America, Israel, and the End of the World As We Know It

Repent! Jesus is coming soon
Ben Sutherland

The following is a recent email exchange with a friend.  We were discussing the relationship between America, Israel, and the perception that modern political Israel plays a crucial role in God’s redemptive activity.

Me: Also, I came across something else about Israel in another book.  It argues rightly I think that all the conditions for Christ’s return were fulfilled within the first generation of Christians (i.e., Pentecost, the scattering of the church from Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD).

We see Christians in the NT period, anxiously waiting and thinking it could happen any day.  Many Christians throughout history have agreed.  No one I know of ever mentioned the necessity of a literal temple being rebuilt and the Jews literally holding the Promised Land until roughly 100 years ago.

Friend:  My question is:  Are we not supposed to complete the Great Commission before Jesus comes back?  Like reaching all peoples?  Or is that just more of our interpretation?

Me: That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure and I’ll have to do some more thinking on it, but here are a few thoughts off hand.

The main defense for 70 AD fulfillment reasons from Jesus’ words in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  Basically the temple’s destruction begins the “times of the Gentiles” which have to be “fulfilled” as a prelude to the end.

What constitutes fulfillment?  Doesn’t say.  Finishing the Great Commission seems logical, but an exact definition is tricky.  It depends how you define “all nations” and “reached?”  We know from a number of passages the final kingdom will be a diverse one, but exactly who, how many, and from where is harder to say.

Mark 13 is especially interesting.

It says the gospel must be preached to all nations.  However, Jesus then says these signs will happen before this (the disciples) generation passes away.  So that’s why many believe everything was completed by 70 AD.

Now we’re just waiting for the “times of the Gentiles” mentioned in Luke to finish.

The obvious question is of course how could all nations have heard the Gospel in the First Century?

It’s my opinion, Jesus meant the ball would get rolling with the preaching to all the nations in his time.  Remember it was a novel idea that Gentiles were going to be primary recipients of God’s blessings.  So maybe Jesus is saying once the preaching to all nations begins and the church spreads, that will be a sign of the end.  Israel’s ancient mission, to be a blessing to all people groups, will at last be realized.

This is the pattern the early church took.

It was largely Jewish until the scattering from Jerusalem and later when Paul came along. Furthermore, that seems to be the point of the book of Acts.  It describes the gospel spreading from culture to culture until it reaches Rome where the book ends.  There’s a good chance the reader is supposed to infer that from there, the capital of the world, the gospel will reach everywhere, all nations.

Friend:  Interesting.  I’m just trying to see how it might fit in.  I can see how Matthew and Mark could be read more symbolically (especially if that’s what you want to see in it),with the talk of the Abomination of Desolation, and the sun burning out and what not.  But Luke can seem a lot more literal.  He says that Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and sacked, and that no one should stay there if they can help it.  Sounds like good advice to avoid a Roman army putting down an active rebellion.  Most of the other talk about Christians being tried and persecuted and hated for his name could apply to both that generation and a futuristic “end-times” generation, if you wanted it to.  But in a literal sense, it was completed in that time.  So I can buy that.

Me:  It may be symbolic language, but it doesn’t have to be.  These passages are all describing the end of the world and the “coming of the Son of Man.”  There is no doubt this will be a dramatic, worldwide event of some sort.  What I’m saying is everything that has to happen before the end happened by 70 AD.

In other words, we are now in the last phase of God’s redemptive plan and have been since 70 AD.  The next great work God will do is bring it all to a close.

The New American commentary breaks down the Matthew passage down like this:

Matthew 24:4-14 preliminary events

15-20 temple destruction

21-28 an interim period of persecution and great distress

29-31 Christ’s return

32-35 everything will be ready for christ’s return in the apostle’s generation

The other parallel passages follow a similar pattern.  The question for me is is the time of “great distress” a one time event just before Christ’s return, or is it a picture of what will always be happening to the church?

There are some indications from other passages things will not be going well for the church as the end approaches.  However, even if it is still a future event there is nothing keeping it from happening right now and ushering in Christ.

In a sense I think we are always supposed to think it could be “soon.”  However you look at it there is no next phase to come.  No reestablished Israel, temple, etc.

The only next phase is Jesus taking names.

So while we wait and work for the kingdom, caution needs attention when discerning the times.  We are far better off putting away the rapture charts and diligently sowing and reaping in faith and love, letting the geopolitical chips fall where they may.


14 thoughts on “America, Israel, and the End of the World As We Know It

  1. Interesting conversation and thoughts. Another question to add into the mix: why do we assume that the Olivet Discourse has any direct application to the Church? If the focus of the Discourse is Jerusalem and its people (the context seems very Jewish), why insert the church at all? Could Christ have been discussing the future of God’s Old Testament people apart from any program for the Church?

    1. That’s an interesting thought. From that perspective then, Jesus is saying its pretty much over and now all that’s left is for the “times of the Gentiles” to be finished, and that doesn’t really concern you? The only pushback I might give is this . . . how does Jesus discussing the preaching of the Gospel especially in Mark 13 fit in? What were they to make of that?

      Thanks for your comments.

      1. As two Americans from very different parts of this nation, I can discuss with you the history of my home state, Oregon, it’s politics, economy and future outlook. As part of that discussion, I might also mention how you, in another state, might benefit or protect yourself against the problems here. It’s the difference between ‘interpretation’ and ‘application.’

        It is impossible to escape the clear “Jewishness” of the Olivet Discourse. Since the Church was vastly Gentile majority by 70 AD, I struggle to see this being a sermon about or specifically to the Church.

        I agree wholly with your idea that all the necessities for Christ’s return were fulfilled in the Apostolic Age. History acknowledges that the early church did reach the entire “world” with the gospel in it’s day; from India to Russia, to Britain and into Africa. (Arthur Pink wrote a wonderful little pamphlet demonstrating that the word “world” [kosmos] does not always mean the whole of planet Earth, but has at least 7 varied meanings and applications). Now, we simply await the completion of this time of the Gentiles.

        [Love your posts. One of the few things in my day that prod me to think.]

  2. I am not theologically knowledgeable. I do read and understand somewhat about scripture, and I believe pretty well what your final paragraph states that we should live and attempt to further God’s kingdom but that we should not really speculate or attempt to know when Christ will return as that is only for the Father to know…so why do so many preachers attempt to narrow it down. Sometimes I honestly feel that there is a bit of …for lack of a better phrase…’fear mongering’…That sounds harsh but I feel uncomfortable sometimes. Just some of my thoughts…Diane

  3. This is a great conversation. Yes and yes to it. Also, let’s not forget the “Already, but not yet” aspect of God’s Kingdom, seen in all gospels, but especially in the language of John’s “a time is coming and is now here.” In one sense the Kingdom of God is already here on earth, and in another it is yet to be fulfilled (because the Kingdom of this world is still here). I also really like the understanding of the end of the world provided by Wolfhart Pannenberg. He looks at the Resurrection of Jesus and notes that people being raised from the dead was, in the 1st Century Jewish mindset, an eschatological (end of the world) event. So in a way, the Resurrection (and the other people who were raised, mentioned in Matthew), is the end of the world already. As Pannenberg puts it, “The end of history has broken into the midst of our history.”

    1. Thanks for your comments Trey. I have not read Pannenberg, though it seems I should. I think your right. The resurrection is our hope, and the only proof we need for continued faithfulness. Perhaps Pannenberg’s view also explains why many NT writers were so comfortable with apocalyptic language when talking about Jesus and the kingdom. It was not only language appropriate to describe such an event, but also infusing the resurrection with theological meaning.

  4. My reading of Jesus’ predictions and warnings (especially in Matthew 24) as the list of things we all take as signs of the end (earthquakes, wars, etc) are just the beginning, not near the end (see 24:8). The only genuine sign seems to be that the end will come sometime after the gospel is preached worldwide.

    So I can’t help feeling that most of the discussion about Israel is on a wrong basis.

    1. I agree about the Israel discussion being on the wrong basis. However, I think you can make a good case the preaching of the gospel to all nations was already accomplished in the first or second generation of Christianity as well. Perhaps.

      1. I wonder who in the first 2 centuries preached the gospel to all the nations of Australia’s indigenous people? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your comment here.

      2. I know what you mean and you may be right. However I’m saying it may be possible that preaching to the nations is a qualitative occurrence. It may not necessarily mean every single people group will hear the gospel, before things are ready for Christ’s return. Instead, it may just be that the gospel will go out to the nations. In other words, it is a shift in salvation history from a focus on the temple and Jewish people to a focus on the good news and the gentiles.

  5. I think I agree that we don’t need to interpret the statement super-literally, but I think that statement is still the only one that seems to set a condition for the end to come rather than a statement of what will happen right through the age.

    1. You may be right. I’m ok with that. I think if we only had Mark and Luke you would definitely be right. However, Matthew seems to indicate the nations will hear before all the other stuff with the temple destruction. Good discussion. Thanks.

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