When I became a Christian in 1973, last days madness was all the rage. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was becoming a mega-bestseller. Lindsey had implied rather strongly that something called the “rapture” would take place before the 1948-1988 generation passed away. You can read his comments in the hardback edition on pages 53 and 54. I don’t know if he ever revised LGPE.

I was new to all the prophetic hubbub because I didn’t know very much about the Bible. Like so many people at that time, the sensationalism of prophetic speculation caught my attention. My former college roommate who was a Christian set me straight. His comments did not help me to understand the specifics of the topic, but they did make me more careful.

When I attended seminary the following year, I had a chance to do some research on Matthew 24 since it was this chapter that Lindsey focused so much attention on. Providentially I came across J. Marcellus Kik’s book Matthew 24, ironically first published in 1948 by Bible Truth Depot and later reprinted by Presbyterian and Reformed with no republication date. I have Gary North’s P&R copy that was inscribed by him with “November 1962.”

Matthew 24 Fulfilled

Matthew 24 Fulfilled

In his book, Southern Baptist Reverend John Bray states: ‘Present-day students of eschatology seem woefully ignorant of the writings of past theologians on these subjects. There was a time (prior to the mid-1800s) when the most prominent interpretation of Matthew 24 was from the preterite standpoint, and the dating of Revelation was believed to be at an earlier date than is now believed.’

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Kik’s book revolutionized my thinking on the topic of Bible prophecy. He showed that the Olivet Discourse was describing events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, at least up to 24:35. At the time, my study of eschatology was more of an academic exercise until I realized that Christians were using eschatology to prove that we were living in the last days and was futile to work for change in the world since “the world is a sinking Titanic” as one prophetic speculator put it. Unfortunately, there are still many popular prophecy pushers who are proclaiming a similar narrative.

Further study led me to evaluate what Kik said about there being “a change of subject” in verse 36. He wrote: “the first 35 verses of Matthew 24 relate to the destruction of Jerusalem and the events preceding that destruction. With verse 36 a new subject is introduced, namely, the second coming of Christ and the attendant final judgment. This forms the content of Matthew 24:36-25:46.”[1] I accepted his interpretation at the time. Who was I to question such an authority? After further study, I concluded that Jesus was not changing topics since the events described after 24:35 describe a culture of men working in the field (24:40) and women “grinding at the mill” (24:41). Notice what Jesus said in verse 42: “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.” If Jesus meant the passing away of the physical heavens and earth, why didn’t He say, “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day the passing away of heaven and earth will take place”? Also, for anyone alive when the physical heaven and earth pass away, being alert won’t do them any good. Everyone would be instantly burned up in the conflagration. Being alert for something that could be escaped makes more sense. The events leading up to the destruction of the temple could be escaped on foot (Matt. 24:16-20). For a comprehensive study of this view, see chapter 15 of my book Last Days Madness.

If the passing away of heaven and earth is not a description of the final judgment, then what did Jesus mean (24:35)? The same phrase is used in Matthew 5:17-18:

Do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill [see Luke 24:27, 44]. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished!”

We know with the temple gone, the sacrificial system and the attendant rituals would go with it. It’s obvious from reading Paul’s letters and Hebrews that some of the jots and tittles have passed away. They were meant to pass away since they prefigured Jesus as the Messiah and their fulfillment. David Chilton writes in his The Days of Vengeance: “Moreover, the phrase heaven and earth in these contexts does not, as [John] Owen pointed out, refer to the physical heaven and the physical world, but to the world-order, the religious organizations of the world, the ‘House’ or Temple God builds in which He is worshipped.”[2]

The Days of Vengeance

The Days of Vengeance

A biblical and scholarly exposition of Revelation is laid out for readers to soak up and begin to view the world with renewed hope and optimism. Chilton skillfully shows in detail that Christians will overcome all opposition through the work of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is not about the antichrist, the devil, microchips, or bar codes. It is, as the very first verse says: The Revelation of Jesus Christ.

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John Brown in his Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord says something similar:

[A] person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament Scriptures, knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and new heavens…. The period of the close of the one dispensation … is described as such a shaking of the earth and heavens, as should lead to the removal of the things which were shaken (Hag. 2:6; Heb. 12:26-27).[3]

The darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars, coupled with the shaking of the heavens (Matt. 24:29), are more descriptive ways of saying that “heaven and earth will pass away” (24:35). In other contexts, when stars fall, they fall to the earth, a sure sign of temporal judgment (Isa. 14:12; Dan. 8:10; Rev. 6:13; 9:1; 12:4). Milton Terry concurs: “The language of 2 Pet. 3:10-12 is taken mainly from Isa. 34:4, and is limited to the parousia, like the language of Matt. 24:29. Then the Lord made ‘not only the land but also the heaven’ to tremble (Heb. 12:26) and removed the things that were shaken in order to establish a kingdom which cannot be moved.”[4] So then, the “passing away of heaven and earth” is the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism.

John Lightfoot, who was an original member of the Westminster Assembly, concurs:

That the destruction of Jerusalem is very frequently expressed in Scripture as if it were the destruction of the whole world, Deut. 32:22; “A fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.’ Jer. 4:23; ‘I beheld the earth, and lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light,’ &c. The discourse there also is concerning the destruction of that nation, Isa. 65:17; ‘Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered,’ &c. And more passages of this sort among the prophets. According to this sense, Christ speaks in this place; and Peter speaks in his Second Epistle, third chapter; and John, in the sixth of the Revelation; and Paul, 2 Cor. 5:17, &c.[5]

He is far from alone in taking this view.

As I study this topic, I’m beginning to see that it’s not a “minority view.” It only seems to be a minority view because today there is an inordinate focus on the “last days” as an end-time-it’s-all-over paradigm. We’re so focused on an end that’s right around the corner or one in the distant future that we have little interest in the present and the immediate future. I understand that a study like this makes some people uncomfortable. That’s OK. It needs to be done.

[1]Kik, Matthew 24, 100.

[2]Days of Vengeance, 544.

[3]John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1852] 1990), 1:171-172.

[4]Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 489.

[5]John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew–1 Corinthians, 4 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1859), 2:318-319.