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Signs of the End of the Age

When my wife got pregnant the first time we read everything we could about what was happening in the womb during each month of the pregnancy. But as we approached her due date we were especially looking for signs of her going into labor: her water breaking and/or the pains of contractions.

It’s sort of funny now looking back on it, but none of the three births worked themselves out in text book fashion. With the first, Becky’s water didn’t break on its own; they did that for her in the hospital. That time the contractions were strong and obvious; it was time for the baby to be born.

With the second, Becky thought her water broke so we went into the hospital. There we found out that her water hadn’t broken, but she was so close to her due date that they kept her in the hospital and induced labor.

With the third birth there were neither the signs of contractions or water breaking. Becky had complications with that pregnancy and so Joshua was delivered by C-section.

In Matthew 24:8, part of the passage we are about to read, Jesus compares the signs of the end of the age to birth pangs. However, I think many people over the course of the last two thousand years have misread these signs, just as we misread the signs of birth, when we were new to the whole parenting thing. The key verse in the chapter we are about to read is verse 34. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

Jesus gives us a number of signs of the end of the age in this passage. But I don’t think he is talking about the end of world history as many have presumed, nor about his “second coming”. According to verse 34, Jesus was talking about things which were to happen within a generation of his words being uttered. And he was correct in his prophecy.

Let’s read Matthew 24 together and see what Jesus was talking about….
1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.
2 "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
4 Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you.
5 For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.
6 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.
7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.
10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,
11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.
12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,
13 but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
14 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.
15 "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--
16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house.
18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.
19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!
20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.
21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again.
22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
23 At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it.
24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible.
25 See, I have told you ahead of time.
26 "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it.
27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.
29 "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.'
30 "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.
31 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.
32 "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.
33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.
34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
36 "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;
39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
45 "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?
46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.
47 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,'
49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.
50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.
51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The first thing we need to note about this passage is the setting. Jesus’ discourse about the signs of the end of the age takes place as he is leaving the temple. His disciples comment on the beauty of the temple, and indeed it was one of the most beautiful buildings in the ancient world. This comment leads Jesus to tell them specifically what he had already hinted at earlier: the temple will be destroyed.

After leaving the temple precincts, Jesus and his disciples head out to the Mount of Olives where they would have had a breathtaking view of the temple and Jerusalem as a whole. Jesus sits down, just as he sat down to deliver the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, and just as every good rabbi in those days would sit down to teach. The disciples understandably ask Jesus about when the temple will be destroyed and what will be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age.

The word that the disciples use which is translated “coming” is an interesting one. The word is parousia. This word was used within the Greek-speaking Roman Empire to refer to a state visit by the emperor. It was also a word used to describe when a god or goddess would do something dramatic, like a miracle.

What the disciples had in mind was probably something like this. They longed to see Jesus truly ruling as king. And they probably already identified this event with the destruction of the temple. This was because Jesus had already done and said things which indicated that he believed he was the center of God’s healing and restoring work, not the temple itself. So the disciples saw the coming of Jesus as king, the destruction of the temple and the ushering in of God’s new age as three things which would all go together.

Jesus agrees with the disciples, up to a point. The destruction of the temple is going to be a sign of his vindication, for after all, he has prophesied that it will happen. It will also be a sign of the new age of the church being ushered in. But, he tells the disciples, "Don’t be deceived by all the would-be messiahs claiming to be me."  He warns them that wars and rumors of wars are to come. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. These are all just the beginning of birth pangs.

After all this will come a time of persecution for the disciples themselves. In the midst of this there will be false prophets, and apostasy, and the love of many growing cold, but the disciples must stand firm. They must stay on the job and take the gospel to all the nations.

All of this is Jesus’ prediction of what would happen within that generation. In AD 68 Emperor Nero died. He was followed by four contestants for the office of emperor fighting for control. The Roman Empire itself was teetering on the brink of destruction. During that same period of time Rome laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege lasted four years. Many in Jerusalem died of starvation. Some parents were even reduced to cannibalism. In AD 70 the Romans finally stormed the city. Over a million Jews were killed in the final conflict and 97,000 were taken captive. The Romans were so happy over what they thought was a solution to the “Jewish problem” that they erected an arch in Rome in honor of the conquering general, Titus. This destruction of Jerusalem and all that went with it was what Jesus was predicting in this passage. And this teaching was given in response to the disciples’ question.

Jesus goes on and talks about “the abomination that causes desolation”. What was this all about?

The “abomination that causes desolation” was spoken of by the prophet Daniel. Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled in 170 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, captured Jerusalem and set up an altar to Zeus in the temple, sacrificing a pig on it.

Jesus predicts that something like that is going to happen again. It almost happened again in AD 40 when the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple. However, he was assassinated before he could carry out his plan. Thirty years later, during the Jewish War, the Romans surrounded the Temple and placed their blasphemous standards there. That was probably the fulfillment of what Jesus predicted. The legionary standards had eagles on them and so such a sight, surrounding the temple, would have been viewed by the Jews as blasphemous, a graven image of worship. In fact verse 28 about the vultures gathering may refer to these eagle standards because the word used may refer either to vultures or eagles.

Jesus gave this as a sign to his followers. When they would see the “abomination that causes desolation” then they would know it was time to flee Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers might have been tempted to stay and fight to defend Jerusalem if Jesus hadn’t warned them in this way. As I have already mentioned, those who did remain in Jerusalem faced starvation and eventual death.

Again Jesus warns his disciples not to go after anyone claiming to be the Messiah. When the Messiah comes it will be evident to all, just like lightning.

Some people say, “Well, I can understand how part of Matthew 24 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, but surely the sun being darkened and all that refers to the end times?”

Actually the quotation about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light and the stars falling from the sky is a quotation from Isaiah. To people living in Jesus’ time this was well known coded language used to refer to huge social and political upheaval. And that is the kind of upheaval which followed the death of Nero and was brought about by the Jewish War with Rome.

“But what about the sign of the Son of Man in the sky and his coming on the clouds of heaven, surely this refers to the Second Coming?”

This is a reference, once again, back to the book of Daniel. Interestingly enough, in Daniel the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven refers to an upward, not a downward movement. So this refers to Jesus resurrection and ascension, in short, to his vindication, not to his second coming. In fact, there are three things that demonstrate Jesus’ vindication as Messiah: (1) his resurrection and ascension, (2) the destruction of the temple, and (3) the news of his victory spreading rapidly around the world. The sending out of angels to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth in verse 31 is actually a reference to the sending out of Christ’s messengers, the disciples, to the four corners of the earth to proclaim the good news and thereby gather his elect people.

All of this Jesus speaks to his disciples in the first century, so they will know when these cataclysmic things happen that he is really sovereign over all. When they see all this begin to happen they will not be disheartened, but rather keep on preaching about his victory. They will be assured that they are on the right track because Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple in the first place.

Jesus goes on to warn his disciples that no one knows the day or the hour when the destruction of Jerusalem is going to happen. Normal life will seemingly continue right up to the last moment. Just as people were “caught out” by the flood in the story of Noah, so it will be when the destruction of Jerusalem comes. Two men will be working in a field, one will be taken, another left. This is a reference to the invading forces of Rome taking off one person to their death while leaving the other untouched.

Jesus tells a little parable in order to remind the disciples of how they should live as this tribulation approaches. The meaning of the parable is that Jesus is going away, but he is leaving the disciples with work to do: the preaching of the gospel. The point of the parable is that they should continue on with their work regardless of the tumult going on in society.

So what is the message for us in all of this, if Jesus’ words were directed primarily to his disciples in the first century?

Though Jesus was primarily addressing the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem which would happen within that generation, Jesus’ words have application to us today as we await his final “parousia”, his second coming. Jesus has given us work to do: the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. We need to be supporting missionaries who carry the Gospel overseas, and we also need to share the good news with those he brings across our path. Whatever work the Lord has given us to do: raising families, working farms, teaching in school, whatever we do, we need to do well, to his glory. If we are doing that then we will be ready when he comes, ready for the Day of Judgment.

I really appreciate what C. S. Lewis once wrote on this subject. He said,
How can characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it. 
In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely ‘First Servant.’ All the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund—have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted. 
The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph. This seems to some people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be interrupted. Perhaps you were going to get married next month, perhaps you were going to get a raise next week: you may be on the verge of a great scientific discovery; you may be maturing great social and political reforms. Surely no good and wise God would be so very unreasonable as to cut all this short? Not now, of all moments! 
But we think thus because we keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. The audience, if there is an audience (if angels and archangels and all the company of heaven fill the pit and the stalls) may have an inkling. But we, never seeing the play from outside, never meeting any characters except the tiny minority who are ‘on’ in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be. That it has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely. (The World’s Last Night)


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Psalm 110
The Lord says to my Lord:
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until I make your enemies
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