Title of this study:
Taking the First Steps Toward Understanding the Tribulation I
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And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple.
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.
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 which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Jesus’ prophecy here in Matthew 24 is merely 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.
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be?
The Olivet Discourse: Its Relevance for the Church
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 - a passage of scripture that has fostered endless debate - much of it revolving around its relevance for the church and the church age.
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’re 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 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:
...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
No expositor that I’m aware of doubts 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.
Pretribulationalists divide the New Testament into a patchwork of distinct and mutually exclusive ages called dispensations. Ordinarily, the total number of dispensations is put at seven: 1. Innocence; 2. Conscience; 3. Human Government; 4. Promise; 5. Law; 6. Grace; and, finally, 7. the Millennial Kingdom - with an eighth dispensation sometimes tacked on at the end, the Eternal Order. For interpretational purposes every passage of scripture is slipped into one of these dispensations.
However, only four are used in the interpretation of New Testament passages ...
It’s a schema that a good many postribulationists have no real quarrel with - some of whom whole-heartedly support it. Their quarrel is not with dispensationalism as such but with the special “waiver” that’s accorded The Tribulation:
And the reason is not hard to chase down...
There it is
There it is: without that special niche, pretribulationists would find themselves “behind the eight ball.” It certainly looks a bit suspicious - as if it has been expressly devised to facilitate an interpretation that favors their bias.
Good to Know, but Not Relevant
For pretribulationists, therefore, Matthew 24 is relegated to the status of “good to know, but not really relevant” - at least not for the church. It amounts to little more than a palliative Jesus uses to ameliorate his disciples’ curiosity.