Monday, 15 May 2017

What will happen before Christ returns

Matthew 24

Matthew 24 is the best way into the question. He tells us that although the disciples saw the destruction of the temple as co-terminus with the end of the age (v3), in reality the two events are separate but related.

Verses 4-14: Until the end
Some argue verses 4-28 all refer to the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. But verses 4-14 clearly have “the end” in mind – ie. “the end of the age” (v3, 6, 14). And throughout Matthew this refers to the time of final judgment (13v39-40, 49, 28v20). Moreover, this is a distinct section, marked out from v15-28 by the instructions Jesus gives. However, this section undoubtedly has a focus on what the disciples themselves will experience, being addressed to them as “you” throughout. The tension is resolved by Jesus description of the events as “the beginning of birth pains” (v8). This teaches two things: First, that what the apostles will experience are not signs that the birth of the new creation is about to take place (v6). Second, that like birth pains, what they experience will continue to be experienced until the end, and perhaps with some intensification. Verses 13-14 support this. They suddenly jump from the apostles’ generation to the end of the age, preceded by the missionary endeavour that will lead up to it. Although the events detailed in verses 3-12 therefore have the apostles’ generation primarily in mind (cf. 34), they do also teach what all disciples can expect to experience in varying degrees before Christ returns. However what they do not teach are certain events we should seek to equate with political events in any particular time of history. Rather, we learn of four things that will mark all human history until Christ returns:

(1) Religious deception through the spirit of anti-Christ by which many will claim to be the Jewish Messiah or an equivalent saviour (v4-5). In the light of that Jesus urges his disciples to “watch out” so they are not deceived.

(2) Disastrous events such as wars, famine and earthquake. Luke includes disease too, showing the list isn’t exhaustive. Here Jesus urges his disciples not to “be alarmed.” These don’t imply everything is out of control. They “must happen” as labour pains must with new birth. In other words they are part of God’s purpose in leading up to Christ’s return. The book of Revelation implies they are necessary as judgments on sin, a means of urging repentance, and of sifting true believers from false. Yet, as we have seen, they are only the “beginning,” implying such things will continue and intensify before the end comes.

(3) Compromised Christians who will turn away from Christ and against one-another under a barrage of persecution, deception and the temptations to sin. Interesting here is the sense that wickedness will increase and the majority of those who confess Christ will give up. Christ’s word here then is to “stand firm” (cf. 2 Ti, 3v1-14).

(4) Worldwide witness will however take place despite all this as a testimony to all nations that Jesus is the Christ (cf. Matt 28v16-20). There is no charge here, but it implicitly encourages faithful witnessing.

Verses 15-28: The great distress
This section must refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 when the eagle standards worshipped by soldiers were taken into the temple. This judgment on Jerusalem is implied by the context in 23v34-38. And in his parallel passage, Luke states it will begin a time in which Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles (Lk 21v24, cf. Rev 11v2). Moreover, we have seen it immediately follows a section concerned primarily with the apostles’ generation. This means there is no justification here for teaching that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and that another abomination will be set up.

Beginning verse 15, Jesus therefore draws a conclusion from verses 4-14 and applies it to this period. Because he is not going to return until the gospel goes to the nations, when his disciples see this happening they should not wait around assuming Jesus will return and put an end to it as he will the final war against his people (Zech 12, 14). Rather, they should flee to safety from Judea, escaping the killing that would follow.

The “let the reader understand” may be to stress that this is not the final “end.” It looks the Jew to Daniel 9 and 12 that speak of the “abomination that causes desolation,” yet hinting that the end will not come immediately, but after a symbolic period (Dan 12v11-13). This is the last half of the last 7 Daniel mentions. It’s a figurative way of saying the key events along the way have passed and so we’re into the final period – however long it might last. This suggests that the abomination is not only mentioned as the “sign” that the temple is about to be destroyed, but also as a “sign” that the return of Christ will follow in the next period of human history.

There is much debate about the chronology of verses 21-31. Verses 21 most logically develops verse 20. Indeed, if it described the trials just before Christ returns there would be no sense in saying there will be nothing like it again as history would be ending. It therefore labels the destruction of Jerusalem as the “great distress.”

The “those days” of verse 22 could refer to the entire church age and look to verse 21 by referring to the period in which the distress will never again be equalled. But “those days” looks to verse 19. And mention of “the distress” in verse 29 implies the whole section up to verse 28 refers to Jerusalem’s destruction. Moreover, the “immediately” that separates this section from the following is equivalent to the “near” that separates the things of Jesus’ generation from the things surrounding his return.

The point is that at a time people would have been very prone to claim the Messiah’s appearance in fulfilment of Old Testament expectation, the elect should recognise that he will not come at that time – and when he does, it will be evident to all. Here, verse 24 may actually look beyond to the false Christs who could appear throughout the church age (as v5), giving that as a reason for their appearance around the siege of Jerusalem. To my mind, verse 28 could make this point. Just as vultures gather around carcasses, so false Messiah’s will gather at this time of destruction. However, the word translated “vulture” more correctly translates “eagle,” and so may be a reference to the Roman standards gathering like vultures.

Verses 29-31: At the end
Verses 29 and 30 are perhaps the hardest verses to interpret. In context the “coming” of verse 27 clearly refers to the return of Christ to earth and not his coming on the clouds to heaven in the ascension: (1) It is his return that will be like lightening and so evident to all, unlike the coming of the false Christs which is uncertain. (2) The contrast with the false Christ’s shows it must be a coming to the people just as they will come to them. (3) This is the sense of the word translated “coming” (parousia) elsewhere (v37, 39). Its stress is on the idea of arrival not the process of coming itself (cf. 1 Cor 16v17, 2 Cor 7v6).

A key question however is over the meaning of a second word translated “coming” (erchomai) in verse 30. In the Greek Old Testament it is this word that describes the Son of Man “coming” on clouds into heaven and to the ancient of days (Dan 7v13). Does this then refer not to Christ’s return but his ascension? A number of observations suggest rather that it also refers to Christ’s return: (1) Daniel sees the Son of Man “coming” to the ancient of days because his vision gives him sight into heaven where he watches the Son of Man’s arrival. But verse 30 refers to what will be seen from the perspective of earth, implying his return. (2) The reference to peoples of the earth mourning could be translated “tribes of the land” mourning. This is more likely, referring to the promise of Zechariah 12v9-14 that the end will be preceded by the nations attacking Jerusalem, God delivering them, and a great response of repentance for having “pierced” his king. It therefore suggests Christ’s return bringing that deliverance (cf. Rev 20v7-10). Indeed, there is no real sense in which his ascension into heaven was “seen” by the tribes of Israel in any sense like Daniel saw it when Christ ascended. (3) The same word for “coming” is used by Jesus in Mark 14v62. Again, it makes little sense if referring to the ascension as the council did not see Jesus ascend. But when raised for judgment they will see him return. Moreover, the verse places seeing Jesus at God’s right hand before seeing him coming. This implies a chronology in which he is first seen in heaven before then returning to earth. (4) Acts 1v11 uses “erchomai” to refer to Jesus’ return in explaining that he will come back in the same manner in which he went. This gives a ready explanation for the use of the verb to refer to his return in Matthew 24v30. (5) And the reason for the choice of “erchomai” rather than “parousia” is because it describes the manner of Jesus’ journey on clouds as opposed to his actual arrival. (6) Verse 36-44 are clearly a contained unit of thought elaborating on the day of Christ’s return (v36). Verses 37-41 describe it as like Noah’s flood, bracketing the idea with the word “parousia.” But 42-44 then use “erchomai” as a bracket for the description of Jesus coming like a thief. Clearly then, Jesus is using both words for the same event. (7) The flow of argument from Matthew 24v27 to 30 is a final factor needing consideration. It is not a natural reading to see Jesus move from one idea of coming to another in such a few words. More natural is Jesus explaining in verse 27 that his arrival will be evident to all, before then saying that sometime after the events of AD70 it will take pace and so it is then that people will see him coming on the clouds.

With all this in mind we can seek to understand verse 29. The sense is that the coming we have established to be Christ’s return will be around the same time as the events of verse 29 which will themselves “immediately” follow the destruction of Jerusalem. Of course, if verses 22-28 (or v24-28) refer to the entire church age this can be taken quite literally. But given we have established they refer predominantly to the “distress” of the siege of Jerusalem, we are left with two options:

(1) The cosmic language of verse 29 is used figuratively in the Old Testament to denote the destruction of cities and kingdoms. Signifying an awesome act of God, the sense is that these means of God’s blessing in providing light are removed for the peoples involved as they are no more. In modern parlance, their “lights went out.” It is therefore quite possible Jesus is referring by this language to the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel as a defined entity – immediately after Jerusalem’s siege. Verse 30 would then be saying that Jesus would be returning sometime after that.

Against this is Luke 21v25 which implies the language refers to events after the times of the Gentiles and just before Christ’s return. However, as it is symbolic of all acts of judgment on nations and the world, Matthew could be using it for Jerusalem without limiting its reference to that.

(2) Alternatively, the “immediately” could well be a prophetic term akin to the “soon” of Revelation 22v7, 12, 20. This fits the change to apocalyptic language and the references to Daniel 12. If so, it would simply be saying that Jerusalem’s destruction inaugurates the final period of human history within which Christ could return at any time – with its beginning and end telescoped as if one moment.

Supporting this is the allusion to Zechariah 12v10 in verse 30 mentioned above. Zechariah speaks of the nations gathering against Jerusalem, but the Lord defending her and destroying them. If this lies behind verse 30 it would imply verse 29 refers not to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 but God’s final destruction of those who oppose his people just before Christ comes. Interestingly, this might imply many Jews being converted before the end (possibly taught in Rom 11v25-32).

Verses 32-33 further support this understanding of verse 29. The point is that as the signs of summer are being seen on the tree we know summer is “near.” In context the “near” must be equivalent to the word “immediately.” “All these things” (v33) are therefore the things that come before the end – ie. those of verses 4-28, but particularly as seen during the lifetime of the apostles. That’s why Jesus could say that every one of those things would happen in his generation. The things that will mark the entire church age (v4-14) had all been experienced within a few decades, as had the destruction of Jerusalem (v15-28). From that generation on then, the summer of Christ’s return (v29-31) is to be understood to be “near” or arriving “immediately.” With the image of the thief, we must recognize he could come at any time, being “right at the door” (v33).

We cannot be certain whether (1) or (2) is correct. But to my mind the arguments above support option (2), and Luke 21v25 raises at least one question mark over option (1). Either way the reader is kept on their toes in knowing that with Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem fulfilled, he could return in any generation. And, as if recognizing it may be some time, Jesus adds that his words never pass away (v35).

Verses 32-36: Learning the lesson
In all the complexity above, the lesson is simple: Seeing that Jerusalem was destroyed as predicted and that the labour pains of the church age continue to take place, we should look up in anticipation of the summer to come – guarding against deception, not being alarmed, standing firm, and bearing witness.

The book of Revelation

What is striking, is that there is nothing in Matthew 24 outlining in detail what will happen just as Christ is about to return. All we are told is that the tribulations of the church age are labour pains – implying they will intensify towards the end.

However, the wider New Testament does fill the gap, and especially the book of Revelation. This may be because it is written after AD70. In order to encourage Israel, the early Old Testament prophets telescoped the return from exile and establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom, and so portrayed them as close together. But after the return the Lord provided Daniel’s revelation to teach that it would still be some time until the end, encouraging patient perseverance. It seems he does the same with Revelation. In Matthew 24 Jesus telescopes the destruction of Jerusalem and his return to encourage those in the lead up to it. But with AD70 passed, Revelation clarifies that it will actually be some time.

The book is, however, famously tricky to interpret. It is apocalyptic literature in the main, portraying the relationship between things in heaven and on earth to assure struggling believers of God’s sovereignty and final victory. And a number of things stand out in how we should read it:

1) We must not over-literalize. It is a vision where what is seen signify certain truths. We do not literally expect to see Jesus walking around in heaven with a sword coming out of his mouth.

2) We must not over-spiritualize. These figures do nevertheless point to realities, and because something figurative that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t literal. The sun turning to darkness is a sign of God’s judgment not seen literally when used to predict the fall of Babylon etc. However it was seen literally at the crucifixion.

3) We must interpret scripture with scripture. How we should read something in Revelation can often be clarified by what is taught on the same matter in another genre which isn’t intending to be so figurative. For example, Peter writes of the world being cleansed by fire and being renewed.

4) We must state our degree of confidence. Some things we can be sure of, but others we might say are possible, waiting to see as God’s purposes are fulfilled. For example, the heavenly community of Christ is described outside of Revelation as a city, but we cannot be certain whether it actually exists in a city-like state in heaven, nor whether its description in chapter 21 is literal.

With all this in mind, we can draw four conclusions from the book about what will happen before Christ returns. Essentially, as the image of labour pains suggests, they are an intensification of what Jesus taught will take place throughout the church age.

(1) Religious deception: Most likely the millennium of Revelation 20 refers to the period between Christ’s binding of Satan so that the gospel can reach the nations, and Satan’s unleashing just before the end (Matt 12v28-29, Lk 8v31, 10v17-19). Three things give strong support to this: First, the binding of Satan in the abyss so that he cannot deceive most likely coincides with him losing his place in heaven and being cast to the earth in the time of Christ - beginning the church age (12v7-9). The abyss was understood to be a pit under the earth, and described the spiritual realm of angels removed from heaven. Second and more clearly, Christ’s coming to defeat the gathered armies of the earth in 19v11-21 comes at the end of the church age. Yet this is described in 20v7-10 at the end of the Millenium. Third, the rest of the NT clearly teaches Christ’s return bringing final judgment and the new creation – not a millennial delay (1 Cor 15v23-24, 2 Thess 1v5-12, 2 Pet 3v1-13).

It is at the end of the church age then, and just before Christ returns, that Satan will be released. This will lead to the rise of a supreme anti-Christ (“the beast” or “man of lawlessness,” cf. 2 Thess 2, Rev 11v7, 17v8). He is an evil opposite to Christ. So he bears Satan’s image, will somehow rule over the world and receive its worship, and his deception will be propagated by  people (“the false prophet,” Rev 16v13, 19v20, 20v10) just as the gospel is by the prophetic church (“the two witnesses” of chapter 11). This will cause a great increase in lawlessness fuelled by a corrupt, immoral and materialistic empire or world order figuratively described as Babylon (Rev 17v1-7). Babylon contrasts the community of Christ – the new Jerusalem and is patterned on the Rome of the first century, where it might literally have its centre. If we think this sounds a bit far fetched it is worth reflecting that had Hitler and Stalin united, something close to this would have happened in the 20th century. And this testifies that it need only take a couple of decades for these sort of things to become a reality.

(2) Disastrous events: We are told that God will however cause this wicked system to collapse and be destroyed, perhaps with literal environmental judgements like those upon Egypt (Rev 9, 18, cf. Lk 21v25-26).

(3) Compromised Christians: It is in this context that this evil ruler will gather the nations against God’s people – possibly coming from the north and with a focus on the actual city of Jerusalem (Ezek 39v1-6, Rev 11v7, 19v19, 20v7-10) which may have become prominent after a large conversion of Jews making the end of the time of the Gentiles (Lk 21v23, Rom 11v11-15, 25-27, Rev 11v2). The hostility of the nations will leave the church essentially dead in its witness (Rev 11v8).

(4) Worldwide witness: The chronology of the final events is unclear. The rising up of the nations may follow the fall of Babylon. If so, their provocation may be because the church will testify that the destruction of Babylon was a judgment (Rev 11v10). However, we’re told that Christ will return bringing destruction on those who have massed against his people (Rev 20v7-10). And if Revelation 18 and 19 is not intended chronologically, this could coincide with his destruction of the Babylon system. Either way, there are hints that both the destruction of Babylon and that of the armies of the nations may leave time before the end for repentance - especially by Jews (Rev 18v9-20, Zech 12v9-14, Matt 24v29-30, Rev 11v13). Whatever the case, the end will see the completion of the church’s witness in the harvesting of the faithful for eternal life as Christ returns, raises his people, and destroys all who have not obeyed the gospel – so finally fulfilling Zechariah 12 and 14 etc (Rev 19v11-21, 20v9-10).