Once upon a time a group of legalists (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees) came to Jesus to test him. Their purpose was “to show him up,” that is, to prove that he was not at all what he claimed to be. So they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. They meant to say that what Jesus had done up to this moment was insufficient. It pertained only to the earth. If he could show a sign from heaven-for example, if he could cause manna to come down from heaven—that would be different. That would be the real thing. Then they would know: “This must be Messiah.”
Of course, the request was wicked. Jesus had performed all kinds of miracles. By word and deed he had indicated that he himself was “the sign from heaven” (cf. Luke 2:34; John 6:50). But the Pharisees and Sadducees had obstinately refused to accept him. They were like Voltaire who declared, “Even if a miracle should be wrought in the open market-place before a thousand sober witnesses, I would rather mistrust my senses than admit a miracle.”
So Jesus answered, “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today, for the heaven is red and lowering. Ye know how to discern the face of the heaven; but ye cannot discern the signs of the times.”
Similarly today ever so many things are happening which clearly show that the coming of our Lord is approaching. But people fail to see these things in the light of Scripture. It is our purpose by means of these Outlines and the Questions at the end of each Outline to point to some of these signs and in general to discuss the very important and fascinating subject called “Eschatology.”
2. WHAT IS “ESCHATOlOGY”?
The term Eschatology comes from two Greek words: eschatos and logos. Eschatos means last, and logos means word or discourse. Eschatology is therefore a discourse about the last things. It has to do with those things that are going to happen last of all, that is, toward the close of the present dispensation and also toward the close of man’s earthly life and afterward.
We speak of Individual Eschatology and General Eschatology. The first has to do with the things that are going to happen to individuals, when they die and afterward. The second discusses what will happen to the universe as a whole, just before Christ returns, at the moment of his return, and afterward.
Often Individual Eschatology is discussed before General Eschatology. We were asked, however, to reverse that order, and to treat General Eschatology first. It makes no difference.
3. WHAT SUBJECTS ARE COMPRISED UNDER GENERAL ESCHATOLOGY?
In twenty-four Outlines—which should be plenty for the present season—we shall discuss such subjects as the following: Old Testament Eschatology, the signs, two great preliminary Signs, the one great final sign, lsrael’s Restoration, the great apostasy, the antichrist, Armageddon, the millennium, the second coming, the resurrection, the rapture, the final judgment, the mission of the angels in connection with the judgment; the eternal state of the lost, the eternal state of the redeemed, the new heaven and earth.
Now please remember that all of these subjects fall under the heading of General Eschatology. Other subjects such as life and immortality, death (physical, spiritual, eternal), the intermediate state, soul-sleep,Sheol and Hades, Gehenna, purgatory, second probation, heaven, etc., belong under Individual Eschatology, which, the Lord willing, we hope to discuss not this season but the following.
4. A KIND REQUEST
On subjects such as these there is a great deal of difference of opinion, not only between people of Reformed persuasion, on the one hand, and such sects as, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other, but even “right at home,” among “our own” people. It is entirely possible, therefore, that at times you or your leader will not agree with the explanation given in my Outlines. Now if that happens, please settle the question among yourselves, in your own society. Much as I would like to enter into correspondence with everyone of you, I just do not have the time. So, do not expect any answer to letters asking for further explanations or telling me why you think I am wrong. May we learn much from God’s precious Word. And may it benefit us in our spiritual development.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions on the lesson, that is, questions to which you will find the answers right in the Outline:
1. Why was it wrong for the Pharisees and Sadducees to ask for a sign from heaven?
2. What is meant by Eschatology?
3. What subjects are included under General Eschatology?
4. What subjects are included under Individual Eschatology?
5. Which of these—General or Individual—are we studying this season?
B. Other Questions, that is, questions in connection with the lesson, but not directly answered in the Outline. You will have to search for the answers yourselves:
1. Are there any Scripture-passages which show that the truly converted man is deeply interested in the subject of Christ’s coming again? Mention at least one such passage.
2. Is there any relation between deep interest in this subject and sanctified living?
3. What does our Form for the Lord’s Supper say about the believers’ longing for the Lord’s Return?
4. Are differences of opinion on subjects such as these wholesome or would you consider them dangerous?
5. Do ministers preach too many sermons on such subjects or too few? Give reasons for your answer.
OLD TESTAMENT ESCHATOLOGY
From your Bibles read Micah 4:1–4; 5:2.
1. THE OLD TESTAMENT HAS A DOCTRINE OF THE FUTURE
It is dear from the passage that was read that the Old Testament, as well as the New, tells us what is going to happen, or at least what was going to happen. Note the words of Micah 4:1, “But in the latter days it shall come to pass.”
Here we must guard against two erroneous extremes. On the one hand, there are people who ignore the Old Testament. Now that is too bad. It is impossible fully to understand the New Testament if one knows very little about the Old. Old and New Testament belong together. In numerous passages the Old Testament predicts the future, both with respect to individuals and with respect to nations, in fact even with respect to the universe in general. See, for example, such passages as the following: Psalm 16:8–11; 17:15; 49:14, 15; 73:24; Job 14:14; 19:25–27; Hosea 6:2; 13:14; Isaiah 25:6–8; 26:19; ch. 66; and think of all the Messianic prophecies and the prophecies concerning Israel’s Restoration, whatever that may mean. Hence, we must never neglect the Old Testament.
2 . WHENWER WE STUDY THE OLD TESTAMENT WE MUST TAKE THE OLD TESTAMENT APPROACH
We said a moment ago, “we must guard against two extremes.” One extreme has been painted out, namely, the extreme of paying no attention to the Old Testament, acting just as if it were not there. There is, however, another extreme, which is also dangerous. It is the extreme of failing to consider Old Testament passages from the Old Testament point of view or in the light of the Old Testament historical background. The passage which was read offers a good illustration. The passage states that the mountain of Jehovah’s house is going to be established on the top of the mountains, and that it shall be exalted above the hills, that peoples shall flow unto it, that out of Zion shall go forth the law, and that there shall be wonderful, glorious peace, so that every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, etc.
When some people read this, they say, “Now is not this a clear prediction of the coming millennium, in which Zion, that is, the Jews, is going to be supreme, so that everybody will just flow unto it, during this era of universal peace for one thousand years at the close of history?”
But that is not a fair way to deal with the text. The only fair way to deal with such passages is to imagine that you yourself were living in the days of the prophet Micah, about seven hundred years before Christ. The primary meaning of the passage then is as follows: There will come a time when Israel, by means of the Christ born out of its midst, will be a spiritual blessing to all the nations, and will impart abiding peace to all those who embrace him by a living faith. That this is the meaning is clear also from Micah 5:2, in which passage the birth of Christ is announced. Read especially verse 5 of that chapter, “And this man shall be our peace.” The Micah 4:1–4 passage has nothing to do with any millennium which, as some folks imagine, will be set up by Christ when he returns.
Now I can imagine that at this point somebody will say, “But it says In the latter days, and so it must have reference to the end of the world.” My answer is, Not primarily. The expression, “in the latter days” does not necessarily mean the end of the world. It Simply means, “the days to come,” the future. What is included in that future must be determined in each separate instance by the context. That it cannot in every instance refer exclusively or primarily to the days which immediately precede Christ’s second coming is clear not only from our present passage but also from such a passage as Gen. 49:1. Jacob in blessing his sons was not thinking primarily of what would happen at the end of the world!
3. OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF OLD TESTAMENT ESCHATOLOGY
a. Prophetic Foreshortening
The Old Testament often sees the future as you see two hills in the distance, far, far away. Let us imagine that the farthest one is a little higher than the nearest one, so that you can see them both. Now from such a great distance it may easily happen that you see both as if they were one hill, or at least as if the farthest one were situated right behind the nearest. But when you actually arrive at the first hill, you begin to notice that there is still a long distance to cover before you have reached that second one. Now read Malachi 3:1, 2, and see if you understand what I mean. The Old Testament prophet sees the first and the second coming of Christ as if they were one. The same thing applies to our present passage, Micah 4:1–4, as will become clear.
b. Multiple Fulfilment
Study again that beautiful passage treated in the present Outline, namely, Micah 4:1–4. Though in symbolical language it describes the conditions that were going to obtain with the first coming of Christ on earth, it is also clear, is it not, that this is not the complete and final fulfillment. The peace which Christ brought at his first coming is, in turn, a symbol of that glorious peace which he will bring at his second coming, when in the most final sense “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. What are the two extremes against which one must guard in studying what the Old Testament has to say about the future?
2. What erroneous interpretation do some people give to the present passage, Micah 4:1–4?
3. What passage in chapter 5 proves that their interpretation is wrong?
4. What is the correct primary interpretation of the passage?
5. Name and explain two characteristics of Old Testament Eschatology, and show what light they shed on the meaning of Micah 4:1–4.
B. Additional Questions
1. We have emphasized That Old Testament prophecies must be studied in the light of the Old TeStament background. But are we not thereby contradicting the rule that we must interpret Old Testament prophecies in the light of the New Testament?
2. There are those who say that everything in the Bible must be interpreted literally. What ridiculous picture do you get when you interpret Micah 4:1 literally? If you thus interpret Matthew 5:13a, or Mark 12:40a?
3. In what chapter of lsaiah do you find this same prophecy?
4. What light do Luke 2:32 and II Peter 3:13 shed on the meaning of Micah 4:14?
5. Does the expression “in the last days” Acts 2:17 refer to the end of the world?
From your Bibles read Matthew 24:1–13.
1. A “TOO HURRIED” INTERPRETATION
Many people, in reading this passage, arrive at an interpretation which begins at the tail-end. They lift it out of its context. They say, “It simply means this, that the end of the world will be ushered in by wars and rumors of wars, by earthquakes and famines and pestilences, and also by the rise of many false prophets.” Now, though this answer contains, indeed, an clement of truth—as we hope to see in our next Outline—it is too simple. The more serious student of Scripture is not entirely satisfied with it. Close study of the context, both here and in
Mark 13 and Luke 21, shows that Jesus is thinking about something else besides the end of the world. Moreover, the serious student has another very practical difficulty which prevents him from being able to regard the popular answer as being fully satisfactory. It is this: there have been ever so many wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and things of that nature. One author has counted 300 wars, big and little, that occurred in Europe during the last 300 years. Was each one of them a sign of Christ’s imminent return? There have been violent earthquakes throughout’ the centuries: a certain author counts seven thousand during the nineteenth century alone. In the seventeenth century Robert Hooke wrote his Discourse on Earthquakes. There were a great many of them then. But even much longer ago than that, ancient historians, some of them writing before Christ’s birth, wrote about the appalling number of earthquakes in their days.
The trouble with any interpretation that is too simple is usually this, that the text has been lifted out of its context.
2. EXPLANATION IN THE LIGHT OF THE CONTEXT
It is Tuesday of Passion Week. Jesus and his disciples are in the act of leaving the courts of the temple (Matthew 24:1). The disciples begin to call Christ’s attention to the grandeur of the sacred edifice: “Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings” (Mark 13:1).
Jesus then makes the astounding prediction that this temple will be totally destroyed (Matthew 24:2).
A while later Jesus with his disciples is sitting on the mount of Olives. Across the valley they see that beautiful temple. And to think that it is going to be completely destroyed! Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask Jesus, “Tell us, when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3). Note that in their thinking Jerusalem’s fall means the end of the world. In this they were wrong, at least to a large extent. Jerusalem’s fall would not immediately usher in the end of the world, though it would, indeed, typify the end of the world.
Jesus now proceeds to correct their error. He tells them that such things as the coming of false prophets, wars and rumors of wars, etc., are but “the beginning of travail.” Moreover, he is not immediately and in the first instance thinking of the end of the world but of the end of Jerusalem and its temple. That this is true is very clear from the explanation given in Luke’s Gospel:
“And when ye shall hear of wars and tumults, be not terrified: for these must needs come to pass first; but the end is not immediately. Then said he unto them, Nation shall arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be earthquakes, and in divers places famines and pestilences; and there shall be terrors and great signs from heaven. But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that her desolation is at hand” (Luke 21:9–20).
Jesus is saying, therefore, that wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, etc., though signs, will not be the signs of the immediate end of Jerusalem, but that the actual siege of Jerusalem by foreign armies will be that sign.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. What is the popular interpretation of Matthew 24:1–13?
2. Why is this explanation unsatisfactory?
3. What was the disciples’ question which led to Christ’s (Eschatological) Discourse?
4. When Jesus, in this Discourse, spoke about the travail, was he thinking, in the first instance, of the end of the world? Of what was he thinking primarily? Prove it.
5. Where do you find Christ’s Eschatological Discourse? Only in Matthew?
B. Additional Questions
1. Did wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, and other things of that nature actualIy precede the fall of Jerusalem?
2. When had Jesus ever told his disciples that after his departure from their midst he would come again? (Note, they ask about “the sign of thy coming.”)
3. When Jesus speaks about “the beginning of travail,” did he use that word “travail” in the favorable or unfavorable sense? This question is not as easy as it may seem.
4. Did false prophets actually appear in connection with Jerusalem’s fall?
5. Does not verse 13 imply a denial of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints?
From your Bibles read Matthew 24:14–30.
THE TWO GREAT PRElIMINARY SIGNS
1. THE FIRST PRELIM INARY SIGN
The disciples had asked, “Tell us, when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Jesus had answered the first part of the question. He had told the disciples that the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple, of which not one stone would be left upon another, would be preceded by wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, etc., but that even these things—though in a sense signs would not spell the end. On the other hand, the siege of Jerusalem would show that its end was very, very near (Matthew 24:1–13; Luke 21:10, 11, 20).
But what would be the sign of Christ’s coming and of the end of the world? In the section which we are studying in our present lesson namely, verses 14–30 of Matthew 24 the Lord now shows that his second coming will be preceded by two great preliminary signs: a. “the preaching of the gospel in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations,” and b. “great tribulation such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be.” For the first of these read especially verse 14; for the second, study particularly verse 21.
Here we are on firm ground. We know definitely that Jesus cannot return until these two predictions have been fulfilled. Now as to the preaching of the gospel to all the nations, this is not a promise that “every person will have a chance to be saved.” Jesus is saying that the world’s nations shall have the opportunity at one time or another during the course of history to hear the gospel. This gospel proclamation, moreover, wiII be a testimony: its acceptance or its rejection will be decisive. There is no promise here of any second chance: there will not be two gospel-ages, one now and the other by and by, after the Lord’s return, during an earthly millennium which some people expect. What a nation does with its great opportunity in the here and now will have final results.
2. THE SECOND PRELIMINARY SIGN
As to the second preliminary sign, namely, the days of “great tribulation,” the reference is here not to tribulation in general (as, for example, in John 16:33 and Rev. 7:14), but to a definite tribulation-period. Jesus speaks about “the tribulation of those days.” He is very specific. He tells us, for example, that neither before it takes place nor afterward will there have been or will there be anything quite as terrible, and that for the elect’s sake its days shall be shortened.
Just what does Jesus mean? Is he referring to a period of anguish and severe tribulation that wiII immediately precede the end of the world, or is he referring exclusively to the terrors that were to befall Jerusalem in and about the year A.D.70, when Jerusalem and its beautiful temple were going to be destroyed?
Now, no one will find fault with the proposition that also in the present paragraph the distress that was to come upon Jerusalem was somehow in the thoughts of our Lord. Note, for example, the statement, “Let them that are in Judea flee unto the mountains,” and see also Luke 21:20–24. However, though during the last few years books have been written whose authors have tried to show that the distress of which Jesus speaks refers to Jerusalem’s Fall, and to that alone, having carefully read these books I venture to say, without the least hesitation, that this position is exegetically indefensible. It is open to the following objections:
a. If we thus restrict the meaning of the passage, then Jesus failed completely to answer the second part of the disciples’ question, for in that case he would not have pointed out the sign of his coming and of the end of the world.
b. Verse 29 clearly shows that the tribulation of which Jesus is thinking immediately precedes the second coming, when all the tribes of the earth shall mourn upon seeing the Son of man coming on clouds of heaven.
c. The cxalted language of verse 36 is also decisive against the interpretation which would restrict the meaning to the Fall of Jerusalem. Jesus certainly did not wish to convey the thought that not even the angels of heaven neither the Son knew when Jerusalem would fall.
d. Chapters 24 and 25 belong together. If the lofty language of Matthew 24:29–31 refers to nothing more momentous and final than Jerusalem’s destruction in the year A.D. 70, then by the same process of reasoning the very similar words of Matthew 25:31–46 must be given this restricted interpretation. In both cases the Son of man appears in glory, and the people are gathered before him. But Matthew 25:46 proves that the end of the age has been reached, when the wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into everlasting life.
But how can Jesus, in one breath as it were, refer both to Judea’s distress and yet also to the final tribulation at he close of the world’s history? The answer is simple. In describing the brief period of great tribulation at the close of history, Jesus is painting in colors borrowed from the (prophetically foreseen) destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The city’s approaching catastrophe is a type of the tribulation at the end of history. (What was said in Outline II on Prophetic Foreshortening and Multiple Fulfillment applies here.)
And just as wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, etc., precede Jerusalem’s “end,” is it not also possible and even probable that similar accompanying signs will precede the great event of which it is a shadow, namely, the “end” of the world? So, although, as we have seen earlier, such woes, considered by themselves alone can never be signs indicating that the end of the world is imminent, yet when they occur in close connection with the final great tribulation, they begin to attain significance as portents which in a secondary sense refer to, and usher in, the great consummation.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. Name the two preliminary sign, that is, the two signs that shall precede Christ’s return.
2. What is the meaning of he first of these two signs?
3. What is the meaning of the second of these two signs?
4. Why is it wrong to restrict “the days of great tribulation” to the distress upon Judea in connection with the fall of Jerusalem in the year A.D. 70?
5. How, then, are the destruction of Jerusalem and the everlasting destruction of the wicked at the close of history related?
B. Additional Questions
1. Give a brief survey of the History of Missions.
2. Show that today we are rapidly reaching the complete fulfillment of the first preliminary sign (the preaching of the gospel in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations).
3. Should this fact cause us to do all in our power to advance the great cause of Christian missions? Why?
4. Does increased mission-enthusiasm necessarily mean that the denomination involved in it is sound and pure? Has increase in mission enthusiasm ever gone hand in hand with decay in doctrinal purity? Give an example if you can do so.
5. Speaking about the second preliminary sign, namely, days of great tribulation, there are those who say that the church will not enter the tribulation. Prove from the Bible that this is not true. How should the church prepare itself?