24 May 2024

Are you surprised that we’ve spent so much time in the gospels in our exploration of the end times? When I first started this, I didn’t expect it to unfold like this. In my early discipleship, a study of the end times meant a study of Revelation and Daniel and Ezekiel almost exclusively, oh, and reading “Left Behind.” But as we have seen in the last two posts, there is great light to be shed on this topic simply by listening to Jesus’ response to His disciples about the end of the age. In fact, His entire discourse from the Mount of Olives answered the three questions His disciples asked.

  1. “When will these things be?”
  2. “What will be the sign of your coming?”
  3. “[what about] the end of the age?”

His answer:

But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2 ESV)

Jesus answered their questions in a way that would correct their incorrect assumption – He separated the destruction of the temple from His return and the closing of the age. If we take Jesus’ words at face value, we can see clearly that His entire answer is prophetic. Remember that He gave this discourse two days before his death.

When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 2“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” 3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. (Matthew 26:1–4 ESV)

But I suppose the question “How prophetic?” would be a good question to ask. Clearly, some of the events He prophesied were to take place in the lifetimes of His listeners. And yet, there is also an element of more distant prophecy related to His coming and the end of the age.

Jesus makes many important points in His sermon from the Mount of Olives. All of them shocked his hearers in 33 A.D. and if we are honest, they still shock us today, some 2000 years later. Some of that shock relates to the imagery surrounding the end of the age, some relates to the way Jesus warns us to “stay awake”, and some relates to the lens through which we see the end times scenario play out.

Jesus is clear that certain things must take place before the events of the end of the age that He is talking about will take place. These events are:

  1. False Christs
  2. Wars and rumors of wars
  3. Famines
  4. Tribulation
  5. Gospel preached throughout the whole world

The last one – the gospel being preached – seems to join the answers to all of the questions. Before the destruction of the temple, the gospel had not been preached to the entire world, but it was going out to the entire world. In fact, by 70 A.D., the gospel had gone out to all of the areas surrounding Judea, and even into Europe, Africa, and Asia, which might have led the disciples to think that had already been accomplished. But, at the same time, Jesus did say “the whole world” and I believe He meant it as the entire world. Before the destruction of the temple, the gospel was going out to the whole world but had not gone out to the whole world. But before the end of the age, the gospel will be preached throughout the entire world. In fact, Jesus joins the “near future” with the “distant future” when He says:

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

Notice that He did not say “and this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the temple will be destroyed“, but rather, he gives these signs in the context of telling the disciples not to be deceived about how the coming destruction relates to the end of the age. He is telling them to expect these things to happen, and continue to happen, even after the destruction of the temple, because His point is to show them that these things must occur, and the destruction of the temple is not the end of those things, but the end of the age is. Today, we have the benefit of looking back on 70 A.D. and seeing the truth of this. Jesus has not yet returned for His elect, this age has not ended, and all of these things are still happening.

And they will continue until He returns.

When the disciples asked their first question, “when will these things be?”, which was prompted by Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the temple, they associated that with the end of the age as if they were the same event. They were wrong, as evidenced by Jesus’ answer as he separated those things in His discourse, first addressing all the things that would precede the end of the age (Matthew 24:4-14), then addressing a time of suffering and tribulation and the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:15-25), and then finally addressing the end of the age (Matthew 24:26–25:46). Jesus taught that the temple’s destruction and the end of the age were two distinct events, so that’s what we should believe too.

Looking back at 70 A.D., we can see the “already” – Matthew 24:15-25 has already come about.

But we also see that some of the prophecies that He made in the Olivet Discourse are yet to be fulfilled…the not yet. The disciples’ second and third questions, “What will be the sign of your coming” and “[what about] the end of the age?” are answered in the third part of the discourse following the description of the destruction of the temple. We know Jesus transitions to the distant future because He associates those things with His coming, signs in the heavens, and further warnings. This section is initiated by a discussion of the horrors of those days above and beyond the horrors of the destruction of the temple and ends with a warning to stay alert.

This brings us to one of our vocabulary words – tribulation. The Olivet Discourse speaks of much tribulation and suffering coming not only to the world in general but to God’s people as well. In fact, the words that are used sound like they describe what is commonly known as “The Great Tribulation”. What is so interesting about this teaching is that, if the tribulation spoken of here is indeed the great tribulation, it is placed before the gathering of the elect, not after.

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29–31 ESV)

This has led people generally to one of two conclusions:

  1. You are pre-trib. The tribulation in this passage is likely not the great tribulation, but if it is, the “elect” here are the elect who came to faith during the great tribulation and missed the rapture.
  2. You are post-trib. The tribulation in this passage is the great tribulation, and the elect are all those who are caught up with the Lord when He returns.

Again, it is interesting to see how a passage of Scripture that is relatively straightforward can be seen so radically differently depending on the glasses through which you read it.

You may have noticed something missing from the Olivet Discourse, and if you said “the rapture”, you’d be right! Since about 1870, many people read the rapturing of the church away from the tribulation to come into this passage:

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matthew 24:40–41 ESV)

It sounds plausible, at least until we also read something that Luke recorded Jesus saying in a previous chapter. Jesus was explaining the kingdom of God to the Pharisees when He turned to His disciples and said:

And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32Remember Lot’s wife. 33Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” (Luke 17:22–35 ESV)

The parallels between this passage and Luke 21 are obvious, in fact, if you didn’t know where you were in the Scripture, you could very well think you were reading the Olivet Discourse. But what does this passage have to do with the rapture question? This teaching by Jesus prompted His disciples to ask the following question:

And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” (Luke 17:37a ESV)

They were curious as to where these people would be taken. What we hear on the radio and TV all the time is what was popularized in the “Left Behind” book series – that the people who were “left behind” were those who were not ready for the Lord’s return, and the people who were taken were “raptured away.” This seems like a valid understanding, especially given the fact that Jesus will gather His elect from the whole earth to usher in the end of the age. But, is that what Jesus was referring to here? I don’t think so, especially since He tells us where they are being taken in the answer to the disciples’ question:

He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:37b ESV)

Remember, it’s not only the elect who are gathered…

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ” (Matthew 13:24–30 ESV)

Everyone is gathered, and the “weeds”, the “goats”, etc, are gathered when?

First.

The enemies of God are gathered first.

In Jesus’ own words – if you are “taken” you are killed and left to rot where the vultures will feed on your remains, or are burned, or are cast into the outer darkness. It seems that it is better to be “left behind” to be gathered later than to be “taken” and gathered first, at least according to Jesus. If you place this in the context of the dual prophecy of the Olivet Discourse, it is pretty easy to apply this “left behind” and “taken” imagery to the invading Roman army and how they killed the Jews.

But even this is an already and a not yet. The enemies of God have not been gathered yet, nor have the elect. So what do we do with this today?

We should see it as not only a warning to be prepared for the time of tribulation that will come to us but also a hope that God will not leave us alone during that time and He will wage war on our enemies and utterly destroy them for us.

And we, from the stands, get to watch Him win.

For eternity!

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