Conflicting Visions of the Second Coming

Conflicting Visions of the Second Coming

There are two basic visions of eschatology or the second coming of Christ. They are the ‘thief in the night’ vision and the ‘sign seeking’ vision. Both visions have been with the church since her beginning and will be with her to some degree until her consummation. However, the question is which version is Biblical?

The most important thing in determining if a view is Biblical or not is to determine what rules of hermeneutics one will adhere to in their study of the text. Hermeneutics is the study or science of interpretation and like all true science, it has rules and laws that it follows to guides its study of a text. We can use these rules to help us critique the two versions of the second coming of the Lord.

To begin with we need to study what each view teaches and what is the biblical basis for their interpretation. Let’s start with the ‘sign seeking’ vision.

This version holds to the view that God has given a number of signs that point to the time of the second coming. These signs constitute the fulfillment of current events that align with the prophecies. This school of thought uses a  standard referred to by scholars as to the pesher hermeneutic or method of interpretation.[1] This method is not new and was practiced even in the days of Christ by the Essenes and other groups. It basically interprets all prophecy as being fulfilled in the lifetime of the reader. Therefore, the question of whom the author was originally speaking to is not a priority in this version or its hermeneutic. God is speaking to them personally and anything happening in scripture or history is happening specifically to them.  They really don’t care to whom it was originally intended for. You might call this interpretation the ‘me’ interpretation of the Bible for its adherence believes that every prophecy must be fulfilled in their lifetime and God is talking to them personally.

The scriptural basis for this ‘sign seeking’ vision is taken from a number of places in the Old Testament most of which are highly figurative. Scripture such as the book of Daniel, the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and also the book of Revelation. However, for the most part, this version is heavily dependent on Matthew 24  and without Matthew 24 this vision would have a hard time surviving.

On the other hand, the ‘thief in the night’ vision believes that there are no specific signs for the coming of the Lord. This vision emphasizes that Christians should be prepared at all times for the second coming of their Lord, “Look he stands at the door”. Scripture demonstrates that the Bible is simply teaching us that the Lord’s return is likened to a ‘thief in the night’ when people are not expecting him. It also corresponds to the latter section of Matthew 24 starting with verse 36 to the end of the chapter for its proof text, along with a number of lesser texts.

In view of the importance of Matthew 24 to both visions, it would seem logical that it should be the place that we begin to put these two versions to the litmus test of truth.

To do this we need to look at the immediate context of the signs and predictions made in Matthew 24. We would draw this from the verses preceding Matthew 24 and those following immediately after the signs section, which is Matthew 24:1-36

After that, we need to look at the overall context of the entire book of Matthew to see if it lines up with our interpretation of chapter 24.

Now let’s turn to the immediate context of Matthew 24, which is the latter section of Matthew 23. In Matthew 23 we find Jesus giving a scalding criticism of the leaders of the Jewish nation by reminding them of their father’s sins against God and man, but especially against God’s prophets. In verse 32 he said, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.”  In this he was saying that the generation presently living would complete their rebellion against God by rejecting God’s son and killing him, i.e. they will kill the greatest prophet of all, the Son of God.

Jesus goes on to say in verses 35 and 36 that the generation presently living would receive the retribution for their sins and sins of their fathers’ “so that on you may come all the righteous bloodshed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation”. (Mt 23:35-36).

After that, in verse 37 Jesus turned his criticism from the leaders of Israel to the city of Jerusalem, as the city which kills the prophets. He says to the city in verse 38 “See, your house is left to you desolate.” We are given some help in understanding this in Luke’s gospel, chapter 21:20-24 which is a parallel passage of Matthew 24. There it is clear that the thing that causes the abomination of desolation is the army of Rome laying siege to the city of Jerusalem and then finally destroying it in A.D. 70.

Next in Matthew 24, as Jesus  walked away,  his disciples pointed to the temple and basically  asked: “how can this be, for God’s house is in Jerusalem?” In essence, they were questioning his prophecy on the city and the nation.  How could God destroy the city of David and his own temple?

In response, Jesus points to the temple and says in Matthew 24:2 “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” They then ask Jesus for signs, which would lead up to this destruction of the temple. Jesus answers their questions about the Temple in verses 2-34 of Matthew 24.

From  Matthew 23 we see that Jesus, in the context of Matthew 24, is talking to his disciples about a judgment which was coming on the nation of Israel in the city of Jerusalem, for their sins. In this prophecy Jesus placed it in the time frame of that generation presently living, “I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation. (Mt 23:36)

As we move into Matthew 24 the disciples ask Jesus three questions. “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?” (Mt 24:3) Their first question is when will these things happen?  What are the “these things” that the disciples are asking about? Well, they are the things he just told them in Matthew 23. The second question is what will be the sign (singular) of his coming, and the third question is when will the end of the age, or the world, happen.

One of the problems with understanding Matthew 24 is how Jesus answered these questions. He uses a code language called apocalyptic literature to veil what he was saying from the outsiders. In other words, he was trying to confuse those that did not understand the Jewish culture and the highly figurative language used by them during turbulent periods of their history. This language is often used to cloak or shroud a message of destruction on the outsiders and the enemies of God. In this case, it was the Romans.

In verse 33 of chapter 24, Jesus answered the disciple’s question about the coming judgment and the signs of the destruction of the temple. “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” In this verse, Jesus plainly tells them that what he just told them in verse 4-32, were the signs and he clearly tells them that they would see all these signs fulfilled. In fact, he goes on to set a time limit on there for fulfillment. “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mt 24:34).

Then in verse 35, which we might call the transition text, Jesus moves from talking about the destruction of the temple to the end of the age or world “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”.  He then contrasts this event with the previous one; the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The first has numerous and obvious signs and the latter has none. The reason being no one knows when it is going to happen “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Mt 24:36).  This statement would make no sense if Jesus was still talking about the same event of verses 4-35 where he gives a host of signs. If you assume Matthew 24 to be talking about one event then you must take the position that Jesus contradicts himself and is a false prophet.

Jesus then makes three comparisons of his second coming and the end of age or world, with other events Matthew 24 verses 37-44. It will be like the days of Noah, like a normal workday and like a thief coming in the night. In other, words nothing out of ordinary will be happening.

Then Jesus tells three longer parables in a row about his second coming. The first one is the parable of the wise servant, verses 45-51, where he warned that the master could come at any time, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Mt 24:44). The second parable of the ten virgins warns that it could be sooner than we think (Mt 24:50). The third parable of the talents Matthew 25:14-30 warns it could be later than we think (Mt 25:5). In these parables Jesus covered all the bases: his coming could be sooner, it could be later. The overarching message is that Jesus “will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” In other words as a thief in the night.

Which version and interpretation of Matthew 24 squares best with the overall context of the gospel of Matthew? The Gospel of Matthew is a book showing the unfolding of Gods plan to bring the good news of Christ to the world. This unfolding or revelation shows how and why Gods focus changed from the nation of Israel to the man Jesus and then to a new nation made up of true Israelites assembled out of a people from every nation of the earth (John 3:1-5, 2 Peter 2:9, Daniel 7:13-14).

At the very beginning of his story, Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus and puts it in the context of the leaders of Israel rejecting Christ and attempting to kill him. On the other hand, the wise men of the east which symbolizes the world were seeking him and embraced him as the new king. This story of wise men set much of the storyline of the book and history of the Christian movement which we read about in the Book of Acts.

In Matthew’s recording of Jesus returning from exile in Egypt, Matthew sees the return and restoration of the true Israel to the land and the destruction of children in Ramah as the judgment on unfaithful Israel who is left childless[2].  This theme continues in the fourth chapter with the new Israel (Jesus) entering the wilderness to be tested as did the first Israel, with the marked difference that the physical nation was unfaithful and the latter was true to his calling.

John Sets the Stage

In the third chapter of his Gospel, Matthew has John the Baptist coming on the stage with a twofold message; one of blessing for those who embrace the Christ and one of judgment on those who do evil and reject him.

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”(Mt 3:7-12)

The point cannot be missed, the Messiah is coming soon not just to bless the nation of Israel but to judge it and purify it. In fact, the judgment has already started (The ax has already begun its work) as seen in the Ministry of John. The interpretation of this section of scripture has been grossly misinterpreted by associating it with the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the apostles on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts two. The two sections have only one thing in common and that is the word fire. The passage in Acts two does not explain the event which was experienced by the apostles in acts two. If anything, they represent the phenomena that took place in the Old Testament when the Temple was dedicated. This would be exactly what we would expect to see on the day of Pentecost in as recorded in Acts 2 seeing that the Lord had come to dwell in his new temple, the Church.

The Parables Tell the Story

The parables in the gospel of Matthew, tell the same story of God coming to his people, then rejecting him and the retribution that follows. The first is the parable of the tenants found in Matthew 21:33-46. In this parable, Jesus tells a story that parallels what the leaders and the nation of Israel were doing in rejecting him. In essence, they were rejecting the creator God who had made them a nation and had given them the land as represented by the vineyard. In verse 41 he tells them the owner (God) responds to their final and complete rejection of God’s rule through rejecting his son. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and  rent the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” The miserable death would be the desertion of Jerusalem.  Then in verses 43-46, Jesus gives his explanation of the parable. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but to the one on whom it falls, they will be crushed.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet”.

It is obvious that the Jewish leaders who heard Jesus tell this parable understood that it was spoken about them and not a generation of people that would exist 2000 years later.

The second is the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. In this parable, the Lord likens the rule of God or kingdom of God to a King throwing a party for his son’s wedding and sending out his servants to invite people to the party, however, the people he invited began to make excuses, seized some of the messengers and killed the others. Now, we need to remember that in that culture to say no to the Kings’ invitation was unthinkable. It would be a horrendous offense worthy of death. This is exactly what we see in the parable. The King took offense and was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city, (Mt 22:7) Note that there are two groups of people who were slated for judgment by the King; those that were indifferent to the message of the King and those who had killed the messengers of the King. i.e. those that do not accept the invitation offered through his son.

It becomes obvious when we consider the overall context of the book of Matthew that the sign seeking version is not the best interpretation of Matthew 24. Those that use the sign seeking version to interpret this section of Scripture must ignore the basic law of hermeneutics, which says you must consider the context of the passage. The context would include who Jesus was speaking to when he said: “all these things shall come upon this generation”.

My conclusion is that Matthew 24 does not support the sign seeking version:  rather in the first section of the chapter verses 1-34 it points to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, with the last section of the chapter pointing to and confirming the thief in the night version. If the sign seeking version is to be established by the Bible it must be done by some other section of Scripture other than Matthew 24. It was the thief in the night version and interpretation of Matthew 24 which seem to be shared by the early church Father Tertullian who clearly was making reference to Matthew 24 when he spoke of the overthrow of Jerusalem and the temple[3].

[1] Why do Westerners seem convinced that Christ will come on our watch? The truth is, we aren’t the first. The Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of Old Testament books discovered near Qumran, the commune of the Essenes on the rim of the Dead Sea. This reclusive group of Jews from Jesus’ day had several peculiarities. One of the lesser-known was a method of biblical interpretation that scholars often call pesher. This method of interpretation requires two presuppositions. First, it assumes a verse of Scripture is referring to the end of time, even if it doesn’t originally appear to be…..Second-and this is the most important ingredient-the pesher exegete interprets his or her current time as the eschaton. Thus, step one is assuming a given passage is actually about the end of time; step two is assuming that time is now.  E. Randolph Richards; Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Kindle Locations 2276-2284). Kindle Edition.

[2] The new Adam has come It is no longer the seed of Abraham it has become the seed of Christ. One greater than Abraham and Moses has come.

[3] Jesus was questioned by His disciples concerning when those things were to come to pass that He had said about the destruction of the temple. So He first spoke to them about the order of Jewish events until the overthrow of Jerusalem. Then, he spoke about the things that will concern all nations— up to the very end of the world. . . . Therefore, although there is presently a sprouting in the acknowledgment of all this mystery, yet it is only in the actual presence of the Lord that the flower will be developed and the fruit will be borne. . . . Who has yet beheld Jesus descending from heaven in a manner similar to how the apostles saw Him ascend?. . . . Up to the present moment, no one has smitten their breasts, tribe by tribe, looking on Him whom they pierced. No one has yet fallen in with Elijah. No one has yet escaped from the Antichrist. No one has yet had to bewail the downfall of Babylon. Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.561).