This week’s Old Testament summary and reflection won’t be long. I mainly want to touch on one main point: God teaches us about himself through worship.
One of the difficulties of this section of the Old Testament is the excruciating detail about the tabernacle, the priests, and the sacrifices. These passages are very easy to skip over or get lost in. But a few key takeaways will help explain why these details are there and what they mean.
As the tabernacle is described and then constructed, we see that as the plans get nearer to the center of the structure, the more reverent and holy the structure becomes. And once you arrive at the innermost room, the Holy of Holies, you see the ark of the covenant, the holiest artifact of Judaism. The tabernacle was the forerunner to the temple, the house of God. You cannot get near to God without a deep and abiding awareness of his holiness and your lack of it apart from his intervention. That is why the high priest was the only person allowed inside the Holy of Holies, and even then only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Let’s discuss the actual details of the temple. Going back to the story of creation, there are all sorts of details about the garden that describe it as a (prototype of a) temple. God created, made it beautiful, lived and walked in it, and then put his image/priest inside of it to care for it. The tabernacle is meant to be seen as a reflection of Eden, when God and mankind were in a right relationship. The entrance to both Eden and the tabernacle faced the east, gold has a prominent place, the lampstand reflects the tree of life, and the law at the centermost part reflects the tree of knowledge. The point is that the redemption and restoration of the cosmos is underway!
Even the priestly garments had a purpose beyond the practical. Exodus 28:2 tells us they were “for glory and for beauty.” The priests wore the breastplate with the names of the tribes on it to represent the people before God. The specific pieces were to have a visible representation that the priests were set apart for God. In another sense, the entire nation of Israel was to be set apart for God, and the priests were a representation of that truth. In other nations of the ancient Near East, it was only the priests who were circumcised. Circumcising every male in the entire nation represented that they were a nation of priests. This explains the role of circumcision in the covenant and why a corresponding sign for women was never established. The fact that every male had it done to them eight days after their birth was an image of the priestly nature of Israel.
The priestly breastplate was also covered with precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. Here's a good example of why simply knowing many of these details matters in interpreting other passages of Scripture. Some people have tried to argue that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are about the fall of Satan, but for many reasons I think that interpretation falls itself. For example, in Ezekiel 28, the king of Tyre is said to wear these priestly garments with these stones as a metaphor for his kingly/priestly role. Spoiler alert: Satan wasn’t a priest, and the passage clearly says that it is a lament about the king of Tyre, not Satan.
Jesus was the final, ultimate high priest. All of these symbols and signs were fulfilled in him. Once we get to the book of Hebrews, we’ll talk about that just about the whole time.
So what is God teaching us in the details of the tabernacle and priestly garments? He is teaching us that he cares about how he is worshiped, and that he gets to decide how he is worshiped. This has come to be known as the “regulative principle”. Scripture regulates what the church includes in worship. Not every church adopts the regulative principle, and no church does it perfectly.
Jesus warns the people about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Ultimately, their problem is that they love the social standing of being a respected teacher in the community over actually shepherding people into deeper obedience to the law of God.
He gives seven “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees. He chastises them for hypocrisy, raising tradition over the law, and failing to live up to the standard of the law themselves. He finally warns them they will bear the righteous blood of the prophets sent by God because of their teaching and hypocrisy. This will come true in his crucifixion, the murder of the final prophet.
Jesus then goes into a lengthy teaching about the end of the age. This is always a thorny issue because there are many views, all of which use the same passages to make their case. When someone tries to lay out all of major three views, it just gets more confusing because you’re interpreting the same passage three different ways. That kind of lesson may have its place, but it’s not always helpful.
Let me make a case for the view that was held by the first several generations of Christians after the apostles, historic posttribulational premillennialism. For example, the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was a disciple of the apostle John and held this view. It is different from dispensational premillennialism, which holds to a pretribulational rapture.
Jesus told his disciples that one day the temple will be destroyed again. The disciples then asked two questions: when will that happen, and what will be the sign of your return? Realizing that those are two different questions and that Jesus answers them separately is key to interpreting this passage.
In verses 15-31, Jesus is answering the first question, “When will these things (the destruction of the temple) be?” Do not be fooled into thinking that the destruction of the temple was the sign of his coming. This rules out a view called preterism, which says that Christ has already come. Don’t worry: when he does come again, it will be more visible than the destruction of the temple. In the same way a whole village sees the same lightning bolt across the sky, the whole world will see his return.
Jesus isn’t saying that the “abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” is exactly what they should expect, in the sense that Daniel had in mind the destruction of the second temple, but that one like it is coming. The abomination of Daniel had a direct fulfillment, and Jesus uses it to show his disciples what to expect next. Not to be crass, but it’s like using a television show that everyone has already seen to describe a show you know is coming out soon. This is a prophecy of Rome coming to destroy the temple within a generation, and Jesus is telling them not to fight but to flee. When Jerusalem was attacked a few decades before, the people fought. But why would you fight for a temple that no longer serves a purpose since Jesus will have ascended by that time? The destruction of the temple was an act of judgment on Jerusalem.
Verses 29-31 are almost entirely Old Testament allusions, so they must be interpreted as such. This passage continues Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ first question. The imagery of the sky falling is Old Testament prophetic language for judgment on a nation, which takes place when the temple is destroyed and Rome sets up the “abomination of desolation”, which was the sacrifices of unclean animals (pigs) in the temple. Without having to do any mental gymnastics, we must take verse 34 at face value when it says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Jesus is referring to the destruction of the temple, which took place roughly 40 years later, or easily within one generation. For instance, the apostle John was alive most likely into the early 90s, 20 years past the destruction of the temple.
It is in verse 36 that Jesus begins to answer the second question from verse 3, “and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” It seems as though the disciples, that side of the resurrection, still equate the fall of Jerusalem with Jesus setting up his kingdom. Many have tried to interpret the connection with Noah to the rapture, but a close reading shows the opposite. In the story of Noah, the ones who were taken away were the ones taken in judgment. Noah and his family were the people who were left safe. In Matthew 24, Jesus says that two men will be in the field, one taken and one left; two women will be at the mill, one taken and one left. By comparing that future event to Noah and the flood, it only makes sense that the ones who are left are the ones who are righteous, not being taken in judgment. If this actually is a reference to the rapture, then it supports a posttribulational rapture, which means the rapture is simultaneous with the second coming.
Part of the draw of a pretribulational rapture is the notion that we will be spared from the tribulation. But you must ask the question, why does Jesus teach us how to live in the tribulation if we will be spared from it? Were the Jews spared when Jerusalem was sacked? That certainly is not what Jesus had in mind.
Some have asked what the motivation for holiness is if you hold to a posttribulational rapture and return of Christ. But why would there not be a motivation for holiness if you’re truly born again? In a pretribulational rapture view, Jesus could return at any moment, and you must be ready, which is always propped up as the motivation for holiness. But despite one’s view of the timing of the rapture, the same motivation for being ready is true. That’s actually why Jesus continues with several parables about being ready for his return and the end of chapter 24 and throughout chapter 25.
The parables of the faithful and wise servant, the ten virgins, and the talents all teach every believer to be spiritually awake in anticipation of Christ’s second coming. Why? Because that’s our blessed hope, not that we’ll be spared from persecution! If you are a Christian, then your motivation for holiness is Christ himself, not your scheduled absence from the great tribulation.
Beginning in Matthew 25:31, Jesus teaches about the final judgment. There is no time difference implied between his second coming and the final judgment. They are simultaneous. Jesus returns with the angels, and he will gather the nations for judgment. There is no context for dividing his second coming into two sections, one for a rapture and one for judgment.
I firmly but charitably hold to a posttribulational premillennial return of Christ. Of course, there are plenty of other passages to harmonize (plus a whole framework of whether prophecy is fulfilled in Christ or Israel and the relationship between the church and Israel), before we land definitively on a position. But it might be telling that when Jesus was asked specifically about his return, he only mentioned one return followed by a judgment, not one and a half separated by a period of seven years. If you’re interested in learning about amillennialism, postmillennialism, or dispensational premillennialism and the multiverse of madness, feel free to reach out.