A Handful of Mud: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (VI)

February 26, 2010

Before heading back to Revelation 1:7, it would be a waste if we did not put together the “fruits” of our labors, as we have probed the usage of Daniel 7 and Zechariah 12 in Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse.  For example, in my last post, I noted the elegant chiastic arrangement I had noticed in Matthew 24:29-31, and I will work with it more below.  However, after finding that mirroring structure in vv. 29-31, I decided to think outside the box in regard to the earlier part of the chapter, to see what that brainstorming might detect.  As I will explain below, that was a profitable investment of my time.

Why did I now go in search of a possible chiastic arrangement in the earlier part of Matthew 24?  Actually, I could kick myself for not doing so earlier.  Why?  Frankly, it’s because, in my previous experience with detecting fresh chiastic structures, it has always occurred at some point in the text in which none of the various conventional ways of perceiving literary structure seemed to work.  That is definitely what I had found in working quite a bit over the years with Matthew 24:3-31.

So that this post will not go on at great length, I am going to jump straight into the inverted structure I have found in 24:3-28.  I will attempt to explain how the parallels work, as well as their significance for interpreting this crucial part of the Olivet Discourse, as we move on through.  That will be followed with another quick look at the chiasm I mentioned last time in 24:29-31.  My concluding thoughts in this post will be to try to put all this together theologically.

a (24:3) The question (2a) in the middle: “What is the sign of your parousia?”

b (24:4-12) Among numerous thinks that will take place, false messiahs and false prophets will mislead many.  Also, the experience of “tribulation” (Greek thlipsis) during the preliminary period of “the beginning of birth pains” (i.e., before the really rough stuff at “the end of the age”)

c (24:13) The one who endures to “the end” (i.e., of the age [2b]) will be saved.

d (24:14) Gospel of the kingdom preached to the whole world/all the nations and then “the end” (i.e., of the age) shall come

d’ (24:15) Abomination of desolation standing in the Holy Place (see Dan. 9:27; 12:11)

c’ (24:16-22) Taking flight during “great tribulation” (see Dan. 12:1)

b’ (24:23-26) False messiahs and false prophets will attempt to mislead

a’ (24:27-28) The obvious visibility of the parousia (as opposed to the Greek erchomai being used more times in the rest of the passage) of the Son of Man

As we consider this structure, the repetition of parousia in the ‘a’ layer helps set the outer bounds of the chiasm.  The ‘b’ layer was a stunning insight for me.  To realize both passages are talking about the same period of “tribulation” (not “great tribulation”) opened a door of understanding.  The parallel in the ‘c’ layer of endurance and fleeing in the “great tribulation” makes very good sense.  At the midpoint, the idea that the completion of the worldwide preaching of the gospel would take place during the same time that the “abomination of desolation” is set up is incredibly encouraging to me, as it would have been to the apostles.  Think about it: instead of Jesus mentioning the “abomination of desolation” as a complete downer, He is actually saying that the Lord is in control and still saving His own right in the midst of “great tribulation” and what, to the unsaved world, would be the classic evidence that the Beast and the Devil were victorious.

Then, there is the structure we saw last time in 24:29-31.  By virtue of the chiasm in vv. 3-28 (see above), I have now realized that vv. 23-28 are not dealing with the period of “great tribulation,” but with the preliminary suffering/affliction (“tribulation”) of the “beginning of birth pains” (i.e., well before the actual hard labor when the baby is born).  That is highly significant because of the way v. 29 begins: “immediately after the tribulation of those days.”  If vv. 23-28 are indeed referring to the “tribulation” in the church age before a final seven-year Tribulation period—and, pretty clearly, that is what is in view with the wording “beginning of birth pains,” then it changes things dramatically in regard to the timing of vv. 29-31.

But, perhaps you are saying, “Hold it now!  What about that word “tribulation” (Greek thlipsis)?”  Doesn’t that mean that mean the seven-year Tribulation period?

No, it does not.  As I explained in my 2001 article (“The ‘Earth-Dwellers’ and the ‘Heaven-Dwellers’ in Revelation” in the journal Faith and Mission):

Though there are 43 uses of the Greek word thlipsis in the New Testament, often rendered “tribulation,” but also “affliction” or “distress,” only five to seven of those instances are eschatological.  The remaining uses have to do with suffering in the Christian life during the course of the church age (e.g., Acts 14:22).

The problem that exists here is that the focus on the handful of eschatological uses of thlipsis has tended to cause some evangelicals to think that there is no “tribulation” now, but “tribulation” and “great tribulation” at the end of the age.  A more balanced and inclusive way of expressing the range of actual usage of thlipsis in the New Testament, however, would be to say that there is significant “tribulation” during the course of the age (as related by its occurrences in Rev. 1:9 and 2:9-10), but unparalleled “great tribulation” at the end of the age (as used in 7:14).

So, there is strong textual evidence for concluding that Matthew 24:29a referring to a point in time just prior to the beginning of the so-called Tribulation period.  And, if that is a correct understanding, the other pair in the ‘a’ layer would be the so-called “Rapture of the church” and it would be, to use standard theological terminology, pretribulational.

Where does that mean regarding the remaining events in the rest of the chiasm in 24:29-31?  It is difficult to say about everything in the structure (and our following studies in Revelation will help clarify that immensely).  However, it appears that the ‘b’ layer—the cosmic phenomena in 24:29b and the trumpet in 24:31a, both of which are found in Joel 2, in the great prophecy of what takes place just before the Day of the Lord—happens at the same time (which is no problem if the Day of the Lord encompasses the entire Tribulation period).  The ‘c’ and ‘d’ layers make it clear that the “sign” to look for is Christ (the Son of Man) “coming on the clouds,” which we saw previously does not at necessarily at all mean to earth, given that the original reference to the “coming” of the Son of Man “on the clouds” in Daniel 7:13 is into the presence of the “Ancient of Days” in the heavenly throne room.

But, what about the ‘e’ and ‘f’ layers?  When do they take place?  There does not seem to be enough evidence in the context of Matthew 24 to answer clearly when “all the phulai (Greek “tribes, nations, peoples”) of the earth” will “mourn” and “see” the Son of Man and what that means (although the context of Zech. 12:10 definitely infers that “mourning” means true repentance).

a (24:29a) Immediately after the tribulation (thlipsis) of those days

b (24:29b) Phenomena mentioned in Joel 2:30-31, as being before the “Day of the Lord” (2:31)

c (24:30a) The “sign” seen… in heaven

d (24:30b) The Son of Man

e (24:30c) “Will mourn” (Greek kopsontai) (Zech. 12:10)

f (24:30d) “All the tribes (Greek phulai) of the earth” (Dan. 7:14)

e’ (24:30e) “Will see” (Greek opsontai) (the idea is there in Zech. 12:10 [LXX], but a different Greek word is used, so Jesus’ choice here is clearly intentional)

d’ (24:30f) The Son of Man

c’ (24:30g) “Coming on the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13)

b’ (24:31a) [Jesus] will send out His angels with a loud trumpet (also in Joel 2:1, where it declares the coming of the “Day of the Lord”)

a’ (24:31b) [Jesus] will gather His elect from the four winds

In my next post, I will compare the above findings with what we fine in the Book of Revelation.  Since the Apostle John was a part of both—present when Jesus was teaching in Matthew 24 and the human author of the Apocalypse—my assumption is that the two should square in what they tell us about the end times.  And, of course, there is what started me on this “safari through Scripture in the first place: the focal placement of Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 in Revelation 1:7 (and Matt. 24:30).  This is going to be fun!

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