King's Evangelical Divinity School

11 December 2009

Beware An Overly Dogmatic Interpretation of Luke 21:24

Here’s a little point concerning Israel and the end times of which I would be interested to hear your thoughts and comments. It concerns the prophecy found in Luke 21:24. Naturally, liberal Protestants who reject the concept of predictive prophecy will likely dismiss interpretations of this verse by those who take the opposite view. Nonetheless, for those with a high view of Scripture, whether they are pre-, post- or a- millennialists, dispensationalists or supercessionists, this verse deserves closer attention, not least because it goes to the heart of how some pro-Israel Christians view the modern State of Israel.

Many pro-Israel Christians juxtapose Luke 21:24 with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, but more specifically her capture of Jerusalem in 1967 during the Six Day War, as evidence that we are currently in the last days. The argument goes something like this. With the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and the failed Bar Kochba revolt in the second century, the Jews were (with some minor exceptions) expelled and separated from their ancestral homeland for nearly two thousand years until the rise of Zionism and the founding of Israel in May 1948. With the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, it is argued that the city is no longer trampled under foot by the Gentiles and thus Luke 21:24 has, in fact, been fulfilled. Given that the whole tenor of Luke 21:5-36, which is paralleled in Matthew’s Great Eschatological Discourse (chapters 24 and 25) is clearly eschatological, it is maintained that we are thus living in the last days. Both passages are rooted in an eschatological consummation of the age (though futurists do well to note how aspects of both passages are also fulfilled or foreshadowed in Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70). Thus, the 1967 capture of Jerusalem is seen not only as the fulfilment of prophecy in Luke 21:24, but specifically the fulfilment of an end-times prophecy which marks the imminence of Christ’s return. For this reason 54% of respondents to our recent poll on Israel agreed that “Modern Israel is, without doubt, the fulfilment of end times biblical prophecy, so we must be in the last days”.

Yet such an interpretation yields several problems, perhaps demonstrated by the sizeable proportion of our poll’s respondents (25%), who agreed that Israel will be restored eschatologically but nonetheless were unable to say with certainty whether the modern State of Israel is necessarily the fulfilment of end-times prophecy. Let us consider briefly several problems with claiming Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled. First, if the 1967 capture of Jerusalem marked the end of the city’s trampling under foot by the Gentiles, as well as the fulfilment of the “time of the Gentiles” (cf Romans 11:25-6, i.e. the age of salvation for the Gentiles), why are so many Gentiles today still being saved more than forty years after Jerusalem was captured? Conversely, if the fulfilment of the time of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24) is marked by an eschatological mass salvation of Jews (again, see Romans 11:25-6), why aren’t Jews converting to Christ en masse? In short, why hasn’t “all Israel” been saved yet?

A second problem with maintaining that Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled is that arguably Jerusalem, specifically the original city of Zion – the Ophel Ridge, including the Temple Mount at the northern end of the ridge – is still being trampled underfoot by the Gentiles. After the 1967 capture of Jerusalem, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan (that iconic figure sporting the eye patch), much to the chagrin of many Israelis returned control of the Temple Mount to the Palestinian Muslim authority. This authority, known as the Waqf, has in recent years been responsible for a well-publicised display of breathtaking vandalism. Seeking to build a new mosque within the Temple Mount compound, tonnes upon tonnes of earth have been excavated and literally dumped in the Kidron Valley without any thought whatsoever for the immensely important Second Temple period artefacts which are being discovered by archaeologists sifting through the dumped mounds of earth. The Waqf, of course, has no interest in assisting in the discovery of Jewish religious history on the Temple Mount (many Muslims clerics even deny there was ever a Jewish temple there). Thus, a present-day triumphalist rendering of Luke 21:24, in the cold light of day, seems overly optimistic at this stage. Not only that, but Israel is under more pressure than ever before to cede parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the world pushes for a resolution to the bitter Israel-Palestinian crisis.

One response by the Christian believer in biblical prophecy might be to reject an overly literal interpretation of Luke 21:24 and Romans 11:25-6. Indeed, one could argue that the time of the Gentiles is being fulfilled right now, that it is coming to an end gradually, rather than all happening on one day as a strict literal interpretation would suggest. Meanwhile, statistically Jews are turning to Christ in greater numbers that at any time since the second century, and thus one could argue that in a sense all Israel is, in fact, being (continous tense) saved in the lead up to Christ’s return. Yet it is an ongoing work and salvation, rather than a pivotal historical event on a single day, as a strict literal rendering of the relevant passages suggests.

I don’t really have a problem with such a solution. After all, much of end-times prophecy takes events and projects them into the distant future, so that the fulfilment of prophecy becomes telescoped and blurred. Thus, if indeed the founding of modern Israel represents the prophetic restoration of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, it is important to note how it occurred over several generations and not on a single day, much like the return of the exiles and the nation (re)building under Zerubbabel stretched nearly a century into the future under Nehemiah’s eventual leadership. However, it should also be noted that with regards to end times, the Bible often focuses on the consummation of the age as the “day of the Lord”. This is certainly the thrust and main theme of Joel, arguably Paul’s discussion in the latter part of Romans 11, and the last third of Zechariah (specifically 12:10 and 13:1). So the fact remains that while Jews may be turning to Christ in ever greater numbers, arguably one cannot claim we are seeing the final consummation of these prophecies just yet.

Moreover, the fact remains that the religious and historic parts of Jerusalem, the Ophel Ridge, by and large remain trampled underfoot by an Islamic ideology which in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, much provoked by the founding of the Jewish state on Muslim land, has increasingly elevated the religious significance of the Dome of the Rock to one of its most inflexible, potent and defining symbols. It just so happens to be located just a few yards from where Jews pray at the Western Wall. So can some Christian Zionists today really claim that Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled?

What am I getting at here? Before answering that question, first let me say I’m not suggesting, as some Christians undoubtedly argue, that we need to tear down the Dome of the Rock, rid East Jerusalem of its Palestinian population, and usher in that time when the city is no longer trampled underfoot by the Gentiles. Premillennialists rightly reject how postmillennialism seeks to usher in the kingdom of God by establishing and presenting it to Christ, thus hastening the Second Coming. Such an attempt to establish the Kingdom makes the parousia (Second Coming of Christ) an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric event. It does so by employing a hermeneutical method whereby Christians read themselves into key Bible texts. The technical term is to 'actualise’, that is, to read oneself into a pivotal role and/or interpretation of Scripture. Yet some premillennial Christian Zionists do precisely the same thing, feeling they must (through lobbying, political activity, financing, and so on) bring about the ultimate fulfilment of passages such as Luke 21:24, which in turn will hasten the return of Christ. Such a mindset is no less anthropocentric than postmillennialism’s approach. The short of it is, God will send Christ when He so chooses and there is little we can do to hasten that event. It is one thing to express political support for and lobby on behalf of Israel, which I believe Christians should do (incidentally, I also think that as her true friends we ought to speak to her when she gets it wrong). But it is quite another to feel our political activity has any bearing at all on God’s eschatological plans. If our motive for supporting Israel is on the basis that they are God’s chosen people, well and good, but if some Christians’ motive is to hasten the consummation of the age, theirs is an anthropocentrically-driven, erroneous motive.

Having got this off my chest, let’s get back to Luke 21:24. I simply wanted to raise this issue to explain why some pro-Israel Christians (for example, 25% in our recent poll) may not necessarily be convinced current events in the Middle East represent the fulfilment of prophecy. I also wanted to respond more fully to a question raised by a reader at the end of a rather gloomy blog entry I wrote concerning how the current State of Israel might eventually break up. The reader asked an important question, namely, given how strongly Israel and the Jews played in his understanding of Christianity and how God had His hand continually on them, how might their demise as a state (which some political commentators believe might well occur within a generation or two) have a bearing on the faith of pro-Israel Christians? The point made is an important one. In short, if pro-Israel Christians maintain Luke 21:24 has already been fulfilled, how might their faith suffer if it later transpired this was not the case, for example if Jerusalem was given back to the Palestinians, or if Israel as a nation eventually even ceased to exist? I suggest those who currently maintain dogmatically that Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled might well have their faith severely shaken. At best, pro-Israel Christians might feel the need to re-examine their hermeneutics, eventually reinterpreting Luke 21:24 by spiritualising or preterising it (ie maintaining those events were fulfilled in AD 70). Either way, their hermeneutical realignment would likely lead to a radical reinterpretation of their theological understanding of Israel and the Jews as God’s chosen people. This is precisely the point made by the blog reader mentioned above.

Apart from current dogmatic assertions that Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled, or a hermeneutical realignment which preterises the text’s setting, there is a third alternative, namely, to keep our options open about whether or the current situation in the Middle East indeed marks the end times. Doing so means conceding that Luke 21:24 may not necessarily have been fulfilled. Note carefully what I am not saying here, though. Taking such a position still allows one to hold steadfastly to the view that Luke 21 and Matthew 24-25 are eschatological in nature. Neither are we ditching our great eschatological hope, or denying Israel as God’s chosen people or her central role in His consummation of the age. Israel features strongly in the Bible’s teaching of the end times, and frankly it requires hermeneutical gymnastics to allegorise or spiritualise any and every eschatological passage concerning Israel in order to claim them for a Church which supersedes her. All I am asking is this: can Bible-believing Christians say with certainty Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled and we are indeed in the last times?

For my part, I cannot help but view as miraculous not only the way the modern State of Israel was founded, but also how she has survived throughout the twentieth century against all odds. But neither do I want to be overly dogmatic and claim Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled. After all, many Christians no doubt reached similar conclusions that they were in the last days during the apocalyptic events marking the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Yet of course such was not the case. One thing is certain: Yahweh is referred to as the “God of Israel” over 200 times in the Bible. Yet the Holy One of Israel will not allow His name to be besmirched, and whenever His people have degenerated into unspeakable sin and abominable wickedness, they have experienced swift divine judgment in the form of external enemies who have overpowered them, tyrants from within, and ultimately exile (see, for example, Isaiah 1). Thus we must never fall into the trap of believing just because the Jews are God’s chosen people they can do no wrong. Today, Israeli society is bitterly divided into religious and secular camps. Meanwhile, some Israelis have totally cast aside the faith of their fathers, and like people throughout the world hate their neighbour, engage in crime, and practice witchcraft. So who knows? The modern State of Israel may experience God’s judgment in the future, which is all the more reason for not being overly dogmatic in one’s view about whether or not Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled. Moreover, many Israelis rely on American support and their own military prowess, rather than the God of Israel. Yet we see in David’s census that this is not God’s way, and who knows, maybe there will have to come a time when she has no friends to turn to that, at a moment of impending catastrophe the entire nation will finally turn to God when all seems lost.

I was born less than a year after Israel captured Jerusalem and was brought up to believe this was nothing less than the fulfilment of Scripture. This may well be the case, but equally it may not be so. We cannot say with dogmatic certainty that Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled. But neither do we need to. If this passage remains unfulfilled at this time it need not shake in any way our sincere belief that God has not finished with Israel or that she figures strongly in His consummation plan.

Let me know what you think about this comment, whatever position you take. It is good to discuss and reach clarity on such issues, which helps us to be so much more effective when we stand for Israel against those within the Church who despise her.

Originally posted on the King's Evangelical Divinity School blog in December 2007. Details of the poll referred to can be found here.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting reading Eusebius of Cesearea, (book III, chapters 5-8 and 32-35 - Baker Book House) on this. Eusebius records that the Christians fled Jerusalem to Pella because of the prophecy and were saved, while those who remained perished.

Later the Christians, mainly of Jewish descent, returned. Interestingly the first 15 bishops of Jerusalem were Hebrews. The third Bishop of Jerusalem was Justus a Jewish circumcised convert at a time when many Jews were converting to Christ. This is one piece of evidence why I believe that the Christian community has ethnic Hebrew roots.

As for prophecy, there are sometimes dual applications interwoven into one prophecy so care does need to be taken in interpreting I agree.
Andrew Sibley

Calvin L. Smith said...

Comment deleted.

[I'm quite happy for people to add a hyperlink in their comments, but simply using the comments feature for blatant advertising of ministries or Christian products, without actually commenting on the posts, is not permitted].

Unknown said...

After reading Luke 21:24 my first thought was, this sounds like a 2nd holocaust to me. I wanted to research a bit and came across this page. I have to agree with you on this statement. : "The modern State of Israel may experience God’s judgment in the future, which is all the more reason for not being overly dogmatic in one’s view about whether or not Luke 21:24 has been fulfilled."

Anonymous said...

I think the scripture suggests a sense of partial fulfillment. The events of 70 ad and of the Bar Kochba Rebellion certainly led to the exile of Jews world over. But the times of the Gentiles have surely not been fulfilled. The Gentiles: the UN, the US, the EU, the surrounding Muslim and Arab countries and peoples; all these are still lording it over Israel in some form or fashion.

Anonymous said...

Some other scriptures seem to suggest that there just might be another exiling of Jews from modern Israel in the future just prior to the return of the Lord. It looks like the Antichrist may overrun Israel for a short time. Consider Ezekiel 38-39 and Daniel 8:24-25; 11:41.