Every time there is a war or a natural catastrophe, someone asks me if I think it means that Jesus’ return is near. I always answer no, because I am not a false prophet:
- Jesus actually said that wars, rumors of wars, and natural catastrophes are not signs of the end of the age.
- Jesus said whoever says the end is near or that it is already here is wrong.
However, there are a lot of people who want to make a name for themselves saying, “I am He!” or “The end is near!” or “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There, He is coming!” Nowadays they spread their message by appearing on television and by writing books. However, according to Jesus, they are all false prophets and we are not supposed to listen to them.
They get their ideas by misreading Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24, Mark 12, and Luke 21, in which Jesus is prophesying two events, not one. I think the misunderstanding rests on the phrase ‘at that time,’ which does not indicate a sequence so much as it signals that Jesus is switching back and forth between two topics; the destruction of the Temple and the end of the era. All three passages have the same structure, so it is easy to study them together.
The whole thing begins when the disciples admire the Temple, and Jesus makes an off-hand remark that the Temple will be destroyed. The disciples then ask Jesus a question that shows that they have the misconception the the destruction of the Temple happens at the end of the age, so Jesus explains that these two events are separate and that there is a long period of time between them, during which they will be persecuted. After establishing that the destruction of the Temple and the end of the age are two completely different events that take place at different times, Jesus tells them about the destruction of the Temple. He explains how they can recognize that it is about to happen and what they should do about it, and even though it will certainly seem that it is the end of the age, it isn’t, so they should not lose their heads.
Now since they brought up the end of the age, Jesus tells them about that, too. The most important thing for them to remember is that if someone has to explain it to you, it isn’t happening—even if ominous signs do appear in the sky. There are no signs, other than the event itself. The end of the age is so obvious that even non-believers will recognize it for what it is. They will recognize Jesus, even though they are seeing Him for the first time; they will see, so to speak, the Landlord of the Universe coming to collect the rent. It happens abruptly at an unexpected time—like a lightning bolt.
Jesus goes over it one more time, by contrasting the two events:
- The destruction of the Temple will happen within one generation, but the end of the age is in the distant future.
- Since there are signs that the Temple is about to be destroyed, He tells them what to do when they see the signs.
- Since there are no signs of the end of the age, they have to be ready all the time.
Jesus and His disciples are leaving the Temple, and as they go, the disciples admire the grandeur of the buildings. King Herod had started the building project years before and it wasn’t completed yet. Such things take time; even in this day and age, it took the Episcopal Church 75 years to build the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
Jesus tells them off hand that the whole thing would be destroyed.
—Matthew 24:1-2, NIV
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
—Mark 13:1-2, NIV
—Luke 21:5-6, NIV
The disciples ask Jesus a loaded question
The disciples must have been shocked, so they ask Jesus how they can tell when this is about to happen. However, the way they put the question reveals that they are under the misconception that the the destruction of the Temple happens at the end of the age.
—Matthew 24:3, NIV
—Mark 13:3-4, NIV
—Luke 21:7, NIV
Jesus clarifies the misunderstanding
Jesus begins by clearing up their misunderstanding that the destruction of the Temple and the end of the age are parts of the same event. He explains they are in fact two separate events. There are going to be wars and rumors of wars, and people are going to claim it is the end of the world and that He is coming, but they are all going to be wrong—every single last one of them. He tells them not to listen to people like that. Those aren’t signs of the end. If anything, they are signs of the beginning of the Christian era, not its ending.
Actually, when you think about it, you realize that if wars and rumors of wars are signs of anything, they are—because of the sad state of the human condition—just signs of business as usual. There is never a time without wars and rumors of wars somewhere. You might as well say that the end of the age will happen on a day with a sunrise! Every single time there is a war or a rumor of a war—and if you are over ten years old, you have experienced this—people think it is the end of the world, but it always turns out that it isn’t.
There are unscrupulous or naïve people who take advantage of the panic to make a name for themselves by affirming everyone’s fears, but they are all false prophets. Anyone who gets on the radio or television or writes a book to explain that this or that war is a sign of the end is wrong. The Bible says that a true prophet of God is 100% right, but the end-times prophets are 100% wrong. So why do you listen to them? Jesus warned you in advance that they are always wrong.
—Matthew 24:4-8, NIV
—Mark 13:5-8, NIV
Jesus says that there will be a period of persecution after the destruction of the Temple
In fact, before we even get near the end of the age, there is going to be a time of persecution. No matter what is going on, some false prophet is going to ‘discern’ that whatever problems Christians are having at the moment are that special time of persecution that heralds the end, but they are always wrong about that, too. As I write this, Christian fundamentalists are whining that they are being persecuted, even though in this country, they control all three branches of the government. This isn’t a period of persecution, it is a period of belly-aching. Life is tough and things are unfair, which is why we need God to settle all the scores in the end. Throughout human history, there is going to be suffering, disease, dislocation, intolerance, persecution, natural disasters, wars, and all sorts of unpleasantness, but unfortunately, that is the human condition from which Jesus redeems us, it is not a sign of the end.
The key is to cling to your faith no matter what. Your life is like a small boat being tossed about in a great storm, so naturally you get sea-sick. You have to ride out the storm, and the best way to get through that storm without falling overboard is to cling to the mast—Jesus Christ.
—Matthew 24:9-14, NIV
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
—Mark 13:9-13, NIV
“But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.”
— Luke 21:10-19, NIV
Jesus explains how to prepare for the destruction of the Temple
Now that Jesus has established that the destruction of the Temple and the end of the age are two completely different events, He explains the signs of the destruction of the Temple, how to discern that it is about to happen, and what to do when they see the signs. The most important sign is an abomination in the Temple—that is, an idol.
Here is what actually happened within a generation after this conversation. The Jews got more and more restless. Judea was supposed to be a theocracy, but it was dominated by an Empire headed by a man who put himself out as a god and even demanded worship. The Roman government got tired of putting down tiny self-important revolutionaries in Judea, so they staged a show of force by moving in troops. Up until then, the Romans had given the Jews an exemption from the requirement of offering incense to the bust of Caesar every year, but now they revoked that policy to enforce loyalty to the Empire. They put a bust of Caesar in the Temple so that people could pay tribute to it. That inflamed a revolt for real.
Jesus knew this in advance, because He was an intelligent and dispassionate observer of current events. It wasn’t so much a prophecy as it was an astute straightforward extrapolation of what was going on. It was clear that Judea was on a dangerous collision course with Rome, and the memory of the Hasmonean victory about a century before blinded the people to the overwhelming superiority of Roman might.
Jesus advised his disciples that as soon as the idol appeared in the Temple, they should get out of town. Why? Those are going to be incredibly horrible days. The Romans didn’t spare any excess in putting down rebellions. Their standard procedure—which they carried out in Carthage, by the way—was to capture the people and scatter them all over the empire to destroy their ethnic identity, then to tear down all the buildings, to kill everyone who resisted, and to kill all the livestock. Then they plowed the fields with salt so that the exiles had nothing to return to.
The Romans weren’t the sort of people one messed with, and Judea did not have the resources to tangle with them and prevail.
When the Romans put the bust of Caesar in the Temple, it means they are about to lay down the law, and that means it is going to be horrendous, so get out of town as fast as you can!
—Matthew 24:15-25, NIV
—Mark 13:14-20, NIV
—Luke 20-24, NIV
Jesus says that if someone has to explain to you that it is the Second Coming, it isn’t
This point is so important that Jesus repeats it: If anyone has to explain to you that it is the end of the age, it is not, because the end of the age will be obvious to everyone, even non-believers. The false prophets will seem to have a point, but they are wrong. Do not believe them. They are like vultures, turning other people’s bad fortune to their gain. They are all false prophets, because Jesus’ coming is as sudden, unexpected, and obvious as lightning.
—Matthew 24:26-28, NIV
—Mark 13:21-23, NIV
It isn’t even the Second Coming if ominous signs appear in the sky!
Even heavenly portents are not a sign of the end. Back then the sky wasn’t washed out by artificial light. You could still see the stars, and natural phenomena, such as eclipses of the moon, comets, and meteor showers, were really impressive. However, they are not signs of the end. Just because people are hysterical and terrified, it doesn’t mean it is the end of the world.
—Matthew 24:29, NIV
—Mark 13:24-25, NIV
—Luke 21:25-26, NIV
The end of the age is obvious
Now Jesus talks about the end of the age. The reason all possible end-times prognosticators are always wrong is because there are no signs or announcements of the end of the age. They have no way to know that it is coming. The sign of Jesus’ return is the event itself. The sign in the sky is not a comet or a shooting star, but Jesus Himself. Even non-believers will instantly realize that the landlord of the universe is coming to collect the rent, so to speak. The event needs no explanation or discernment. Everyone will recognize Jesus, even though they are seeing Him for the first time. That is the time when you celebrate that your ultimate redemption is near!
—Matthew 24:30-31, NIV
—Mark 13:26-27, NIV
—Luke 21:27-28, NIV
Jesus summarizes the destruction of the Temple, which is coming soon
Now Jesus is talking about signs again. Since He firmly established that there are signs for the destruction of the Temple, but no forewarnings of the end of the age, He is summarizing the destruction of the Temple in a parable. He says it will happen within their lifetimes, and it did. In fact, it happened less than 40 years later.
—Matthew 24:32-34, NIV
—Mark 13:28-30, NIV
”I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
—Luke 21:29-33, NIV
Jesus summarizes the end of the age, which is in the distant future
There are no signs about the Second Coming, which is far off and happens at an unexpected time. You won’t be surprised that it happens, but you will be surprised when it happens.
—Matthew 24:35, NIV
—Mark 13:31-34, NIV
—Luke 21:34-41, NIV
Jesus tells them how to be ready for the Second Coming
So far as the destruction of the Temple is concerned, you can wait until you see the signs before you act. However, the end of the age can happen at any time without warning, so you have to be ready all the time. There is no such thing as last-minute preparations for the end of the age. So you have to keep your eyes open and your affairs in order at all times.
—Matthew 24:42-44, NIV
—Mark 13:35-37, NIV
—Luke 21:34-36, NIV
There are wars and rumors of wars, Christians are being inconvenienced or even actually persecuted; these are hard times, things are changing so fast we can’t keep up. There are natural disasters everywhere, and it seems that everything is going to pot. Is that a sign of the end? No, that is only a sign that we need a Savior. He is coming in the clouds of glory at a time we do not expect, so don’t waste your time obsessing about the evening news. Spend your time living in faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands.
People have told you that you need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That does not mean you make Him into your invisible friend. You should have gotten over invisible friends long ago. The personal relationship with Jesus consists of this: He commands, you obey; you keep your eyes fixed on Him and not on the storm. Then you will have peace despite the tumult of the world, and then you will be ready for Him when He comes.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
—John 14:33, NIV