The Signs of the End… End of What?

Your Bible heading may say, “Signs of Christ’s Return,” or something similar. Please keep in mind that the headings over the sections of text in Scripture are not inspired in a verbal-plenary way by God—except, perhaps, in the Psalms. Jesus has left the Temple after weeping over Jerusalem and calling the city desolate. His disciples have pointed out the buildings, that they are still standing, and Jesus revealed that the Temple complex will be destroyed. Now, Jesus’s disciples have asked when the Temple complex will be destroyed and what will be the warning signs leading up to its destruction. Jesus tells us twice in this section of the narrative that the Temple will be destroyed within the generation present at the time (Matthew 23:36; 24:34). When Jesus tells His disciples the warning signs to be aware of, they are warning signs leading up to the destruction of the Temple complex (AD 70), not of Christ’s return in our future. You may need to change the heading in your Bible.

And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many (Matthew 24:4-5).

Jesus does not want His disciples to be misled. Leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, many people will claim to be the Jewish Messiah there to free them from the bondage of Rome. “Christ” is the greek title for the Hebrew “Messiah” and means “sent one” or “anointed one.” When we refer to Jesus as Christ, we refer to Him as the anointed one, the one sent to deliver God’s chosen people among the nations. Jesus is here saying that many people will come promising deliverance and claiming to be sent by God. He is telling His disciples not to listen to them because Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, not delivered. These false Christs will mislead many even in the wake of imminent destruction—such was Barabbas, an insurrectionist against Rome and a hero of Judea, which is why the Jews chose him over Jesus. Both Eusebius and Irenaeus record several.

“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end” (Matthew 24:6).

As the grip of Rome tightens in the decades following Jesus’s teaching, here, there is more and more talk of finishing what the Maccabeans started in the intertestamental period. Zealots become more pronounced and popular, and rumors spread about Roman emperors, namely Nero, making obvious war against Christians and Jews. Jesus tells His disciples, who will be present, not to be frightened. The end [of Jerusalem] will not come simply in the wake of wars and rumors thereof—particularly wars between Judea and Rome.

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Matthew 24:7-8).

We can read about the wars and rumors thereof in Josephus (Antiquities 18:5:3). There are even several earthquakes recorded leading up to AD 70 (Crete–46AD; Rome–51AD; Apamaia–53AD; Laodicea–60AD; Campania–62AD; The Bible mentions 2 earthquakes in Jerusalem –Matthew 27:51; 28:2; Acts 16:26. The harshness of the emperors, primarily Nero, brought about famine and pestilence—killing more than 30,000 Romans in one autumn (cf. Tacitus Annals 16.13; Suetonius, Nero, 39; Orosius 7.7.1011). In Acts 11:27ff, we even see some preachers applying what Christ predicted in Matthew 24 to their own time—instructing the church to be ready for such famine 10 or so years before the Autumn Plague during Nero’s reign. The church watched for the signs Jesus gave them at the appropriate time before that generation passed.

These were the beginning of birth pangs. It would be 5 more years after these signs appeared in history before Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple left desolate (cf. Matthew 23:38)—plenty of time for Jesus’s disciples (the ones still living) to see the signs and flee the coming catastrophe.

“Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name” (Matthew 24:9).

As we know from History, Jesus’s disciples were handed over to tribulation and many put to death prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Nero was the fiercest persecutor of Christians, even putting the apostle, Paul, to death sometime in the 60s AD. Peter also died under Nero, in AD 67 or 68. James, son of Zebedee, was martyred in about the year 44. Andrew may have been crucified around AD 60. Matthew also may have been killed in AD 60. Simon the Zealot may have been slaughtered in between AD 60-65. All nations, under the headship of Rome, hated Christians at this point (Tacitus Annales, XV, 44) because they worshipped Christ rather than any deity that was already approved under Caesar. 

Everything Jesus predicts here in Matthew 24 happens leading up to the destruction of the Temple complex—the desolation of Jerusalem.

“At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10-12).

When we read through the epistles, we see the apostles having to address false teachings, “Christians” who have fallen away, false prophets, and warning the congregations not to follow them into folly. All of these letters (except possibly Revelation, if you classify it as an epistle) are written prior to AD 70. You know from reading these letters that the disciples experienced much lawlessness and encountered a multitude of cold hearts. They experienced the signs of their times.

“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.

Jesus now says something remarkable. The one who endures to the end will be saved. The disciples would go through persecution. They would be killed. So, Jesus is not talking about a physical salvation, here—He has already predicted the martyrdom of many Christians during the great tribulation leading up to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. If one endures, not falling away, betraying, or hating one another, he will be saved—a spiritual salvation. This means that the end of their physical lives is not the end for them. They will live on. They will receive their crowns of glory.

The gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. The book of Acts recounts the proclamation of the Gospel in the whole world. In Colossians 1:23, Paul claims that the work was finished—the gospel was preached in all creation under heaven prior to AD 70. The text does not say it would be proclaimed to every single individual prior to the end. It does tell us that the completed commission will itself be a testimony to all the nations (I believe present and future). It still is. After the gospel was preached in the whole world, largely through the apostle Paul, the end of Jerusalem came—in AD 70, within that generation just as Jesus predicts in this section of Matthew’s narrative.

When interpreting the text literally (historically and grammatically), as we have done here, it is easy to feel a sense of betrayal because so many taught a non-literal interpretation of the text for a whole generation—speaking about cataclysms and signs of the times leading up to Christ’s second coming. Indeed, Christ will return bodily. But, desolation has already had its place and God will never again destroy the earth on account of people (cf. Genesis 8:21-22). It is very important that we read the Bible for what it is and take its claims at face value instead of importing strange doctrine and off-the-wall predictions based on the teachings of a man named John Darby instead of the Bible. When we read Matthew 24, we understand that Jesus cared personally for His disciples and others enough to share with them the warning signs of Jerusalem’s desolation—that they may flee to the mountains and be spared the terrible fate that awaited them in Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 24:16; Josephus, The Jewish War 6.194ff). Jesus also cares personally for us and gives us tools to discern the times we live in.

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