"I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes. I saw the sign..." Yeah, just try not to finish that chorus. Sorry to start that way, but I couldn't resist. You see, we're going to be looking at "signs" in this fifth post about prophecies and the tools that help us to study them (but also the Scriptures, in general). I highly recommend you read the preceding posts before tackling this one. www.thecrossingchurch.net/pastors-corner
These tools will help you with a book like Revelation, but in this series we're focusing on Matthew 24. The point isn't for me to simply tell you what Matthew 24 is all about, although I will do my best. The point is to help you get a grasp of the tools that will help you sort through passages like Matthew 24 and Revelation without guys like me telling you what you have to believe. Work it out yourself. Yes, Bible teachers and theologians disagree about interpretations of Scripture, but they do agree on the tools necessary for interpretation. We play by the same rules and come up with different interpretations. That's okay. This stuff is a bit mysterious, after all.
So, here's a list of the signs Jesus gave His disciples in answer to their question regarding the destruction of the Temple. Jesus said, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” and they said, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Well, here's a list of the things they needed to be looking for. I've divided the signs into two lists. One is "simple signs" meaning they take very little interpretation on our part to sort out what Jesus was talking about. The other list includes trickier stuff like the "abomination of desolation" (no, that's not a Norwegian heavy metal band, but good guess!). Here we go:
So, what makes this so difficult? Honestly, it's the fact that Jesus then said, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." (Matt. 24:34) Unless Jesus was wrong (as atheists often accuse), these signs happened nearly 2000 years ago. Most will admit that many of these signs did occur within that generation Jesus spoke to. The generation of John, Paul, and Ringo. No, wait. Not those 60s. The AD60s. John, Paul, and Barnabas. That's the place to start. If we find that era to lack the signs Jesus mentioned, then perhaps it is time to consider another time frame. In which case, do we then admit that Jesus was wrong in His prediction? Did He say "this generation" when He should have said "that"? Did the Apostles all misinterpret Jesus' words here and believe and teach the Early Church that Jesus would fulfill these things "shortly"? Tough questions to try to answer, but atheists ask them of Christians all the time and don't often get a great response. We can do better!
So, in order to check what was going on during the generation Jesus spoke to, we'll need to check what events occurred during that era. AD35-AD75 would be a "generation" (about 40 years) from the time Jesus spoke these words. What happened during those years? Any famines? Any earthquakes? Any abominations that caused desolation? Well, some of these will be much easier to find than others, won't they? What we need is a historical reference. Yes, some of these signs can be found in the Scriptures too (Acts 11:27-30; 1 John 2:18-19; Jude 17-19; 1 Peter 2:1-3)
The most trusted source of historical records from that time period comes from a guy called Flavius Josephus. He was the son of a Jewish priest and helped lead the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD66 in Galilee. He was captured in AD67 and became a negotiator for Titus, who led the Roman siege against Jerusalem in AD70. Josephus was not a Christian. He wrote from a distinctly Jewish perspective for a Roman audience. He has been accused of writing in a way to make Rome look better than they really were (ex. Titus didn't want to burn down the Temple in Jerusalem), but he can't be accused of being a Christian making up stories to fulfill Jesus' prophecies. He wasn't a follower of Jesus. His writings are researched by Christians, Jews, and historians and considered a trustworthy reference.
His preface to his famous work The Wars of the Jews begins with "Whereas the war which the Jews made with the Romans hath been the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but, in a manner, of those that ever were heard of; both of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations". Yeah, this war between Israel and the Roman Empire isn't dismissible. Josephus ranked it as the greatest war that had ever been. That's a war we need to know about! But, most of us don't, as I didn't until I began to study these prophecies and heard about Josephus. It's not your fault (unless you heard me recommend you read Josephus two years ago and still haven't. You know who you are. Lol.) You simply don't hear sermons about Josephus or attend bible studies about "12 ways to be a Josephus in your workplace". His works are extra-curricular. Let's take a survey of some of his writing.
Josephus describes a number of earthquakes before and during the destruction of Jerusalem. Here's just one example: "for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” (Bk.4.4.5)
As for the famine that killed so many in Jerusalem, Josephus says, “So those that were thus distressed by the famine were very desirous to die; and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not live long enough either to hear or see such miseries.” (Bk.6.3.4) The people resorted to cannibalism and eating dung. Would that level of famine be enough to be considered one of Jesus' signs?
The title of Josephus' work "The Wars of the Jews" ought to suggest that there were wars and rumors of wars during this time, eh? You bet!
He also describes false prophets in Jerusalem that gave people hope that God would rescue them from the siege. “Now, there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God: and this was in order to keep them from deserting…. Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers..” (Bk 6.5.2-3)
As to lawlessness, Josephus said much, but summarized it here: "That neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world." (Bk 5.10) Even if hyperbole, that's quite a statement!
Let's attempt a tricky sign. Yep, that one. “And now, when the multitude were gotten together to an assembly, and every one was in indignation at these men’s seizing upon the sanctuary, at their rapine and murders but had not yet begun their attacks upon them Agnus stood in the midst of them, and casting his eyes frequently at the temple, and having a flood of tears in his eyes he said, ‘Certainly, it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these bloodshedding villains.'” (Bk.4.3.10) The corrupt bandits had taken over the Temple and made it "home". Josephus also said, “..the sacrifice called ‘the Daily Sacrifice’ had failed, and had not been offered to God for want of men to offer it, and that the people were grievously troubled at it..” (Bk.6.2.1) Not convinced? How about this one? “And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy.” (Bk.6.6.1)
Some will chalk these up to "initial fulfillments" that will be truly fulfilled at a later date. Perhaps when the Romans quit spending all their time playing soccer and clubbing and get back to invading Israel again? Okay, that was just plain facetious of me, wasn't it? At the same time...okay, it was still facetious. Forgive me.
So, now you ask, did Jesus ever show up visibly on "the clouds of heaven"? Did Josephus record that one too, Dave? Okay, so who's being facetious now? Technically, still me. But it's the kind of thing some might say and it's a legitimate question.
It appears we have more to cover, so be on the lookout for my next blog. Beware! There will be blogs and rumors of blogs and many false bloggers will rise up and deceive many. Do not be troubled. This blog will be shared in all the world as a witness to all futurists, and then my blog will come. Behold, I blog soon!
Alright, alright. I'm out.
No, really, I'll be done now.
In case you missed it, America is in the middle of a highly publicized political season. The candidates are holding rallies all over the place. They're making promises to the people. "As president, I will make sure your families are safe." Or "as president, I promise to lower your taxes." These are promises that will affect Americans now. If a candidate offers to lower my taxes, I expect them to do just that. My taxes ought to be less in the coming years. If not, then they haven't kept their promise to me. When they look at me and say "your taxes", I have no reason to believe they're actually speaking about someone else's taxes and not mine. I don't then rejoice that the people of Paraguay will be receiving a tax cut in the year 2916. Nope. That tax cut was promised to me.
Jesus came to our planet and talked to people. He didn't blog. He didn't Tweet. He looked people in the eye and told them things that pertained to them. We have some of those conversations recorded in our Scriptures. One of these eye-to-eye conversations is recorded in Matthew 24.
Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
The disciples just asked Jesus a question and He will now respond to it. This is a conversation between Jesus and His disciples. I wasn't there and neither were you. Keep that in mind as you read His response to them.
And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6 And you will 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. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
15 “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand.
26 “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.
So, here we have Jesus telling His disciples things that would affect them. He told them they would hear of wars and rumors of wars. Did they? He told them they would be delivered up to tribulation, killed, and hated. Were they? He told them they would see the abomination of desolation. Did they? This is the issue that comes up when we consider the context of a passage of Scripture. Any passage. Who is speaking and who are they speaking to?
The Apostle Paul was brought before Governor Felix due to accusations from some of the Jews of his day. Paul had the chance to speak with Felix and he opened with this, "I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense." Now, when you read that verse from Acts, do any of you assume Paul is telling you that you're a judge over this nation? Hopefully, not. You understand that this conversation was between Paul and Felix and you weren't there. Can you carry that understanding to the conversation in Matthew 24? We weren't there. When Jesus says "you", He was looking into the eyes of His disciples. These were things that would pertain to them. If these statements are to pertain to me, it will be as well as them, not instead of them.
The statements Jesus made, as wild and "end of the world" sounding as they may be, were directed to His disciples. From this point on, they watched for the signs of His coming and the end of the age. Paul commended the church in Thessalonica with this: "For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." They waited with expectation and they taught the Early Church to do the same.
Here's a difficult question some theologians dance around with the skill of Fred Astaire. Were the disciples deluded? Did they mistake Jesus' words meant for a distant generation as being for them? When Jesus said "you" should they have understood "someone else"? Much of the resistance to believing this occurred resides in understanding the signs Jesus said would accompany His coming. We'll look at those in Part 5.
For those who did their homework (okay, and those who are just curious)...
In the most recent post in this series (www.thecrossingchurch.net/pastors-corner/i-dont-have-all-the-answers-and-neither-do-you-part-3), we looked at Isaiah 13 and added two new tools for studying prophecies in Scripture. Hyperbole and time statements. Your homework was to take those tools I'd applied to Isaiah 13 and apply them to Matthew 24. What did you find? Hopefully, you noticed Jesus' statement “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken." (Matt. 24:29) Doesn't that sound really similar to Isaiah's statement "For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine."? The similarity isn't coincidental. Jesus was using well-known hyperbolic language to speak to people about a coming judgment. They were going to be "knocked into next week", if you will. An exaggerated statement to emphasize a point. Prophets used hyperbolic statements to stress the damage that was coming unless the people repented. Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 24 when speaking about the destruction of the Temple and the "end of the age".
Jesus also said in Matthew 24:34, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." There's our time statement. All those things were to happen before the generation of people He was speaking to passed away. There's a time limit on this prophecy and "all these things" Jesus had just listed were to take place within that time period.
Now, some have defined "generation" in this passage to instead mean "race" or "the generation that sees the signs" (a future generation). They will admit that Jesus never means it in that sense any other time He uses the word. Here's a list of every time Jesus stated something about "generation". Ask yourself, who is He talking to? As He spoke to them was He talking about someone else?
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, Matthew 11:16
But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Matthew 12:39
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. Matthew 12:41
The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here. Matthew 12:42
Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” Matthew 12:45
A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed. Matthew 16:4
Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” Matthew 17:17
Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Matthew 23:36
Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Matthew 24:34
But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” Mark 8:12
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38
He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Mark 9:19
Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Mark 13:30
And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? Luke 7:31
Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” Luke 9:41
And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, “This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Luke 11:29
For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. Luke 11:30
The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here. Luke 11:31
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. Luke 11:32
that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, Luke 11:50
from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation. Luke 11:51
Imagine the United States has just been taken over by an invading nation. The enemy came out of nowhere. Of our current 321 million residents, only 12 million are left alive. Those that survived are now slaves of the invaders. The currency has changed. The language has changed. The Statue of Liberty and other national monuments were destroyed and replaced by statues celebrating the new conquerors. We've lost our nation and have been integrated into a brand new world. Our jobs are gone. Our homes are gone. Our children are gone. Our cities were flattened. There is little left to show the United States was ever the great nation that reigned in this land for over 200 years.
Okay. Wipe your tears. We're still okay. Praise the Lord this hasn't been our fate. This was actually the fate of the mighty kingdom of Babylon in 539BC. They were the same mighty nation that had invaded and destroyed Jerusalem a few years earlier and had deported many of them to Babylon (that's why we find Daniel and Esther outside of Israel). God had used Babylon as the agents of His wrath against disobedient Israel. Now, it was Babylon's turn to endure the wrath of God. This time, God would use the Media/Persian Empire as His agents of wrath.
That's history. It's a wrap. But before it all happened, God inspired Isaiah to write about what would happen. You can read the entirety of Isaiah's prophecy in Chapter 13, but let me share a few highlights.
The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.
9 Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
11 “I will punish the world for its evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity;
13 Therefore I will shake the heavens,
And the earth will move out of her place,
In the wrath of the Lord of hosts
And in the day of His fierce anger.
17 “Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them,
Who will not regard silver;
And as for gold, they will not delight in it.
19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride,
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be settled from generation to generation;
Her time is near to come,
And her days will not be prolonged.”
Many respected Bible teachers believe that this is still future for fairly obvious reasons. The stars have never stopped twinkling, though Isaiah said they would. The Earth has never moved out of its orbit. Babylon was immediately inhabited by the Medes/Persians that conquered them even though this passage said "it will never be inhabited". So, even though Babylon was conquered by the Medes in 539BC, many people see this passage as unfulfilled. Yes, that means the Medes must rise up again to conquer Babylon. Two non-existing nations must reappear and re-enact ancient history. This time, under a much darker sky.
Let me introduce some major players in the interpretation of prophecy. Hyperbole and time statements. MAJOR players. In fact, there's no bigger player in history than hyperbole. It can out-hit Babe Ruth, out-dunk Michael Jordan, and out-talk Rush Limbaugh. It's huge. Monstrous. There's absolutely nothing as amazing as hyperbole.
Okay, see my point? Hyperbole is often used in the Scriptures to emphasize a point. Hyperbole is something Jesus was comfortable using.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Does Jesus really want His followers to hate their family members? I'd say not. But, He used hyperbole to make His point that followers must be willing to put Him first. That part is for sure. Jesus wants our loyalty. Hating family members? Try teaching your 12 year-old that wants to get baptized that they'd better first make sure they hate you and their siblings. Awkward!
A boxer tells his opponent that he's "about to knock him into next week". Anyone want to claim that to be a literal statement? Of course, not. We recognize hyperbole in everyday speech. We also need to recognize it when we read it in Scripture.
Hyperbole helps to make a point. In this case, the Babylonians would be so wiped out by the Medes that it would be as though the universe completely fell apart. The Medes would "knock them into next week", if you will. The decimation would be so intense it would be as though no one would or even could live in that stretch of land again. This is prophetic language and the sooner we recognize its place in Scripture, the better understanding we can have of prophecies and the fewer sandwich boards reading "the end of the world is here!" will be worn on street corners.
Okay. Let's say you think I'm wrong about the use of hyperbole. God said the earth would be moved out of place when the Babylonians were destroyed by the Medes and He meant that. He must be taken literally. Alright. Let's go with that. So, since those things didn't happen literally, the passage must not be fulfilled. Alrighty then. If we want to keep things "literal", let's be sure to be consistent and be literal about the end of the passage also which reads:
"Her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged.”
I doubt anyone would want to say that waiting over 2500 years is a literal understanding of "her days will not be prolonged". Let's say your bank made an error in your favor (yeah, just like in Monopoly) and they now owe you $100. You get a letter from them noting their error which finishes by stating "your repayment will not be prolonged". A year passes. A decade passes. You pass. 2500 years pass. Are they anywhere close to keeping their word that your payment would not be prolonged? I'd say more than a month would be prolonged in this case.
Time statements are one of the keys to prophecy. For instance, the Book of Revelation is full of mysterious beasts and whores (I smell a new HBO series!). Even with all its mysteries, we are from the beginning of the letter, given time statements which are the key to sorting out at least when the beasts and whores should show up, whoever they are.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants--things which must shortly take place. (Revelation 1:1)
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)
Let's say you've sorted out the mysteries of Revelation. You may have deciphered the number of the beast and narrowed down the option to one of two current presidential candidates. You may have determined that the "Whore of Babylon" refers to Great Britain and their unfaithfulness to the European Union. The Great Whore of Brexit! Okay. But you've done all that work outside the given time limits of the prophecy. Time statement s are huge and we don't want to miss them. Prophecies are usually given some notion of time so that the reader has an idea of when to anticipate the coming disaster.
Saying that the United States will be invaded isn't really prophetic. Anyone could say that. Saying the United States will be invaded soon by Luxembourg starts to sound like a prophetic statement. Or perhaps that it's time to up your meds.
In the case of Isaiah 13, we are told of Babylon that "Her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged.” That rules out something happening 2500 years down the road. To say "near to come" and "not be prolonged" could really mean over 2500 years, the words become pointless. It would not only be pointless, but deceptive, to give such a description of something that wouldn't occur for over 2500 years. So, regardless of the hyperbolic descriptions that never literally occurred in the heavens, something had to have happened in the near future of the ink drying on Isaiah's parchment paper.
So, I now encourage you to take these tools and apply them to Matthew 24. Search for any time statements. If there are any, what do they reveal? Search for anything sounding hyperbolic. Clue: I think you'll find similar language to what we just read in Isaiah 13. Very similar. You do your homework and I'll do the same and we'll meet up for Part 4 of this series. Have fun!
Dave became the Senior Pastor in April 2015 at TCC after serving as the Director of Children's and Praise Ministries for 9 years. He graduated in 2011 from A.W. Tozer Seminary with a Masters in Christian Leadership. He and his wife, Katie, live in Sequim with their 6 children, 2 dogs, 15 chickens, and 50,000 honeybees.
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