To What does it Refer?
36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. 37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, 39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (Matthew 24:36-39)
32 But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. 33 Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. 34 For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. 35 Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: 36 Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. 37 And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. (Mark 13:32-37)
26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. 27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; 29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. 30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)
Most evangelicals today, at least in America, have been taught that there is nothing but moral and spiritual decay ahead, that the world will become worse and worse, and that Christianity will never prevail in the earth. According to this view of things, the best hope of Christians is the “rapture” of the church, which can occur at any moment. They do not expect the establishment of the kingdom; for they believe that that can only occur after Jesus takes us out of the world. As a result of this pessimism, I believe, the salt has in large part lost its savor.
For the church, believing that there is nothing it can do to stop the downward course of history, has accepted a diminished role in the world; its only expectation being to save “one here and one there”. This is a tragedy; for the Lord has promised better things to the church.
And the premises are false. There is perhaps no popular doctrine with less Scripture support than that of an imminent and secret rapture of the church; and the notion that things will inevitably get worse before the end is directly contradicted by Scripture.
“But wait!” you say. “You are forgetting what Jesus said about the days of Noah! Doesn’t that prove that things will get worse just before the end?” Allow me now to speak to that objection.
THE DAYS OF NOAH
The reference to the days of Noah appears in two places: Luke 17:26-27 and Matthew 24:37-39. You may be familiar with Matthew 24; but Luke’s text reveals something that might not be so obvious in Matthew. Please turn now to Luke chapter 17, and I will explain.
The “days of Noah” text in Luke has in view a judgment that is local and historical – not the second coming, which will be global and will mark the end of history. This is clear from what follows the “Days of Noah” reference:
26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. 27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; 29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. 30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. 31 In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. (Luke 17:26-31)
In Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, in his 21st chapter, we also find definite indications of a local calamity that is to fall upon Judea and Jerusalem:
20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. 21 Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. 22 For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23 But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. 24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)
In fact, Matthew 24 says the same thing, only in a place more remote from the “Days of Noah” reference.
15 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) 16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: 17 Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: 18 Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. 19 And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! 20 But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. (Matthew 24:15-21)
Does it need to be said that there is no point in running away when Jesus comes again? Or that His people need not flee at the presence of their Deliverer? This simple observation invalidates the theory that the “great tribulation” of which Jesus speaks here is a future event. It shows us that Jesus was not speaking of His second coming at all; but of His coming to judge Jerusalem and the Jews of that generation for rejecting God, murdering the Son of God and persecuting His followers:
47 Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. 48 Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres. 49 Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: 50 That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; 51 From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation. (Luke 11:47-51)
Furthermore, Jesus left us no doubt about what time period He was thinking of when He uttered these words on the Mount of Olives. In each of the gospels, the following statement appears, the same almost word for word: “Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.” (Mark 13:30)
THE POPULAR INTERPRETATION
We frequently hear popular preachers and teachers make the following assertions:
1 That Jesus’ reference to “the days of Noah” has a direct application to our generation
2 That this generation now living is as wicked as Noah’s generation, and that this “fact” (which they claim is observable) is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy
3 That this is a sign that we are in the last days, and that Jesus is coming soon.
It is my purpose to show that every one of these assertions is wrong; that this Scripture has been misinterpreted and misapplied, and that it refers instead to an event of cosmic significance that occurred just when Jesus said it would, within the lifespan of the generation to which He addressed His words – THE DEFINITIVE END OF THE MOSAIC AGE. The destruction of the temple meant the end of its form of worship; the desolation of Old Jerusalem and Judea, the end of Jewish temporal prosperity and political power. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Jews and the scattering of the Jewish people among the nations showed that the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:15 ff.) had fallen upon them. God took away the kingdom from Israel and gave it to the holy nation, the church of Jesus Christ, just as He said He would. Matthew 8:11-12, 21:43; Luke 13:28-29, 20:9-19;
WHERE DOES THE POPULAR INTERPRETATION GO WRONG?
The first thing to observe is that the basis of comparison between that generation and Noah’s is not the wickedness of the two periods in view; but rather that the precise times of these judgments were unknown. Notice the words “And knew not” in Matthew 24:39. They were not aware that the time of judgment had come; and that they were about to be destroyed.
Accordingly, what follows is an extended passage, full of exhortations, of the need to watch — to be on the alert, so that they would recognize the time when it came. For while Jesus gave them some general indications, and even a particular sign; the exact day and hour would not be revealed. No date or time of day was given, nor would be.
Noah had given warning for 120 years; and it is likely that most people were, by the end of that time, quite convinced that he was a lunatic, and not to be taken seriously. So life went on, more or less normally, in spite of the Divine word of warning. No date or time of day was given. Perhaps even Noah did not know, until God told him to enter the ark. Who could have guessed that it would be on the 17th day of the 2nd month, in Noah’s 600th year that the rain would begin to fall?
In this respect then, the generation of Jews living at the time of the judgment predicted by Jesus was going to be like Noah’s generation, in that the precise time would be unknown. That is the only comparison Jesus draws. Nothing is said about the wickedness of the people.
My second observation is that it is by no means clear that our generation, taken as a whole, is the wickedest in human history since the flood. Who but God could possibly know such a thing? Sure, it’s easy to list all the worst developments of our time and ignore all the places in the world where the gospel is advancing with great power every day! It’s obvious that there are many rich and powerful people promoting their wicked schemes; but what about all the heroes and martyrs and faithful servants of God – not to mention all the decent people living lives of virtue all over the world.
Where is all this pessimism coming from? Our country may seem to be going downhill fast, but is that true everywhere? The gospel is flourishing in parts of the world that were sunk in heathen darkness not long ago: Africa, Iran, China! Many serve God faithfully in those places, even unto death. Even in our country, there is widespread and powerful resistance to the evil that threatens. No, I cannot admit that it is obvious that we are living in the modern counterpart of the days of Noah. Let those who assert it, prove it, if they can!
THEY HAVE THE WRONG COMING
But thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, Jesus was not predicting the state of things just before the second coming anyway. This I shall attempt to show. But first, it is important that we examine the context of the “Days of Noah” text. And this will require our sustained attention.
The purpose of the Olivet discourse is set forth at the start (Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7). Jesus observed to his disciples that the glorious temple of Herod which they had just left, and the city itself would be destroyed before long. The disciples asked Him two questions: when will this occur, and what is the sign that they should look for. Matthew’s gospel is the same as the others in this respect:
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? (Mat 24:3)
If you will count the question marks, you will see that there are only two questions — not three, as is often taught. Matthew’s version simply shows that the disciples thought that Jesus’ coming would be the end of the “world” or “age” [The Greek word is aion].
What does “His coming” mean in this context? I will not give you my opinion; but a definitive answer. First, there can be no doubt that all three evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record the same address. A comparison of all three shows that the following verses refer to the same event:
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew 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. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? (Matthew 24:1-3)
And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. 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? (Mark 13:1-4)
And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass? (Luke 21:5-7)
Because they are all recording the same discourse, Matthew had to be saying substantially the same thing that the other gospel writers did. Yet there is no mention in their accounts of any coming of Christ. All three agree in asking what the sign will be that will tell them when it’s time to “get out of Dodge”.
The following questions must mean the same thing:
“…what shall be the sign of thy coming?”
“…what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?”
“…what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?”
They all show that the disciples wanted to know what sign they should look for. Mark and Luke say that the disciples were, beyond argument, interested in the things that Jesus had just forecast. Matthew must be referring to the same event, for he also says that the disciples asked what the sign would be. Is it possible that he would represent the disciples, on the same occasion, to be asking for the sign of something entirely different — the second coming?
DID THE DISCIPLES ASK AN ADDITIONAL QUESTION
WHICH MARK AND LUKE LEFT OUT?
It comes down to this: either a third question was asked, and Christ did not answer it (which is absurd), or no third question was asked.
If there were an answer to the alleged third question in Matthew’s account, then Jesus would have had to include that answer in the accounts of the other gospels as well. Why so?
Because if the question had been answered in Mark and Luke, but not asked, (and it clearly wasn’t) their readers would be bound to interpret the discourse incorrectly, wrongly applying the answer to either the first or the second question.
Their two accounts would have been incomplete; but their readers would not know it. Is it credible that any intelligent and honest historian, let alone the the systematic and learned Dr. Luke, would have done such a thing? So we must conclude that no third question was answered in Matthew’s gospel either, which means that no third question was asked.
Matthew did not record an additional question, but only had a different way of representing the same question. As every student of Scripture knows, nothing is more common in the gospels than differences of this sort.
The language is entirely consistent with this interpretation; for the Greek word translated as “and”, kai can mean “likewise”, “moreover”, “also” or “even”. The question as asked in Matthew could then be, “and what shall be the sign of thy coming, even of the end of the world.” The clause, “of the end of the world” could be simply an additional detail, something that the disciples asked Jesus; but which Mark and Luke elected to leave out.
The second coming of Christ is a subject that would be foreign to the context. The disciples were not yet clear in their minds that He would be leaving earth at all; much less coming back from heaven to earth!
There are several possible reasons why the disciples might have said “and of the end of the world”:
1. It is possible that they understood that the fall of Jerusalem would be the end of the Mosaic age.
2. It is also possible that they referred to the prophecy of Daniel (9:26), which says “the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary”. Many interpreters think that “the prince” is Messiah (see verse 25); and that the Roman armies are called His people because they executed the terrible work of judgment which He had foreordained.
3. Or it may be that the disciples were confused about the events of the latter days, and thought that anything as horrific as the desolation of the temple must be the end of the world.
And, when Jesus tells them what the sign will be, there is nothing about the second coming; but only instructions about how to escape when they see the sign.
THE FIRST QUESTION ASKED AND ANSWERED
Now, notice that the first question of the disciples was “when shall these things be?” in all three accounts, word for word. The phrase, “these things” refers to what Jesus had just told them would happen — that the glorious temple which they so admired was going to be totally destroyed. This necessarily implied that the city would be beseiged and invaded by a foreign army.
Their second question is differently stated in each account:
Mat 24:3 “what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
Mar 13:4 “what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?
Luk 21:7 “what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?
“What shall be the sign?” is the basic question. “When” is a different question from “what shall be the sign”. But the concern is the same in both questions, namely, “How are we going to know when this is about to happen?” No doubt, they were thinking that they did not want to be around to see it.
Jesus will answer both these questions in some detail. Matthew 24:4-14, Mark 13:4-13, and Luke 21:8-18 give the answer to the question, “when?” in a general way. Matthew is the most precise: Mat 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Mar 13:10 suggests the same thought when it says “And the gospel must first be published among all nations.” Luke says nothing to suggest a time at all. But all three agree in saying what are not signs (Mat 24:6,8; Mar 13:7-8; Luk 21:9) and what things must happen before the sign is seen (Mat 24:9-14; Mar 13:9-13; Luk 21:12-19). Thus the answer to the first question ends here.
THE SIGN OF THE END
What immediately follows in each gospel is the sign itself. Again, there are differences in the language; but all of them are referring to the same event — the sign of the destruction of the temple which will tell them when it’s about to happen. Here are the three descriptions given by the three authors:
Mat 24:15 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Mar 13:14 But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,)
Luk 21:20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
The things in Matthew 24:5-7; Mark 13:7-8; Luke 21:8-11, usually pointed to as “signs of the end” (i.e. the end of Jerusalem and the Temple) are all ruled out by Jesus himself when he says “but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6), and “these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8). The predictions of persecution are not signs of the end, because this began immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ, as soon as the Apostles started preaching Christ as the risen Lord. Luke says the persecution will begin “before these things” (21:12), which in the context means before the wars, earthquakes and famines that Matthew and Mark identify as “the beginning of sorrows”. These things would happen before the end; but they could not mark the time when the destruction of Jerusalem would be imminent with sufficient accuracy. There had to be a sign that would tell the disciples when they were to flee; for the window of opportunity would be small. This is evident from the admonition to flee in haste when the sign appeared. (Matthew 24:15-19; Mark 13:14-17; Luke 21:20-23)
The only sign of the end that Jesus mentions in this entire discourse is the “Jerusalem compassed with armies”/ ”abomination of desolation” sign mentioned above. This will be the signal that will save the lives of believers living in Jerusalem and Judea when the end comes, telling them when to make their escape.
This is the heart of the answer to the second original question,”and what shall be the sign of thy coming…” (Matthew 24:3b)“and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4b) “and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?“ (Luke 21:7b). The disciples asked for a specific and definite single sign, and that is just what Jesus gave them! As a consequence, when the Roman armies surrounded the city, and then suddenly withdrew (To this day, no one knows why!) the Christians were able to leave the city and go to Pella, where they were safe.
THE SECOND COMING?
It should be clear now why expressions such as the following should not be automatically interpreted as synonymous with the second coming:
“the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:37,39)
“the days of the Son of man” (Luke 17:26)
“the day when the Son of man is revealed” (Luke 17:30)
“the sign of the Son of man in heaven” or
“the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” ( Matthew 24:30)
“the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27)
Surely, you say, this language must refer to the second coming!
But this sort of language was also used by our Lord in the following exchange, when He was before the Sanhedrin:
63 “And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. 64 Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Mat 26:63-64)
You might think that He was speaking of His second coming here; but that would be a mistake.
First, when he comes personally and bodily a second time, will he be “sitting on the right hand of power” at the same time? Though Christ as to His divinity fills heaven and earth, the body of Christ cannot be in two places at the same time. When He was on earth, He was not in heaven; and now that He is in heaven, He is not on earth.
Second, though Stephen the martyr saw in vision “Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55) we can be sure that no unregenerate person ever saw Christ seated on His throne in heaven.
Third, He says “Ye shall see…” It was not some future generation; but the men before whom he stood to be judged, who would thus “see” him. In the light of the many times throughout the New Testament in which Jesus warned His own generation of judgment to come, the presumption must be that He meant that the rulers of the Jews who were about to condemn Him. He may have had in mind others besides them; but he must have at least included them.
Fourth, He says “Hereafter ye shall see me…” “Hereafter” does not convey the precise idea. The Greek apo arti means “from now” [on], or “henceforth”. The difference is that hereafter means “at some time in the future”; while henceforth means, “from this time forward”. The High Priest and his co-conspirators would from that time forward be seeing the acts of the exalted son of God which proved that He was on His throne in heaven.
Fifth, Jesus was responding to the High Priest’s demand that He tell them plainly whether He was the Christ or not. His answer was “thou hast said” (Matthew) or “I am” (Mark) both of which mean the same thing — “yes”. Then He boldly declares that He will from that day forward be “sitting at the right hand of Power [God]”, in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1; and that they would see the proof of it.
So that when He said, “Ye shall see me… coming in the clouds of heaven”, He must have been speaking figuratively. This would be understood by any Jew who knew the Scriptures. Dark clouds are the harbingers of a thunderstorm; therefore they are used as a figure for the judgment comings of the Lord throughout the Old Testament.
This reference to the days of Noah does not, therefore, prove that we are living in the days just before the return of Jesus Christ. That event proved to be a long time off for the first-century disciples; and it may be many generations yet before His personal return. Any New Testament text that seems to predict His soon return must have a different meaning from what it seems to have. For if the writers of the New Testament predicted that Jesus would soon return, and He did not, that would mean that they were false prophets.
It is the opinion of this writer that most texts of this class refer not to the second coming, but to the coming of Christ in judgment on Jerusalem and the first-century Jews; for the bulk of the New Testament, if not all of it, was certainly written before Jerusalem fell. Considering the magnitude of this event, which was impending, it seems to me unreasonable to suppose that it would never have been spoken of in the New Testament. Yet those who interpret every such text as the second coming would have us to believe that the end of the Mosaic system, which had been God’s main sphere of redemptive activity in the world for more than two Millennia, is never mentioned once after Jesus’ prediction of the event!
One thing is certain: there were many prophecies that had yet to be fulfilled when these words of Christ were spoken, before Jesus could come again. The rise of the man of sin and the conversion of the Gentiles were yet future when Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman armies. And we still, 20 centuries later, have not yet seen the restoration of Israel, the fullness of the Gentiles, the millennium, or the final apostasy.
According to Scripture, this is the age of the Holy Spirit, poured out on all flesh, beginning at Pentecost, and in many mighty revivals since then! It is the age of the victorious reign of Jesus Christ, who contends with the nations, and shall finally conquer them; not the age of failure and apostasy. This is the clear message of Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and many other Scriptures in both Testaments. We are to be on the march; not in retreat; for the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the church! The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. All kings shall bow before Him; all nations shall serve Him. All His enemies — the kingdoms and nations that will not serve Him — shall be destroyed. For he must reign, until He hath put all enemies under his feet. Then the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Praise Him, all ye peoples!
When Reformed Christianity was in its flower, this view of things both sustained and energized the churches, and made them a force to contend with in the world. Our liberties as a nation were, in no small part, obtained by Reformed Christians and ministers who believed in the assured progress and ultimate victory of the gospel in history. The modern missions movement was inspired by the hope that the earth would one day be “filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”. Adoniram Judson, the famous missionary, when returning from Burma was asked by a news reporter, “What are the prospects for the speedy conversion of the heathen.” He answered, “The prospects are as bright as the promises of God!”
Howard Douglas King, March 10, 2019