In our previous chapter about the nature of the kingdom of God I said that Jesus, in His parables and Sermon on the Mount, describes the kingdom and how it operates here on earth. The kingdom being a spiritual entity with Him at the center and those who believe in Him tied together with Jesus and one another by faith.
This kingdom/church functions according to His will and purpose as it awaits its fulfillment when He returns. This fulfillment includes:
- The resurrection and glorification of all the saints.
- The punishment of the wicked.
- The passing away of the present heaven and earth to be replaced with a new heaven and earth.
- The unification of the church and the Godhead into eternity.
Since all of these things are to happen in the twinkling of an eye when Jesus returns (I Corinthians 15:52), it is important that we have an understanding of the end times as taught by Jesus and others. In this chapter we will examine what Jesus taught His disciples concerning His return and the end of the world.
The main teaching by Jesus on this topic is found in Matthew 24-25. He has just rebuked the religious leaders because of their hypocrisy and lack of faith. In Matthew 24 the Lord begins a long and difficult passage describing the end of not only the Jewish nation (which will take place about 40 years into the future), but also the end of the world when He will return.
Discourse on the Judgment
Jesus leaves the temple and as He leaves, the Apostles point out the magnificent buildings of the temple that He has just said will be destroyed. (50 years of reconstruction work was in progress at the time.)
1 Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 And He said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down."
- Matthew 24:1-2
Jesus responds to their comment by saying that the buildings will not only be empty, they will be completely torn down. This sets up further questions by the disciples; Peter, James, John and Andrew wanted more information about what He had just said. They questioned Him about the time when the destruction of the temple would be, and what signs would accompany the second coming and the end of the world which the second coming was to bring.
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
- Matthew 24:3
Whether they thought both these events would happen at the same time or with a lapse of time is unknown, they did not know and were asking Jesus to instruct them in these matters.
This section is complex but can be divided into three major periods for easier explanation:
- A panoramic view of world history until the second coming of Jesus that includes the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (verses 4-14).
- A telescopic view to events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (verses 15-35).
- A second telescopic view to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world (verses 36-44).
Panoramic View Until Second Coming
4 And Jesus answered and said to them, "See to it that no one misleads you.
These instructions are given so that they will know and avoid false teachers and prophets in these matters.
5 For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will mislead many. 6 You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. 8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
The cycle of false prophets, wars, and troubles in the world will continue until the end, but these in themselves are not the signs; they are only the beginning of things that will get progressively worse before not only the end of Jerusalem comes, but also the end of the world comes.
9 "Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10 At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. 11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.
12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold.
This is a parallel to II Thessalonians where Paul talks about the end of the world and what must take place first: an apostasy (a falling away, Christians' love grows cold), the Man of Lawlessness, who deceives many through false signs and tries to take the place of God, will be revealed. In addition to these, Jesus describes the devolution of the world.
13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.
In contrast He promises that the faithful will be saved despite these trials and evil.
14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
He also promises that the great commission will be carried out and must be carried out before the end can/will come.
This is a panoramic view of the events and flow of history that will occur until His second coming.
Telescopic View to the Fall of Jerusalem
Judea was rebellious and longed to return to the glory days of independence and power at the time of Solomon. In 60 AD they had such unrest that Rome sent in troops to quell the rebellion. From 66-70 AD the Roman armies successfully laid siege to Jerusalem and totally destroyed the city and temple along with over one million people. This total destruction of the Jewish nation was the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy to the disciples 33 years earlier described in this passage. The disciples wanted to know when this would happen and Jesus gives them the "signs" to watch out for.
15 "Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 17 Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. 18 Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak.
The first sign was the "abomination of desolation." The point was that when the temple would be desecrated this would be a sign that destruction was near and they should escape the city. Daniel (11:31; 12:11) had prophesied that the temple would be defiled, and it was in the days of the Maccabees (160 BC) by the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes who sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus picks up this idea and says that in the same way when the temple will be defiled by Gentiles during their lifetimes, it will be the signal to escape.
Luke 21:20 tells us that the surrounding of the temple by foreign armies is what constituted defilement. The standards (shields) of the Roman army were idolatrous and often used for worship by the soldiers, and surrounding the temple with them would desecrate it. Many scholars differ here as to what the abomination was and refer to Jewish historians for events that could fit (events that would have occurred before, during or after the siege). However, Luke 21:20 is the only biblical reference that actually matches the event in context.
"He who reads" means he who reads Daniel and, along with Christ's cryptogram, will be able to know when it is time to get out, and many did. In 68 AD the majority of Christians living in Jerusalem escaped to the city of Pella thus avoiding being killed in the massacre.
19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will.
The tribulation is the suffering caused by the Romans which wiped out the nation when over one million people were killed. The combination of the gravity of the sin (Jews who received the blessings and promises and ultimately killed their Messiah) and the horror of the punishment (the nation wiped out) has not been equaled.
22 Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
God's providence permitted this war to end so that the Christians would not also be annihilated along with the Jews. Their city was destroyed and Romans made no distinction between Christian and non-Christian Jew at that time.
23 Then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ,' or 'There He is,' do not believe him. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 So if they say to you, 'Behold, He is in the wilderness,' do not go out, or, 'Behold, He is in the inner rooms,' do not believe them.
The believers would naturally associate the destruction of Jerusalem with the return of Jesus, so the Lord warns them against being deceived by those who would claim to be the Lord or speak from God.
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, documents how rumors of the Messiah coming or being present circulated in order to keep people in the city. In those days, hysteria and fear produced many "prophets" who claimed visions and messages from God. One fake prophet said that he would separate the Sea of Galilee and 25,000 followed him out.
27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.
He tells them that when He returns it will be evident to all, like lightning across the sky, all will easily and readily know that it is He.
28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
The corpse is the Jewish nation; the vultures are the false Christs and prophets. When you see them in abundance they will be a second sign that the end of "Jerusalem" is near, not the end of the world.
29 "But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
The first words "but immediately," in this verse present a problem to some. If we make this next section a discussion about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus, then it must occur right after the destruction of Jerusalem (some believe and teach Jesus has already returned and promote this idea in a teaching referred to as the 70 AD Theory).
Since the Man of Lawlessness has not been revealed and Jesus has not returned, as Paul teaches concerning the signs of the end of the world in II Thessalonians chapter 2, this passage must still be talking about events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem.
30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
Therefore, verses 29-31 speak about the destruction of Jerusalem and the effects that this has on non-believers and believers alike. The language is apocalyptic and is used by prophets to describe cataclysmic historical and political events (i.e. Isaiah 13 describing the destruction of Babylon in similar language). Language using the symbolism of the destruction of heavenly bodies is used to describe the very real fate of the world at the end (II Peter 3:10), but also the end and destruction of nations on the earth before the end of time. In this case the end of the Jewish nation as a people under God's special care.
The coming of the Son of Man refers to both the second coming at the end of the world and the final judgment, but also any judgment God makes on any nation, in this case the nation of Israel.
It also fits the context of this passage. The Jews who rejected Him now will see Him coming as a form of judgment on their nation, a terrible catastrophe that would horrify the world, but liberate Christians and the gospel from Jewish persecution.
The Greek word translated "angel" can also be translated as "messenger." This verse can be seen as prophecy concerning the spreading of the gospel throughout the world after the fall of Jerusalem. Verse 14 said this needed to be done before Christ returned, and now with the ideological and cultural restraints of Judaism removed, Christianity would flourish even more.
32 "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
Jesus warns them to pay attention to the signs He has given them because they will happen in their generation and He promises by His word that they will happen!
Telescope to Second Coming
Jesus has just explained to them the signs that will preview the destruction of Jerusalem:
- Preaching of gospel to all nations (Romans 10:18)
- Multiplication of false Christs (Josephus)
- Abomination of temple (Luke 21:20)
- Great tribulation (Josephus)
Now in verses 36-44 He contrasts this with the second coming at the end of the world.
36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
No one knows the time, not even Jesus. While He was with the disciples He knew when Jerusalem would end, but not the end of the world.
37 For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39 and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.
There will be no cataclysmic signs, all will seem normal; normal in the sense that the believers will be preparing themselves for the second coming and the end of the world while the rest of the world will be ignoring it until it will be too late (just like in the time of Noah).
40 Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
Some take this verse to mean that before Jesus returns some will be taken in a "rapture" and disappear to be with God in heaven. This is part of the Pre-Millennial view of the rapture and 1000-year reign. In context, however, Jesus is talking about readiness and He says that when He returns suddenly one will be saved, one lost, no time for repentance and change.
Just like Noah, when the rain came they were taken and disappeared into the ark, the others remained to die in the flood. When Jesus comes, the faithful will be taken to be with Him and the disbelievers immediately put away from His presence.
42 "Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 43 But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.
Since the end is to be like this we should always be prepared and not foolishly lapse into sin thinking we have plenty of time to repent and be ready for the return; we never know, we must be ready.
Exhortations to Vigilance
After responding to the question of the judgment on Jerusalem and His return, Jesus warns them to be vigilant and does so with three parables.
1. Parable of the evil slave (24:45-51)
Here the lesson is not to presume we have the luxury of sinning because the end is far away, it can come at any time and the judgment is sure for those who are unfaithful.
2. Parable of the 10 virgins (25:1-13)
Here Jesus warns against the foolishness of not being ready. For those in the parable it was not a question of gross evil, but rather negligence. To neglect Christ will bring destruction in the end as well.
3. Parable of the talents (25:14-30)
Here the warning is for those who are in the kingdom but who fail to expand its borders and fail to serve the king with zeal. This slave was not caught or surprised unprepared, he just assumed that his preparation was sufficient when it was not.