Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 1:7-18; Matthew 24:1-44 (text)
October 3, 2010
â€œThere is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.â€
â€œAt no time in the history of the Christian Church have the conditions necessary to the Lordâ€™s return been so completely fulfilled as at the present time.â€
Who said the above quotes and when? Most would be surprised that the above were written by Martin of Tours about 300 A.D. and Clarence Larkin in 1918, in that order.
Every generation from the time of Jesus until today, 2,000 years later believes they are the â€œterminal generationâ€ before the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. Especially after the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948, speculations mounted as to the nearness of endtime events. In 1980, Hal Lindsey wrote, â€œWe are the generation that will see the end timesâ€¦ and the return of Jesus.â€ In 1988, Edgar Whisenant wrote a booklet entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988, saying, â€œI would stake my lifeâ€ on it, because he imagined that a Biblical generation is 40 years long, and 1988 is 40 years after Israel was reborn as a nation. Thus, we are now very close to the â€œlast days,â€ he argued. 88 Reasons sold 4.5 million copies, but his later false prophecy books in 1989, 1993 and 1994 generated very little excitement. This boy cried wolf too many times!
This is the view of majority of evangelicals, popularized by Tim LaHaye (Understanding the Last Days), Hal Lindsey (The Terminal Generation; Israel and the Last Days), Greg Laurie (Are We Living in the Last Days?), John Hagee (Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days), and Robert Lightner (Last Days Handbook). They teach that the â€œlast daysâ€ will start only a few years before the return of Christ, against the clear apostolic teaching that the â€œlast daysâ€ started when Christ first came 2,000 years ago (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 10:11; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 1:2, 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18).
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Like all false prophets dating back 2,000 years ago, from Montanus (150) to Melchior Hoffman (1533) to William Miller (1843-4), all of the current false prophets believe that ours is the â€œterminal generation.â€
This is one of the errors in the interpretation of Biblical prophecy: futurism. Futurists interpret almost all New Testament prophecies with a view to the future, for example, Matthew 24. However, we will see that although futurists concede that verses 1-2 are about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, they interpret the rest of the chapter as events reserved for the future end times.
The other error is quite the reverse of futurism, and one that is not very well-known: preterism. According to full preterists, all the prophecies in Matthew 24 were all fulfilled in A.D. 70 when Roman armies sacked Jerusalem and destroyed its Temple, including the verses that talk about the Second Coming. Partial preterists, meanwhile, conclude that all the events in the chapter have already been accomplished, except for the Second Coming.
How then should we go about studying Matthew 24 in order not to fall into these two traps? There are several vital keys in the interpretation of Matthew 24 and even Matthew25.
First, these prophecies sometimes have double, even triple, fulfillment. They have been fulfilled in the past, even before the time of Jesus, but this fulfillment is but a shadow of a still future and wider fulfillment in Christ and the church.
For example, about 500 B.C., the prophet Daniel prophesied the appearance of â€œ[one who makes desolate] on the wings of abominationsâ€ (Dan 9:27). Jews believe that Danielâ€™s prophecy was fulfilled by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C. when he invaded Jerusalem, entered the Temple, and erected an altar to the Greek god Zeus and sacrificed pigs and other unclean animals in the Temple. But it was fulfilled again in A.D. 70, just as Jesus prophesied, when Roman legions sacked Jerusalem and entered the Temple with their pagan symbols and then destroyed it completely. Both of these events were in the past, but there will be a future third event still waiting to come to pass: the â€œman of lawlessnessâ€ who â€œtakes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be Godâ€ (2 Thess 2:4), the so-called Antichrist who will â€œutter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwellingâ€ (Rev 13:6). This world power, the final â€œabomination of desolationâ€ in Danielâ€™s prophecy, would appear on the scene shortly before Jesus returns.
The second important key to unlocking these verses is that the New Testament interprets the Old, so that Old Testament prophecies that talk about the future of Israel is reinterpreted in the New Testament as being fulfilled by Christ and his church. In Matthew 24:31, Jesus prophesies of the great gathering of his people at his return:
â€œAnd he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.â€
This gathering is foretold by the Old Testament prophets, one of them in Isaiah 27:13:
â€œAnd in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.â€
On the day of Christâ€™s return, a great trumpet call will sound for the gathering of all the electâ€”the Israel of God, which is the Church (Gal 6:16)â€”from all Gentile nations of the world represented by Assyria and Egypt. Then they will come to a great assembly, â€œto Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalemâ€ to worship God and Christ (Heb 12:22).
The last essential key, which is directly relevant to our text, is that all of Matthew 24-25 is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ three questions. These chapters were not just random talk by Jesus about the last days, but are a long discourse on his answers to three questions that the disciples asked him.
I. â€œWhen Will These Things Happen?â€
This first question refers back to his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in verses 1 and 2. When will this happen? Jesus gives several signs to watch out for.
In the previous chapter, Matthew 23, Jesus pronounced seven woes or curses on Israel, symbolized by the city of Jerusalem, because they have broken God’s covenant in their unfaithfulness and rebellion. Jesus foretold that God will finally settle his account against the Jews, â€œSee, your house is left to you desolateâ€ (verse 38). For sure, he knew what Isaiah prophesied centuries before him, of which the Jews certainly knew as well, â€œOur holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruinsâ€ (Isa 64:11; cf Jer 12:7).
Jesus warned his disciples that when they see â€œthe abomination of desolationâ€ standing in the holy place, they must flee to the mountains outside of Jerusalem. In Luke, he gives the same warning when they see Jerusalem surrounded by foreign armies, â€œBut when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountainsâ€ (Luke 21:20-21).
The destruction will be so sudden and complete that he warned them to be in haste to flee the city, as Lot and his family were also told to quickly escape before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God. It will be so terrible that if God did not intervene, no one would be left alive in the city. This is why Jesus says that the suffering will be so great that nothing like it has ever happened in Israel’s history and will ever happen again. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Romans. The Temple was torn down completely; not one stone was left upon another. The whole city was leveled down and plowed with salt by the Romans, effectively wiping Jerusalem off the map.
What are the other signs? First, there will be false prophets and false Christs. Even during the time of the apostles, they already came. As early as Acts 8, Peter and John already encountered a false prophet and magician named Simon. False prophets deceived the church in Thessalonica that the Second Coming of Christ had already come (2 Thess 2:1-2). The apostle John wrote that many antichrists, those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, had already come during his time, which is the last hour (1 John 2:18). And these false prophets and false Christs multiplied as the time approached.
Second, although there are signs that point to the coming destruction of Israel, it will also be sudden, unexpected and quick, like a lightning. It will not be a secret. As everyone can see lightning, so will the destruction be visible to all. As everyone can see vultures hovering over dead bodies from miles away, so the dead will be scattered for miles around.
When will the destruction come? First, when the city is surrounded by armies. Second, when the Temple is desecrated. Third, when false prophets and false Christs multiply. In exacting detail, all of Jesusâ€™ prophecies about the destruction of the city and the Temple were fulfilled by the Roman legions and by Christians fleeing to the mountains of Perea.
II. â€œWhat will be the Sign of Your Coming?â€
This second question is answered by Jesus in verses 4-14. The disciples wanted to know when Jerusalem and its Temple will be destroyed. For them, this destruction coincides with the Second Coming, and this Second Coming will be the end of the world.
We already see this thinking in the Old Testament. The Day of the Lord, or the end of the world, is described in terms of cosmic cataclysm. In Zephaniah 1:15, it is described as â€œa day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.â€ In Joel 2:30-31, it will be a day of â€œwonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.â€
To the prophets, the destruction of nations and kings is the catastrophic end of the world when the cosmos will be in upheaval. The destruction of Israel is a day when God â€œwill make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylightâ€ (Amos 8:9). For Isaiah, Babylonâ€™s fall would be when â€œthe stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its lightâ€ (Isa 13:10).
Did these cosmic upheavals literally happen when those nations fell? Obviously, they did not, but the disciples made the connection between the three end time events as explained by Jesus.
Thus, their next question is about his return: â€œWhat will be the sign of your coming?â€ Jesus tells them of several precursors: false Christs, apostasy or falling away from the faith, wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and gospel preaching to all nations. But these signs have been present in the world for 2,000 years now since the beginning of the New Testament. This is why most of the New Testament writers tell us that the last days started in the first coming of Christ.
Thus, as he was describing the fearsome events and turmoil of the close of the age, Jesus qualified them, saying, â€œFor this must take place, but the end is not yetâ€¦ All these are but the beginning of the birth painsâ€ (Matt 24:6b, 8). The destruction of the Temple is not the end, but just the beginning of birth pangs. If these signs are likened to birth pangs, they are to continue until the end of the worldâ€™s â€œlabor,â€ intensifying in severity with the progress of the â€œbirthâ€ process. Even the preaching of the gospel will increase, such that it â€œwill be proclaimed throughout the whole worldâ€¦ and then the end will comeâ€ (Matt 24:14). If these signs are present from the first century until Jesus returns, then it is impossible to pinpoint the day, hour, or even the year of his return. Thus, date-setting, even within a decade or a generation, is absolutely unscriptural.
Although verses 15-28 are signs that point towards the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, we see from worldwide historical events from the first century that they are also a miniature of much more severe birth pains that lead up to the end of the age. And the end of the age is signaled by the Second Coming of Christ.
So beginning with verse 29, Jesus tells of events â€œimmediatelyâ€ after these birth pains and which also precede his coming, â€œImmediately 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 heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.â€ As in the fall of nations and kings in the Old Testament, his return will be marked by cosmic upheaval, but this time they will be real and literal, for this is also the end of the world.
Jesus reveals in verses 30-31 that his coming will not be a secret; it will be with power and great glory, in the clouds of heaven, and all the people of the earth will mourn because they know it is Judgment Day. He will come with a loud trumpet blast that serves as a signal to all the inhabitants of the earth that the King of Kings has arrived. All the elect from all over the world will be gathered by his angels.
III. â€œWhat will be the Sign of the End of the Age?â€
If the last days have been with us since the first century, then whenever the New Testament talks about the characteristics of the last days, we should expect these same characteristics to be present today as they were present in the first century.
The â€œdesolation of abomination spoken of by the prophet Danielâ€ is a foreshadow of the â€œman of lawlessness,â€ the Antichrist. He is the last of the many antichrists would proclaim himself as God, dominate the world, persecute and martyr believers, all of which will result in a great falling away (2 Thess 2:3; cf Rev 13:5-8). A great tribulation, false christs and false prophetsâ€”signs which precede the Temple destructionâ€”also precede the close of the age, but with much more severity and intensity.
This is why the New Testament writers warned first century believers about the nature of the last days. Paul warned that false teachers will seduce some to â€œdepart [fall away] from the faithâ€ in â€œlater timesâ€ (1 Tim 4:1); ungodliness and unrighteous will be pervasive in the difficult â€œlast daysâ€ (2 Tim 3:1). John says that his days is â€œthe last hourâ€ marked by many antichrists (1 John 2:18). Scoffers will mock the faithful in the â€œlast timeâ€ (Jude 18). All throughout history since the first coming of Christ, we know that all of these tribulations were present like birth pangs, and will be with us until the last day of the present last days.
But these signs do not tell us that the return of Jesus is â€œimminentâ€ or can happen any moment now. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, â€œFor that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed.â€ Two unmistakable events that must first take place before the last day comes: (1) a great apostasy, and (2) the appearing of the Antichrist.
Thus, at Christâ€™s first coming to sacrifice himself, the last days were inaugurated, but the consummation at his second comingâ€”the last day of the last daysâ€”still awaits. Christ warns all his disciplesâ€”from the first to the present centuryâ€”not to speculate when that day or hour will be, but that we are to keep watch because no one knows (Matt 24:36, 42).
When that hour comes, Christ will return, and all the cosmic upheaval that he prophesied will come upon the world because the cup of Godâ€™s wrath on manâ€™s rebellion against him is full. The Spirit also inspired Peter to write about the same fiery, cataclysmic events that mark the end of the age, when â€œthe heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!â€ (2 Peter 3:12)
According to Old Testament writers, â€œthe day of the Lordâ€ is a day of judgment and destruction, but also of restoration ((Isa 2:12; Joel 2:1, 31; Amos 5:18; Zeph 1:7, 14; Mal 4:5). But the apostles also equated â€œthe day of the Lordâ€ with the day of Christâ€™s return, calling it â€œthe day of the Lordâ€ (1 Cor 5:5) or â€œthe day of our Lord Jesusâ€ (2 Cor 1:14; see also 1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:6, 2:16), the day when he appears (2 Tim 4:18), judges all people and inaugurates eternity.
So what if Christ is coming? If we don’t know when he’s coming, we can â€œeat, drink, be merryâ€ because the end of the world will not come in our lifetime. But this careless living is exactly what Jesus and the New Testament writers warn us against with urgency and solemnity. How are we to live in this present age while the Lord tarries?
Since we are unable to know when Jesus would return, we are commanded to be
First, we are to be watchful and ready. When we see a tree starting to bear fruit, we know that summer is coming. So also when we see the signs of the end of the age intensifying in both severity and frequency, we know that the Master is at the very gates of the world, ready to come in. The Bible is not telling us a story to scare us, but it is God’s eternal word of truth; everything it says will happenâ€”will happen. But since it is impossible to set the day, month or year of his return, we are to wait expectantly for our blessed hope, the appearing of our Savior, and for the new heavens and a new earth where we will dwell with God for eternity (2 Peter 3:12-13; Tit 2:13).
But since his coming will also be sudden and at an hour that no one expects, be ready. Are you ready for Judgment Day? It is not only the last day of the world that you don’t know. Your own end of the world might come at any moment, for you don’t know when God will require you of your soul. When this day comesâ€”and it surely comes for every human being in the worldâ€”there will be no more second chances of being purged of sins in the age to come, because â€œit is appointed for man to die onceâ€¦ after that comes judgmentâ€ (Heb 9:27). He has offered himself once as a sacrifice to bear the sins of all his people. When he returns, he will not deal with sin anymore, because he has dealt with it once for all when he died on the cross. Instead, his return will be the day of rewarding all his servants who were eagerly waiting for him.
Second, we are to live godly and righteous lives. Paul tells us that we are to â€œrenounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present ageâ€ (Tit 2:12). Since we have been redeemed by Christ from all lawlessness and purified us from all our sins, we are to be zealous for good works (Tit 2:14). Those wicked servants who gloat over the delay of the Master and live evil lives, dealing unlovingly with their neighbor, and continuing in gluttony and drunkenness, the Master â€œwill cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocritesâ€ in eternal fire, where â€œthere will be weeping and gnashing of teethâ€ (Matt 24:48-51).
Third, we are to declare to one another and to unbelieving family and friends all these things: Godâ€™s love for the world in Christ, godly living while we wait and hope for his return in glory (Tit 2:15). But we are also to warn unrepentant sinners of the coming Judgment Day at his return.
Are you eagerly waiting for Christâ€™s return? Judgment Day for you will be a day of rejoicing. Or do you not care about his coming and live ungodly and unrighteous lives? Judgment Day for you will be a day of mourning.
â€œCome, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!â€ Amen.