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, writing books, creating websites, and making videos for the web. 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.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “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.”
—Matthew 24:1-2, NIV
As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“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
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
—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.
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?”
—Matthew 24:3, NIV
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
—Mark 13:3-4, NIV
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
—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.
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ 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.
—Matthew 24:4-8, NIV
Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
—Mark 13:5-8, NIV
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” —Luke 21:8-9, NIV
Persecution will follow 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.
“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 he 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 24:9-14, NIV
“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
“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
“Then he said to them: ”Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
“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
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!
“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 roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his 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. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now-and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”
—Matthew 24:15-25, NIV
“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong-let the reader understand-then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now-and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.”
—Mark 13:14-20, NIV
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
—Luke 20-24, NIV
It isn’t the Second Coming if someone needs to explain it
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.
”At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. ”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. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”
—Matthew 24:26-28, NIV
”At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect-if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.”
—Mark 13:21-23, NIV
It isn’t 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.
“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.’
—Matthew 24:29, NIV
“But in those days, following that distress, ‘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.’”
—Mark 13:24-25, NIV
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
—Luke 21:25-26, NIV
The Second Coming is obvious to everyone
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!
“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. 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, NIV
“At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
—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.
”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. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
—Matthew 24:32-34, NIV
”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. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
—Mark 13:28-30, NIV
He told them this parable: ”Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
”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.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
—Matthew 24:35, NIV
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass a way. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”
—Mark 13:31-34, NIV
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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; 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. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”
—Luke 21:34-41, NIV
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.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 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. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
—Matthew 24:42-44, NIV
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back-whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
—Mark 13:35-37, NIV
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
—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 a sign that everything is normal. It is 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.
Your 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