Jesus is Coming Soon

In July 2006, at the launch of Christians United for Israel, after recorded greetings from President George W. Bush, and in the presence of US Senators and the Israeli Ambassador, Pastor John Hagee from Texas suggested,

“The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West … a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.” [i]

Is that what the Apostle Peter had in mind when he said we should “look forward to the day of God and speed its coming”? (2 Peter 3:12).  Is this how we “speed Christ’s coming”?  Well what did Jesus say? In our series The Passion of Jesus, we have come to Matthew 24. The chapter begins with Jesus’ disciples asking him a question.

“What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).

They were dying to know when Jesus would return. And Christians have been speculating ever since. In verse 34, Jesus answers,

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24:34).

Jesus is Coming Soon from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

The problem has been that Christians in every generation since have believed Jesus was referring to their generation. Were they wrong? Well, yes and no. As a young Christian growing up in the 1970s, I was addicted to books on Bible prophecy like Hal Lindsey’s, Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey insisted the signs of Jesus return were coming true in our generation. Lindsey figured that the return of the Jewish people back to the land after 2000 years, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, were signs that Jesus predicted. Since a biblical generation is 40 years, Lindsey speculated that Jesus would therefore return in 1988.

Edgar Whisenant even wrote a best-seller called, 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988. You can still buy a copy on Amazon. But December 31st 1988 came and went and no Messiah. So in early 1989, he wrote a sequel, The Final Shout, Rapture Report 1989, explaining why his math’s needed a little tweaking. But as 1989 was drawing to a close, Weisenant hedged his bets and published, The Final Shout Rapture Report 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993.   Hal Lindsey tried a different tack.  In a series of best selling sequels to The Late Great Planet Earth, he conveniently changed the final chapter to fit with world events. First he suggested that since Israel captured Jerusalem in 1967, Jesus would return 40 years later.  But 2007 came and went so then he prudently suggested a generation could be anything from 80-120 years. Very convenient. If you cant sleep at night and want to explore this kind of silly speculation, check out the website Rapture Ready dot com www.raptureready.com   But they really need not have bothered, because Jesus is crystal clear on when he is coming back.

“… of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)

So how then are we to understand the ‘Signs of the Times’ Jesus describes in Matthew 24:4-35? The difficulty has been in discerning, with any certainty, which verses applied to the people listening to Jesus in the First Century; which verses describe events in subsequent generations; and which verses relate to the final generation who will witness the return of Jesus.

The best way to view this kind of apocalyptic literature is to imagine you are wearing vari-focal lenses. If you wear them you’ll know that you can see things near and far away in perfect focus at the same time. Remember, Jesus did not want his disciples, or later generations from becoming discouraged by his apparent delay, or being  disturbed by the opposition, or persecution he predicted would come their way because they followed him.
So, lets put on our varifocals and read Matthew 24.

1.  The Beginning of the Last Days

“Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me… the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:4-14)

The disciples had asked Jesus a question and he answers them.  The “you” here is clearly the disciples. And in the Acts of the Apostles we read of how these verses came true. From the persecution of the church, the martyrdom of Stephen and James, the famine that swept Palestine, (Paul took up a collection to aid the church in Jerusalem), the rebellion against Roman rule in Judea, while the gospel was proclaimed from Judea as far as Rome. These were the beginning of the Last Days. But verse 15 hints at a later generation – ‘let the reader understand.’

 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 24:15-20)

These verses describe the desecration and destruction of the Temple Jesus had referred to in verse 2. Now some commentators suggest this must refer to a future Temple. Some are even helping to fund its construction.

All this is all quite unnecessary because the Temple was well and truly desecrated between 66AD-70AD, first by the Zealots who murdered the High Priest near the altar, then by the Idumeans who ransacked Jerusalem, and by the Romans who raised their pagan standards in the Temple, before Emperor Titus finally and utterly destroyed the Temple together with all of Jerusalem, fulfilling Jesus’ prediction that not one stone would be left on another.

The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, sent by Titus to mediate with the Jewish zealots, quotes the prophet Daniel insisting the events he predicted were coming true. Josephus claims more than a million Jews perished.
But apparently the followers of Jesus remembered his warning and escaped from Jerusalem when Titus began to besiege the city. To those who thought this was literally the end of the world, Jesus said,

“Such things must happen, but the end is still to come… All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6, 8)

These were indeed the beginning of the Last Days.

2.  The Signs of the Last Days

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:7-13)

Here are some types of signs Jesus tells us to watch out for:

Type of sign

Manifestation

Bible Reference

Geological

Great earthquakes

Luke 21:11

Biological

Plagues and famines

Luke 21:11

Political

Jerusalem under Gentiles

Luke 21:20-24

Military

Wars and Rumours

Mark 13:7-8

Moral

Violence and immorality

2 Timothy 3:1-5

Religious

Apostasy – False Prophets

Matthew 24:10-13

Evangelistic

The gospel proclaimed world-wide

Matthew 24:14

These signs have been prevalent in every generation (apart from the last). So perhaps we can assume Jesus wanted us to understand that the magnitude or frequency of these signs would increase before he returns.

But the important point is this – these signs were never intended to tell us the time of Jesus’ return. That is what Jesus meant about not being deceived (Matthew 24:4). Therefore think of these as like the hazard warning signs you see on a motorway. They keep you alert and ready for what ever lies ahead. They are not intended to tell you how far away you are from your destination. We don’t find these kind of signs in Scripture because only God the Father knows and he’s not telling. Jesus wants to keep us alert, not confused or wasting our time speculating. The troubles and sorrows predicted by Jesus are not the end in themselves but only the ‘birth pangs’ because they are leading to one positive sign.

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

This is why the Lord Jesus has not yet returned. The apostle Peter tells us:

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

When everyone on earth has had an opportunity to hear and respond to the good news of the gospel, then the Lord Jesus Christ will return. That is why we are committed to mission agencies like Wycliffe Bible Translators and Christianity Explored because they enable people to hear the gospel in their own language. Right now I am helping to raise funds for the Arabic edition of CE at the request of the church in South Sudan. This is how they are repaying those who have been at war with them for 50 years. They want to be able to share the gospel in Arabic with their fellow Sudanese. And the potential in the wider Middle East is enormous.

The Beginning of the Last Days. The Signs of the Last Days.

3.  The End of the Last Days

 “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24:30-31)

Now it is quite possible that Jesus is describing literal cosmological disturbances. We know the disruptive effects of sun spots for life on earth, and the impact of climate change in terms of extreme weather. But we must also be mindful of how Old Testament prophets used apocalyptic language to describe cataclysmic political events on earth. Jesus is simply using vivid imagery taken from the Old Testament to describe his return. NT Wright observes,

“Some writers chose consciously to evoke the cosmic or theological meaning of events in the space-time world by means of a sometimes complex system of metaphors. “The stars will not give their light”, wrote Isaiah, “the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13.10). What was going on? Babylon was being destroyed, never to be rebuilt. In the prophet’s world, that was like saying that London or New York would sink into the sea, never to rise. What language will you borrow to do justice to such an event? That of cosmic collapse, of chaos …. The whole point is, of course, that the world has not actually collapsed; if it had, there wouldn’t be anybody around to be shocked and awed at the fate of Babylon.” [ii]

Here in Matthew 24, ‘the great trumpet’ refers to the silver trumpets used to call God’s people to worship (Numbers 10:1-10) and ‘the four winds’ (Jeremiah 49:36; Zechariah 2:6) symbolize the entire world.

In this way Jesus will gather his elect “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  What is crystal clear from these verses is the fact that Jesus will return personally, visibly, publicly, unmistakably.

The Sequence to the Return of the Lord Jesus
1. There will be a sign of Jesus in the sky (24:30)
2. Jesus himself will appear visibly (24:30)
3. The whole world will see him and mourn (24:30)
4. This will be accompanied by loud sounds (24:31)
5. Jesus will send his angels to gather his elect (24:31)

So believers will be caught up to be with Jesus when he returns visibly, and not before. The whole world will be watching and mourning. What is certain from this passage is that the rapture will not occur before Jesus returns; and that nothing relating to the return of Jesus will be secret. We have considered the Beginning of the Last Days.

Application: Jesus does not want us to be distracted by false prophets and Messiahs. He does not want us to be disturbed by opposition or persecution. Instead he wants us to be diligent, living as if he might return today – faithful in serving him, faithful in sharing him, taking every opportunity he gives to get to know Jesus and make Jesus known.

The Signs of the Last Days. And the End of the Last Days. Next week we will dig deeper into the Passion of Jesus, his imminent return and the Rapture. Although nobody knows when Jesus will return, two things are certain. First, we are nearer to that day than ever before in history. And second, these signs are certainly more evident in our generation than ever before. Come Lord Jesus! Lets pray.

 


[i] Sarah Posner, “Pastor Strangelove”, The American Prospect http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11541

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