Preterism

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Some Christians view the subject of prophecy through a system called “amillenialism”, which means that there is no future 1000-year rule of Christ on earth. These people normally to interpret prophetic or apocalptic passages through a past lens called “preterism”, by teaching that all "apocalyptic" events described by Jesus in Matthew 24, including those described in the book of Revelation, have already happened back in 70 AD when Rome destroyed Jerusalem. Their view is that the tribulation that Jesus predicted has already come and gone. They assume that when Jesus says in Matthew 24:34 “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” that He was saying that those who were hearing these words from Jesus’ mouth would still be alive when all this would be fulfilled.

On the other hand, non-preterists (or futurists) believe that there is a lot of evidence for a future fulfillment of these prophecies given by Jesus. They will point out that in context, Jesus is pointing ahead to a future generation that will be alive at the time when the "sign of the fig tree" occurs in history, which seems to predict the rebirth and expansion of Israel.

Jesus says in Matthew 24:32-33 - Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Some think that the replanting of the fig tree occurred when Israel was re-born as a nation in 1948, and that the sprouting of the leaves of that fig tree refers to Israel’s geographic expansion in the Six Day War on June 7, 1967, when Israel acquired the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula.

It seems that Jesus is saying that when you see this happen, you know that His return to earth is near. The generation that sees this event happen won’t pass away before Jesus returns to earth. [An alternate explanation is that the phrase can also be rendered as an ingressive aorist, “until all these things begin to take place”.] We note that Jesus seems to be speaking of distant future events since four times in Matthew 24, we find the phrase “the coming of the Son of Man” (verses 3, 27, 37, 39). The preterists think that Matthew 24 is talking about Jesus “spiritually coming” in judgment to judge the nation of Israel in 70 AD. (Some think that this idea that God is “done with the Jews” helped lead to the Holy Land Crusades, as well as Hitler’s Holocaust and others persecutions of the Jewish people.) But the word “coming” is the Greek, parousia, which refers to Jesus’ bodily presence, in physical form, on the earth. Rather than this talking about a spiritual or allegorical coming, it points to a true physical coming of Christ back to rule, in person, as King on the earth.

Just one verse prior to this prophetic teaching, Jesus, speaking to the leaders of Israel, says in Matthew 23:39 that “you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” [This doesn’t refer to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, for that already happened in Matthew 21.] Here, Jesus is pointing ahead to a future day when the Jewish people will welcome Him as their blessed Messiah and King. In other words, Israel’s repentance, Israel’s welcoming of Jesus as their national Messiah, will occur just before Christ’s physical return to earth. That day is prophesied in Zechariah 12:10 when the Lord says that when Jesus comes back to earth - I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

In other words, immediately before Jesus returns, the Jewish people who are still alive at the end of the Tribulation will, in mass, trust in Jesus Christ as their only Savior and Lord. Around that same time, Zechariah 14:2-3 says that all the nations will gather around Jerusalem to fight against it, and the Lord will fight against those nations to protect Jerusalem from harm. Then verse 4 says, “On that day [the Lord’s] feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, and the Lord’s enemies will suffer from a unique plague that causes their flesh to rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes to rot in their sockets, and their tongues to rot in their mouths” – which seems to describe the effects of nuclear radiation, and written 2500 years ago.

Jesus, in Matthew 24, is talking about the same event that Zechariah 12-14 is talking about. Preterists think that Matthew 24 is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. But the fact is that Zechariah does not predict the destruction of Jerusalem, but the protection of Jerusalem. Zechariah describes a future day when Jerusalem is surrounded by enemies, but unlike what happens in 70 AD when Jerusalem is destroyed, in Zechariah, God destroys all the nations that come against Jerusalem! Therefore, it seems that Matthew 24 does not describe a symbolic “coming” of Christ to destroy Jerusalem, but rather, a physical “coming” of Christ to protect Jerusalem.

Jesus also says in Matthew 24:21-22 that this will be a time of great distress, intense tribulation, unequaled by anything else the world has ever seen, and that if those days had not been cut short, no one would survive; all humanity would become extinct. So, even though the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was horrible, it seems tha Jesus is predicting something much worse than that.

Matthew 24-25 speaks of a delay of Christ’s earthly rule as King. Matthew 24 repeatedly warns that even when we see a lot of trials, the time of Christ’s return is not here yet. Verses 45-51 teach that the master is delaying his return. In 25:1-13, the ten virgins have to wait a long time for their bridegroom to come. In 25:14-30, in the parable of the talents, the master travels to a far county (heaven) and returns only after a long time (vs. 19). The point: Jesus’ rule as King on earth (parousia) will yet be a long ways off.

Matthew seems to be explaining to First Century Jewish Christians why Jesus, their Messiah, has not yet returned to rule over the earthly kingdom like they had been expecting, that kingdom which is promised so many times in the Old Testament. They needed to understand that an entire age, the Church age, would intervene between Christ’s first and second comings, during which time the Gentiles would be included in God’s family. During this Church age, God’s plan for Israel would be put “on hold” - to be resumed later. (This idea reflects a theological template called dispensationalism.)

The book of Matthew can be outlined as a chiasm that repeats five parallel themes, pivoting around parables of the delayed kingdom in chapter 13:

Matthew 1-4 – Jesus’ qualifications as King of the Jews.
	Matthew 5-7 – Character of the Kingdom (now and future).
		Matthew 8-9 – Miracles and discipleship instructions from the King.
			Matthew 10 – Instructions for the Twelve about Israel.
				Matthew 11-12 – Israel’s opposition and rejection of her King.
					Matthew 13 – Parables of a postponed earthly kingdom (Church age).
				Matthew 14-17 - Israel’s opposition and rejection of her King.
			Matthew 18 – Instructions for the Twelve about the Church.
		Matthew 19-23 – Miracles and discipleship instructions from the King.
	Matthew 24-25 – Timing of the future earthly Kingdom.
Matthew 26-28 – Jesus’ qualifications as King of the universe.

With this idea of a postponed earthly kingdom in mind, in Acts 1:6, when the disciples ask, “Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”, Jesus tells them that they aren’t privileged to know when that will happen, and in the meantime, they are to be busy obeying Christ’s commands and evangelizing the world.

The main purpose for God giving prophecy (history in advance) is not to fill one's head full of fascinating ideas, but is to fill one's heart with motivation to live a life of purity, holiness and faithfulness. God tells us about the future not so that we will have fuller heads, but so that we will believe Him when He tells us that the glory of this world is not worth chasing after (1 John 2:15-17). God reveals in advance what He's going to do, not so we can be puffed up with knowledge, but so we will obey His call to live as "aliens and strangers" in this world (1 Peter 2:11).