Troubles and persecution. 21:5-24
Our passage for study consists of three oracles concerning "the end of the age." The first "sign of the age" is the coming of false Messiahs and troubles in the world, v8-11. The second sign is the persecution of the church, v12-19. The third sign is the destruction of Jerusalem, v20-24. As is typical of prophecy, these sayings of Jesus (oracles) consist of layered revelation. The sayings concern the destruction of the temple (Jerusalem) and answer the disciples' question "when will this be and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" Yet, the actual events leading up to, and including, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD overlay a future fulfilment in the age to come. The signs not only concern the end of the Restored Kingdom in the destruction of Jerusalem, but also the fading glory of the church in the Present Spiritual Kingdom, and the test, trials and victory of believers awaiting the Heavenly Kingdom.
v5-6. The temple was completely rebuilt from 19BC to 64AD. It was massive, consisting of white limestone with gold and silver inlay. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, said it looked like a snow-capped mountain. It was totally destroyed during the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans.
v7. The disciples ask what "sign" will herald the destruction of the temple and when will this occur. In Matthew's gospel they also ask about the end of the age. Jesus goes on to answer their question about "signs", but not directly about the "when".
v8-11. Natural calamities and political upheaval are signs of the age, not of the end. The disciples are not to be led astray by false messiahs using such signs to prove their messianic credentials ("I am he" = the coming messiah).
v12. During (rather than "before") the signs of the age, believers will be persecuted.
v13-15. This will be a time of testimony (gospel proclamation) for believers. Disciples will be given the words that are both wise and powerful, for they are Jesus' words. Mark, in 13:11, refers to the Holy Spirit as the source of these words.
v16-18. Although persecuted and killed, even at the hands of family members, "not a hair of your head will perish" - a promise of spiritual protection, cf.12:4-7.
v19. Endurance shows that a disciple is truly grafted in Christ through faith, it shows that the word was not sown in shallow ground, cf.8:13.
v20 In Mark's parallel passage, 13:14-20, the end-times flavour is heightened, while in Luke the oracle is tied to the historic destruction of Jerusalem. In typical prophetic fashion, a word concerning the destruction of Jerusalem also applies to the end of the age, to Armageddon.
v21. In the day of tribulation, believers will need to take a low profile.
v22. The day is a day of punishment (vengeance) upon the wilful apostasy of God's people Israel. Of course, in the last day, this "vengeance" will be directed at the church. As the scriptures remind us, "judgement begins with the household of God."
v23-24. Josephus tells us that some one million people died in the Roman assault upon Jerusalem in 70AD. The statement that God's hand will remain on Israel until "the times of the Gentile's are fulfilled", has been hotly debated over the years, but it probably just means "until the triumph of the Romans over Jerusalem is complete", Joseph Fitzmyer.
The signs of the end
Jesus reveals to his disciples that he will be taken from them, but will return. During the interim, believers must not to be taken in by false messiahs announcing particular dates for the end of the age, or claiming some special power. Nor should they get overly concerned by political strife or natural disasters. People are always using these events as predictive signs, but they are nothing more than the death-pangs of a dying world.
These signs of the age serve as a time for testimony. During this time the church is to witness to Christ in gospel proclamation. The message we have to proclaim is both powerful and self-authenticating - Spirit empowered. The Lord has given us the content of the message and the wherewithal to achieve its end.
There is one particular sign which will herald the end day. This is the sign of the abomination of "desolation". This sign, said Jesus, will herald the end of the Restored Kingdom of Israel, but also the end of the Present Spiritual Kingdom. For the Restored Kingdom, the "abomination of desolation" was the move by Rome, against the Israelite rebellion in 68AD, which resulted in the siege of Jerusalem and its destruction in 70AD.
It is hard for us to visualize what this end-sign will entail, but we can be sure that when the tribulation finally comes upon the world, we will recognize it and so be able to protect ourselves from much of the Antichrist's fury. Somehow the believers in Jerusalem, at the time of the rebellion, knew that the "abomination of desolation" was upon them, and so they fled to the safety of Pella in Transjordan.
In our age, the "desolation" will most likely involve a concerted persecution of the church at the time of the revealing of the Antichrist. All we can say is that we will know when this day is upon us.
Discuss the effect that this oracle should have on our Christian life?