The Sign of His Coming
In my first article for Conciliar Post, I admitted believing in the pre-tribulation rapture. Today I admit how rapture teachers typically abuse the Olivet Discourse, as if our Lord taught in it the “signs of the times.” Reviewing the discourse however, I hope to show how questions of eschatology can bring unity rather than division among Christians.
WHAT WE WISH THEY HAD ASKED
Today we want Jesus to return in glory as the visible King of kings and Lord of lords. We wonder about His timing, and wish for signs of his return. His disciples, however, had very different desires and questions on the Mount of Olives.
The disciples could not have asked when Jesus would return, for they did not believe that He would die, much less resurrect from death, ascend into heaven, or return to earth. Since they did not expect His departure, they could hardly ask the timing of His return, much less the “signs of the times” of his return. They asked instead what would be the sign (singular) of His coming or parousia in Greek, from the root para-eimi, meaning “to be beside.”
WHAT THEY ASKED
The disciples asked about what Jesus had been talking about. They asked for a sign of his coming because Jesus had just spoken of His coming. Beginning in Matthew 23:37, he said:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'” Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Jesus quoted Psalm 118:26, specifically, “Blessed is He who comes . . .” This Psalm promised the coming Liberator whose power would destroy all of the kingdoms (verse 10) surrounding Israel. The Israelites had sung this Psalm to Jesus just a few days earlier. The “coming” of which the disciples inquired was not his return, but his Psalm 118 authority over the nations.
Others had asked Jesus for a sign of his authority as well. In John 2:15-16 when Jesus expelled money changers and animal peddlers from the temple, people asked him in 2:18, “What sign do you show to us, since you do these things?” They were not asking about his return from heaven in John 2. They requested proof of his authority. Jesus replied in John 2 with the same thought that began the Olivet Discourse: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (emphasis added).
On both occasions, Jesus used words of temple destruction, and in both cases people asked for one sign of His authority, not a catalogue of events to portend future events. As some in John chapter 2 demanded a sign of Jesus’ authority in the temple, likewise the disciples asked in Matthew 24 by what sign Jesus would show his authority as the Psalm 118 coming Ruler.
SHOWING HIS HAND
The disciples asked when the temple would be destroyed because they expected that event to “force his hand,” as they say in poker. For three years, people had asked whether Jesus was their coming Messiah King. For three years, he had been talking about God’s kingdom, which I showed in my previous article to be the kingdom which comes to destroy.
The disciples were not content with the destruction of the demonic authority which Adam had established in his rebellion. All of Israel expected the Psalm 2 Anointed to “come into the world,” as Martha phrased it, with unambiguous authority. The disciples wondered how Jesus would show that he had come to bring an end to the age of Gentile oppression. After all, Jesus had just spoken of Daniel’s prophecy of temple destruction, which involves a great war. His disciples would not expect Him to remain the stealth King when the Gentiles destroyed his temple.
REPLY OF THE KING
In Matthew 24:4-14, our Master emphasized the danger of deception. He listed many events which seemed like triggers for the King of Israel to show his hand and prove His authority. As our modern world and our modern nation grow more rebellious, we wonder what hinders the hand of the Anointed. With a post-Christian Europe, an increasingly rebellious America, and the genocide of Christians in the Middle East, many American Christians are ripe for false prophecies of events to precede our King’s return. Yet Jesus emphasized to his disciples in Matthew 24:4-14, 23-26, and 36 that we cannot tell from current events when he will display the sign of his authority.
He emphasized not only the potential for deception, but also the task that must preoccupy them. He said in Matthew 24:14 that his followers must be proclaiming his gospel of the kingdom in all the world. He followed his demand with a lengthy exhortation from 24:36 to the end of chapter 35 about the conduct his followers. Nowhere in his exhortation did he include seeking prophecies or additional signs.
The sign of his coming-in-authority was singular, both in the question of the disciples and in our Lord’s reply. There are no “signs of the times” to be found in our newspapers. He gave the singular sign of his authority in Matthew 24:27-31. Just as the sign of a dead body is vultures circling in the sky, so likewise the sign of his overruling authority will be his appearing in the sky.
THE FIG TREE
Those who treat the Olivet Discourse as a list of current events rely heavily on Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in the middle of the Discourse:
When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near – at the doors!
Yet the current-events approach coupled with the pre-tribulation rapture which they espouse leaves no room for a current-events meaning in the fig tree parable. The events in Matthew 24:4-14 bore the disclaimer from our Lord that his followers should not be deceived by those events. Wars, earthquakes, and diseases have in fact happened ever since and almost without pause. Rapture teachers place the events of Matthew 24:15-31 after their departure, therefore those could not serve believers as “signs of the times.” Further, our Lord’s teaching after the fig tree parable emphasizes how surprising his return will be. His return has been and should expected as nearby ever since the first century according to the parable of the fig tree.
UNITY IN ESCHATOLOGY
I do not pretend we can argue every prophecy-watcher out of his or her quest for signs of the end of the age of Gentiles. Yet Matthew 24 offers an excellent opportunity to move conversations of eschatology toward unity rather than discord. When friends discuss the signs of the times, Matthew 24 comes up easily. Let our friends discuss their signs, but then let us ask about the singularity of the disciples’ demand for one sign and the singularity of our Lord’s replied sign, the one sign on which we all agree.
Just as we agree that his return on high is the singular sign by which the entire world will realize his authority, so likewise Jesus gave a singular demand (to proclaim the gospel of his kingdom) and a singular sign of his current authority. His authority does not await his return. When people asked Jesus for a sign in John 2:18, he replied:
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
The apostles proclaimed the sign of his current authority throughout Acts. They preached his resurrection, calling it the proof of his authority over all flesh. Having witnessed his resurrection, the apostles offered their eyewitness testimony to the sign of his resurrection. Today we have their blood as completed evidence. When we proclaim the kingdom of God, we can offer the historic record of the witnesses who shed their blood not for religious beliefs, but for their eyewitness testimony to something that they knew to be either a lie or truth, Jesus’ resurrection. People die for false beliefs. They do not willingly die for what they know is a lie. Jesus is the promised Anointed who has conquered sin and death. We agree on the future sign of his authority, his appearing on high. We agree on the current sign of his authority, his resurrection from death. Likewise, we have one agreed task in the interim:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.