Jesus discourse about the end times: a tale of two questions.
Why I believe Jesus returns only once and when He does that everyone will see Him.
By Dick Lentz
(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:
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. 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.
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.