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Trimming & Cooking the Prophetic Parts of the Bible

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Paul N. Benware’s revised and expanded edition of Understanding End Times Prophecy includes a chapter on Preterism. This is a good sign. Preterists teach that certain prophetic passages have already been fulfilled (e.g., Matt. 24), while futurists claim that these same passages are yet to be fulfilled. The debate centers (mostly) on how specific time indicators like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “this generation” should be interpreted. Benware also claims that preterists regularly mix “the literal and allegorical” which results in “very inconsistent interpretations to a passage.”[1] The following example encapsulates Benware’s argument against a first-century fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse:

[P]reterist Gary DeMar concludes that the cosmic disturbances in Matthew 24:29–30 (the sign of the Son of Man, the darkened sun and moon and the stars falling from the sky) is symbolic of the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism in [A.D.] 70. This conclusion is based on the illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another as well as some full-blown allegorization.[2]

For the record, my book Last Days Madness includes a 14-page chapter with the title “Sun, Moon, and Stars,”[3] a chapter Benware never interacts with.

Let’s begin with Matthew 24:29 where Jesus says, “But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Applying this passage as well as the rest of Matthew 24 to events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has a long and distinguished interpretive history. Dispensationalist author Thomas Ice, a prophecy writer who Benware quotes approvingly, states that Eusebius (c. 265–339) rightly argues “that the first-century destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans fulfilled biblical prophecy and was thus a ‘proof of the gospel.’”[4] This is more than 1600 years before the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible and the systemization of dispensationalism. Benware accuses me and other preterists of an “illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another” when we apply Old Testament passages to Matthew 24:29. His indictment would have to go back beyond me to the earliest writings of the church fathers including many of the finest biblical expositors the church has ever produced.

Let’s begin this study by noting that Matthew 24:29 includes a section of the verse that is in SMALL CAPS. The New American Standard translators did this, as they do with all Old Testament citations, because the section quotes from several Old Testament passages (Isa. 13:10;[5] Dan. 8:10;[6] Joel 2:10[7]). Jesus is the one making the “transference of meaning from one verse to another.” Even The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary, edited by dispensationalists Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, cites Isaiah 13:10 as a cross reference for Matthew 24:29.[8] This means that they believe that there is some relationship between these two passages. If we know how Isaiah was using the passage, then we can determine how Jesus was using it. There is also a reference in Matthew 24:29 to Isaiah 13:13 which reads: “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the LORD of hosts in the day of His burning anger.” (cf. Isa. 34:4 [Rev. 6:13]; 2 Sam. 22:8; Isa. 24:19; Jer. 50:46). It’s doubtful that a male goat actually caused literal “stars to fall to the earth” and “trampled them down” (Dan. 8:10). Most likely the goat refers to a civil ruler, and the stars refer to civil powers under the ruler’s domination (cf. Judges 5:20). To ignore how a passage is used in the Old Testament is like trying to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.

Benware argues that “Matthew 24:29 reflects the prophecy of Joel, who describes the day of the Lord, which will be characterized by cosmic events such as darkness brought about by the diminishing of sun, moon, and stars (Joel 2:1–10, 30–31; 3:12–17)”[9] that are to take place in a future Great Tribulation. But anyone reading Joel 2:1–10 can see that the language is being used figuratively to describe events that were near for Joel and his readers: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near” (2:1). Writing in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Richard D. Patterson states, “Joel portrayed a coming army, in particular, that of the Assyrian armies of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The appearance and martial activities of the locusts were analogous to those of a real army.”[10]

The cosmic language of Joel 2:30–31 is quoted byv Peter after the events of Pentecost, because he saw them as being fulfilled in his day in those events (Acts 2:16). There is no indication that he saw Joel’s prophecy either as a partial fulfillment or a distant future fulfillment.[11] It makes no sense to quote a passage of Scripture in answer to a question or complaint that had little to do with the people making the complaint.

Footnotes:
[1]
Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Time Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach (Chicago: Moody Press, [1995] 2006), 158.
[2]
Benware, Understanding End Time Prophecy, 158–159.
[3]Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, 4th ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999), chap. 11. An abbreviated discussion of sun, moon, and stars language is also found in my book End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 98–102.
[4]Thomas Ice, “The History of Preterism,” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 42.
[5]
“For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isa. 3:10).
[6]“It [male goat] grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, and it trampled them down” (Dan. 8:10)
[7]“Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon grow dark and the stars lose their brightness” (Joel 2:10).
[8]Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, gen. eds., The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary: Understanding the Meaning of Every Prophetic Passage (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2006), 360. The editors claim that the Babylon of Isaiah 13 is a post-rapture, Great Tribulation, newly resurected Babylon. This is impossible since 13:6a says “the day of the LORD is near.”
[9]
Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 181
[10]
Richard D. Patterson, “Joel, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen.ed. Frank E. Gæbelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 7:245.
[11]Hobart E. Freeman asks the question: “was Joel 2:28–32 completely fulfilled or only partly fulfilled on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2?” He goes on to say that “five views have been proposed in solution to this problem.” (An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets [Chicago: Moody Press, 1968], 154).

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