But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (Matthew 24:37-39)
We frequently hear Dispensationalists make the assertion that Jesus' reference to “the days of Noah” has a direct application to our generation, that this generation now living is just like Noah's generation, and that this “fact” (which they claim is observable) is the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy, and that this is proof that Jesus is coming soon. It is my purpose to show that every one of these assertions is wrong; that this Scripture has been misinterpreted and misapplied, and that it refers instead to an event of cosmic significance that occurred just when Jesus said it would, within the generation to which He addressed His words – the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish nation.
The first thing to observe is that the basis of comparison is not the wickedness of the two periods in view; but rather the insensibility or obliviousness of the people who were about to be judged. Noah gave warning for 120 years; and it is likely that most people were by the end of that time quite convinced that he was a lunatic, and not to be taken seriously. So life went on, more or less normally, in spite of the Divine word of warning. In this respect, the generation of Jews living at the time of the judgment predicted by Jesus was going to be like Noah's generation. That is the only comparison Jesus draws, and yet – because it does not fit in with the scenario of the end-times hysteria crowd – it is completely ignored.
My second observation is that it is by no means clear that our generation, taken as a whole, is the wickedest in human history since the flood. Who but God could possibly know such a thing? Sure, it's easy to list all the worst developments of our time and ignore all the heroes and martyrs and faithful servants of God – not to mention all decent people living lives of virtue all over the world. But is that sensible? The gospel is flourishing in parts of the world that were sunk in heathen darkness not long ago! There is widespread and powerful resistance to the evil that threatens. Many serve God faithfully, even unto death. No, I cannot admit that it is obvious that we are living in the modern counterpart of the days of Noah.
But Jesus was not predicting the state of things just before the second coming anyway. This I shall now show.
The reference to the days of Noah appears in two places: Luke 17:26-27 and Matthew 24:37-39. I have quoted the context as it is found in Luke's gospel first for a reason. Matthew's 24th chapter is better known, since Dispensationalists almost always use it by preference in presenting the Dispensational theory of “the end-times”. But Luke's text reveals something that might not be so obvious in Matthew. Let me explain.
The “days of Noah” text in Luke has in view a judgment that is local and historical – not the second coming, which will be global and will mark the end of history. This is clear from what follows the “Days of Noah” reference:
And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. (Luke 17:26-31)
In Luke's version of the Olivet Discourse, in his 21st chapter, we also find definite indications of a local calamity that is to fall upon Judea and Jerusalem:
And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)
In fact, Matthew 24 says the same thing, only in a place more remote from the “Days of Noah” reference. (Notice that where Luke has “Jerusalem surrounded by armies”, Matthew has “the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet”. Both these expressions must refer to the same event, which was the sign to flee.)
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. (Matthew 24:15-21)
Does it need to be said that there is no point in running away when Jesus comes again? Or that His people need not flee at the presence of their Deliverer? This simple observation invalidates the entire Dispensational interpretation of the Olivet Discourse and its theory of a future “great tribulation”. It shows us that Jesus was not speaking of His second coming at all; but of His coming to judge Jerusalem and the Jews of that generation for rejecting God, murdering the Son of God and persecuting His followers:
Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres. Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.
The context of the Olivet Discourse is set at the start (Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7). Jesus observes that the glorious temple of Herod and the city would be destroyed before long. The disciples ask Him two questions: when will this occur, and what is the sign that they should look for. The second coming is not at all in view by the questioners, nor is it addressed by Jesus in His answers. Furthermore, the first-century fulfillment of this prophecy is a matter of history. Between Josephus and Eusebius, every detail is accounted for.
The only signs of the end that Jesus mentions in this entire discourse are the signs of the widespread preaching of the gospel (Matthew 24:14) and the “Jerusalem compassed with armies/ abomination of desolation” mentioned above. The things usually pointed to as “signs of the end” (i.e. the end of this age) are all ruled out by Jesus himself when he says “but the end is not yet”(Matthew 24:6), and “these are the beginning of sorrows”(Matthew 24:8). Both of these signs, however, were fulfilled before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
This reference to the days of Noah does not, therefore, prove that we are living in “the last days” – by which is meant the days just before the return of Jesus Christ. That event has proved to be a long time off for the first-century disciples; and it may be many generations yet before His personal return. Any New Testament text that seems to predict His soon return must therefore have a different meaning from what it seems to have. It is the opinion of this writer that most texts of this class refer not to the second coming, but to the coming in judgment on Jerusalem and the first-century Jews. One thing is certain: there are many prophecies that must be fulfilled before Jesus can come again: for example, the conversion of Israel (Romans 11).
Howard Douglas King
Revised September 24, 2014