In our first post in this series, we looked at nine purposes for Christ’s return—nine things he will do when he comes (see below for a summary). Then in the next post, we began to look at Matthew 24, which is Jesus’ longest discourse on the end of the age and his return. We focused on his commands to his disciples that they might be prepared for his coming. In this post, we’ll look at Matthew 24 again, but instead focusing on the sequence of events outlined by Christ. Let’s do a quick review of what we’ve covered previously.
First of all, we need to understand what the term “end of the age” refers to. Jesus identified the end of the age as the time of separation of the good and the bad, the righteous and the wicked.
Matthew 13:47–50 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
John the Baptist spoke about Jesus as the one who would separate people, like a farmer separates the wheat from the chaff—the good grain from the useless husks.
Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Jesus also identified the end of the age as how long he would be with his disciples as we make disciples of the nations.
Matthew 28:18–20 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In other words, our task is not finished until the end of the age, when Jesus physically returns as judge.
The Olivet Discourse
In Matthew 24, Jesus’ longest discourse on his return, he told his disciples what they must do to prepare for the end times and his return.
- Don’t Be Deceived
- Don’t Be Alarmed
- Prepare for Persecution
- Proclaim the Gospel
- Know Your Bible
- Only Follow Jesus
In this post, we’ll be going through Matthew 24 again, only more slowly and chronologically, to see what the actual signs are that Jesus pointed to as signs of his return and what the events will be that will lead up to the end of the age and his return.
After Jesus prophesied the impending destruction of the Jerusalem temple in chapter 23, his disciples asked him some questions.
Matthew 24:3 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?”
Mark 13 tells us that this was a private conversation between Jesus and his four closest disciples: Peter, James, John, and Andrew. These are not Jesus’ words to the crowds following him or to the Jewish leadership, but a private conversation with his closest friends and followers. This teaching is for the future leaders of Christ’s church. These instructions have been passed down to us. They are for you and for me, and for every generation of believers since the first century—that we might be ready and prepared if these events should begin to come to pass in our lifetime.
The Order of Events
So, let’s dig into Jesus’ answer to the questions the disciples asked.
Matthew 24:4–8 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”
Beginning Birth Pains
So, the first events Jesus speaks of are false Christs, wars, famines, and earthquakes. Jesus called these things the beginning of birth pains.
Even in the first century there were false Messiahs, and there have been through the centuries, even right up to our own time. There have always been wars and nation fighting against nation. And this will continue until the end. There are famines every year, whether natural famines due to drought or disease, or man-caused famines due to wars or poor distribution of food. And earthquakes happen every year—small ones, and sometimes very large, devastating ones.
But Jesus said that these things are NOT the sign of the end. He said, don’t be alarmed when you see these things—the end is not yet. These are those early contractions that a pregnant woman feels. They are part of living in a sin-cursed world that no longer operates the way it should.
In Romans 8, the apostle Paul talks about this world being in travail, waiting to give birth:
Roman 8:19–23 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Paul says that the creation is groaning in the pains of childbirth—and that was 2,000 years ago. That’s one long labor! This is why we have devastating hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. Creation has been subjected by God to corruption and futility—because of sin. Not personal sins or national sins, but because of Adam’s sin in the garden.
Listen, God is not in the business of bringing tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes as specific judgments on people or nations. In the Old Testament he did bring a flood on the entire world because of their great wickedness, and only Noah was found righteous. He also brought fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah. But before this judgment, God said that if there were even 10 righteous people in the city, he would spare it.
I’ve read recently of people claiming that these recent hurricanes are God’s judgment on America. That’s just plain wrong. Aren’t there more than 10 real Christians in Houston or South Florida? These natural disasters don’t hit certain states or countries because those people are any worse sinners than the rest of us. They are part of living in a sin-cursed world.
In Luke 13, Jesus commented on a tower that had fallen and killed 18 people. Jesus said it was not because they were worse sinners than anyone else, but instead it was a reminder to all of us to repent because one day we all will perish.
Creation itself is waiting, longing, and groaning to be set free from its corruption. And we, too, groan inwardly, Paul says, as wait eagerly for our final redemption. And that will happen when Christ returns. And so we hope, and wait, and groan, and long for his return.
Are you longing for his return? Do you want wars and famine and earthquakes and hurricanes to end? I know I do. That is our hope.
The Hard Labor (Great Tribulation)
Next, beginning in verse 9 Jesus begins to speak about events of the end of the age. Verses 9–14 are an overview of this time painted in broad strokes, and then starting in verse 15, Jesus goes into more details.
Matthew 24:9–10 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.”
Now, Jesus gets to answering the disciples’ question. Notice Jesus says “then.” So, after the birth pains of wars and famines and earthquakes will come the hard labor. Just before the end of the age and his return, Jesus says that his followers will be delivered over to tribulation, to persecution, and to death. They will be hated by all nations. Why? “For my name’s sake.” Jesus says it is because we identify with and proclaim the name of Christ that we will be hated. This hatred and persecution began in Israel in the first century, and expanded throughout the Roman Empire in the decades following. Today, believers are hated and persecuted and killed in many countries. But a day is coming, Jesus says, when his followers will be hated by “all nations.”
It’s a false gospel that says, “Come to Jesus and all your problems will go away. Come to Jesus and you can have your best life now.” Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus says, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
The Falling Away
Look what Jesus says will happen when the tribulation and persecution intensifies? Verse 10— “And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.” Who is falling away, and what are they falling away from? The only thing I can see that fits the context is that many of those who claim to follow Jesus, many of those identified with the church, when the persecution intensifies, will fall away; they will depart; they will apostatize from the faith. These are most likely those who followed Jesus for the wrong reasons, who believed a false gospel. Their departure during this great time of persecution will demonstrate that they never were truly Christ’s.
In the book of 1 John, John writes this about those who had left the church, who had defected from the faith:
1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
Their departure made it plain who they really were.
We do people a great disservice when we offer them a therapeutic gospel, a Jesus who is there to make them happy or to solve their problems or to meet their felt needs.
So, if not that, what do we have to offer the world? Why follow Christ if it might bring tribulation and persecution? We preach the gospel because Jesus is the only hope of eternal life. He is the only way to the Father. He is the only solution to mankind’s sin problem, the only way to be reconciled with God, the only way to be kept safe from God’s judgment.
When we present the gospel to our family, our friends, and our neighbors, we must get to the heart of the problem that Jesus came to solve—our alienation from God; that we are rebellious sinners headed for hell except for the mercy and grace of God shown in Christ. Our hope is not in this life—not in physical health or world peace or economic stability or political victory—it’s in Jesus and his coming kingdom.
Matthew 24:11–13 “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Next, Jesus speaks of false prophets that will lead many astray. There will be an increase in lawlessness and a decrease in love. These will be trying times—times that try men’s souls, to use Thomas Paine’s words. But Jesus says that the one who endures to the end will be saved.
What does that mean? I thought we were saved by grace through faith. Is Jesus teaching some kind of works salvation. Not at all. The Greek word for saved here is sozo. It means to save or to deliver. Depending on context, it can mean spiritual salvation or physical deliverance.
When Peter was walking on the water and began to sink, he cried out: “Lord, save me!” This is the same word used here. Peter wasn’t crying out for spiritual salvation, but physical deliverance. Jesus says that those who endure and persevere to the end—to the day of his coming—will be delivered from the tribulation and persecution.
And then in verse 14, Jesus says, (Matthew 24:14) “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
We are to be about proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom is the good news that in Jesus, God’s kingly power and authority has broken into the world like never before: he is ruling in a new way to save his people from their sins and deliver them from their enemies and reveal his glory and establish peace and righteousness in the earth.
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom at his first coming through his perfect life, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection. The King died for his subjects. And he is continuing to build his kingdom now through his church. And he will consummate the kingdom at his Second Coming, when he will return as King of kings and Lord of lords. He will destroy all who oppose his rule and set up an eternal kingdom. That is the message that we are to take to the nations.
The Great Tribulation
Now, starting in verse 15, Jesus goes into detail about this time of tribulation and persecution.
Matthew 24:15–22 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
Jesus says that there will come something called “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place.” And it is this event that will launch the great tribulation. So, let’s go to Daniel to try to understand what he’s talking about.
Daniel 9 speaks of the abomination of desolation. And more than that, it gives a prophetic overview of the end times. So, let’s look at it. First some context.
Daniel is in Babylon and has been confessing his sin and the sin of his people and praying about the future of his people, who were in captivity, and their holy city, Jerusalem, which lay in ruins. In response to his prayer, God dispatched the angel Gabriel to give Daniel a prophecy of the future. Here’s what Gabriel said.
Daniel 9:24–27 ““Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
The angel Gabriel gave Daniel a very specific sequence of future events. He spoke of seventy “sevens” that were decreed for the Jewish people and Jerusalem. A “seven” is a period of seven years. So, this prophecy is often called the 490-year prophecy. We won’t look at all the mathematical calculations, but know that these things were fulfilled exactly as Gabriel said they would be.
There are a number of specific events in this prophecy that were to come to pass:
- A decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem
- The city rebuilt
- The coming of the Anointed One (Messiah)
- The death of the Anointed One
- The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple
- Wars and desolations to continue
- A seven-year covenant
- An end to temple sacrifices and offerings after 3.5 years
- The abomination of desolation
- The destruction of the desolator
Daniel received this vision in 538 BC. Here are the historical fulfillments of the first five of these prophecies, at least according to a number of biblical historians and chronologists:
- A decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem – 445 BC (Nehemiah 2)
- Jerusalem rebuilt – 396 BC
- The coming of the Anointed One (Messiah) – AD 30 (The Triumphal Entry, Luke 19:41–44)
- The death of the Anointed One (Messiah) – AD 30
- The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple – AD 70
Each of these fulfillments fits exactly the timeline outlined by Gabriel. This prophecy in Daniel 9 is one of the greatest confirmations of the supernatural nature of Scripture and the accuracy of God’s Word. For much more detail on this prophecy and its fulfillment, see this article.
In 445 BC, King Artaxerxes gave a decree allowing Nehemiah and others to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. This took 49 years to accomplish until it was fully restored. This is the first “seven” of the prophecy. Then Gabriel says that it will be another 62 “sevens” until the coming of the Messiah. Jesus arrived right on schedule, to the day. It was exactly 173,880 days after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem that Jesus came to Jerusalem riding on a colt hailed as the Messiah. But they would not receive their Messiah. Instead, five days later they crucified him. Forty years later, the Roman armies came and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, just as Daniel and Jesus had prophesied.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Gabriel said that “war will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.” And that’s what we have now in the intervening period—a gap of nearly 2,000 years. Here are the remaining five prophecies yet to be fulfilled.
- Wars and desolations to continue – (70 AD to present)
- A seven-year covenant
- An end to temple sacrifices and offerings after 3.5 years
- The abomination of desolation
- The destruction of the desolator
In the future, there will be a seven-year covenant or treaty signed. The Jewish temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices and offerings will be reestablished. After three and a half years, the sacrifices and offerings will be stopped and a man will set up what is called the abomination of desolation, which is an idol in the temple—a desecration of the temple—and he will demand the world’s worship. Both Second Thessalonians and the book of Revelation speak about this time.
It is at this time that Jesus says: “then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
We’ve gone from beginning birth pains to the hard labor—what Jesus called the Great Tribulation. This man—the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness, the beast of Revelation—will persecute God’s people, both Jew and Christian. Jesus says that these will be unparalleled days of tribulation—such as the world has never seen. But those days will be cut short for the sake of God’s elect. They will be cut short by Jesus’ glorious return.
Delivery: The Glorious Return
Matthew 24:29–31 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
There will be signs in the heavens—the sun and moon and stars going dark. And then will appear the Son of Man, and all the peoples of earth will see him coming and they will mourn. Jesus will then send forth his angels to gather together his elect. What a day that will be! Here’s what Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 21.
Luke 21:25–28 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Just before Jesus returns, the world will be in panic; they will be fainting with fear and seeking to hide from God’s wrath. But when we see these things happen, we are to raise our heads for our redemption is near!
So, here’s the order of future end-time events according to Jesus:
- Beginning birth pains
- Abomination of desolation
- Great tribulation
- Celestial disturbances
- Coming of the Son of Man
- Gathering together of God’s elect
Are you ready for that day? Are you prepared? I hope so.
In our next post, we’ll begin to examine Paul’s teachings on the end times. And we’ll see that his teaching accords with that of the Lord Jesus. Would we expect anything else from God’s holy, inspired Word?