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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Olivet Discourse

Matthew 24:1-44

It is one of the more puzzling things that Bible teachers must put up with: no subject so divides the body of Christ as the interpretation of prophecy. Each interpreter is utterly self-confident, and equally sure that all others are mistaken, or worse. I profess no such superior insight, but perhaps can make matters a bit clearer in these undoubtedly prophetic passages.

Signs of the Times

(Mat 24:1-14 NIV) 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.

Two questions

One of the most confusing things about this passage is our inability to separate out what might be happening in the near future (for example, the destruction of the Temple in AD 70) and the distant future. Please note that Jesus’ disciples ask of him two questions:

·         When will “this” (the destruction of the Temple) happen, and

·         What are the signs of your coming again?

In that sense, we must look for both things in the answer given in this passage. Unfortunately, the interpretation of this passage often depends upon which interpretation of Revelation you might prefer. In the passage that follows, I will attempt to give some insight from two perspectives: the premillennialist dispensationalist (commonly associated with Hal Lindsey and others) and the postmillennialist, or historicist, view.

Parallel to Revelation

One thing that has struck many commentators is the parallel of events between what Christ says here and the first six seals of Revelation:

1.    The first seal shows a crown and conquest, and is often interpreted as being a false Christ, especially because of the white horse. Talbot (a futurist/premillennialist of the 1930s) saw this as Mussolini, for example. Historicists saw this as the “good emperors” from Nerva through Marcus Aurelius. All this fits with “false Christ,” for Christ means anointed one.

2.    The second seal pictures a sword, a red horse. Futurists see this as a communist invasion of Israel; historicists see the next series of emperors in a time of civil war. Wars and rumors of wars indeed.

3.    The third seal shows a rider with scales on a black horse, and clearly implies weighing out bread – a time of famine.

4.    The fourth horse – a pale horse, carries with it death (the word may also be translated pestilence). Pestilence and earthquakes (the latter may be figurative). Futurists see this (perhaps) as biological warfare, for example, and historicists point to a plague of approximately 300 AD.

5.    The fifth seal is a long passage emphasizing persecution. The persecution mentioned in this passage fits very well with this. I give you the two views:

·         The historicist sees this as the Diocletian persecution of AD 303-313. In Egypt alone in those years 700,000 Christians were slaughtered simply because they were Christians. Many turned away, and heresy abounded, especially Arianism. But at this time the Gospel was completing its conquest of the Roman Empire – which is a reasonable interpretation of the Greek which is translated here “all nations.” (Those outside would have been “tribes.”)

·         The futurist sees this as a time yet to come – but notes carefully that the spread of the Gospel to “all nations” (in the sense we would use that phrase today) is nearly complete.

The Abomination of Desolation

(Mat 24:15-31 NIV) "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.

Now comes one of those phrases which divides interpreters: “the abomination of desolation.” All interpreters agree that the original meaning of the phrase in Daniel (9:27) was fulfilled, or at least foreshadowed, by Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century before Christ. He conquered Jerusalem and built an altar to Zeus in the Temple, and sacrificed a pig on it.

Futurists hold that this event will mark the middle of the last seven years – the 70th week of Daniel. This will require a restored Temple, probably as described in the book of Ezekiel, and the abomination is to be performed by the restored Roman Empire, whose head will be the Antichrist (or front man for same).

Historicists answer that this has already happened in AD 70, at the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Romans set up their banners in the Temple, and this would be the abomination. In this sense, Christ is answering the question about when will the Temple fall.

We now come to (in verse 29) what parallels the sixth seal in Revelation. Until the 1970s, all interpreters took this verse in a symbolic sense. That is, they said that “stars” (for example) were not the astronomical ones, but that these were prominent people (as we might speak of a “movie star” or “sports star” today.) This view is confirmed in the Old Testament, for example, in Joseph’s dreams about the stars, sun and moon bowing down to his star. In Revelation 1, stars are interpreted as angels associated with the churches.

In the 1970s Lindsey and others began to interpret this as a literal event in the skies. This has a difficulty, in that the sky disappears twice in Revelation – the other time in Revelation 20:11. The real reason for that is verse 30 – which quickly transitions to the Rapture (in all views).

I hope you’re thoroughly confused by now. It does get worse!

The Fig Tree

(Mat 24:32-44 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. {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.

This begins Jesus’ section on warning us to be ready. There will be much more about this next week, so I will skip over most of that in this lesson. Two things need to be explained:

The Fig Tree

Most interpreters see the fig tree simply as a figure: you know how easy it is to tell when spring is coming because you can go out and look at the tree. Just do the same with the signs of the times. But some see in this the idea that the fig tree is symbolic of Israel, and the budding is the repentance of Israel forecast in the futurist theory.

“This generation”

One of the most puzzling of passages is that in which Christ says that “this generation” will see it. There are three prime interpretations:

·         First, it could be that Christ is referring to the destruction of the Temple here. He is saying, in effect, that it will happen before those listening to him all die.

·         Some futurists apply the same logic to the future Temple, saying that “this generation” means some future generation that will see it all. This is the basis of the idea that Christ must come within seventy years (one generation) of 1947, the founding of the state of Israel.

·         Another reasonable interpretation is that the word “generation” (Greek genea) can also be interpreted “race,” “age,” or “nation.” In that sense, it could mean that the Jews, as a race, would still be around when this all happens.

So what do I really know?

You might conclude from all this that I’m not certain of anything that Christ foretold. This is not so. Here are some things which you need to be sure of:

·         That Satan exists, is real, is powerful and evil – and ultimately will be defeated by our Lord Jesus Christ.

·         That we, the redeemed, will live forever with God in the New Heaven and New Earth.

·         That Christ is, most assuredly, coming again in a most unmistakable way.

·         That the living and the dead will rise to meet him (the Rapture).

·         That all, living and dead, must face God in judgment (how many judgments? When? How? I don’t know – but all must face Him, for reward or for departure).

·         That all the dead, no matter who, will rise again to face him in the flesh – and that all will acknowledge him as Lord.

·         That no one – not even Jesus Himself – knows when this will happen.

·         That we had better be ready, therefore, at any time.

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