Interpretation of the Beginning of Birth Pangs in Matthew 24

I am encouraged that Joel Richardson is a futurist (he is a posttribulationist), but he is making some critical categorical errors in his interpretation of Matthew 24.

Richardson interprets the event of the “beginning of the birth pangs” in Mathew 24 as the time of Jacob’s trouble, the time of eschatological suffering for the Jewish people. He argues Jesus is alluding to Isaiah 26:16–18. I want to make some points on why this reasoning is flawed.

As a preface, prewrath places the beginning of birth pangs happening before the Antichrist’s great tribulation, and the day of the Lord’s wrath happening after the great tribulation. There is debate among prewrathers exactly when the beginning of birth pangs happen in relation to the seven-year period, with some seeing it unfolding throughout church history, and most, like myself,  having them unfold during the first half of the seven-year period. But all prewrathers agree they happen before the great tribulation.

Richardson conflates the beginning of birth pangs with the time of Jacob’s trouble, essentially making it the same event. Here is Jesus’ description of the beginning of birth pangs:

(4) Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. (5) For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many. (6) You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. (7) For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. (8) All these things are the beginning of birth pains. Matt 24:4–8

Concerning Jesus’ use of the birthing metaphor in this passage, Richardson asserts:

Recognizing the Old Testament reference that Jesus was hearkening to is an essential, but often overlooked key to determining the timing of the prophecy. Jesus was pointing his disciples to two key passages from the prophet Isaiah.

He notes this Isaiah text:

(16) O LORD, in distress they looked for you; they uttered incantations because of your discipline. (17) As when a pregnant woman gets ready to deliver and strains and cries out because of her labor pains, so were we because of you, O LORD. (18) We were pregnant, we strained, we gave birth, as it were, to wind. We cannot produce deliverance on the earth; people to populate the world are not born (Isa 26:16–18).

On this text Richardson comments:

In verses 16-18, the complaint of Israel is raised that despite having endured the great suffering of labor [time of Jacob’s trouble] the expected “birth” of deliverance, redemption and resurrection had not arrived.

Richardson wrongly reads the Isaiah text describing the time of Jacob’s trouble back into Jesus’ purpose in his use of the beginning of birth pangs. The following are reasons why he is mistaken.

1. Isaiah’s text is referring to the time of Jacob’s trouble. A future event when Israel experiences its worse persecution (Jer 30:7; Dan 12:1, Matt 24:21 [extended to the church]). God will use the nations to punish Israel (Ezek 16:35–42; Rev 17:16–17; Zech 14:1–3; Isa 51:17–52:2; Luke 21:20–24). It will begin at the midpoint (Dan 9:27; 11:36–12:4; Matt 24:15; Luke 21:20–24;  Rev 11:1–2). In Jesus’ use of the birthing metaphor, there is nothing at all mentioning Israel’s “great suffering of labor” or anything of the sort.

2. Jesus teaches the beginning of birth pangs are related to the world at large, not Israel: wars, famines, and earthquakes.

3. Perhaps this is why Jesus instructs that this general time of natural disasters is the “beginning of birth pangs.” It is not the time of severe birth pangs that God’s people will suffer afterwards (vv. 9–29).

4. Jesus also warns his disciples (representatives of the church) that Christians should take heed at false christs: “many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many.” Israel cannot be characterized at that time as redeemed, so this warning from Christ would make no sense to Israel.

5. Jesus distinguishes between the “beginning of birth pangs” and the eschatological suffering: “Then [tote] they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name” (Matt 24:9; cf. vv. 10–29). The eschatological persecution (for both Israel and the church) will begin after the beginning of birth pangs, as Jesus explicitly instructs.

6. The very next verse (ironically Richardson notes it) after Isaiah 26:16–18 is a resurrection passage!

Your dead will come back to life; your corpses will rise up. Wake up and shout joyfully, you who live in the ground! For you will grow like plants drenched with the morning dew, and the earth will bring forth its dead spirits. (Isa 26:19)

This consistently corresponds with the gathering of God’s elect in Matthew 24: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt 24:31).

In other words, the sequence is: beginning of birth pangs (the world at large), great tribulation (against God’s people), the resurrection (deliverance of God’s people), and the day of the Lord’s wrath (judgment against the wicked).

Therefore, it is most certain Jesus does not have Isaiah 26:16–18 in mind. He is simply applying this very common metaphor to his particular prophetic context. We have to be careful with assuming that there should be a corresponding allusion to the Old Testament with metaphors, expressions, and the like. Jesus had the freedom to use a metaphor for his own particular purpose.

The next flaw that Richardson makes is confusing (conflating) the great tribulation with the day of the Lord’s wrath. He writes:

Next, the passage speaks of that time that Jesus refers to as “the Great Tribulation” (Matthew 24:21):

Come, my people, enter into your rooms and close your doors behind you; hide for a little while until indignation runs its course. For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain. Isaiah 26:20-21

Why does he cite Isaiah 26:20–21? We are not told. This text clearly refers to the day of the Lord’s wrath, not a great tribulation passage. He does not provide any explanation how these two passages are related. We are left to assume he equates the great tribulation, the time of persecution against God’s people, with the day of the Lord’s wrath against the wicked. However, there is no scriptural basis for this. This was the most nebulous and thus confusing part of his article.

I want to make a final observation. He writes:

Obviously, because the events of 70 A.D. did not include the physical resurrection of the dead, any effort to tie Jesus’ prophecy to the events that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, is seen to be a clear distortion of the passage. When we simply acknowledge Jesus’ clear reference to Isaiah’s prophecy, there is no room for the Preterist view that Jesus was speaking of the events of 70 A.D. Jesus’ Olivet Discourse is a prophecy the entirety of which is concerning the last days, all of which are yet future.

This statement coupled with the fact that he tags “Gary Demar” in his post, suggests to me that he is trying to disprove preterism. However, he overstates his case in replying to preterism. That is, Richardson seems to badly want the beginning of birth pangs to be a future event, so he errors by making them connected to the period just before the resurrection. But it does not have to be either/or.  A futurist does not have to stretch the biblical evidence to tie the beginning of birth pangs in with the time of Jacob’s trouble. They can still still occur in the future, as I have shown elsewhere.

Richardson wrote that his article will be “brief and very limited.” Sometimes on such an important subject it is better not to write at all on a subject if it is terse because it can be more confusing and raise more questions than answers. Perhaps he will expand on his article in the future and take some of these points in consideration.

He seems to have started a series on Matthew 24, so we will continue to evaluate his exposition on this pivotal prophetic text.

(Incidentally, some will claim that Jesus’ use of this metaphor is the same use that Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 5 applied to the day of the Lord’s wrath. This is deeply mistaken, and I have written on that before.)

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