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Postmillennialism: The Suddenness of the Gospel's Lightning

Matthew Henry on Matthew 24:27,28

“For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together” (Matthew 24:27,28).

The great Puritan expositor Matthew Henry gives us a view of the Mount Olivet Discourse that explains two difficult verses. Writing many years before the rise of the scorched earth theology of dispensationalism, Henry gives a sensible interpretation arguing that here Jesus speaks of “the sudden spreading of the gospel in the world, about the time of these great events” – that is, about the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

I like historicist Henry’s commentary on Matthew 24 because here he is a partial preterist. He recognizes the eschatological aspect of the remainder of the sermon, which extends into the parables of the kingdom in chapter 25, and gives two possible applications for Mt. 24:27,28 – preterist and historicist.

This section of the Mount Olivet Discourse is difficult from a preterist perspective because of the symbolism of “eagles.” Henry mentions that the preterist view is to interpret the eagles and the dead carcass as symbolizing the Roman ensigns and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Because of the context of these verses, I always found this interpretation to be problematic. Henry gives the correct interpretation that the “carcass” is the ascended body of Jesus and the “eagles” are the elect who are gathered to Him quickly.

As I describe in When Will These Things Be, I consider these verses to be part of the transitional text in the Mount Olivet Discourse in which Jesus shifts from speaking about the destruction of the Temple to the going forth of the Gospel in the whole world, which is the “sign of His coming.”

Here is Henry’s commentary:

“For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together” (Matthew 24:27,28).

The Gospel spread far and wide, and that quickly and irresistibly, like the lightning, which comes, suppose, out of the east (Christ is said to ascend from the east, Rev. 7:2; Isa. 41:2), and lighten the whole world to the west. The propagating of Christianity to so many distant countries, of diverse languages, by such unlikely instruments, destitute of all secular advantages, and in the face of so much opposition, and this in so short a time, was one of the greatest miracles that was ever wrought for the confirmation of it.

Here was Christ upon his white horse, denoting speed as well as strength, and going on conquering and to conquer, Rev. 6:2. Gospel light rose with the sun, and went with the same, so that the beams of it reached to the ends of the earth, Romans 10:18; Ps. 19:3,4. Though it was fought against, it could never be cooped up in a desert, or in a secret place, as the seducers were; but by this, according to Gamaliel’s rule, proved itself to be “of God,” that it “could not be overthrown,” Acts 5:38,39. Christ speaks of “shining into the west,” because it spread most effectually into those countries which lay west from Jerusalem.

As George Herbert observes in his Church-militant:

How soon did the gospel lightning reach this island of Great Britain!

Tertullian, who wrote in the second century, takes notice of it:

Britannorum in accessa Romanis loca, Christo tamen subdita

“The fastnesses of Britain, though inaccessible to the Romans, were occupied by Jesus Christ.”

This was the Lord’s doing. Another thing remarkable concerning the gospel, was, its strange success in those places to which is was spread; it gathered in multitudes, not by external compulsion, but as it were by such a natural instinct and inclination, as brings the birds of prey to their prey; for wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together (v. 28), where Christ is preached, souls will be gathered in to him.

“The lifting up of Christ from the earth,” that is, the preaching of Christ crucified, which, one would think, should drive all men from him, will draw all men to him (John 11:32), according to Jacob’s prophecy, that “to him shall the gathering of the people be” (Gen. 49:10; Isa. 60:8). The eagles will be where the carcass is, for it is food for them, it is a feast for them; “where the slain are, there is she,” (Job 39:30).

Eagles are said to have a strange sagacity and quickness of scent to find out the prey, and they fly swiftly to it (Job 9:26). So those whose spirits God shall stir up, will be effectually drawn to Jesus Christ, to feed upon him; whither should the eagle go but to the prey? Where should the soul go but to Jesus Christ, who “has the words of eternal life?” (John 6:68).

The eagles will distinguish what is proper for them from that which is not; so those who have spiritual senses exercised, will know the voice of the good Shepherd from that of a thief and a robber. Saints will be where the true Christ is, not the false Christs. This is applicable to the desires that are wrought in every gracious soul after Christ, and communion with him. Where he is in his ordinances, there will his servants choose to be. A living principle of grace is a kind of natural instinct in all the saints, drawing them to Christ to live upon him.

The Witness of Mark and Luke

One of the reasons I don’t hold to the Marcan priority hypothesis (the idea that the Gospel of Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke drew material from Mark) is that the only complete version of the Mount Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew 24. The parallel passages in Mark and Luke add to our understanding of the Olivet Discourse. However, without the witness of Matthew, the Mount Olivet Discourse cannot be properly interpreted.

Luke’s parallel passage seems to pose a problem for the view that I have taken above.

… to be continued

Your comments are welcome!

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Dr. Francis Schaeffer - How Should We Then Live? (DVD)

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