its ritual had continued the early Jewish Christians would have been very tempted to continue in it.
[To be continued DV]