Friday, June 12th, 2009

Signs of The End: Fact or Fiction

Signs of The End Fact or Fiction

Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21

A. Matthew 24. 1-14

We need to clarify the context and text of our Lord’s dramatic prophecy in Mt. 24.2; Mk. 13.2; Lk 21.6.

  •  Context – Admiration of the buildings of the Temple by the disciples “…and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.” (Mt. 24.1b; Mk. 13.1; Lk. 21.5)
  •  Text – “I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.“ (Mt. 24.2; Mk. 13. 2; Lk. 21. 6)
  •  Meaning of prophecy – the buildings of the Temple would be destroyed.
  • We need to clarify as well the questions put to Jesus by his disciples.
  •  “When will these things be?” = When will the buildings of the Temple be destroyed? (Mt. 24.3; Mk. 13.4; Lk. 21.7)
  •  “What will be the sign that these things are about to be fulfilled?”= What will be the sign that the buildings of the Temple are about to be destroyed? (Mk. 13.4; Lk. 21.7)
  •  What will be the sign of Your coming, and/even of the end of the age? (Uniquely Mt. 24.3)
    Matthew’s unique question is understandable from a Jew.  The thinking would be ‘if God’s Temple is to be destroyed then at the same time the world must be coming to an end in the return of Jesus Christ’.
    Summary of Critical Issues in Text
  •   Primary concern – destruction of the Temple
  •  Secondary concern – sign re destruction of the Temple
  •  Tertiary concern – sign re 2nd Coming or end of the age
  •  Jesus was on the Mount of Olives when he made this prophecy about AD 30, the Temple was destroyed in the summer of AD 70.



Note Jesus’ prior warning in Mt. 24. 4, “let no one deceive you” concerning the coming events in line with the Temple’s destruction or the 2nd Coming.


(Mt. 24. 4-5: Mk. 13. 5-6: Lk. 21. 8)

Supported by Josephus (‘Wars of the Jews’, II.13.4-5) and Acts 5. 37 [Theudas]; 8. 9-10 [Simon Magus]; 13 [Bar-Jesus]


(Mt. 24. 6-7: Mk. 13. 7-8: Lk. 21. 9-10)

Roman historian Tacitus writing about the turmoils prior to A.D. 70 mentions, ‘war in Britain’, ‘war in Armenia’, ‘disturbances in Germany’, ‘insurrections in Gaul’, ‘commotions in Africa’, etc.


The 40-year period between Jesus’ Olivet Prophecy and the destruction of the Temple was full of civil unrest involving Jews: 20,000 were killed in Caesarea, 13,000 slaughtered in Scythopolis, an uprising in Alexandria saw 50,000 dead while another 10,000 were killed in Damascus. The turbulence of those days included the assassination or suicide of four Emperors in an 18-month period AD 68-69 (Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius). 


• If you take a 2nd Coming view of the mention of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ then take note of v. 6, “See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but THE END IS NOT YET.”


(Mt. 24. 7: Mk. 13. 8: Lk. 21. 11)

Acts 11. 28, mentions a famine during Claudius’ reign (44 A.D.) and three others are mentioned by Eusebius, Dio Cassius and Tacitus.  Suetonius and others mention pestilence in Rome during Nero’s reign, plagues in Babylonia and epidemics in Italy.

Re earthquakes (Mt. 27. 51-54; 28. 2: Acts 16. 26) Frequent earthquakes are mentioned by Tacitus and Seneca.

“How often have the cities of Asia and Achaea fallen with one fatal shock! How many cities have been swallowed up in Syria! How many in Macedonia! How often has Paphos become a ruin! News has often been brought to us of the demolition of whole cities at once.” (Seneca)

“…twelve populous cities of Asia fell in ruins from an earthquake.” (Tacitus)

Lk. 21.8 mentions ‘fearful sights and great signs from heaven’.  Some such events are mentioned by Josephus and Tacitus.


(Mt. 24. 9-14: Mk. 13. 9-13: Lk. 21. 12-19)

Persecutions are mentioned in Acts 4, 5, 6, 8, 13, 14, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25 and much persecution and death took place under Nero 64-68 A.D.


False prophets and false teaching are the targets in most of the books of the New Testament especially Galatians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, 1 John and Jude.


(Mt. 24. 14: Mk. 13.10)

“…The gospel of the kingdom must first be preached in all the world…”

The ‘end’ is generally taken as having reference to the end of the present age and thus there is a popular but mistaken belief that Jesus prophesied that the gospel will be preached in all of the modern world as a sign of the 2nd Coming.


In context ‘end’ has reference to the destruction of the Temple and the end of religious life as the Jews knew it.  It is instructive that in Mt. 24.3, the Greek word for ‘end’ is sunteleias  and the full phrase is sunteleias tou aionos, ‘end/consummation of the age’, whereas in verses 6, 13 and 14, dealing with the Temple and events pertaining to its destruction, the Greek word used is telos.


The gospel was in fact preached to all of the 1st century world.  In Acts 2.5, at the day of Pentecost, there were present “…devout men out of every nation under heaven…”.  In Rom. 1.8, Paul says, “Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world…” and he speaks of the gospel as having been “…made known to all nations…”  See also Col. 1.6, 23, where the gospel “…has come to you as it has also in all the world…which was preached to every creature under heaven…”


•  Notice the critical ‘therefore’ link between this sign and the ‘seeing and fleeing’ associated with the ‘abomination of desolation’ (Mt. 24.15).   

 B.  Matthew 24.15-28

 1.  What really is this ‘abomination of desolation’, spoken of by Daniel (9.26)

 1.1  Popular explanation – Something idolatrous placed in the holy place of a rebuilt (3rd) Temple.


Consider the practical and contextual problems associated with this interpretation.  “..this injects a totally different temple into the midst of Christ’s prophetic discourse than the one concerning which the disciples inquired.” How would all see this ‘thing’ in the holy place (where only a High Priest has access) and know to flee?  If this is indicative of the end of the age/2nd Coming what’s the point of the command to flee?  How on this interpretation can one make sense of vv. 19-20?

Why such dire commands? To help you answer note a similar sequence of ideas in all three Synoptic Gospels.

v.15 (Mk. 13.14; Lk. 21.20)

“…when you see…”

v.16 (Mk. 13.14b; Lk. 21.21)

“…then flee…”

v.21 (Mk. 13.19; Lk. 21.22)

“For then there will be great tribulation…”


1.2  Luke’s clarification is that the abomination of desolation = Jerusalem surrounded by armies (Lk. 21. 20).   This was a reality in 66 A.D. and helps to make perfect sense of, the command to flee, the woes re pregnant women and

suckling mothers and the issue of fleeing on the Sabbath day or in winter (Mt. 24. 16-22; Lk. 21. 21-24)


The command to flee was designed to save lives from the slaughter arising from the siege of Jerusalem  and the destruction of the temple. Why woe to the pregnant and to suckling mothers? THEY WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO FLEE TOO FAST OR FAR TO SAVE THEMSELVES.


There is no passage in the Bible where the word ‘tribulation’ is used in connection with a 7 year period at the end of the age, despite the popularity of such a view amongst some Christians. 

2.  Is the Great Tribulation Future or Fulfilled?

The word ‘tribulation’ [at times ‘affliction’] appears in the King James Version some 25 times, mostly in the New Testament.  The word is used to describe,

1)  the sufferings of Christians during this age

Acts 14.22: Rom. 5.3; 8.35; 12.12: 2 Cor. 1.4; 2.4: Eph. 3.13: 1 Thess. 3.3-4:

2 Thess. 1.4: Mt. 13.21; 24.21, 29: Mk. 13.19: Jn. 16.33: Rev. 1.9; 2.9-10;7.9,14

2) the sufferings inflicted upon the sinful and those who reject Christ

Rom. 2.9; 2 Thess. 1.6; Rev. 2.22

3) the sufferings predicted for the Jews at different times in their history

Mt. 24.21, 29; Mk. 13.19; 1 Sam. 10.19; Deut. 4.30; Judges 10.14

Main Points

1.  There are very few passages that specifically use the expression ‘great tribulation’ and none of these support a notion of an end-time 7 years of tribulation.

1.1  The great tribulation of the Olivet Discourse [Mt. 24: Mk. 13: Lk. 21] does not and could not refer to the end-time but relates to the past destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70.

If you stop to think about it you will quickly appreciate that the tribulation could not be at the end of the age because after saying that such tribulation was unknown since the world began our Lord then said, ‘no, nor ever shall be’. 

It would make no sense to add that comment if it was to occur at the end of the age because then there would have been no time left for it to occur!!  Common-sense would dictate that the tribulation must be before the end of the age.

We begin to appreciate the social, religious and psychological nature of the tribulation of A.D. 66-70 only after we properly digest the annals of history which tell of thousands of Jews being killed by the Roman forces and thousands being killed by fellow Jews, with famine so great that a Jewish mother roasted and ate  her infant son, with the socio-religious centre of their existence, the Temple, being destroyed.

Total death toll was 1.1 million with 97 000 sold into slavery.


C.  Matthew 24. 29-35

1.  The time terms ‘immediately after the tribulation’ (v. 29) and ‘then’ (v. 30) pose problems for the historical interpretation of vv. 5-26.  Hence v. 29 is taken symbolically – after A.D. 70 and before the 2nd Coming the state of the world powers would be unsettled and turbulent, this is captured in the symbolic language of signs in the heavenly bodies.  In using such symbolic language Jesus was following the prophets who used similar language when announcing God’s inter-ventions in the history of nations.  See Amos 8.2-9; Ezekiel 32.7-15; Isaiah 13.9-20, 34.4-10.

2.  Another approach is to see the whole chapter as dealing only with the crucial issues raised in the disciples’ questions, hence the key events would be the timing of destruction of the Temple/warning sign followed by the next critical event the signs in the heavenlies/ 2nd Coming.


3.  The Fig Tree Parable (Mt. 24.32-35; Mk. 13.28-31; Lk. 21.29-33)


3.1 The parable does not refer to Israel becoming a nation once again because Israel is not usually described, in the Bible, as fig tree but as olive tree.  Note as well that Luke says “and all the trees” (v. 29).


3.2  The passage refers back to the ‘all these things’ leading up to the destruction of the temple which would happen before the generation addressed by Jesus (in  A.D. 30) died off.  A generation is about 40 years.

3.3  If the ‘all these things’ in the parable be taken to mean the things mentioned in Mt. 24. 29-31, then the passage would be saying something like ‘when you see the signs in the heavens, the sign of the son of man, the son of man coming in the clouds…Then know that the end is near’.


3.4  For fig trees, it takes a few months from budding in spring to the time of full summer in August. The final assault on Jerusalem was in April, A.D. 70, The temple was destroyed in August!


3.5. Re Lk. 21.31, “As long as the old city and Temple remained, the true spiritual nature of the kingdom of God would have been clouded by the Jewish concept of a natural and temporal kingdom of God.”


 [1] Paul and Peter are believed to have been killed during Nero’s reign.

[2] This passage which, in context, relates to the 1st century ‘known world’ does not cut against the current responsibility of Christians to spread the gospel to the modern world as commanded in Mt. 28.19-20 and Acts 1.8 and suggested in John 17. 20.  It should be noted too that an appeal to a double fulfillment of prophecy does not work with this passage for the end-times because the notion is not widely known in scripture and even the appeal to a fuller sense (sensus plenior) of an incident over and above a literal sense (sensus literalis) in scripture is never done prospectively (looking ahead) but always  retrospectively (looking back at the incident  which justifies a fuller sense as in Mt. 2.18/Jer. 31.15 (note the past tense of the Jeremiah text in v. 15).

[3] Note that Daniel mentions a destruction of ‘the city and the sanctuary’, ‘war’ and ‘desolations’.

[4] William R. Kimball, The Great Tribulation, 1983, 66.

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