Our passage for study comes from the final discourse recorded in Matthew's gospel, a discourse in which Matthew draws together Jesus' teachings about the future. In the passage Jesus speaks about the climaxing moments of the tribulation and the events surrounding the "desolating sacrilege". As such, Jesus answers the disciples' question concerning the signs which will indicate when he is coming in judgment, both upon the Temple and at "the end of the age."
v15. Jesus has just described the normal state of affairs for humanity in a world falling apart - wars, rumors of wars, earthquake and famine, along with the persecution for God's people. Now he explains "the sign" of his "coming and the end of the age." The sign is "the desolating sacrilege." When this sign is revealed then know that the end is near. Jesus is alluding to Daniel 9:27, 11:31, the prediction of an abominable sacrilege inflicted on the temple. Luke actually spells it out for us; "when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near." Jerusalem, including the temple, was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. Of course, what Jesus says about this event applies to the church as we draw close to the end of the age. The same sign, in the form of a major affront to God's people, will herald the end of the world.
v16-22. When this sign occurs the only hope is to escape the terrible tribulation. Thankfully, God will shorten these days for the sake of his people. Somehow the early Christians read the sign and left Jerusalem prior to its destruction; they migrated to Pella in the Transjordan. Similarly, we too will be able to read the sign of the "desolating sacrilege" when it occurs. Although we don't know the specifics, it will involve the profaning of the people of God, the church.
v23-28. With the "increase of wickedness", culminating in the "desolating sacrilege", there will be an increase of messianic pretenders leading many astray, even leading astray the followers of Christ. These "false messiahs" will take many forms: religious, political, environmental, commercial, ....
v29-31. Jesus, using the language of the Old Testament prophets, describes the events following the catastrophic judgement upon Jerusalem. Again his words also describe the day of judgment at the end of the world. God will lay his hand upon the nations and shake them. He will enter into battle with them, v29. The imagery of the sun being darkened etc. comes from Isa.13:10, Ezk.32:7, Jol.2:10-11. Then will be revealed the "sign of the Son of Man", v30. In Isaiah 5 the prophet foretells that after God has judged his people he will lift up a sign to the nations to draw them to himself. This sign is the enthroned Messiah, Jesus, revealed in the trumpet call of the gospel today ("angels" = messengers, ie. evangelists) and of Gabriel in the last day, cf. Isa.28:13. How good it is that many will respond to this message in the mourning of repentance, cf. Zech.12:10.
v32-33. When a fig tree begins to sprout we know that summer is near, so if we experience a time of tribulation leading up to a "desolating sacrilege", take care, for the end may be near.
v34-35. Jesus makes the point to his disciples that the immediate fulfillment of his words will occur in their own lifetime.
Some years ago I came across some believers who were greatly affected by the Garabandal visions. A young girl in Portugal had witnessed the events of the great tribulation. Her vision was a horror, for she witnessed the darkness of the last days before Christ's return. These believers expected a time of literal darkness to come upon the earth. During this time there would be no light, except the light of specially blessed candles. So naturally they all had their candles at the ready for that terrible day.
This sense of pessimistic doom is not just confined to the Christian church. The secular world is mesmerized by the messianic climate change predictions of the green movement, even though science tells us that global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008 and that between 2005 and 2008 they actually went down 0.2C. Not that we shouldn't shift from our overdependence on carbon-based fuels, and given the advances in nuclear technology, our ability to do this improves yearly. Yet, today, every drought or flood is a sign of the end. A friend of mine has actually decided to become self-sufficient so that he and his family can survive when western society collapses. I have told him that if it does collapse, then we will all know where to come to get our fuel and food supplies.
It is true that the final days before Christ's return will be anything but pleasant, an abomination that desolates. The Bible has the church in the thick of it, persecuted, despised. The troubles of today will be accentuated in that day. Still, we will be victorious, we will reign, we will reign as the gospel reigns today, overcoming the darkness in the lives of all who reach out to Jesus.
When Jesus told his disciples about the end of the age, he was not trying to debilitate them with fear, but empower them with certainty. Yes, there is nothing permanent in the things of this world, but in Christ, the permanence of eternity is ours.
1. Discuss the events of the tribulation, comparing the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem with the events of the last day.
2. How is it that the gospel reigns today?