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Jesus' Teaching on Signs

Matthew 24:1-31 depicts Jesus' teaching
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Jesus' Teaching on Signs

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Matthew 24:1-2

And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple.

And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Matthew 24:1-2

Bear in mind here that Jesus has just pronounced judgment on Jerusalem - back in Matthew 23:37-39 ...

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that kills the prophets, and stones them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 23:37-39

Jesus’ prophecy here in Matthew 24 is merely a follow-up on the judgment he pronounced back then. And, indeed, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans under Titus a mere thirty seven years later in 70 AD.

Matthew 24:3

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?

Matthew 24:3

Discourse on Signs

It’s important to note that the disciples are asking Jesus about signs – the signs heralding the end of the age and the establishment of the kingdom. And a good deal of what follows consists of a description of those signs – a whole plethora of signs. It’s this very fact that the parable of the fig tree is all about beginning with verse 32.

The phrase “end of the world” is better translated “end of the age” (aion - age). It’s not the end of the world that the disciples are inquiring about, but the end of the age - meaning, no doubt, the end of the then current era of Roman bondage and the beginning of the long promised Davidic kingdom - and, with it, Israel’s preeminence among the nations.

SchematicAnalysisofMatt24

Matthew 24:4-6

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

And you shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that you are not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Matthew 24:4-6

Pseudo Signs

Here in Matthew’s account - though not in either Mark’s account or Luke’s - Jesus ignores the disciples’ curiosity concerning the destruction of the temple – and plunges into an answer that focuses on The Tribulation and the Second Coming. Several features here need to be carefully noted:

  1. first, there’s the list of specific events found in verses 4-6 - including deception, wars, and rumors of wars;
  2. second, there’s the phrase “the end is not yet” found in verse 6; and, finally,
  3. there’s the phrase “these things must come to pass” also found in verse 6.

The list found in verses 4-6 is not meant to be all-inclusive; it’s a synecdoche - a figure of speech that uses part of a whole to stand for the whole. Verse 6 ...

And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Matthew 24:6

... tells us that the list is meant to include events that arise from “run of the mill” sinfulness and are, therefore, unavoidable features of every era of human history - no exceptions. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “these things must come to pass.” They’re inevitable! But because they’re so common they can’t be considered, in and of themselves, precursors of the “End.”

Matthew 24:7-8

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Matthew 24:7 -8

Genuine Signs

Verses 4-6 comprise a single unit of thought - what’s called a pericope. More specifically, verse 4 is a verbal clause - warning the disciples not to be deceived - and verses 5 and 6 are adverbial clauses modifying verse 4 - explaining what to watch out for and how to avoid deception. But that’s not the direct answer the disciples are looking for. Clearly, then, verses 4-6 are parenthetical to the passage as a whole.

The answer the disciples are looking for begins with verse 7 - which is itself an adverbial clause that takes us back to verse 3...

... Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Matthew 24:3

In short, starting here in verse 7 we have a description of events that do indeed herald the approach of The Tribulation, though not its actual start.

Notice how in verse 7, Jesus switches terms on us: from “wars and rumors of wars” to “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out that the phrase “nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” is an idiom used by Jewish rabbis to designate total conflict within whatever geographic area the context delimits. For example, in Isaiah 19:1-4...

The burden of Egypt. Behold, the Lord rides upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.

And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom.

And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.

And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.

Isaiah 19:1-4

What we have here is Egypt embroiled in total warfare – in short, a civil war encompassing the whole nation.

Likewise, in 2 Chronicles 15:1-7 we have the entire Middle East embroiled in total war...

And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded:

And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.

Now for a long season Israel has been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law.

But when they in their trouble did turn unto the Lord God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them.

And in those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries.

And they were broken in pieces, nation against nation, and city against city: for God did vex them with all adversity.

Be ye strong therefore, and let not your hands be weak: for your work shall be rewarded.

2 Chronicles 15:1-7

World Wars I and II

Because the events of verse 7 are clearly world-wide in scope, Jesus is speaking here of military conflict engulfing the entire world. He’s saying, in short, that global warfare will herald the approach of The Tribulation. Dr. Fruchtenbaum rightly points out that World Wars I and II - actually one war separated by just twenty years - are the first two wars in history that perfectly fit Jesus’ prophecy; that, therefore, they are obvious harbingers of The Tribulation.

And it’s certainly not coincidental ...

  • that World War I gave birth to the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 British “White Paper” legitimizing Zionism and promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine, or
  • that World War II gave birth to Israel itself - arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust and formally validated by the United Nations in 1948.

Indeed, it’s a confirmation of the pivotal roles Dr. Fruchtenbaum has assigned World Wars I and II in the prophetic narrative.

In all probability, however, World Wars I and II are only the first shots across the bow - with World War I the alarm bell signalling the beginning of the “Birth Pangs” mentioned in verse 8 (See graphic on page 5). It’s quite likely that there will be further catastrophes leading up to The Tribulation. That’s because verse 7 is not describing a series of unrelated events, but a “perfect storm” of calamities - all converging within a very short space of time.

What Jesus has in mind when he says “famines”...

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

Matthew 24:7

... is very telling - and portends that “perfect storm.” He obviously doesn’t mean a few isolated instances of famine - the likes of which have plagued every era of human history. He dealt with that kind of famine in verses 4-6.

Once again, the geographic area delimited by the context here in verse 7 is the entire world; therefore, what Jesus is pointing to is a worldwide food shortage affecting not just a handful of undeveloped countries in the Third World, but fast developing countries in Asia and parts of the Middle East, and even fully developed countries in the West. From that, several inferences can be drawn: worldwide food shortages of the severity and scope suggested here in verse 7 can only be the result of a single cause: a collapse or partial collapse of the existing world economic order with its convoluted network of interlocking central banks and international monetary agencies - a collapse so severe that all attempts to mitigate the spreading famine will fall woefully short of the mark.

No specific grounds for the collapse are indicated - though it’s clear that food-shortages always follow in the wake of wide-ranging wars and, of course, natural disasters, which are also prophesied in verse 7.

And never too far behind famine is pestilence - a good example of which was the flu epidemic that ravaged the whole earth at the end of World War I and, of course, food shortages and famine that followed close behind - with estimates of the death toll ranging from 50 million to as high as 100 million - 675,000 deaths in the US alone.

Little Apocalypse

Once again, however, none of the calamities mentioned in verse 7 - world conflict, famine, disease, and natural disasters - are part of The Tribulation itself; they’re part of the many events leading up to The Tribulation – a complex of events that verse 8 tells us is the “beginning of sorrows” – a time the rabbis often called the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah.”

All these are the beginning of sorrows (odin - birth pangs).

Matt. 24:8

The similar calamities delineated in Revelation Chapter 6, on the other hand, arise within The Tribulation – and are instigated by the horsemen of the second, third, and fourth seals. They are not, therefore, what Jesus has in mind here in verse 7.

LittleandBigApocalypse

What we have, then, are two series of almost identical events: one occurring before The Tribulation, the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah,” and the other occurring during The Tribulation. The one occurring before The Tribulation, a kind of “Little Apocalypse,” is less severe and less far-reaching – and serves as a preview of what’s fast approaching, the “Big Apocalypse” of Revelation 6:3-8. (See graphic on page 7.)

LeaduptotheTribulation

Matthew 24:9

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.

Matthew 24:9

Matthew 24:9-13 and Luke 21:12-19 describe Two Separate Events

The description of events beginning here in Matthew 24:9 and continuing through verse13 bears a close resemblance to Luke 21:12-19 ...

But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.

And it shall turn to you for a testimony.

Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer:

For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.

And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death.

And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.

But there shall not an hair of your head perish.

In your patience possess ye your souls.

Luke 21:12-19

However, the timing of the two events is markedly different. In Matthew’s account, the persecution begins after the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah.”

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.

Matthew 24:7-9

In Luke’s account, however, the persecution begins before the “Birth Pangs of the Messiah.”

Then said he unto them, nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom:

And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.

But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.

Luke 21:10-12

Clearly, Luke’s account describes events that will bear upon the disciples at the beginning of the church age not long after the Day of Pentecost; whereas Matthew’s account describes events that will bear upon believers at the close of the church age - during The Tribulation.

In short, though the accounts are similar, two events, not one, are being described - and only Matthew’s is linked to The Tribulation at the close of the church age.

Luke’s Account of God’s Protection - an Interpretive Model

Nevertheless, because Luke’s account reveals the kind of protection God afforded believers undergoing persecution at the beginning of the church age, it may well spell out the kind of protection God will afford believers undergoing persecution at the close of the church age just before and during The Tribulation. In short, what we may have in Luke is an interpretive model that casts light on the meaning of persecution throughout the New Testament - including Matthew 24. It behooves us, therefore, to look more closely at what Jesus tells us in Luke’s account.

... ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death.

And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.

But there shall not a hair of your head perish.

Luke 21:16-18

Look closely at what Jesus is saying here: “you will be hated, betrayed, and persecuted - and some of you will even be put to death; nevertheless, not a hair on your head will be lost.” Think about it: the early disciples are being promised protection, but it’s a protection that does not spare them from death. What we have here is either...

  • on the one hand, a “non sequitur” - meaning “a conclusion that doesn’t follow from a given premise” - a “contradiction in terms,” or,
  • on the other hand, God’s notion of deliverance doesn’t always line up with ours - meaning it does not necessarily include rescue from death.

And since we know it can’t be the one, a non sequitur, it must be the other: God’s notion of deliverance is a bit different from ours. And why should that surprise us? Psalm 34 assures us that God always delivers his people from affliction - those who call on his name and trust in his goodness ...

Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivers him out of them all.

Psalm 34:19

No exceptions! Clearly, however, that deliverance does not spare God’s people from undergoing tribulation and even death. In fact, we’re told quite explicitly to expect suffering, persecution, and even death.

Yea, and all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

2 Tim. 3:12

Not only that, but we’re also told it’s a privilege to suffer for Christ...

For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake...

Phil. 1:29

... that God is glorified by those who undergo death in his behalf...

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

Psa. 116:15

Matthew 10 - A Second Interpretive Model

Luke 21 provides an interpretive model that enables us to get a handle on the kind of protection God affords believers undergoing persecution - whatever the setting - including, I believe, the persecution Matthew 24:9ff. describes.

Matthew 10 provides a second interpretive model that’s a bit more general in nature. It’s a model that ties together a whole welter of features and principles each of which is linked to the spread of the gospel. Persecution is one of its features, but there’s much more.

The setting for Matthew 10 is Nazareth, north of Jerusalem up in Galilee - about two years before the events of Matthew 24. Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first missionary journey - and the commission, the warnings, and the admonitions Jesus stipulates provide insights we can use in our interpretation of Matthew 24.

  • Persecution and the spread of the gospel

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves

But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues

Matt. 10:16-17

Persecution always accompanies the spread of the gospel. The two are inextricably linked in the New Testament. They go hand in hand. Whenever persecution arises, it’s because the gospel is being preached. If believers aren’t being persecuted in some form or another, it’s because they aren’t preaching the gospel - notwithstanding their indignant protests to the contrary.

Therefore, the persecution that Matthew 24 describes arises because believers are faithfully spreading the gospel.

  • Persecution and the opportunities it affords to witness

And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake...

Matt. 10:18

Persecution affords believers an opportunity to lay out the gospel before leaders and governing authorities. Therefore, we know that the witness - might we say “revival” - mentioned in Matthew 24 ...

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.

Matt. 24:14

... is penetrating every sphere of society - including the governing elites.

  • The Holy Spirit empowers believers to witness effectively.

But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.

For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaketh in you.

Matt. 10:19-20

The power to witness is the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we know that believers undergoing persecution in Matthew 24 are being imbued with the power and grace of the Holy Spirit - and their testimony is producing far-reaching results.

  • The spread of the gospel is accompanied by miracles.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

Matt. 10:8

Signs, wonders, and miracles are given to lend credibility to a believer’s witness. Therefore, we know that the signs and wonders mentioned in Matthew 24 aren’t meant merely to terrify the unsaved and hard-hearted, but to awaken them to God’s power to save - to make them take notice of the gospel and to underscore its credibility. The presence of signs and wonders in Matthew 24 attests to the faithful witness of committed believers - that, indeed, a revival is underway - the “Tribulation Revival.”

  • The spread of the gospel produces division

And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.

Matt. 10:21

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Matt. 10:35-36

The spread of the gospel is linked to betrayal and division within families. It’s linked to separation and alienation. Undoubtedly, however, what we have here is a figure of speech - a kind of synecdoche - where a part of a whole is made to represent the whole. In short, the gospel doesn’t just cause division within families, but within groups in general - among friends and colleagues, within ministries and whole denominations.

Therefore, the division described in Matthew 24 is just one more painful repercussion arising from the spread of the gospel - with some Christians remaining true to the faith and their obligation to spread it and others compromising their commitment to Christ and pulling back on their witness - with the one group, the faithless, often virulently hostile to the other, the faithful.

  • God promises intimacy and comfort to those undergoing persecution for his sake.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Matt. 10:29-31

There is no promise here that faithful believers will be rescued from suffering and death. However, God does promise to comfort them with his presence and to supply whatever grace they need to endure the tribulation their witness inevitably produces.

Even in the midst of tribulation, he tells them not to fear - implying that he has cast his mantle of protection over them - notwithstanding the suffering and even death they will undergo. Luke’s account of the same kind of event explains why fear is unreasonable.

And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them who kill the body, and afterwards have no more they can do.

But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

Luke 12:4-5

Therefore, we’re certainly justified in doubting that the church will be spared in Matthew 24 from what nowhere else in the record of the New Testament or over the course of the last two thousand years of church history she has been spared from - the persecution that arises from spreading the gospel.

  • God promises to reward believers who remain faithful in their witness

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father who is in heaven.

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Matt. 10:32-33

The verse here is almost a carbon copy of 2 Timothy 2:12 ...

This is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him:

If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:

If we believe not, yet he remains faithful: he cannot deny himself.

2 Tim. 2:11-13

... and can be used to explain the meaning of Matthew 10:33 ...

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Matt. 10:33

2 Timothy 2:11 tells us that anyone who has been justified in the death of Christ will be raised with Christ into eternal life. It’s God’s gift of eternal life to anyone who avails himself of it and cries out for God’s mercy. It’s reminiscent of Romans 6:3-5.

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection

Romans 6:3-4

2 Timothy 2:12 takes us beyond the justification mentioned in verse 11 to the reward awaiting believers who are willing to suffer in Christ’s behalf - remaining true to his calling whatever anguish it entails. It tells us that they will be rewarded with the privilege of ruling alongside Christ in the Millennial Kingdom. However, it also includes a warning: anyone who refuses to suffer with Christ, choosing instead to compromise his witness, will be denied that privilege.

2 Timothy 2:13 tells us that though a faithless believer will be denied the privilege of ruling alongside Christ, he will not thereby lose his salvation. God “cannot deny himself” - meaning God will not go back on his word. The one, salvation, is a gift; the other, the privilege of ruling alongside Christ, is a reward.