Wednesday, November 24, 2004

John Gill (1697-1771) on Matthew 24

I just read something that I had never thought of. I was looking through my John Gill CD-ROM, and I decided to see what he had to say about Matthew 24, so I went to his commentary on Matthew to see. There I found something interesting. In verse 3 when the disciples ask Jesus, "When shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" Well, most commentators, even dispensational ones, will admit that the first part of the question refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. However, the second half has been given all sorts of different interptretations. Some say that the disciples confused the destruction of Jerusalem with the end of the world and Jesus sets them straight, some say that this was all one question, and that they were referring to the OT language of God "coming" in judgement, and that the end of the world really means end of the age, because that is the better translation. Well, I tend to agree with the second interpretation, but John Gill points out something I had never heard anybody else say. He says that when the disciples asked about Christ's return, they did not have in mind Him being gone in the first place. Remember that they just couldn't get it through their heads that Jesus was going to go back to Heaven. They thought he would always be with them. And though they may have figured out that He was going away, they still probably thought that He meant He was leaving their presence temporarily but would still be on Earth. Like, "I'm going to Dallas for a few days, and you can't follow me there, but I'll be back." He says:

That he was come in the flesh, and was the true Messiah, they firmly believed: he was with them, and they expected he would continue with them, for they had no notion of his leaving them, and coming again. When he at any time spake of his dying and rising from the dead, they seemed not to understand it: wherefore this coming of his, the sign of which, they inquire, is not to be understood of his coming a second time to judge the world, at the last day; but of his coming in his kingdom and glory, which they had observed him some little time before to speak of; declaring that some present should not die, till they saw it: wherefore they wanted to be informed, by what sign they might know, when he would set up his temporal kingdom; for since the temple was to be destroyed, they might hope a new one would be built, much more magnificent than this, and which is a Jewish notion; and that a new state of things would commence; the present world, or age, would be at a period; and the world to come, they had so often heard of from the Jewish doctors, would take place; and therefore they ask also, of the sign of the end of the world, or present state of things in the Jewish economy: to this Christ answers, in the latter part of this chapter, though not to the sense in which they put the questions; yet in the true sense of the coming of the son of man, and the end of the world; and in such a manner, as might be very instructive to them, and is to us.

Gill then goes on to give a very preteristic interpretation of Matthew 24. It is as if it were written by Gary DeMar or Ken Gentry. And Tim LaHaye says that partial-preterism doesn't have history on its side! If all we had was John Gill, that would be enough to provide partial-preterism with more history than dispensationalism. He believes that "this generation" that Jesus says his words apply to literally meant the generation of men He was talking to. In verse 29 ("Immediately after the tribulation in those days..."), Gill says that this still must have been in the first century and,

"therefore cannot be referred to the last judgment, or what should befall the church, or world, a little before that time, or should be accomplished in the whole intermediate time, between the destruction of Jerusalem, and the last judgment: for all that is said to account for such a sense, as that it was usual with the prophets to speak of judgments afar off as near; and that the apostles often speak of the coming of Christ, the last judgment, and the end of the world, as just at hand; and that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, will not answer to the word “immediately”, or show that that should be understood of two thousand years after: besides, all the following things were to be fulfilled before that present generation, in which Christ lived, passed away, (Matthew 24:34) and therefore must be understood of things that should directly, and immediately take place upon, or at the destruction of the city and temple."

John Gill then explains the astronomical language (sun and moon darkened) in the same manner as modern day preterists. This is not literal language but, again using OT prophetic language, refers to the shekinah glory of God leaving Israel, the disappearing of the old covenant form, etc. Concerning verse 30, he says,

"And then shall appear the sign of the son of man in heaven, etc. Not the sound of the great trumpet, mentioned in the following verse; nor the clouds of heaven in this; nor the sign of the cross appearing in the air, as it is said to do in the times of Constantine: not the former; for though to blow a trumpet is sometimes to give a sign, and is an alarm; and the feast which the Jews call the day of blowing the trumpets, (Numbers 29:1) is, by the Septuagint, rendered hmera shmasiav, “the day of signification”; yet this sign is not said to be sounded, but to appear, or to be seen, which does not agree with the sounding of a trumpet: much less can this design the last trumpet at the day of judgment, since of that the text does not speak; and, for the same reason, the clouds cannot be meant in which Christ will come to judgment, nor are clouds in themselves any sign of it: nor the latter, of which there is no hint in the word of God, nor any reason to expect it, nor any foundation for it; nor is any miraculous star intended, such as appeared at Christ’s first coming, but the son of man himself: just as circumcision is called the sign of circumcision, (Romans 4:11) and Christ is sometimes called a sign, (Luke 2:34) as is his resurrection from the dead, (Matthew 12:39) and here the glory and majesty in which he shall come: and it may be observed, that the other evangelists make no mention of the sign, only speak of the son of man, (Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27) and he shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation which will be a full sign and proof of his being come: for the sense is, that when the above calamities shall be upon the civil state of that people, and there will be such changes in their ecclesiastical state it will be as clear a point, that Christ is come in the flesh, and that he is also come in his vengeance on that nation, for their rejection and crucifixion him, as if they had seen him appear in person in the heavens. They had been always seeking a sign, and were continually asking one of him; and now they will have a sign with a witness; as they had accordingly."

And further on he states,

"and they shall see the son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. The Arabic version reads it, “ye shall see”, as is expressed by Christ, in (Matthew 26:64). Where the high priest, chief priests, Scribes, and elders, and the whole sanhedrim of the Jews are spoken to: and as the same persons, namely, the Jews, are meant here as there; so the same coming of the son of man is intended; not his coming at the last day to judgment; though that will be in the clouds of heaven, and with great power and glory; but his coming to bring on, and give the finishing stroke to the destruction of that people, which was a dark and cloudy dispensation to them: and when they felt the power of his arm, might, if not blind and stupid to the last degree, see the glory of his person, that he was more than a mere man, and no other than the Son of God, whom they had despised, rejected, and crucified; and who came to set up his kingdom and glory in a more visible and peculiar manner, among the Gentiles."

The angels in v. 31 are, as literally translated, "messengers." That is, they are men--ministers who spread the Gospel. The Gospel is the sound of the trumpet that is mentioned. As these men spread out into the world with the Gospel, they gather the elect into the kingdom of God. Thus, the gathering of the elect is not the rapture into heaven, but the delivering of souls from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God, which now happens every day.

Many people see v. 36 as the beginning of Jesus' discourse of the ultimate second coming. They say that Jesus moved to a different topic by ending the first topic in the same way He began it (i.e., "this generation shall not pass..." v. 34). For instance, J. Marcellus Kik, a postmillennial partial-preterist, took this view. Gill did not see this as the beginning of a different subject. He thought that Jesus was still talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Jewish age. In vv 40 and 41, where one person is taken and another left behind, Gill says that this is not a rapture but is the taking of one by the Roman armies to be killed, and another spared by Providence.

Gill doesn't leave Matthew 24 bereft of any meaning pertaining to the ultimate return of Christ. He says that some of what is said in chapter 24 of the end of the Jewish age refers to the end of all things, such as the unexpectedness of Christ's return.

Of interest, Gill at one point makes the comments that all of creation will not be destroyed at the return of Christ. It will merely be changed. I have been of this persuasion for a while, though I hardly ever speak of it because it seems so radical. Gill doesn't give reason for his assertion, but I would imagine that it has to do with the fact that when Paul speaks of the New Jerusalem in Galations, it is obviously not a literal new heavens and new earth, but is rather a way of referring to the Gospel age. Another reason I don't believe that heaven and earth will be completely done away with is because the Bible says that all of creation groans in anticipation of being redeemed. What sort of looked-forward-to redemption is complete annihilation? "that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." -- Romans 8:21

All that is mere sidenote. I'm too tired to read Gill's commentary on chapter 25, so I can't say where he goes from there, but I did see that he begins saying that the kingdom of heaven is the gospel church state.

Gill was one of the most influential Baptist pastors, yet his influence is very obviously not felt so much today. For shame.

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