Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age — Part III: Signs of the End of the Age
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
Having completed in Matthew 24:4-14 the itemization of the nine signs which will be fulfilled in the present age in general and which will be especially characteristic of the end of the age, Christ now gives specific signs, answering the disciples’ original question. They had asked for the sign of the end of the age and of His coming into His kingdom.
In the interpretation of this passage as in many other prophetic portions, one is faced with the tendency, especially in liberal scholarship, of considering prophecy as actually already history when written and, therefore, not subject to future fulfillment. An outstanding illustration of this is the critical interpretation of the entire book of Daniel. Critics have attempted to prove Daniel a forgery written in the second century instead of the sixth century B.C., and thereby escape the force of the detailed prophecy given by Daniel.
This tendency to explain away prophecy has also extended to interpretations of the Olivet Discourse. Even some evangelical expositors have been influenced by liberal scholars to interpret the Olivet Discourse as fulfilled in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is given credence by the fact that the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem is a part of this prophetic utterance and is included specifically in Luke’s account (Luke 21:20-24). As in all such attempts, however, the discounting of factual predictions of the future involves neglect of the particular exegesis of the passage as there is nothing in history that really corresponds to what is here described in the Gospel of Matthew. Although there is some similarity between the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate conflict preceding the second coming of Christ, there are many distinguishing particulars.
As pointed out in a previous discussion, such an author as G. Campbell Morgan, for instance, finds fulfillment of Matthew 24:6-22 in the fall of Jerusalem1 and Alfred Plummer goes even further to find the fulfillment of the second coming in Matthew 24:15-28 as occurring at the destruction of Jerusalem.2 It is significant that in both cases there is an avoidance of any specific exegesis of the details of the prophecy. Morgan passes over the central statements with almost no mention and Plummer avoids discussion concerning the possibility of the second coming of Christ being fulfilled in A.D. 70. If the second coming is still future, so are the preceding signs.
In the revelation of Matthew 24:15-31, there is obviously a declaration of the immediate signs preceding the second coming of Christ and culminating in the glorious return of Christ to the earth. This is the way it is also presented in Daniel’s prophecy. In the book of Revelation, which practically all expositors agree was written after A.D. 70, there is another prophetic declaration of a future second coming. Certainly none of the divine judgments and other events related to the second coming of Christ took place in A.D. 70, and to hold the position of Plummer or even that of Morgan involves a flagrant spiritualization of the details of this passage as well as ignoring the total content of Scripture relating to the second coming of Christ.
The fact is that the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, but was not preceded by any abomination or desecration such as Daniel relates to the second coming of Christ. In the future conflict relating to the second coming of Christ, it also seems to be clear that at that time neither the city nor the temple are destroyed, and thus the two situations stand in sharp contrast. As Kelly expresses it, “The conclusion is clear and certain: in verse 15 of Matthew 24 our Lord alludes to that part of Daniel which is yet future, not to what was history when He spoke this on the mount of Olives.”3 Further detail will bear out the importance of considering the predictions of Matthew 24:15-31 as still future from the viewpoint of the twentieth century, and as being directly related to the disciples’ questions concerning a specific sign of the end of the age and of the second coming of Christ.
With the age as a whole described generally in the preceding passage, attention is now focused on the climax of the age. It is understandable that the disciples did not anticipate the length of the present age, and it is probable that they assumed that any absence of the Messiah and His return would occur in their own lifetime. At this time they did not have clear revelation concerning the interadvent age, although Christ had given them prophecy on this point in Matthew 13.
The Sign of the Abomination of Desolation
Speaking to the disciples as representatives of especially the Jewish nation in the time of the end, Jesus begins in verse 15 to give them the specific sign of the end of the age which is the great tribulation (Matt 24:21). He said to His disciples, “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains” (Matt 24:15-16). Here He is predicting a specific event so clear and so obvious that it will serve as a signal to Israel to flee to the mountains. The event will not be something vague, but it is identified as a prophetic event predicted by Daniel the prophet who called it “the abomination of desolation.”
Jesus Christ did not share the opinion of liberal critics that the book of Daniel is a forgery written by a second century writer. He staked His own integrity on the fact that Daniel the prophet who wrote the book of Daniel was a genuine prophet. He builds His own prophecy of the end time upon what Daniel wrote when He used the expression “the abomination of desolation,” which occurs three times in various forms in Daniel (9:27 ; 11:31 ; 12:11 ).
In Daniel 11:31, a prophecy was written by Daniel in the sixth century B.C. about a future Syrian ruler by name of Antiochus Epiphanes who reigned over Syria 175-164 B.C., about 400 years after Daniel. History, of course, has recorded the reign of this man. In verse 31 , Daniel prophesied his activity: “…they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate.” This would be very difficult to understand if it were not for the fact that it has already been fulfilled. Anyone can go back to the history of Antiochus Epiphanes and discover what he did as recorded in the apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. He was a great persecutor of the children of Israel and did his best to stamp out the Jewish religion and wanted to place in its stead a worship of Greek pagan gods. He killed tens of thousands of Israelites who resisted him, including women and children. He was utterly cruel, and his cruelty helped to precipitate the Maccabean revolt, one of the bloodiest revolts in the history of Israel.
One of the things he did was to stop animal sacrifices in the temple. He offered a sow, an unclean animal, on the altar in a deliberate attempt to desecrate and render it unholy for Jewish worship (cf. 1 Macc. 1:48). First Maccabees 1:54 specifically records that the abomination of desolation was set up, fulfilling Daniel 11:31. In the holy of holies Antiochus set up a statue of a Greek god. This, of course, aroused violent antagonism on the part of the Jews and resulted in thousands of them being killed. In keeping with the prophecy the daily sacrifices were stopped, the sanctuary was polluted, desolated and made an abomination.
In Daniel 9:27 a similar act is predicted as occurring in the future in the middle of the last seven years that lead up to the second coming of Christ. According to Daniel 9:27 “…he [the prince that shall come] shall confirm the covenant with many [Israel] for one week” (literally “one seven,” meaning seven years, as practically all commentators agree), “and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate.” In other words, the future prince will do at that time exactly what Antiochus did in the second century B.C.
In Daniel 12:11, the precise chronology is given: “And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days,” that is, one thousand and two hundred and ninety days until the second coming of Christ. This again is approximately three-and-a-half years with a few days added to it. These statements in the book of Daniel are plain that approximately three-and-a-half years before the second coming of Christ the Jewish sacrifices will be stopped and an abomination or a desecration of the Jewish temple will be committed. As H. A. Ironside expresses it, “Our Lord tells us definitely here that His second advent is to follow at once upon the close of that time of trouble; so it is evident that this day of trial is yet in the future.”4 “Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house; neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes” (Matt 24:17-18). In other words, absolute haste is necessary. They are not to hesitate for anything because it seems clear that the same person, this dictator of the Middle East who has been Israel’s protector up to this point, now becomes their savage persecutor even unto death. They are to flee for their lives in the hope that they can live in hiding until that time when Christ will come back and deliver those who survive.
He also tells them in verse 19 , “Woe unto them that are with child,” or who nurse children in those days. Obviously it would be very difficult for them to leave the comforts of home and flee to the mountains. In verse 20 He warns them, “But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day.” There can be snow in Jerusalem in winter when it would be difficult to leave the comforts of home. The sabbath day, of course, is a day when Jews do not travel, and if they have to flee on the sabbath day their flight will be very obvious. It would be very easy to arrest them.
Then He concludes with verses 21-22 , “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” The declaration that the days shall be shortened does not mean that it will be less than three-and-a-half years because the chronology is quite specific, but shortened in the sense that it is terminated or cut off (ἐκολοβώθησαν). If this time of trouble were extended indefinitely, so severe are the terrible catastrophies of that period of great tribulation that Christ says it would have resulted in the total extermination of everyone living in the world. It is to stop this process that Christ returns to the earth.
The judgments described in the book of Revelation show that Christ meant exactly what He said. The various judgments in the book of Revelation are of great severity. The fourth seal, for instance (Rev 6:7-8), is said to kill a fourth part of the earth’s population. The sixth trumpet (Rev 9:13-21) speaks of a third of the world’s population being destroyed. These two judgments alone would account for half of the world’s population: 25% reduces it to 75%; a third of the remainder would reduce it to 50%. These are only part of the terrible judgments which will overtake the world. Catastrophe after catastrophe occur in the world. The final great world war (Rev 16:12-16) unquestionably kills millions more as the age comes to its close. false prophet. However, because it refers to these imposters in the plural, apparently there will be other false leaders.6 These false leaders will do all they can to deceive people and keep them from following Christ by performing miracles by Satanic power.
Christ warns them, “I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not” (Matt 24:25-26). Why not? Because His second coming will be a very public event. Everybody will see Him. The rapture of the church may be an event that is quite unseen by the world. Although the Bible never calls it a secret rapture because it is not a secret at least to Christians, it will take place very quickly. First Corinthians 15:52 speaks of the rapture as taking place “in the twinkling of an eye.” The world possibly will only be dimly aware that something has happened until it is all over.
The second coming of Christ to the earth is quite a different event. According to Matthew 24:27, it will be a glorious event: “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” Lightning is something that everybody can see, and the glory of the Lord will illuminate the heavens with brilliant light just as lightning illuminates the heavens in a storm. According to Revelation 1:7, “Every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.”
A cryptic statement is made in Matthew 24:28, “For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” What does this mean? When a body dies, the vultures come. Where there is wickedness and moral corruption, judgment must come. It is a natural sequence to the blasphemy and unbelief which characterizes the great tribulation period.
The Sign of the Glory in the Heavens
In verse 29 a more detailed description is given of the second coming. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” This is the climactic display of divine power described as beginning earlier in Revelation 6:12-14: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” These prophecies are literal events and some of the signs preceding the second coming.
The great climax, the second coming of Christ itself, follows: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30). The context refers to signs that precede His coming—the great tribulation, stars falling from heaven, multiplied false Christs who will characterize this period. But now, the sign. What is this sign?
Commentators make this reference to the sign unnecessarily difficult when a simple answer is the best. The sign to conclude all the preceding signs is the blaze of glory in the heavens when Jesus Christ comes back from heaven. The whole world will see His glory. Every eye will see Him (Rev 1:7). It will be a universal revelation. While there will be clouds and the sun and the moon may be blotted out temporarily, the heavens will become alive with the brilliant glory, brighter than the light of day when Jesus Christ comes back in power and great glory.
A very graphic picture of this is given in Revelation 19:11-16. The last book of the Bible has as its main subject the second coming and the revelation of Jesus Christ when He comes. The first eighteen chapters lead up to it and describe the period, especially the great tribulation which anticipates the second coming. Chapter 20 describes the millennium, the period following the second coming. Revelation 21 and 22 reveal the eternal state which will follow the millennium. But chapter 19 , the second coming, is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the great climax of the book of Revelation.
When Christ returns, it will be too late for those who were not ready for His coming. The Bible reveals plainly that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus Christ as Lord (Isa 45:23; Rom 14:11; Phil 2:9-11; Rev 5:13). But it will be too late for those who have not confessed Him before His coming. Although God is a long-suffering God, not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9), there comes a time when even a long-suffering God does not wait. This is brought out in Matthew 24 and 25 .
The second coming of Christ will come in God’s appointed time. When He came the first time, prophecy was literally fulfilled. He was born of the virgin, of the line of David, in Bethlehem. He was
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the Immanuel, God with us, both God and man. These great prophecies were completely fulfilled in Christ. So when He comes again prophecy will be fulfilled. This time He will not come as a babe in a manger but as King of kings and Lord of lords. The graphic account of Revelation 19:11-16 describes the majestic armies of heaven, millions of saints and angels attending Christ as He comes from heaven to claim the earth which is His right to rule, the earth bought with His blood, created by His power, and now to be made His footstool, His place of manifesting His sovereignty as He reigns.
Some have raised the question how everyone will see the second coming of Christ. They point to the problem that the earth is round. The Scriptures reveal that Christ will come to the Mount of Olives (Zech 14:1-4). How is He going to be seen in the United States? Because the earth is round, will only half of the earth see this event? Of course, modern technology has invented television which now can be telecast around the world, but even in that time not everybody will have a television set. Yet Scripture declares “every eye shall see Him.”
A simple explanation of the problem is probably the best. The rapture is an event that occurs instantly, but there is no reason for the second coming to the earth being an instantaneous event. In fact, the Bible pictures just the opposite. The second coming is a very deliberate, methodical event as millions come from heaven to make earth their abode throughout the millennial reign of Christ. Such a procession involving millions of men and angels should take many hours, and in twenty-four hours the earth would make a complete revolution. Accordingly, everybody will have a ringside seat.
A number of modern restaurants have been built at the top of a tower or high building and situated on a revolving platform. In the course of an hour, one gets the whole panorama as the entire room keeps turning very gradually. So it will be when Christ comes back. As the earth turns, every eye will see Him descending to earth.
But the Scripture says, “…then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn” (Matt 24:30b). There will be those in Israel and among the Gentiles who will have turned to Christ during this time of tribulation. Some of these will have escaped martyrdom and will be living when this event takes place on the earth. They will welcome Christ’s return. It is, nevertheless, true that the great majority of the world will have worshipped the beast, the world ruler. They will have received the mark of the beast, blasphemed the name of Christ and spurned His grace. Now their hour of judgment has come. There is no grace for those who have continually spurned grace.
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The second coming is not only a time of judgment on the wicked, but it is also a time of reward and gathering for the saints of God. In verse 31 it is revealed, “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Mark expressed it “from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven” (Mark 13:27). This is the gathering of all the saints. Some have taken the “elect” as referring only to Israel (cf. Ezek 20:33-38),7 but other Scriptures indicate the gathering of all the saints of all classifications (Matt 25:31-46). The purpose of the gathering is to assemble all saints for the millennial reign on the earth. This is not the rapture as the rapture has an entirely different purpose—to take the church out of the world. The gathering here is for the purpose of joining with Christ in His reign in the earth in the millennial time.
In this dramatic revelation Christ answered the question, “What is the sign of thy coming and of the end of the age?” He answered it very specifically. He also described the age in general—the things that will characterize the age and grow worse as the age progresses. But the sign is the great tribulation beginning with the abomination of desolation, the desecration of the Jewish temple and the persecution of Israel. Then the other events and signs will follow, climaxing with the final sign when the heavens break open with the glory of God.
Christ will come in fulfillment of His promise given by the angels in Acts 1:11, “This same Jesus…shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” In the ascension He went to heaven bodily. He is coming back bodily. He went gradually; they watched Him. He is coming back majestically and they will be able to watch Him. He went with clouds, and when He comes back He will come with clouds. He went visibly, and when He returns every eye will see Him.
Taken as a whole, the events which Christ describes leading up to and climaxing in His second coming will be unmistakable when they occur. While Christians today may anticipate the imminent coming of Christ in the rapture, it is obvious that the second coming to the earth cannot be fulfilled until the preceding events have come to pass.
With these words, Christ brings to a close the first doctrinal section in which He predicted events to come. There follows a series of illustrations and applications as the theological truth is related to practical considerations for all those who await His coming.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929), p. 286.
2 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew (London, 1909), p. 332.
3 William Kelly, Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, n.d.), p. 442.
4 H. A. Tronside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1948), p. 322.
6 Cf. A. C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew (New York, 1910), II, 205-6.
7 Cf. Gaebelein, II, 211-12.