The “Times of the Gentiles”
A great deal has been written about “the Times of the Gentiles,” especially by Dispensational writers. But before we can know what it refers to we must situate it in the discourse in which it stands. I have given reasons why Luke 21:20-23 concern the end of days. Jesus speaks of Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (Lk. 21:20), and of the city being trampled down by the Gentiles (Lk. 21:24b). It seems natural to think of Zechariah 12:1-31 and Revelation 11:2. The context of “the Times of the Gentiles” in Luke, therefore, points to the end time siege of Jerusalem by the armies of the Gentile nations. But could Jesus mean something more than that? For that to be so the phrase would have to resonate with undertones of prophetic significance.
The phrase “the Times of the Gentiles” is found only once in the Scriptures at Luke 21:24. It sits in the middle of Jesus’ eschatological discourse after He enters Jerusalem just prior to His passion. The term is of interest because it is an unusual turn of phrase. Why did Jesus not simply state “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until God comes to wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies” or some such words of woe that would fit the context well? He didn’t. He said “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (My emphasis). There is a period of time that is given over to the Gentiles2—a period which, it appears, required little or no explanation among the Jews who heard it.
Dispensational interpreters have generally designated “the Times of the Gentiles” as a long period stretching over many centuries. John Walvoord, for instance, writes,
For the Gentiles, the tribulation marks the close of the extended period of the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24), that period marked by Gentile control of Jerusalem since 600 B. C.3
His fellow Dallas Seminary professor J. Dwight Pentecost says,
The “times of the Gentiles” has been defined as that period of time in which Jerusalem was under the dominion of Gentile authority (Luke 21:24). This period began with the Babylonian captivity when Jerusalem fell into the hands of Gentiles. It has continued unto the present time and will continue through the tribulation period, in which era the Gentile powers will be judged.4
The times of the Gentiles is that extended period of discipline on God’s covenant people during which time no Davidic descendant sits on David’s throne ruling over David’s kingdom. It extends from the destruction of Jerusalem and the emptying of the throne of David by Nebuchadnezzar until the ultimate repentance.5
While these understandings of the term may be correct (particularly the last one), it should be noted that they are not based upon exegesis of Luke 21:24 in its context. Darrell Bock, who is a Progressive Dispensationalist, and has written one of the most comprehensive commentaries on Luke’s Gospel, disagrees. He thinks the verse indicates “a short- and long-term view.”6 He claims,
More likely, the “times of the Gentiles” is a general way to describe the current period in God’s plan, when the Gentiles are prominent but will culminate in judgment on those nations.7
Bock does read his already-not yet views into the text at times.8
From a premillennial but not Dispensational side comes Craig Blomberg, who believes,
that some interval of time must separate the destruction of Jerusalem from the complete fulfillment of all of God’s plans for Israel and the nations.9
This somewhat vague answer may be the best one can muster under the circumstances. Still, there are a number of important cross-references which are due consideration. Nearly everyone who comments on this verse relates it to Romans 11:25b: “blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
As with “the Times of the Gentiles,” the Apostle Paul’s terminology appears without explanation but presupposes an agreed upon understanding. In Paul’s case the fullness of the Gentiles is set in apposition to the restoration of Israel. It assumes it. It ought therefore to be possible to deduce a plausible meaning for both terms. Again, it is not necessary to over-complicate matters. The “fullness” (the normal Greek word is pleroma) of the Gentiles is clearly a terminal point, after which (“until”) the blindness of Israel will presumably be lifted. In this view the “fullness of the Gentiles” is the completion of God’s present way of dealing with the Gentile powers in His Creation program. And if there is to be a “completing” of this interaction with the Gentiles, it is surely not pushing the envelope to surmise that the period in which God is “filling” the Gentiles might be called “the Times of the Gentiles.” Of course, we still have to try to discover just what that period covers, but the supposition looks to be relatively safe.
John Murray has argued that the verb eiserchomai (“has come in”) indicates entering the Kingdom of God and eternal life10, and so he confidently asserts that “the fullness of the Gentiles” means that the Gentiles enter the Kingdom. But the word erchomai usually means “enter” when it is used. It does not suddenly take on a technical sense when its object is the Kingdom. A theological interpretation is being forced onto the text. The basic meaning is plain; in Romans 11:25 “the fullness of the Gentiles” concerns the completion of a program, after which there is a restoration of Israel. Paul does not indicate whether this “completion” ends in joy or despair. That is not where his thoughts are tending. Murray has read his eschatology into the passage.
It seems to me to be reasonable to conclude that the “fullness of the Gentiles” of Romans 11:25 is the last part of “the Times of the Gentiles” of Luke 21:24. On that basis the “Times of the Gentiles” probably signifies the period between the subsuming of Israel under foreign Gentile powers (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Turkish, British) together with the loss of its kingly line. Hence, Pentecost’s second definition in Thy Kingdom Come looks to be an accurate understanding of the phrase.
1 Compare the call on creation to witness God’s judgment in Zechariah 12:1 and what we have said above concerning Isaiah 34:1.
2 “The period is one of gentile domination of the city, but a limit is set to it, namely the fulfilment of an allotted time.” – I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 773.
3 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, 257.
4 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, 315. Pentecost goes on to adduce Daniel 2 and 7 which describe “the…prophetic outline of the course of the period.” (Ibid, 316-317).
5 J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come: Tracing God’s Kingdom Program and Covenant Promises Throughout History, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995, 115.
6 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51 – 24:53, 1680.
7 Ibid, 1681.
8 Ibid, 1680, 1696 n. 51.
9 Craig L. Blomberg, A New Testament Theology, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018, 587.
10 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1982, Vol. 2, 93.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.