All posts by Dick Lentz

Three things that must happen before Jesus returns – Matthew 23:37-39; Matthew 24:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:3

Although there are many things that will occur before Jesus returns, there are three that must occur. 

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)

In a previous post titled “Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone,” I discussed my understanding of Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 and the reason for my conclusion that Jesus’ return – His second coming – will be visible to everyone – that “all will mourn when they see Him coming on the clouds” (Matthew 24:30). In a subsequent post titled, “Those ‘taken’ when Jesus returns may not be Christians,” I pointed out how my understanding of Matthew 24:36 — 25:46 has led me to conclude that what follows Jesus’ return will result in immediate, dire, and permanent consequences for those unprepared, that those “taken” (or as translated in Luke 17:26-27, those “destroyed”) when Jesus returns will be unbelievers (those who have not put their trust in Christ), and that those “left” or “left behind” will be Christians.

There has been lots of speculation over the years about what signs will indicate that the return of Jesus is imminent and that the final set of end time events are about to occur. Although Scripture does tell us some things that will occur before Jesus returns (for example, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7), as I see it today, there are only three things that Scripture says must occur before Jesus returns :

  • The Jews must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (Matthew 23:37-39).
  • The Gospel must be preached to all the nations (Matthew 24:14).
  • The man of lawlessness must be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3).

In the sections below, I will provide my understanding of the passages above and how I think the prophecies in them will be fulfilled.

The Jews must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord  

After Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week He was to be crucified, He spent some time talking on the Temple Mount to those who had gathered there to celebrate Passover. Some of Jesus’ harshest words while there were reserved for teachers of the law and Pharisees who were hostile towards Him (Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus called them hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs, and snakes – a “brood of vipers” who killed or flogged the “prophets and sages and teachers” sent to them (vs. 33-34). Jesus then said this:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39). 

Because of their rejection of Him and the prophets that preceded Him, Jesus said that their house would be left desolate.

Then, after leaving the temple area, Jesus told His disciples that the temple was going to be destroyed – that not one stone would be left upon another (Matthew 24:1-2). The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and I believe it was this event that Jesus was referring to when He said that their house would be left desolate and not one stone would be left upon another. Furthermore, since the account of Jesus’ second coming in Matthew 24:30 and the verses that follow seem to be referring to the only time Jesus returns, then what Jesus said would happen at that time was not going to occur until they, the Jews, acknowledge that He is Lord.

But does Scripture tell us what events might trigger the Jews’ acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord and what happens when they do? I believe that it does – in the prophecies recorded in the book of Zechariah.

Zechariah prophesied beginning around 520 B.C. during the time when the temple was being rebuilt by the Jews following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. One of God’s goals when He spoke to the Jews through Zechariah was to encourage them to keep on with the task of rebuilding God’s house – His temple – in spite of the difficulties they encountered in doing so. God also told them about a time when He was going to provide a means for their spiritual redemption – a time when someone called “The Branch” would “remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:8-9), a prophecy that I believe was fulfilled when Jesus was crucified.

Zechariah 12 provides a glimpse of what was going to happen to the Jews in what was in their future at that time and undoubtedly still is in ours. Here are the first five verses:

1 The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: 2 “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. 3 On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. 4 On that day I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness,” declares the Lord. “I will keep a watchful eye over Judah, but I will blind all the horses of the nations. 5 Then the clans of Judah will say in their hearts, ‘The people of Jerusalem are strong, because the Lord Almighty is their God’” (Zechariah 12:1-5).

This passage seems to be describing a time when the Jews will be surrounded by enemies that are bent on their destruction. The Jews’ enemies will be unable to destroy them however but will end up harming themselves when they attempt to. As a consequence of this, the Jews will recognize that they are being protected – that they are strong – “because the Lord Almighty is their God” (vs. 5).

Zechariah 12 continues by describing more of what will happen on that day:

6 “On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume all the surrounding peoples right and left, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place.

“The Lord will save the dwellings of Judah first, so that the honor of the house of David and of Jerusalem’s inhabitants may not be greater than that of Judah. 8 On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord going before them. On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem” (Zechariah 12:6-9).

These verses seem to be indicating that God will not just protect the Jews from their enemies; there will come a time when God will give the Jews the ability to defeat their enemies – a time when He sets out to “destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem” (vs. 9).

Zechariah 12 then describes how the Jews will respond when God defeats their enemies:

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives” (Zechariah 12:10-14).

These verses seem to be describing a spiritual awakening that takes place among the Jews after they are physically saved by God from those who are attempting to destroy them. It’s at this point that they realize that by demanding that Jesus be crucified centuries earlier that they pierced their messiah, the One who by grace is now saving them. It’s at this point that they perhaps say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a conclusion that seems to be confirmed in these verses:

9 … I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Zechariah 13:9).

It’s interesting to note the emphasis in Zechariah 12:10-14 on the grieving, weeping, and mourning that takes place when the Jews see Jesus coming to rescue them. This could be part of the cacophony of mourning that takes place when “all the peoples of the earth … mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30). John seems to be making this same conclusion in the opening verses of his revelation regarding the end-times when he recorded this:

 7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen” (Revelation 1:7).

All will mourn when they see Jesus coming in the clouds. I believe this will include those who have made a commitment to Christ and those who have not, Jews and non-Jews alike. The cause of the Jews’ mourning when Jesus returns could be their grief when they recognize the part they played in the death of their messiah. Christians may mourn when they recognize that there will be no more opportunities for them to bring friends or family into a saving relationship with Jesus. Nonbelievers may mourn when they realize that it’s too late for them to make a different choice regarding Jesus and that for them, what follows will be immediate, dire, and permanent.

The Gospel must be preached to all the nations

In response to His disciples’ question about what signs would precede His return (Matthew 24:3), Jesus said this:

14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14). 

Jesus said that He would not return until everyone has an opportunity to hear the Gospel message. Some believe that this prophecy will be fulfilled when the Bible, or at least the New Testament, is translated into every language on earth. Others believe is will be fulfilled when the technical means for communicating the Gospel at a single moment is available everywhere. But note that both these understandings of this prophecy conclude that its fulfillment will come through human efforts.

There is another possibility about who is doing the preaching of the Gospel in this passage that does not require human efforts for its fulfillment. Note what is prophesied in this passage:

6 Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:6-7). 

The proclamation of the Gospel in this passage is done an angel, not by humans, and it occurs immediately before “the hour of judgment” (vs. 7). What’s interesting is what follows after the proclamation of the Gospel by this angel:

14 I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15 Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.  

17 Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” 19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. 20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia (Revelation 14:14-20). 

Note the image in this passage of “one like the son of man” seated on “a white cloud.” I believe that this is describing the same event prophesied in Matthew 24:30, a time when “all the peoples of the earth … see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” I also believe that the reaping and harvesting described in this passage is the same event prophesied Matthew 24:31 when the elect are gathered “from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” And I believe that the judgment that this passage describes as “the great winepress of God’s wrath” is the same judgment described in the parables in Matthew 24:26 — 25:46 culminating in the separation of sheep from goats, a time when “they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

Because of the similarity between the images found in Revelation 14:14-20 and the ones in Matthew 24:30-31 and the verses that follow, I believe that they are describing the same event – the one and only second-coming of Jesus. But if this is so, then why are these images of Jesus’ return in the middle of Revelation rather than at the end? The answer to that question is that that chapters 4 thru 19 of Revelation may not be providing us with a chronological time-line of end-time events. Instead, what these chapters could be providing us with are at least three different narratives of those events each ending with a different representation of what happens when Jesus returns. The first narrative could be chapters 4-11; the second chapters 12-14; the third chapters 15-19. I will elaborate on these divisions in the book of Revelation in a subsequent post. My conclusion regarding this may make more sense once I start discussing how finding the same symbols in different passages can be a clue about which ones may be describing the same events.

By the way, even though it could be an angel and not humans who fulfill the prophecy that the Gospel will be preached to all the nations before Jesus returns, I have no objection to those who feel called to take the Gospel to all nations and who are working hard to do so. That is a commendable and worthwhile pursuit even if the actual fulfillment of Matthew 24:14 will be accomplished through the voices of an angel and not by the hands men.

The man of lawlessness must be revealed

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).

It seems that there were some Christians Paul was ministering to that thought that Jesus had already returned and that they had been left behind. Paul responded by telling them that the end would not come – the Lord would not return – “until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (vs. 3). Paul then said that when the lawless one is revealed that “the Lord Jesus will overthrow [him] with the breath of his mouth and destroy [him] by the splendor of his coming” (vs. 8).

I find this passage difficult to dissect. It’s not clear who the man of lawlessness is, only that his works will “be in accordance with how Satan works” (vs. 9). The passage does say that he will pretend to be God (vs. 4), and that many will buy into this deception (vs. 10). It also indicates that God will send “a powerful delusion” so that the ones who delight in wickedness “will believe the lie” (vs. 11).

There are many beliefs that have cropped up over the years that fit the deception described in these verses. It seems that every generation has been confronted by one or more who claim to be God. Although I don’t know how these lies will be exposed, it does appear that just before Jesus returns that everyone will have a clear understanding who is behind them. Once this is apparent, Jesus will defeat this enemy “with the breath of his mouth.”

Why it matters

4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:4-13). 

There are many things that Jesus says will occur before He returns. The above passages records some of them.There will be “wars and rumors of wars”; there will be “famines and earthquakes in various places”; many “false prophets will appear and deceive many people”; many will “turn away from the faith.” None of these things should alarm us however. They have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. Having an inordinate concern about them may draw our attention away from what matters more.

It seems to me that there are only three events that must occur before Jesus returns. And none of them will be preceded by signs that they are about to occur. We don’t know what conditions will result in the Jews as a whole turning their hearts to Jesus;  we don’t know what circumstances will precede the proclamation of the Gospel to every nation by an angel; we don’t know what will lead to the nature of the man of lawlessness being revealed. And since we don’t know how or when these events will take place, speculation regarding them will for the most part be unprofitable.

Perhaps it’s best in this regard to heed Jesus’ advice. He said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42). He also said, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). One can perhaps best prepare for the return of Jesus not by fruitless speculation about how the events preceding it will unfold but instead by understanding the need for patience, endurance, obedience, perseverance, and faithfulness as we wait for that day.

That is how I see it today.

When Jesus returns, it won’t be Christians who are “taken away” – Matthew 24:36-41

Who those “left behind” when Jesus’ returns will actually be.

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)

In a previous article titled “Jesus’ Return Will Be Visible to Everyone,” I discussed the importance of interpreting Jesus’ discourse about the end times in Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 in light of the two questions His disciples were asking at that time: “When will the temple be destroyed?” and “What will be the signs of your coming?” I asserted that since the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. that this was most likely when the prophecies regarding the destruction of the temple in these passages as well as the one in Daniel 9:25-27 were fulfilled. I also pointed out that Jesus said that His return – His second coming – will be visible to everyone and that all will mourn when they see Him coming in the clouds (Matthew 24:30).

In this article I will provide support for my conclusion that Jesus’ return will be followed by immediate, permanent, and dire consequences for those unprepared for it, and that the “taken” when this happens will be those who do not have a saving relationship with Jesus.

One is taken and one is left

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:36-41).

The first thing to note about the above passage is that it begins with the words, “about that day.” I believe that the “day” it is referring to is the day when Jesus returns – the day when “all the peoples of the earth … see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 24:30). What follows is what I believe are some symbolic representations of this event and what will happen immediately afterwards.

Portions of the above passage are often used to support the belief that when Jesus returns that He will remove all believers from the face of the earth and will leave behind those who don’t believe in Him. This event is commonly referred to as the “Rapture of the Church.” Those who hold to this view often associate believers with the “taken” in the above passage and say that those who are “left” or “left behind” are unbelievers. They then claim that what follows the “Rapture of the Church” will be seven years of tribulation ending with another return of Jesus – another “second coming.”

One of the difficulties I have with the above understanding of this passage is that it requires two second-comings of Jesus: one that is unseen by those “left behind” and another seven years later. But as I noted earlier, it seems clear when reading Matthew 24:30 as well Luke 21:27 that when Jesus returns that everyone will see Him coming in the clouds; it will not be a secret nor will it will be hidden from anyone. If this is so, then either the above passage is referring to the final “second coming” of Jesus or there is only one “second coming” and the verses above as well as the ones that follow are describing what will happen at that time.

A key question about Matthew 24:36-41 is therefore who are the ones “taken” and who are those that are “left.” It should be noted that the word “taken” can have two different meanings in this respect. It can mean to be taken away – to be taken somewhere else. But it can also mean to lose something – to lose one’s life for example. We use the latter meaning when someone dies and we say that they were taken from us or that their life was taken from them.

It’s interesting when trying to understand who the “taken” are in the above passage to note how Luke records the same discourse. Here’s his version:

26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. 27 Then the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-27).

While Matthew said that the “flood came and took them all away” (Matt. 24:39), Luke said that “the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:27). It would not be unreasonable to conclude based on comparing the two versions that to be “taken” means to be “destroyed” and that therefore those who are “taken” in Matthew’s account are unbelievers – those who are not followers of Jesus.

Additional support for the conclusion that those “taken” are unbelievers and the ones “left” or “left behind” are followers of Christ comes from noting Jesus’ use of pronouns when referring to those taken. Jesus said that in the days before the flood that “people were eating and drinking … up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (Matt. 24:38-39). Note that the only “they” in these verses are the “people” who were eating and drinking in the days of Noah. Noah is an individual and the passage doesn’t say that he was taken away; it says that they were taken away. Although some have tried to reconcile this by noting that Noah’s family also entered the ark and that this could be the “they” the passage is referring to, this insertion of Noah’s family into the passage is arbitrary and is not supported by the text.

Although I believe that the above arguments are adequate to support the conclusion that the “taken” in Matthew 24:36-41 are unbelievers and that those “left” or “left behind” are Christians, the parables that follow provide additional support that those “taken” are unbelievers and not Christians and that therefore being among those “taken” is not a good thing.

Some Principles for Interpreting Parables

What follows Matthew 24:36-41 are five parables that describe in symbolic language what will happen when Jesus returns. The first is the parable of the thief (Matthew 24:42-44); the second is the parable of the unfaithful servant (Matthew 24:45-51); the third is the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13); the fourth is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30); the fifth is the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

One principle I use when I see parables grouped in this fashion is to look for what is similar in each and to discount what is not. As I do this, I try not to get so bogged down in the details of the parables that I miss the point the speaker was trying to make. The message in this respect is not found so much in the events described but in the what point is being conveyed through them. I look for what’s common in the parables and use this to help me determine what their combined message may be.

Here are the common elements I’ve found in these five parables:

  1. Each describes some event that happens unexpectedly or without notice.
  2. Each describes a measure that is used to determine the fate of those affected by it.
  3. Each states or implies what happens to those unprepared for the event.
  4. Each states or implies what happens to those prepared for it.

In the sections that follow, I will point out how each of the above elements are in evidence in these five parables.

The Parable of the Thief

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:42-44).         

This parable compares the return of Jesus to a thief coming in the night. What’s interesting is that this picture of Jesus coming as a thief shows up elsewhere in Scripture including in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, and Revelation 16:15. In a future article, I intend to note how looking for where the same symbols (like the thief) show up in different passages can help us understand which ones may be describing the same event. For now I’ll just point out what parts of this parable align with the common elements described earlier:

  1. The Event: A thief comes in the night. No-one knows when he is coming.
  2. The Measure: Keeping watch; being ready.
  3. Those Unprepared: Their house is broken into. What’s implied is that something of value is taken from them.
  4. Those Prepared: Unknown. What’s implied is that their house is not broken into and they lose nothing.

The Parable of the Unfaithful Servant

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:42-51).

This parable describes what happens to a servant who is entrusted with his master’s household while the master is away. Here is what aligns with the common elements described earlier:

  1. The Event: A master who put his household in charge of a servant returns unexpectedly after a long absence.
  2. The Measure: How the servant treated his fellow servants while his master was absent.
  3. Those Unprepared: Cut to pieces and assigned a place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
  4. Those Prepared: Put in charge of all of his master’s possessions.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.    

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’                                            

9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.    

11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’  

13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).

This parable begins with the words, “At that time.” I believe that these words were included to make sure the reader knows it is linked to the event Jesus was referring to in Matthew 24:30 – the time when He returns. In this parable, ten virgins are waiting with lamps for the coming of a bridegroom so that they can attend his wedding banquet. Some have insufficient oil for their lamps and while shopping for more, the bridegroom arrives. Here are the portions of this parable that align with the common elements of the others:

  1. The Event: A bridegroom who was “a long time in coming” shows up without notice.
  2. The Measure: To be ready for his return by having enough oil for their lamps.
  3. Those Unprepared: They were shut out of the wedding banquet and disowned.
  4. Those Prepared: They were welcomed into to the wedding banquet.

I want to add one other observation about this parable before I move onto the next. I noted earlier that when interpreting parables that are grouped like this that I look for what’s common and discount what is not. Since this is the only parable in this group that mentions a wedding, the fact that it does so is not important. In my opinion, it is not describing anything that has to do with what some call the “marriage supper of the Lamb” or the “marriage of the Lamb to His bride.” The message Jesus was trying to convey through this parable is not found in the event itself but in the similarities between it and the other parables it is grouped with.

The Parable of the Talents

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’  

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’          

22 The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’  

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’      

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’      

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.  

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14-30).

This parable describes what happens when a master returns after a long journey. Before the journey, he gave each of servants some wealth (or talents). When he returns, he asks for an accounting from each of his servants regarding what they did with what he gave them. Here are the portions that align with the common elements of the others:

  1. The Event: A master entrusts his servants with different amounts of wealth. After a long absence, he returns.
  2. The Measure: What they did with what he left in their care.
  3. Those Unprepared: They are taken into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
  4. Those Prepared: They are given more.

Like the parable of the ten virgins, I believe that the event described in this passage has little to do with the point Jesus trying to make. In my opinion, it’s not a promise that our gifts will be multiplied if we use them wisely during this life. What’s important is not the event itself but how its message parallels what is being conveyed through the other parables.

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’    

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’      

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’    

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’    

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’        

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’      

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).

This passage begins with the words, “When the Son of Man comes.” Like similar terminology found in the other parables, I believe that this was included to show that it is elaborating on the event described in Matthew 24:30 – Jesus’ return – so that the reader knows it is referring to what will happen after this occurs. Here is what fits the common elements of the other parables:

  1. The Event: The return of Jesus and the final destination of both “sheep” and “goats.”
  2. The Measure: If ones’ actions are aligned with what Jesus considers important.
  3. Those Unprepared: They will be sent away to eternal punishment.
  4. Those Prepared: They will receive eternal life.

I don’t believe that Jesus’ intent when telling this parable was to indicate that our works will be used to determine our eternal destination. We are not saved by our works; we are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Concluding that this parable  is describing the means upon which one gains eternal life is in my opinion beyond the scope of what Jesus or Matthew intended. I don’t believe that this parable and the ones that precede tell us how we are saved. Their purpose is to warn us that if our relationship with Jesus is not right – if we is not prepared for His return at all times – if we are not saved – than we may find ourselves falling short of what is required to be able to spend eternity with Jesus and may end up spending it in a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Considering the Message as a Whole

Here are some things that I believe Jesus was trying to communicate as a whole through what is recorded in Matthew 24:36 — 25:46:

  • His return will come at a time when it is unexpected. Although there are some things that must happen before Jesus returns (the topic of my next article), there is no way to know exactly when the day or time of His return will be. It’s also impossible to know what conditions will immediately precede it. We therefore have to be prepared for His return at all times knowing that it could occur at anytime.
  • What follows His return will result in immediate, permanent, and dire consequences for those unprepared. There is no gap of time between Jesus’ return and what follows; there is no second chance for those not ready for that day; there will be no additional opportunity for them to repent and do what is right in God’s eyes. There will on the other hand be immediate, permanent, and good consequences for those who are prepared for His return – those who have put their faith and trust in Him.
  • When He returns, it will is not a good thing to be among those who are “taken”.

The understanding that Jesus’ return is followed immediately by a time of judgment reinforces the urgency of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:42 when He said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” If we knew the day Jesus was returning, we could prepare for it at the last moment. Since we don’t, we have to be prepared for it at all times.

And so, I believe that the “taken” in Matthew 24:40-41 are nonbelievers who are taken to a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” because of their rejection of Jesus. They, as Luke 17:37 notes, are destroyed. The ones left behind – the ones not destroyed – are those who have prepared for the coming of Jesus by putting their faith and trust in Him and by living in a way that honors Him.

That’s my understanding of Matthew 24:36 — 25:46, as I see it today.

Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone – Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28

Jesus discourse about the end times – A Tale of Two Questions

Why I have concluded that Jesus returns only once and that when He does that everyone will see Him.

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)

I’ve always been intrigued by the various views regarding the end times. At one point I held to the one that Christians will someday be whisked into the sky during an event called the Rapture and that what follows will be a seven-year period of tribulation for those left behind. But over the years as I’ve studied what Scripture actually has to say about the end times, I’ve concluded that Christians will for the most part not be spared from the troubles the Bible says will characterize the end times and that will occur before Jesus returns. I also believe that Jesus will return only once, that when He does that it will be visible to everyone, and that what follows will result in immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared.

I will not be able to explain in one article how I came to this conclusion. What I intend to do in this and subsequent ones is to note some of the passages that affected my viewpoint regarding the end times and how I understand them now. I am going to begin with Jesus’ discourse regarding the end times in Matthew 24:1-30 and its parallel account in Luke 21:5-28.

Where it took place and what Jesus’ disciples wanted to know

Among the first things one should note when discussing Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 is are the event recorded took place and what concerns Jesus’ disciples may have had at that time.

Here’s is what Matthew wrote about this:

1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:1-3) 

Here is what Luke wrote:

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” (Luke 21:5-7) 

Jesus was apparently with His disciples either near the temple in Jerusalem or on the Mount of Olives overlooking it when this event took place. As they gazed upon the temple, Jesus said that at some point not one stone of the temple would be left on another; at some time in the future, the walls of the temple would be torn down.

The disciples then asked two questions. According to Matthew the first was, “When will this happen?” and the second, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” According to Luke the first was, “When will these things happen?” and the second, “What will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

How these two questions are understood greatly affects how the passages are interpreted. The mistake I believe many make in this respect is to combine the two into one and to conclude that they are referring to the same event – to conclude that the only thing the disciples were concerned about at that time was Jesus’ return and what would happen prior to it and the end times.

It’s my opinion that the disciples’ questions were in regards to two separate and distinct events. Jesus had just informed them that the temple walls would one day be torn down. One thing His disciples wanted to know was when this, the destruction of the temple, was going to take place and what would be the signs that it was about to occur. But they also had some concerns about the end times and wanted to know what signs would precede it and Jesus’ return.

It seems to me that what follows in both accounts is Jesus’ answers to these two questions: the first, when was the temple going to be destroyed and the second, the signs that would precede His return. In order to understand Jesus’ answers to these two questions, one must first determine which portions of His response were directed towards each one.

The chronology of the events prophesied 

What makes understanding of Jesus’ response to the two questions challenging is that Matthew and Luke do not provide His answers in the same order. Here’s is Matthew’s version:

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. 

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. (Matthew 24:4-21) 

This is the order of events in Matthew’s account:

  • There will be a day when many will come who claim to be the Messiah.
  • There will be wars, famines, and earthquakes.
  • Those who follow Jesus will be persecuted. Some will deny Him.
  • Those who stand firm to the end will be saved.
  • The Gospel will be preached to all the nations. Then the end will come.
  • An abomination will occur that fulfills a prophecy in Daniel regarding the destruction of the temple.
  • When this occurs, those in Judea should flee to the mountains, for what follows will be dreadful.

Here is Luke’s version:

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”  

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life. 

20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:8-24)

This is Luke’s order of events:

  • There will come a day when many will claim to be Jesus or that the end is near.
  • There will be wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. These are not the signs of the end.
  • Before this, they (Jesus’ disciples) would be persecuted, imprisoned, and brought before kings and governors.
  • This would result in opportunities for them to testify about Jesus.
  • They would be betrayed and the world would hate them because of Jesus.
  • If they stood firm to the end, they would be saved.
  • When they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they would know that its desolation is near.
  • When they witnessed this, they should flee to the mountains, for what followed would be dreadful.
  • Many would fall by the sword. Others would be taken prisoner.
  • Jerusalem would remain trampled until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled.

One important difference in the two accounts is Luke’s insertion of the phrase “Before this” after mentioning the proliferation of false messiahs, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, wars, and other fearful events. It seems to me that Jesus was telling His disciples in Luke 21:12-24 what was going to happen to them before the terrible events in Luke 21:8-11 occurred. 

What actually happened  

What’s interesting is that nearly everything Jesus said would happen to His disciples in Luke 12:12-17 actually occurred in the lifetime of some of those listening to Him as well as to some of them personally. The book of Acts records this. Here are some examples:

  • Some were seized (vs. 12) – (Peter: Acts 12:3; Paul and Silas: Acts 16:19)
  • Some were persecuted (vs. 12) – (The apostles: Acts 5:17-42; believers in Jerusalem: Acts 8:1)
  • Some were put in prison (vs. 12) – (Peter: Acts 12:4; Paul: Acts 21:33)
  • Some had the opportunity to speak to kings and governors about Jesus (vs. 12) – (Paul: Acts 24:24, 26:1)
  • Some were killed (vs. 16) – (Stephen: Acts 7:54-60; James: Acts 12:3)
  • Some were hated because of their testimony regarding Jesus (vs. 17) – (Stephen: Acts 7; Paul: Acts 19:23-41)

I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke noted what Jesus said regarding what was going to happen to some of those listening to Him. Since he wrote the book of Acts and as well as the gospel that bears his name, it may have been his intent to show in his accounts in Acts of the apostles’ evangelistic endeavors how their efforts  fulfilled the prophecies he recorded in Luke 21 regarding what lay ahead of them. If this is true, then these prophecies have already been fulfilled.

I believe that the prophecies recorded in Luke 21:20-24 regarding the destruction of the temple have been fulfilled as well, perhaps in 70 A.D., in the middle of a seven-year period beginning in 66 A.D. and ending in 73 A.D. Here is a short chronology of that period:

  • 66 A.D. – Some Jews in Judea staged a revolt against the Romans.
  • 67 A.D. – Roman armies commanded by Vespasian invaded Galilee.
  • 70 A.D. – Roman armies under Titus besieged Jerusalem. The siege lasted 7 months.
  • 70 A.D. – 960 Jews took refuge on Masada, a mountain south of the Dead Sea
  • 70 A.D. – The Romans entered the temple, desecrated its holy spots, and raised a banner at the corner of it.
  • 70 A.D. – Jerusalem was destroyed. The walls of the temple were torn down and rest burned.
  • 72 A.D. – The Romans began building a siege ramp at Masada so they could breach its walls.
  • 73 A.D. – The Romans broke into Masada and found that most the Jews had chosen death over captivity.

Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, described in his writings the extent of suffering those living in Jerusalem experienced during its 7-month siege. He noted that because there was no food that some resorted to eating belts and shoes and other things that even animals wouldn’t consume. He mentioned one woman who was so hungry that she killed and ate her own child. Josephus claimed that 1.1 million died during the siege, mostly Jews, mostly through starvation, and that nearly 100,000 were taken into captivity. Some of those living in those days seemed to have heeded Jesus advice to flee to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies outside the walls of Jerusalem.

It should be noted that Jerusalem has remained in the hands of Gentiles either wholly or in part since its destruction in 70 A.D. This could be a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the city would be trampled by the Gentiles until their time comes to an end (Luke 21:24).

The Link between Matthew 24 and Daniel 9 

Matthew noted in these verses Jesus’ statement that the destruction of the temple would be a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy regarding its demise:

14 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 15 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:14-15). 

This is the prophecy I believe Jesus was referring to when He said this:

24 “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. 

25 “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. 26 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. 27 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.” (Daniel 9:24-27). 

The above passage in Daniel is often cited by those who believe that there is one remaining week of years in the “seventy-sevens” of years that are yet to be fulfilled –  a seven-year period of tribulation preceded by the Rapture of the Church. But if the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. fulfills Jesus’ prophecy regarding its demise, then it fulfills as well the prophecy in Daniel 9 regarding its destruction. If this is so, then no seven-year period in the “seventy-sevens” of years remains to be fulfilled.

I hope to be able to discuss some of the implications of this understanding of Daniel 9 in another article.

What comes after the destruction of the temple

It seems to me that all the events that Luke indicated were to happen before the terrible events recorded in Luke 21:8-11 have already taken place including the destruction of the temple. But there are some things that I believe both Matthew and Luke indicate will happen after the events Luke noted are “before this.” Here is Matthew’s account of these.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. 

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’” (Matthew 24:22-29) 

Here is Luke’s account:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Luke 21:25-26)

One of the challenges in comparing these two passages is understanding how they relate to what precedes them. It seems to me that Luke 21:25-26 was meant to follow Luke 21:8-11 chronologically. After inserting a statement recorded in Luke 21:12-24 about what would occur in the disciples’ immediate future including what was going to happen to the temple, it seems to me that Luke returned to the question of what the signs of the end and of the return of Jesus would be, noting that there would be indications in the heavens and on earth that the very structure of nature was falling apart, signs that would terrify those living in those days.

Understanding the sequence of events in Matthew 24 is a bit more challenging and is hindered by how various translations combine the verses into paragraphs. I believe that Matthew 24:22 should be combined with Matthew 24:15-21 and that what Jesus was saying that if the days when the city and temple were being destroyed weren’t shortened that no one would have survived. Matthew 24:23 then returns to what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 24:4-14, the signs of His imminent return, noting the rise of false messiahs (which Luke recorded earlier in his account) and the terror caused by the increasing amount of turmoil in the heavens.

It may seem when considering this that Luke and Matthew were recording different chronologies of the same events. But it seems to me that both accounts start and end with the events that will precede Jesus’ return and then insert in between these prophecies regarding what was going to happen in the near future of those listening to Him and how they should respond when those events occurred.

Jesus returns only once. And its visible to everyone.

Jesus concluded by describing what was going to happen when He does return. Here is the beginning of what Matthew had to say about this:

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30). 

Here’s is what Luke began his account of this with:

27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:27)

Both Matthew and Luke note that when Jesus returns that He will come in a cloud and that when this happens, it will be visible to everyone. Neither writer supports the concept of a secret return where followers of Christ suddenly disappear with no understanding by those left behind of what has taken place. All people of the earth see Jesus’ return; all will mourn as a consequence of it.

One other thing worthy of note in Matthew’s account is that Jesus only returns once and that when He does, it is followed by immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared. The remaining verses in Matthew 24 and the parables in Matthew 25 provide some insights regarding what that something is and what the consequences to those unprepared will be. What those consequences are may be one of the causes of the mourning noted in Matthew 24:30.

I’ll discuss that topic when I address the remaining verses in Matthew 24 and the parables in Matthew 25 in another article.

Summary

I believe that Jesus was addressing two questions in Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28. The first was, “When will the temple be destroyed and what will be the signs that it is about to occur?” The second was, “What will be the signs that the end is near and that your return is imminent?”

I believe that Jesus’ answers to these two questions is best understood by comparing Matthew 24 with its parallel account in Luke 21.

I believe that Jesus’ answer to the first question was that the destruction of the temple would be preceded by Jerusalem being surrounded by an army and that when His followers saw this happening that they should flee to the mountains. I believe this prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.

I believe that Jesus’ response to the second question was that He would return sometime in the distant future after times of war, famine, earthquakes, and other terrible events.

I believe that Jesus was warning those listening to Him at that time that some of them would be persecuted, imprisoned, or  killed.

I believe that Jesus was saying that He will return only once and that when He does, it will visible to everyone. And, as I’ll note in a future article, His return will be followed by immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared.

That is my understanding of Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 as I see it today.

The Church may not be the Bride of Christ – Revelation 19:6-9

6 “Hallelujah!” For our Lord God Almighty reigns 7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) 9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God. (Revelation 19:6-9, NIV)”

For years I’ve been told by various pastors and teachers that in the above passage, the Bride of Christ – the wife of the Lamb – is the Church. The picture they sometimes present when doing so is a wedding where Jesus, the Bridegroom, is waiting anxiously at an altar for His Bride, the Church, a bride clothed in white, walking towards her future husband. It’s been explained that this is a metaphor of how much Jesus longs for the day when the Church – all those who have made a commitment to follow Jesus – has perfect fellowship with Him, something that will occur only in the end-times when believers are unencumbered by the trials, travails, and temptations of this world.

I used to believe that this was true – that the Bride of Christ is the Church.  What caused me to question this were these verses:

2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (Revelation 21:2, NIV).

 9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:9-14, NIV)”

What struck me about these verses is how “un-church-like” they were. For the most part, they include symbols more commonly associated with the Jews – the Israelites – than with the Church. Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish nation and the city where a temple was built so that God could dwell in the midst of His chosen people; the names written on the gates of the city are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; and though the twelve apostles whose names are written on the foundations of the wall were among the early leaders of the Church, all twelve of them were Jews, and their initial converts were almost entirely from the people of Israel. Nothing in these verses has a “Gentile” flavor to it, and nothing in them explicitly refers to the Church.

And so, who is the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb”? Is it the Church?  Or could it be someone else?

Jesus does have a Bride

The first thing to establish is that Jesus does or will have a Bride. The verses in Revelation 19:6-9 and 21:9-14 noted above support this. So does the following:

28 “You yourselves can testify that I [John the baptist] said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine and is now complete. (John 3:28-29, NIV)”

John was acknowledging in the above that though Jesus is a Bridegroom that he, John, was not His Bride but instead was a friend of the Bridegroom.

Here’s another passage that supports this:

14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him [Jesus], “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-15, NIV)”

This passage not only identifies Jesus as a Bridegroom, it also indicates that there will be others attending His wedding as well, others described as “guests of the bridegroom.” The passage then tells us who these guests are; they are or will be His disciples – those who are followers of Jesus.

But the question for us is not if Jesus will be a Bridegroom but is instead if He is, who will His Bride be?

Is the Church the Bride of Christ?

There are verses in the New Testament that suggest that the Church could be the Bride of Christ. Here is a passage that is frequently cited to support this:

 21 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.                25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:21-27, NIV).

 Here’s another:

2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough … (2 Corinthians 11:2-4, NIV)

Although these verses seem to be describing Jesus as husband and the Church as His wife, none of them explicitly state that this is so. It seems to me that Paul is simply describing in Ephesians 5:21-27 how husbands and wives should treat each other; it is not saying that the marriage of a man and woman is a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. And though Paul does use the word “husband” in 2 Corinthians 11:2 to describe what a believer’s relationship with Jesus ought to be like, his purpose in doing so was to voice his fear that some were being led astray by false teachers preaching a different Jesus or a different Gospel.

There are in fact no verses in the Bible that actually say, “The Church is the Bride of Christ.” This association comes from commentators and teachers, not from the actual words of Scripture.  It is not explicit; it is inferred. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid. It could be true even if not explicitly stated.  But it does present some problems if it is so. Consider these verses for example:

  • Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV).
  • And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV).

These verses state  that the Church is the Body of Christ. But if this is so, then how can the Church also be the Bride of Christ? It seems to me that the Church cannot be both; it is either one or the other. In this case, I lean towards the association that is explicitly stated rather than the one that is inferred.

But there is another problem with concluding that the Church is the Bride of Christ.  I noted these verses earlier:

7 “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints). (Revelation 19:7-8, NIV)”

To conclude that the Bride in this passage is the Church requires one to also conclude that believers aren’t yet ready to be received by Jesus and that something else has to be done to make the Church acceptable to Him before the wedding – that some “righteous acts” (vs. 8) are required for the Church to be made complete. But this would be in conflict with what is found in this passage:

8 For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).

If some acts of righteousness need to be performed in order for the Church to be ready to be presented to Jesus, then its relationship with Him is no longer based on faith alone. If however the Church’s relationship with Jesus is based entirely on faith but works are required to make the Bride ready for her Bridegroom, then the Bride of Christ cannot be the Church; it has to be someone else.

Could Israel be the Bride of Christ?

There is a much stronger case that the Bride of Christ is the people of Israel. Their relationship with God is compared frequently in Scripture to the one between a husband a wife. Consider these for example:

  • For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is His name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the god of all the earth (Isaiah 54:5-6, NIV).
  • “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you — one from a town and two from a clan — and bring you to Zion. (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)”
  • No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate, but you will be called Hephzibah [which means “my delight is in her”], and your land Beulah [which means “married”]; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:4-5, NIV).
  • I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hosea 2:19-20, NIV)”
  • “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, ”when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,“ declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord., “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, NIV)”

If you look up these verses and note their context, you’ll find that they are referring in some cases to God’ past relationship with Israel and in others to His future relationship with them following a time when they have fallen away from Him. They suggest that God did have and perhaps always has had a relationship with Israel that is similar to the relationship between a husband and wife. And even though Israel frequently committed spiritual adultery by serving other gods, there is no indication in Scripture that God ever divorced the nation of Israel or its people or that He ever will. God promised that He would always remain faithful to Israel even if the people of Israel were unfaithful to Him.

God’s promise in this regards is confirmed in the following passage:

35 This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord Almighty is his name: 36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,“ declares the Lord, ”will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” 37 This is what the Lord says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,“ declares the Lord (Jeremiah 31:35-37). 

What’s interesting is that the writer of Hebrews quotes from portions of Jeremiah 31:31-34 when describing the effects of Jesus’ sacrificial death:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”17 Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” 18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:16-18, NIV). 

And so, who is at the wedding?

Based on what I’ve noted above, It seems to me that it is the people of Israel and not believers in the Church who are the Bride of Christ.  If this is so, then the celebration described in Revelation 19:6-9 could be the result of the joy Jesus and the guests at His wedding express when the people of Israel finally acknowledge Jesus as their Savior.

Where is the Church in this? If it is the not the Bride of Christ, is it at the wedding supper of the Lamb at all?  I believe that it is. But instead of the Church being the Bride of Christ, I believe based verses noted earlier that the Church is either the Friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:28-29) or one of His guests (Matthew 9:14-15).

I believe that Jesus – the Lamb at the wedding supper in Revelation 19:6-9 and the Bridegroom mentioned in other passages – is patiently waiting for the arrival the Bride promised to Him centuries ago – a Bride that has to be made ready for Him but who will someday be clothed in white, fully prepared to be received into the arms of the One who has always longed to have a relationship with her.

As I see it today, that Bride – the Bride of Christ – is the people of Israel.

(For another article  regarding on my views of Israel, check out my post titled “Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?”)

The Mark of the Beast may be a concern only for Christians – Revelation 13:11-17

11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon … 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refuse to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. (Revelation 13: 11, 15-17, NIV)

What I have to say in the following post about the Mark of the Beast is not traditional; it will be controversial; it will be disputed.  And when you get done reading what I have to say about it, you may even consider me to be a heretic. For I believe that the Mark of the Beast can have little if any effect on non-believers; I believe it is something that can only affect Christians. I also don’t believe that it’s a physical mark; I believe it is symbolic of something less tangible but much more perilous, especially for those who have put their faith in Jesus.

I hope that you will read my justification for this conclusion. For if my understanding of the Mark of the Beast is correct, it has profound implications for Christians today who are living in the midst of increasing amounts of opposition because of what they believe about Jesus.

The Traditional View – It is a Literal or Physical Mark

Over the years there has been lots of speculation regarding Revelation 13:11-17 and what the Mark of the Beast might possibly be. Many have speculated that it could be some kind of physical indication that a person has given their sole allegiance to a world power whose goal it is to supplant Christ – a literal mark that indicates that one has made a commitment to worship the antichrist for example. Some believe that it could be a microchip or some other electronic device that is embedded in a person’s arm or head to distinguish between those who are followers of this antichrist from those who are not. At some point everyone’s economic and physical welfare will be based on their allegiance to this antichrist, and their willingness to accept its mark will prove that they are loyal to him or the power he represents.

But is the Mark of the Beast meant to be understood as a literal or physical mark? Or is symbolic of something? Could it for example be a symbol of a change in the condition of a person’s heart and if so, whose heart?

A Non-Traditional View – It is Symbolic of Something

One thing that needs to be noted about Revelation 13 as well as all of the book of Revelation is its widespread use of symbolic language. For the most part, John was not being shown actual images of future events; he was seeing symbolic representations of them.

Consider for example these images recorded in Revelation 13:1-17:

  • A beast comes out of the sea. It has ten horns and seven heads (vs. 1).
  • The beast looks like a leopard but has feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion (vs 2).
  • One of its heads has a fatal wound that is healed (vs 3).
  • The dragon (Satan – vs. 12:9) is worshiped because he gave authority to the beast (vs. 4).
  • The beast is given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them (vs. 7).
  • All whose names are not written in the book of life worship the beast (vs. 8).
  • Another beast comes out of the earth. He has two horns and speaks like a dragon (vs. 11).
  • The second beast has the same authority as the first (vs. 12).
  • The second beast sets up an image to honor the first beast (vs. 14).
  • The image is given breath. Those who refuse to worship it are killed (vs. 15).
  • No-one can buy or sell unless they receive a mark on their right hand or forehead (vs. 16-17).

Most if not all of these images symbolize something.  I don’t believe for example that an actual beast will arise from the ocean that has ten horns and seven heads and that people will fall down and worship it. This image is meant to be symbolic. Perhaps it represents a world power or an individual who will rule in the last days. The same can be said regarding the second beast; it too is symbolic of something. By association, shouldn’t the Mark of the Beast be considered equally symbolic?

The issue here is being consistent in how we treat associated elements in Scripture. If we know for example that A is symbolic of something and that A and B are meant to be treated the same, then B is symbolic as well. “Beast” in the phrase “the Mark of the Beast” is typically interpreted as being symbolic of something or someone. To be consistent, shouldn’t its mark be understood the same way? Shouldn’t it be interpreted as being symbolic of something as well?  Another way to put this is if the beast in the passage is not meant to be interpreted as an actual beast, then to be consistent, its mark should not be interpreted as an actual mark.

And so, if the Mark of the Beast is not a literal or physical mark, then what is it symbolic of? And who will it affect? To get some understanding of that, we’ll turn to the book of Ezekiel.

The Mark of the Angel

1 Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring the guards of the city here, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2 And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. with them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.

3 Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” 5 As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. 6 Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.” (Ezekiel 9:1-6, NIV)

Ezekiel was given this vision during the decline of Israel’s relationship with God, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. When I stumbled across it a number of years ago, I was stunned by how it mirrored what is recorded in Revelation 13:11-17.

Ezekiel 8 gives a glimpse of how bad things were in those days. Here’s a bit of what God said about the leaders of the Israelites:

12 “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” (Ezekiel 8:12-13, NIV)

I recommend reading Ezekiel 8 and Ezekiel 9 if you want a better understanding of what was happening in those days and how God was going to respond.  Here are a few things I’d like to note:

  • The primary issue was idolatry. The Israelites were giving themselves over to idols rather than worshiping God alone.
  • God said that the result of the Israelites’ detestable behavior would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of their lives. Only those who grieved and lamented over the Israelites’ despicable behavior would be spared.
  • Prior to God pouring out His wrath on the Israelites and the city, He said that a “man clothed in linen” would put a mark on the forehead of all those who were to be spared.

I do not believe that the marking referenced above, one I call “the Mark of the Angel,” should be interpreted as a literal marking. I don’t believe that an angel actually walked through Jerusalem and physically marked those who had remained faithful to God; the text doesn’t compel us to understand it that way nor does history support that this is what actually took place. It seems to me that the Mark of the Angel is a symbolic representation of a separation that was going to take place – a demarcation – between those who had stayed faithful to God and those who hadn’t.

Note that the Mark of the Angel had nothing to do with those who were not Israelites. God’s dispute was not with non-Israelites. His wrath was aimed only at those among His chosen people who had decided not to remain faithful to Him.

Could it be that the Mark of the Beast is similar to the Mark of the Angel in its symbolic nature as well as in whom it affects? Before addressing that, it’s important to look at what comes both before and after Revelation 13:11-17.

An Epic Battle

Genesis 1-3 describes what things were like in the beginning.

In the beginning, God had an intimate and personal relationship with mankind. Genesis 3:8 says that God actually walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and then sinned by eating fruit from the forbidden tree, that relationship was torn apart.

Here are some things God said would happen as a result Satan’s treachery and Adam and Eve’s disobedience:

14 “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman and your offspring and hers; he will crush you head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:1-15, NIV)

The one being cursed in verse 14 is Satan. It could be that the enmity between Satan and the woman noted in verse 15 is a prophecy that Satan and his minions would be at war from that point on with all of mankind; or it could be talking about the ongoing war that was going to take place between Satan and Jesus, the supernatural seed of women. But eventually “he”, Jesus, will decisively crush Satan even though Satan might have some limited victories in the meantime.

It’s possible that the images in Revelation 12 are providing more details on the conflict prophesied in Genesis 3:14-15. I recommend reading all of Revelation 12 so that you have a good handle on what some of these images are. Here are some things I’d like to note about them:

  • A pregnant woman is on the verge of giving birth to a child (vs. 2).
  • A dragon, who symbolizes Satan (vs. 9), wants to devour the child after it’s born (vs. 4).
  • The woman gives birth to a male child “who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (vs. 5)”
  • The woman and her child flee to the desert for 3 ½ years to escape from the dragon (vs. 13-16).
  • The dragon is enraged, perhaps because it was unable to kill the child (vs. 17).
  • The dragon decides to wage war against “those who obey God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (vs. 17)”

It could be that Revelation 12 is describing in symbolic language some things about Jesus’ life as well as the history of the Israelites as a whole. For example, some of the attempts to annihilate the Israelites prior to the first century (Pharaoh in Exodus 1 for example and Haman in Esther 3) could have been sparked by Satan’s impassioned desire to prevent the birth of Jesus. Herod’s command to kill all the males two years or younger in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:16) could have been an attempt by Satan to “devour the child” after Jesus’ birth. And when the empty tomb proved that Satan’s plans to prevent the birth of Jesus or kill Him afterwards had failed, could it be that Satan simply changed his game plan and began targeting Christians in the hope that He could keep the truth about Jesus hidden or cause it to be discredited?  Revelation 13:1-17 may in fact be describing the war that Satan has declared against Christians and what he’s trying to accomplish by doing so.

I want to point out something that comes after Revelation 13:11-17 that also needs to be taken into consideration.

The Final Judgment

8 A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” 9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” (Revelation 14:9-12, NIV)

This passage seems to be describing the final judgment, perhaps the same separation of “sheep” from “goats” recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. Most would conclude that there are only two groups this passage is referring to – the saved and the unsaved, believers and unbelievers. But I contend that Revelation 14:9-12 is actually referring to three groups. There are those who drink the wine of Babylon’s adulteries and by implication end up experiencing the result of God’s wrath; there are those who worship the beast or receive its mark resulting in them drinking from the wine of God’s fury as well; and there are saints who have remained faithful to Jesus.

It seems to me that the first of these three groups is unbelievers – those who when given the opportunity to follow Jesus didn’t “Fear God and give him the glory” or who didn’t “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (vs. 14:7). The third group is Christians who have remained faithful to Jesus. But then who is included in the second group?  I contend that it is Christians who have not remained faithful to Jesus – Christians who perhaps have not persevered in the midst of persecution – those who in the face of economic or physical threats deny knowing Jesus.

Christians believe that if you haven’t put your trust in Jesus – if you are an unbeliever – that you will not spend eternity with Him. It won’t matter if an unbeliever worships the beast or receives its mark; this will have no effect on their eternal destination. It will be their unbelief that is the issue, not whom they worship instead of Jesus. It seems to me that the only ones that can be affected by worshiping the beast or receiving its mark are therefore those who are followers of Jesus.

Here’s a passage that seems to share a similar sentiment:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:1, 7-8, NIV)

Although this passage seems to be describing multiple groupings of people, I believe that they can be put into three groups.

The first group is unbelievers who have no relationship with Jesus – those who have never put their trust in Him. These are referenced explicitly in verse 8; it is “the unbelieving”.

The second group is Christians who have “overcome” (vs. 7), perhaps by persevering to the end or as Paul put it, finishing the race (2 Timothy 4:7). I believe this is the same group described in Revelation 14:12; it is Christians who have endured by obeying God’s commands and remaining faithful to Jesus to the end, perhaps in the midst of the threats described in Revelation 13:1-17.

The third group is those described as cowards, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters, and liars (vs. 8).  I don’t believe this is referring to unbelievers as they are mentioned elsewhere in the verse. And, as noted earlier, it is an unbeliever’s unbelief and not their lifestyle that separates them from God. There is no need to clarify this further my adding a list of what God considers despicable. If you are lost, you are lost. Being among those who do any of the other things mentioned in the passage doesn’t make one more lost than someone who isn’t. I believe that this list of abhorrent behaviors was meant to warn Christians that if they embrace behavior that is more indicative of the unsaved than the saved that they may suffer the same fate.

And it could be that the reference to those who are cowardly is referring to Christians who in the midst of threats to their economic or physical welfare deny knowing Jesus.

What this has to do with us

In the days of Nero, Christians facing lions in the arenas could sometimes get spared if they simply denied knowing Jesus. Christians today facing similar physical or economic threats because of their faith in Jesus are often given similar ways out; if they want to avoid ridicule, opposition, or persecution, all they have to do is to remain silent about what they believe about Jesus or deny that they are followers of Him. Could it be that this is what receiving the Mark of the Beast is meant to symbolize? Could it be something that can only affect Christians and that separates those who have remained faithful to Jesus from those who haven’t?

If this is so, than the Mark of the Beast is something that has existed in our world ever since the day that Jesus walked the earth and continues to be a threat for Christians living in our world today.

That is how I see it today.

 

 

Not every prayer offered in faith may be effective; but which ones always will – James 5:15

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-16)

I have had some concerns about the meaning of the above verses for years. It seems that they saying that if you are physically ill and are not getting better that you will get healed if you call in the elders to pray for you and they anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer must be offered in faith of course which means praying without doubting that God will answer those prayers. And those who are doing the praying must be righteous, for it is seems that it is only the prayer of the righteous that is powerful and effective.

Although I do like the sentiment that if I pray hard enough or have enough faith or have achieved just the right amount of righteousness that my prayers for physical healing will be answered, I do have some questions about this understanding of the passage. For example, how fervently do I need to pray? How much faith is required? How righteous do I or the others praying need to be? And if my prayers for physical healing aren’t answered, does that mean that I wasn’t praying hard enough or that my faith was not strong enough or that I wasn’t righteous enough?

What I’ve also noted over the years is that some who pray for physical healing are healed even though they have doubts that they will or aren’t as righteous as God desires; that some who are godly and who have bucket loads of faith aren’t healed even though they pray with full confidence that their request will be honored by God; and some who are ungodly or who don’t pray at all are often healed of their ailments anyway. It seems to me that getting healed physically frequently has little to do with our faith or lack thereof, to our personal righteousness or the absence of it, to how fervently we pray, or to whether or not we ask others to pray for us or to anoint us with oil.

And so what exactly are these verses promising when they say that a prayer offered in faith will make a sick person well? Are they promising that if we pray with an appropriate amount of faith or righteousness that we will be healed from whatever ails us physically? Or are they promising a different kind of healing from a different type of ailment?

Clue #1 – What Follows “Therefore”

 One clue to what these verses are promising is found in the portion that follows the word “therefore”:

Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (vs. 16)

Note that the promise of being healed in this verse is conditional. What is required is mutual confession of sin and praying for one another. This suggests that the sickness the person is experiencing has something to do with their personal sin. This could mean that what ails them physically is a direct result of sin in their life and that they won’t be physically healed until their spiritual problem – their sin issue – has been addressed. But it could be that James was not talking about physical healing at all but instead was addressing how to get healed from what ails someone spiritually.

One thing to note in this respect is that James never mentions physical healing specifically in these verses. He simply mentions healing in general without indicating what type of healing he was addressing. Although James could have been talking about how to get healed from a physical ailment, it could just as well be that he was addressing how to get healed from a spiritual one.

Clue #2 – What the Trouble Is

Another clue in identifying what type of sickness James was addressing and what type of healing is being promised is to note what precedes the verses that talk about “a prayer of faith” and “the prayer of a righteous man”. Here’s what comes before these verses:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. (vs. 13)

Although “any one of you in trouble” could be interpreted as “anyone suffering from a physical ailment” or “anyone happy” could be understood as “anyone glad they are not”, it seems to me that James was referring to a different kind of trouble and a different source of happiness. If “trouble” in verse 13 is meant to be linked to what follows the word “therefore” in verse 16, then this person’s trouble may have something to do their spiritual condition. If that condition is healthy, they should praise the Lord for it. If not, then they need to pray to be healed from what is causing them to be sick spiritually. And if their prayers for spiritual healing are ineffective, then:

He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. (vs. 14)

And then follow this instruction:

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other. (vs. 16)

Connecting “trouble” in verse 13 with “confess your sins” in verse 16 provides a significant clue about the type of sickness James was addressing. What follows verses 13-16 must also be taken into consideration however if one wants to have a better understanding of what kind of sickness James was talking about and what type of healing is being promised.

Clue #3 – Elijah’s Prayer

James followed verses 13-16 with an example of a prayer offered by a righteous man and what it accomplished. That man was the prophet Elijah. Here’s is what James said about him:

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)

It may seem at first glance that Elijah was praying about the weather and by noting this James was simply reinforcing that if you are righteous and have faith that your prayers, like those of Elijah, will most assuredly be answered. But there is much more to this incident than what James noted. The entire chronology is recorded in 1 Kings 16:29 thru 1 Kings 18:46. Here are some highlights of this:

  • Ahab, the king of Israel, provoked the anger of the Lord by serving Baal, setting up an altar for Baal in the temple, and doing “more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. (16:29-33)”
  • In response to this evil, Elijah said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither rain in the next few years except at my word. (17:1)”
  • The drought continued for three and a half years. At the end of this period God told Elijah to present himself to Ahab (18:1). Elijah did so.
  • Elijah then told Ahab that it was his disobedience of God that was the cause of the troubles Israel was experiencing. He also told Ahab and the Israelites that they needed to make a choice on whom they were going to worship; they had to choose either God or Baal (18:18-21).
  • The people did not respond; they remained silent (vs. 18:21).­
  • Elijah then set up a contest on Mount Carmel between the priests of Baal and himself to prove whose god was strongest – whose god was real. Elijah showed through what took place that Baal was powerless – that he didn’t exist at all –  and that the Lord God is in only God (18:22-38).
  • Upon seeing what happened on the mountain, the people “fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord — he is God! The Lord — he is God! (18:39).”
  • Following this act of contrition and repentance, Elijah said that the rains would return. And they did (18:41-45).

Note that the troubles the Israelites experienced were a direct result of sin and it wasn’t until they repented that their troubles ceased. Could it be that this is the type of trouble James was referring do when he asked, “Is any one of you in trouble?” Could it be that how the Israelites responded to their troubles – by contrition and repentance – is the action James was instructing believers to take when they are experiencing similar troubles – that they need to “confess their sins to each other and pray for one another”? 

Clue #4 – James’ Conclusion

Here’s how James concluded:

My brothers, if one of should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20) 

These verses describe a situation where a sinner who has wandered from the truth is turned back from the error of his way by a brother and as a result is saved from death and a multitude of other sins. Could this be further clarification of the type of trouble James mentioned in verse 13 and what to do about it? Could the troubles the Israelites experienced due to their sin and what it took to remedy this be an illustration of this in verses 17-18? Could the one who restores the brother in verse 19 be one of the elders the troubled person asks to pray for him in verse 14 or one of those this person confesses his sins to in verse 16?

Clue #5 – The Whole Context of James

One last thing worthy of note is the entire tone and context of the book of James. James was writing to believers who didn’t seem to understand that their faith needed to be evidenced by works. James then described what some of those works ought to be. When James did this, he didn’t say, “You need to have more faith,” or, “You need a better relationship with God.” What James did say is that how we speak and act provides evidence of what we believe. And if our faith doesn’t result in what ought to characterize a healthy relationship with God, then something is wrong with it; it is useless and ineffective; it is dead (James 2:26). It seems to me that the entire book of James is about what one needs to do to avoid being spiritually ineffective. And if our ineffectiveness is the result of being spiritually sick, maybe it’s time to call in someone who can be of help in turning us away from the error of our ways so that we don’t continue to wander away from the truth and fall into additional sin.

What prayers offered in faith will always be effective

And so, what prayers offered in faith will always be effective? I believe it is prayers for spiritual healing. If we are spiritually sick and have a sincere desire to be brought back into a healthy and fruitful relationship with God, and if we then do what James instructs us to do – if confess our sins to one another and ask others to pray for us – God promises that He will forgive ours sins and heal us from what ails us spiritually.

That’s my understanding of these verses, at least as I see it today.

Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?

My response to Stephen Sizer’s article, “Bible Prophecy – Promised Return of Impending Exile”,  regarding the return of the Jews to Israel

A number of years ago I read an article written by Stephen Sizer, a former vicar of the Anglican Church in England, regarding Christian Zionism. Christian Zionists believe that the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 is a direct fulfillment of Bible prophecy and that the tensions we are witnessing that region today can be attributed to this and other end time prophecies regarding Israel. Sizer who is known for his opposition to Christian Zionism believes that what is happening in Israel has little if anything to do with Bible prophecy.

The following are some statements Sizer made regarding this and my response to them. The page numbers refer to an article Sizer wrote regarding Christian Zionism that was published by the Christian Research Journal in 2006. A copy of his article can be found at the link above.

 A growing number of Christians…are left uneasy about the idea that God would bring the Jews back to Palestine while they are in unbelief since that is why they were exiled from it in the first place. (Page 35)

Here are some passages in the Bible that bear on this:

  1. God’s covenant with Abraham, the “Abrahamic covenant”, which included a promise that they would be given the land in and surrounding modern day Israel, was unconditional (Genesis 15). God asked Abraham to split a calf in two and to let its blood run down a channel between the two halves. In those days two parties making a covenant in this fashion would walk through the blood shed by the calf signifying that if either broke the covenant, the other could do to one violating the covenant what had been done to the calf. In Genesis 15:17, God, symbolized by a smoking pot, was the only one who passed between the halves signifying that He alone was responsible for upholding the covenant.
  1. God’s covenant with Abraham was never revoked. Galatians 3:17-18 says, “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise, but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”
  1. Another covenant was introduced through Moses. It is referred to as the “Sinaic covenant” as it was at Mount Sinai where it was given and confirmed. The Sinaic covenant was conditional. The Israelites had to obey the laws of God to reap its rewards. It is impossible to obey every aspect of God’s laws however. Jesus did something to remedy this. When He was crucified, the law was symbolically nailed to the Cross negating the power it and the Sinaic covenant, the Old Covenant, had to condemn people of sin (Colossians 2:13-15). The Sinaic covenant was replaced by a new covenant based on faith (Ephesians 2:8).
  1. One effect of the New Covenant is that that the Jews were no longer going to be held accountable collectively for their sin. Confirmation of this can be found in Jeremiah 31:27-37. Once the New Covenant was in effect, judgment for national sin would cease and “instead, everyone will die for his own sin” (vs. 30). When speaking about the effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death, the writer of Hebrews drew from this passage when he said, “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds … Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more (Hebrews 10:16-17 and Jeremiah 31:33-34).”
  1. Zechariah said that the Jews would experience a time when they would no longer be under collective judgment for their sin (Zechariah 3). Speaking for God, Zechariah said, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day (3:9).” This “single day” seems in context to be referring to the day that Jesus was crucified.
  1. God did not bring the Jews back to the land of Israel for their sake or because they were good. God did it for His sake (Ezekiel 36). Ezekiel 37 describes the return of both Israel and Judah, the names of the northern and southern kingdoms after Israel split into two nations following the death of Solomon, to the land of Israel. In the process the “two sticks” become one once again (37:15-17). In describing this, Ezekiel speaking for God said, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among them. Then these nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes (36:22-23).” What God does to restore the Israelites to the land of Israel has more to do with Him then with them. He promised He would restore them to the land in spite of their disobedience so that He could be glorified.
  1. Zechariah prophesies that its opposition to the Jews after they’ve returned to Israel that ultimately leads to their collective spiritual redemption. Zechariah 12 describes a day when the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem are surrounded by those who want to destroy them and God miraculously saves them by destroying their enemies. When the Jews see that their victory has come from God, they end up mourning “the one whom they have pierced (12:10).” This may be the event Jesus had in mind when He wept on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem a few days before His crucifixion and said, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matthew. 23:37-39).’”

I believe that the Jews as a nation were forgiven when Jesus died on the Cross, perhaps at the moment when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” Although the suffering they’ve experienced since then could be due to their collective disbelief, I believe that what they’ve experienced is simply an extension of Satan’s continued efforts to undermine the work of God by destroying the ones God has chosen to represent Him. I believe that the Jews’ return to the land of Israel is part of God’s plan to reveal His nature to the world through the way He fulfills His covenant with Abraham. It also may be the beginning of God’s final efforts to redeem the Jews individually and corporately.

The covenant was primarily relational, not material (page 36)

It’s unclear when Sizer makes this claim if he is referring to the Abrahamic covenant or the Sinaic one. The covenant with Moses, the Sinaic one, does have material and relational aspects to it. The Jews had to be obedient to God in order to reap its benefits. But as pointed out earlier, this covenant was revoked when Jesus was crucified and it was symbolically nailed to the Cross (Colossians 2:14). There is no biblical evidence that the Abrahamic covenant was ever revoked. It was unconditional and depended on God’s character alone.

This does not mean that the Abrahamic covenant does not have some relational aspects to. But some of it is clearly material. God promised to give the land of Israel to the Jews as an eternal possession, and God said that if He doesn’t fulfill His promises that He is not God.

God stipulated through blessings and curses that repentance is always a condition of return (page 38)

Leviticus 26 does state that Israel would face exile if they refused to obey God (vs. 27-35). Daniel drew from portions of Leviticus 26:40-45 in a prayer he made on the Jews’s behalf when they were living in exile in Babylon (Daniel 9:1-19). Daniel understood that their  exile was going to last 70 years and near the end of this period asked for God to forgive his people.

God responded by telling Daniel that the Jews’ guilt for their transgressions would be removed but that it would take 490 years (seventy weeks of seven) “to atone for wickedness [and] to bring in everlasting righteousness (Daniel 9:24).” The beginning point of this time frame was “the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (9:25),” an event that occurred in 453 B.C. when Cyrus gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem so the city could be rebuilt (Nehemiah 1-2). 490 years after this would be 36 A.D. Most scholars agree that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime between 30 and 36 A.D. It was at this point that both Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10 indicate that the nation as a whole would no longer be held accountable for its sin. Somewhere in this time frame or shortly afterwards could be the end of the 490-year period Daniel prophesied about.

Also, as noted earlier, the conditions described in Leviticus 26 are part of the Sinaic covenant and this covenant was canceled on the Cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Since the Sinaic covenant is no longer in effect, there is no longer any conditions the Jews have or had to meet in order to return to the land of Israel.

It is no longer appropriate to describe the Jews as God’s “chosen people” (page 39)

 Paul addresses this in Romans 9-11. Here’s a bit of what he said:

  1. Speaking for God he said, “All day long, I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (10:21)
  1. “Did God reject his people? By no means … God did not reject his people.” (11:1,2)
  1. “All Israel will be saved. The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (11:26-27)
  1. “As far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (11:28-29)

One thing that is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments is God’s unconditional commitment to fulfill the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Jeremiah 31:35-36 says this, “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight, declares the Lord, will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” It’s as if God was saying, “If I don’t do what I’ve said I’m going to do for the children of Abraham, then I’m not God.”

Through the New Covenant, the exalted Christ rules sovereign over the entire world, from the heavenly Jerusalem. (Page 40) 

Sizer suggests that the Jews were never given an unconditional promise of a physical kingdom and that passages describing Christ’s eternal reign over one need to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally. But if references regarding the future Jerusalem and the eternal throne of Christ are figurative rather than literal – if they are only heavenly places and not real ones – then how do we make sense of the following verses?

  1. “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven which said, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15).”
  1. “I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…Then the Lord will go out and fight against these nations…On that day there will be no light, no cold, no frost… On that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem…[and] The lord will be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:1-9).”

There are numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments that connect the coming of a messiah or the return of Jesus with a throne and a reign on earth. Although some of these could be interpreted figuratively, most cannot without significantly changing the context in which these promises were given. In addition, many don’t seem to fit events that have already occurred but seem to be referring to ones that happen in the future.

Jesus’ disciples were looking forward to the day when the kingdom God promised to the Israelites would be restored (Luke 24).  Many followed Jesus hoping that He was the one who would establish that kingdom. Their concept about this kingdom was not wrong. They just didn’t understand its timing. Isaiah prophesied about a time when God would sacrifice a lamb in order to forgive the sins of mankind (Isaiah 53). Jesus was that lamb. He was “the lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus’ disciples didn’t initially understand that this sacrifice must take place first. But their error doesn’t invalidate God’s promise that the Israelites would one day have a physical kingdom overseen by an actual ruler sitting on a real throne.

Why it Matters 

Speaking to Abraham God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse (Genesis 12:3).” I believe that this is a declaration by God that it matters how we respond to the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Believing that the Jews were given all of the land of Israel should not result in turning a blind eye towards what they’ve done to protect themselves if what they’ve done is unjust. But it should give us a better understanding from a biblical perspective of what’s happening in that region of the world and perhaps more important, why it’s happening.

That is as I see it today.