Thursday, August 6, 2015

Making Sense of Matthew 24:31


In Sundays’ message on Matthew 24:29-35, we did not have time to cover v31.  I’d like to do that here.  As with the other verses in the passage, people tend to assume that v31 can only refer to the second coming of Christ.  However, with a familiarity with biblical language, especially from the Old Testament, we must admit that a different view is at least plausible. Again, my contention is that this passage was fulfilled, at least most immediately, in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70AD.
Matt 24:31 reads: And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 
The Greek word underlying the translation “angels” is angelos.  In order to understand what angelos refers to we need to consider first the realm in which this activity is taking place.  So let’s consider the last half of the verse, then we’ll come back and look at the first half.  Jesus says these "angels" will be sent out to gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  “Four winds” is Old Testament language for the four points of the globe.  This can be seen in places like Ezekiel 37:9, Daniel 8:8, and Daniel 11:4.  Even “the four winds of heaven” refers to the four points of the globe as seen in these two places in Daniel.
Likewise, the phrase “from one end of heaven to the other” does not mean that the place of action is in the sky above.  This phrase often indicates something like “from horizon to horizon,” in places like Deut 30:4 and Neh 1:9.
Remember we saw on Sunday that the language of cataclysmic events in the heavens is commonly used in the Old Testament to describe events of great significance on earth.  I contended that the events in vv29-30 are actually earthly events described using this kind of symbolic language.  If that is the case, it makes sense that v31 as well uses grandiose heavenly language to describe earthly events.  When you consider this alongside the fact that the “four winds of heaven” simply refers to the four corners of the globe, it is probable that v31 describes activity taking place on the earth, not in the heavens. 
And what is the activity taking place all over the globe?  The gathering of the elect.  This also points to activity on the earth.  Why would the elect in heaven need to be gathered?  That wouldn’t make any sense – they’ve already been gathered.  It is those scattered on the earth who need to be gathered.  So the second half of the verse describes the gathering of the elect from all over the globe.
Now let’s consider the word angelos.  This Greek word literally means “messenger.”  In the Greek version of the OT, it is frequently translated “messenger” rather than “angel” (Gen32:4, Num 20:14, Jos 7:22, 1Sam 11:3, 2Sam 2:5, Neh 6:3, Job 1:14, Pro 13:17,Isa 18:2, 37:9, Eze 23:16, 30:9, Mal 2:7, 3:1 to name just a few). In fact, Malachi 3:1 reads, “Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.”  Having studied Matthew, we know that this is a prophecy regarding John the Baptist - John is the messenger mentioned (Matt 11:10-14).  All of this is to say that when we see the Greek word angelos it should not be a foregone conclusion that it refers to angels.  It is simply a generic word for a messenger.  The context must be consulted to decide whether this is a human messenger or an angelic messenger. 
So does the present context make it more likely that Lord is referring to human messengers or angelic messengers?  Well, He describes the gathering of the elect from all over the globe.  That is precisely what the Lord tasked the apostles with in Matthew 28:19-20, i.e. The Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  The book of Acts describes this very thing as the apostles took the gospel all over the known world, making converts as they went. 
So it is possible that this refers to human preaching of the gospel throughout the world.  It certainly is not a stretch, given the figurative language employed in the passage.  But if we want to say that it refers to literal angels, then it could refer to the supernatural power behind the preaching of the gospel.  That would make sense when we consider the cross-reference in Heb 1:14, which tells us that God uses angels to minister to His people.  Heb 1:14 reads, Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?  Sounds strikingly similar to what is described in Matt 24:31.  Whether the messengers are human or angelic, there is biblical warrant to view this activity as the spread of the gospel throughout the world for the purpose of gathering the elect.
It seems that we are left with one element to deal with – the loud trumpet call.  Trumpet blasts were used for numerous purposes in the Old Testament.  Among other things, they were used to call the Israelites to the tent of meeting (Num 10:2-4), to announce the coronation of a king (1 Kings 1:39), and to proclaim the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:9).  Any of these would be a valid picture of the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.  The gospel is a call to commune with God, it declares a risen King, and it proclaims the ultimate Jubilee. 
In my view, v31 describes the blessed missionary focus of the church, empowered by God to gather His elect from all over the globe.  This is in perfect keeping not only with the near context, but with the Great Commission given in the last verses of the book.
I look forward to pressing on in Matthew 24 with you this Sunday!

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