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How Differences in the Gospel Accounts Support the Bible’s Integrity

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An article written by someone named Lynda O, who describes herself as “Christian, Calvinist, Premillennial, Dispensational, and a Biblical Creationist,” is not a preterist. She does not believe that the Olivet Discourse describes events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in A.D. 70. One of her arguments is there are significant differences in the gospel accounts of the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Thomas Ice and other dispensationalists take a similar position.

But since each author ends the discourse with “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Luke 21:32), they must be describing the same series of events. Since “this generation” is always used by Jesus to refer to the generation to whom He was speaking, everything prior to “this generation” had to have taken place before that generation passed away. If these events did not take place, then Jesus was wrong and must be considered a false prophet.

Some prophecy writers argue that while Luke is describing events related to events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Matthew is describing a future generation. A comparison of the two accounts will show that Matthew and Luke are describing the same events. Yes, there are differences, but there are differences in the two birth accounts in Matthew and Luke, and yet no one argues that they describe two different births of two different Messiahs named Jesus separated by thousands of years. By combining the elements of Matthew and Luke, we get a more complete picture of the prophecy, as we do with the birth narratives. [1]

“In all probability,” Craig Blomberg writes, “Jesus originally uttered one connected, coherent eschatological discourse from which the three Synoptists [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] have chosen to reproduce different portions in different places.” [2] Randall Price identifies twenty-two terms and expressions used by Old Testament writers to describe the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24. [3] Four of them — “desolation,” “distress,” “vengeance,” and “wrath” — are used in Luke 21:20–24. It’s obvious, therefore, that the “great tribulation” in Matthew 24:21 is the same as the “great distress” of Luke 21:23. Notice that Luke describes this “great distress” in local terms: “for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword (not jets, tanks, and rifles), and will be led captive into all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:23–24). Here’s how Milton Terry interprets “times of the Gentiles”:

“The statement of Luke xxi, 24, that ‘Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles be fulfilled,’ is supposed to involve events which did not take place in that generation. The ‘times of the Gentiles [nations]’ (kairoi ethnown) are assumed to be the times of the opportunities of grace afforded to the Gentiles under the Gospel. But to understand the words in this sense would be, as Van Oosterzee observes, to interpolate a thought entirely foreign to the context. ‘The times of the Gentiles,’ says Bengel, ‘are the times allotted to the Gentiles to tread down the city;’ but there is nothing in the passage or context to authorize his further remark that ‘these times shall be ended when the Gentiles’ conversion shall be full consummated,’ and that the treading down by Romans, Persians, Saracens, Franks, and Turks is to be understood. These kairoi [times] are manifestly times of judgment upon Jerusalem, not times of salvation to the Gentiles. The most natural and obvious parallel is Rev. xi. 2, where the outer court of the temple is said to be ‘given to the Gentiles,’ by whom the holy city shall be trodden down forty-two months, a period equivalent to the ‘time and times and half a time’ of Rev. xii, 14, and of Dan. vii, 25; xii, 7. This is a symbolical period of judgment (see above, p. 384 [in Biblical Hermeneutics], but does not denote ages and generations. It is three and a half—a divided seven, a short but signal period of woe. The ‘times of the Gentiles,’ therefore, are the three and a half times (approximating three and a half years) during which the Gentile armies besieged and trampled down Jerusalem.”  [4]

“This people” refers to the Jews. The “land” is the land of Israel. As account shows, a local judgment is in view.

Once again, Jesus was not describing a worldwide tribulation in this verse. The geographical context is Judea: “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matt. 24:16). Luke describes the time of “great distress” as being “upon the land,” that is, the land of Israel, “and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword” (Luke 21:23–24). The use of “swords” makes it an ancient battle.

All a person had to do to escape the impending tribulation was to leave the city and head for the mountains. Therefore, the boundary of this particular “great tribulation” did not extend beyond the city limits of Jerusalem. How could anyone on foot, carrying a nursing baby, escape if a modern-day tribulation is in view? Tanks and jet planes would thwart any attempted exodus from the city.

Tim LaHaye says the passage in Luke 21 refers to the first-century destruction of Jerusalem where, “According to the historian Josephus, the Romans took over 100,000 Jewish captives to Egypt and sold them as slaves to the merchants of the world.” [5] If this is true, and it is, then the tribulation period as described by Matthew is also first-century event since the account is parallel with Luke’s account. But LaHaye maintains that while Luke is describing events of A.D. 70, Matthew is describing a seven-year Tribulation period that is in our future. [6] This is impossible. There is no indication that Matthew and Luke are describing different events separated by thousands of years. As was pointed out earlier, the accounts are parallel in terms of time and place, even though Luke included some events not found in Matthew’s account. [7] Why should this surprise us since this is typical of the synoptic gospels?

Otto Scott, a former journalist, editor, historian, and author of ten books, was attracted to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life because they didn’t agree on every point. Scott recounts how he became a Christian after reading the gospels:

“Well, my wife was Christian and took our daughter to church all the time. I would attend out of courtesy. One night I was reading late and my little girl came out of the bedroom and wanted to know about this business of turning the other cheek. I had no idea where that idea came from but I thought it might be the Bible. I had a Bible in the house, of course, and I picked it up and read the Gospels — all four in one swoop. It was the contradictions [differences] in the testimony of these four different men that convinced me. As a reporter I had interviewed a lot of men, and I was on the crime beat at one point. I knew that if you get four men who tell you the same story they probably are colluding because no four men see the same thing the same way. One sees one significant element; one sees another. Although there was a close resemblance in the reporting of certain incidents in the Gospels, they were not identical. I was instantly convinced. I don’t think a person could have convinced me, but those varying contemporary histories did.” [8]

Non-preterist interpretations of Bible prophecy, especially when there are key time indicators that a prophecy was to be fulfilled within a particular period of time, end up giving credibility to biblical skeptics.

  1. See Kermit Zarley, The Gospels Interwoven (Victor Books, 1987).[]
  2. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 185.[]
  3. J. Randall Price, “Old Testament Tribulation Terms,” When the Trumpet Sounds, eds. Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995), 61.[]
  4. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, unabridged ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 445.[]
  5. Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, 1118, note on Luke 21:24.[]
  6. LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, 1119, note on Luke 21:35–36.[]
  7. Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1978), 195–201.[]
  8. Quoted in James P. Lucier, “Otto Scott Steers by the Compass,” Insight (1999). In the same interview, Scott comments: “On the historical side, each time you look into the background of a certain line of activity, it looks different. The first historical background I did was for the Ashland Oil book. It was an attempt to put the history of the company against the contemporary events of the period through which the company had grown. But my attempt was sort of a tour of the surfaceCwhat you get from looking at ordinary accounts of the times beginning in 1918. But the next time I looked at the period, when I was writing the history of Raytheon, the background looked different. I began to go into history in a more serious way.”[]

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