Saturday, December 24, 2016

The End Times in Jesus' Own Words - Pt. IV

On this last day of Advent season, it is fitting to conclude this series with a post on the second coming, or parousia, of Jesus. We begin with a short review of the points Jesus made in his discourse to his disciples on the Mount of Olives in the last week of his earthly life -- the clues to when it would happen (of which the first point below is the most important):

  • “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36 ESV)
  • “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak.” (Matthew 24:15-18 ESV) [Note: This and other clues referred to in the two previous posts on the Great Tribulation indicate that there will first have to be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.]
  • “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:11-12 ESV)
  • “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14 ESV) [Compare Rev 14:6: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”]
  • Jesus then makes clear that He will come again, in glory, at the end of the times of tribulation described so vividly in John's retelling of the vision Jesus gave him in the Book of Revelation (Matthew 24:29-30 ESV, with my emphasis added):
    Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 
    This event will happen, however, very suddenly: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:27 ESV) Compare the elements of Jesus’ description of his parousia with the John’s description of the events following the breaking of the sixth seal (Rev 6:12-17 ESV):
    When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
    Compare also these passages with those in the Old Testament -- starting with the ancient words of the prophet Joel:
    The Day of the LORD (Joel 2:1-2, 3:14-16 ESV) 
     Blow a trumpet in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
    Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
    For the day of the LORD is near
    in the valley of decision.
    The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.

    The LORD roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake.
    But the LORD is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel.
    (See also the other OT “Day of the LORD” passages -- Amos 5:18-20, Zeph. 1:7, 14-18, Ezek. 30:3, Obad. 15, and Mal. 4:5 referenced on pp. 7-8 of the second downloaded handout for this series.)

    In John’s Book of Revelation, this “Day of the LORD” commences with the blowing of the last (seventh) shofar, which is the signal for the seven angels to empty their seven bowls of the wrath of God upon the unbelievers who have survived all the wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues and other catastrophes up to that point (Rev 11:15-19, and ch. 16).

    This time there will be no survivors. All who refuse to repent undergo the most disastrous calamities, cursing God the whole time, until at the end they are slain by the Lord Himself at his triumphant second coming, to become carrion food for all the remaining birds of the earth. The Beast and his False Prophet, who led the unbelievers into resistance, are cast into the everlasting lake of fire (Revelation 19:17-21 ESV):
    Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.  
    It is a terrifying finish to such an awful Tribulation. Jesus makes clear, however, that those who have remained alive and faithful to him up to that point will be spared what the unbelievers go through, in words that follow immediately after those quoted above as Mt 24:29-30. For in Mt 24:31, Jesus says (my emphasis):
    And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
    There is your “Rapture” -- notice how it dovetails neatly with Paul's description of the same event in 1 Cor. 15:51-52 (my emphasis again):
    Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
    See also Paul's description of the Rapture in 1 Th. 4:14-17, quoted in the third post of this series. It, too, dovetails with the passages just quoted.

    Jesus and Paul both tell us, therefore, that the part of the Tribulation which Christian believers will be spared is its final days, when God's wrath spills out upon those left on earth. There is no warrant, as I have pointed out in describing the many passages that refer to the deaths of believers during the days of the Antichrist and his False Prophet, and the rewards which those who die for their faith will receive in heaven, for assuming that Christians will be raptured before the Great Tribulation begins.

    To teach otherwise, I submit, is to become one of those “many false prophets [who] will arise and lead many astray,” as Jesus predicts in Mt 24:11. Moreover, such a false assurance, when it proves to be untrue, may well be the occasion for the “falling away” of many believers predicted for the start of the Tribulation in Mt 24:10. (If, on the other hand, I am wrong in my reading of the passages about the Rapture in relation to the Tribulation, then at least it will not matter -- Christians will be saved before having to undergo any of the Tribulation! But the same is not true the other way around.)

    Chapter 20 of John’s Book of Revelation is our only source for the events that will take place after Jesus’ parousia (Rev 20 ESV):
    Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 
    Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. 
    And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
    The final part of John's vision, recorded at the Messiah’s own command, describes “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1-8 ESV):
    Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. 
    Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 
    And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
    And thus we conclude this series of posts covering the End Times, as related in his own words by Jesus to his disciples, and as shown by Him to his faithful servant, John (Rev 22:20):
    He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” 
    With John, we may therefore say in closing: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

    A blessed and merry Christmas to you all.

    Thursday, December 22, 2016

    The End Times in Jesus' Own Words - Pt. III.B

    B. The “Great Tribulation” - Other Perspectives from the Bible

    In the previous post in this series, we examined what Jesus had to say about what he called “the Great Tribulation” in Mt 24:21 -- a time in the future “such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will” [Greek: eos tou nun oud’/kai ou me genetai]. We observed that based on the events to date in recorded history, these words could not be interpreted as having been fulfilled at some point before the present. Such a time of trial and tribulation, if Jesus’ prophecy is correct, would have to belong to the future.

    In this post, I want to demonstrate from other sources in the Bible that Jesus was not taking liberties with Old Testament scripture, or going out on a limb, when he foretold the time of the “Great Tribulation.” (To follow the discussion below, you should have before you the second handout downloaded from the link in the previous post; if you have not yet downloaded it [a .pdf file], you may do so here.)

    Most scholars agree that this time of great tribulation, which Jesus says will occur shortly before He appears in glory at his second coming (Greek: parousia), can be identified with the “time of Jacob’s troubles” spoken of by various authors in the Old Testament (see page 4 of the second handout linked above). I will not go into the details, but in reading these passages (Jer. 30:7, Dan. 12:1-4, Zech. 14:1-2) anyone should be able to see the degree to which they support Jesus’ description given earlier.

    The principal Biblical testimony as to the horror of the “Great Tribulation”, however, comes from the last book of the Bible. Often referred to mistakenly as “the Revelation of St. John the Divine,” as the King James version titles it, its proper title when translated from the Greek is: “The Revelation of Jesus the Messiah to John.” Thus the things revealed in this book stem from Jesus the Messiah; John is the amanuensis.

    There is much, however, that can confuse the present-day reader of Revelation -- it is a style of writing called “apocalyptic literature” which has no parallel anywhere else in the New Testament. (The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek ἀποκαλύπτω [apokalypto], a verb which carries the meaning of “to disclose, uncover, make known; reveal”.) The hallmark of apocalyptic writing is an abundance of vivid imagery, visions and fantastical descriptions -- something akin to how one would describe a dream that one felt was prophetic, yet whose meaning went beyond our ordinary understanding.

    Revelation is perhaps the one book in the Bible that gains most in our understanding by being read and listened to aloud. Like the famous radio script of Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds, the  words, symbols and events as narrated stimulate our imaginations and mental abilities as no other part of the Bible can, even to the point of overwhelming our ability to synthesize the whole of it -- and hence leaving us uncertain and confused by what the author intended to convey.

    The key to making sense of such writing is to realize that it presents a narrative that is not linear -- from one event to the next, in a rational, chronological sequence -- but rather is cyclical in character, in the form of an ever-widening spiral. There are many objects and events presented in groups of seven (the lampstands, the churches, the seals on the scroll, the angels, the trumpets, the bowls of wrath), and these form the basis for the structural cycles around which the book presents its message of how the End Times unfold, on all levels at once.

    Thus John was not describing End Times events from a single vantage point. He constantly shifts his perspective from that of earth to that of heaven and back again. Things that he narrates as happening on earth have simultaneous parallels in heaven, but the two tracks are circular instead of linear. They keep looping back on themselves, and instead of returning to the same point, each cycle takes us to a new level of intensified distress, calamity and destruction that leads inevitably to the final replacement of heaven and earth by a whole new creation. In each cycle John presents to us, it is the seventh and final stage that is either the climax of what came before, or else the transition to the next level of upwardly spiraling intensity. I shall try to illustrate these points in the discussion that follows.

    The handout linked above presents (pp. 4-6) most of the text of Revelation chapters six through nine, parts which in my opinion depict and corroborate principal elements of the Great Tribulation that Jesus described in much more abbreviated fashion to his disciples in the Olivet Discourse of the synoptic Gospels (reviewed in the three earlier posts in this series). The excerpts begin with the unsealing of the scroll, and continue up to the point of the blowing of the last (seventh) trumpet.

    The text is presented without chapter and verse numbers so that the reader may experience its impact  as a verbal whole, whether as read aloud or internally. I suggest you read it through aloud to yourself (or others, as well) before starting on the commentary that follows. It will also help to review the corresponding passages from the Olivet Discourse that precede it, on pages 1 through 3 of the second handout.

    The apocalyptic cycles that we encounter in this reading are the unfolding of the End Times scroll in heaven, as Jesus Christ (the Lamb who alone is worthy to do so) breaks its seven seals, with each unsealing followed by a calamity on earth. The breaking of the seventh seal takes us to a new level of intensified events and the start of a new apocalyptic cycle -- the seven angels who are each to blow a shofar, a ceremonial rams-horn trumpet. These in turn generate another series of woes on earth, up until the silence (in heaven) before the seventh angel sounds his shofar.

    Remember, as one would experience things in a dream, these events are not occurring on a linear timescale. What is more important to John's vision is that he experiences them on many planes and dimensions all at once, but he can narrate them only sequentially, as they come to his memory in the retelling of what Jesus Christ and the heavenly angels revealed to him. The key to understanding his presentation is, as I say, appreciating how the various cycles of events overlap and interrelate.

    The groups of seven also may be analyzed (if it seems helpful) into a group first of four, then of three. Thus with the breaking of the scroll's seven seals, the first four correspond to the celebrated “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, which I submit signify the events Jesus described (Mt 24:8) as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The first two horsemen bring conquest and war (“wars and rumors of wars” in Mt 24:6), while the second two bring famine and death (“plagues and famines” in Lk 21:11).

    With the breaking of the fifth seal, the scene shifts suddenly from earth to heaven, and we see all “the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the word of God and the testimony they had given.” These correspond to the passages in Mt 24:9-10, Mk 13:9 and 11, and Lk 21:12-16, in which Jesus warns that his followers will suffer betrayal and death on account of the testimony they give of their faith.

    I omit discussion of the sixth seal in this cycle, because it parallels the “Day of the Lord” texts which I propose to address in my next post. As is characteristic of the events toward the end of a given cycle, they serve as a ramp to the next level in the increasing spiral of intensity. In this case also, the breaking of the seventh seal provides the transition to the next group of seven calamities, as the seven angels “who stand in God’s presence” prepare to take up their trumpets.

    With each blast of a trumpet, the tribulations on earth intensify. Apart from the the “great signs and wonders” of Mt 24:24 and the flashes of lightning in Lk 17:24, John’s imagery here goes beyond what Jesus gave specifically in his Olivet Discourse, although He described it in Mk 13:19 more generally as “a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will.”

    As with the seals, so the first four trumpets relate to terrible physical calamities occurring on earth. The fifth trumpet involves a shift of scene -- from earth not to heaven this time, but to the Abyss, from which smoke and hordes of stinging locusts come forth. The sixth trumpet presages, as we shall see, the Day of the Lord again, and the seventh trumpet ramps us up to the next level of intensity: the seven bowls of God’s wrath, poured out in judgment on those remaining unrepentant on earth:
    The rest of the people who survived these plagues did not repent of the works of their hands or stop worshiping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which cannot see, hear, or walk. They did not repent of their murders, their deeds of witchcraft, their acts of sexual immorality, or their thefts.
    Beginning with his text in what we know as chapter 10, John mingles images of the heavenly and earthly events surrounding the parousia of the Messiah with the earlier events preceding it. Thus in Rev 10:6-7 the angel “standing on the sea and the land” announces:
    … there will be no more delay; on the contrary, in the days of the sound from the seventh angel when he sounds his shofar, the hidden plan of God will be brought to completion, the Good News as he proclaimed it to his servants the Prophets. 
    But in chapter 11, John shows the outer court of the Temple still in the possession of Gentiles as the two witnesses God has sent to convert and punish them are given 1,260 days in which to accomplish their mission. We are again in the days of the Great Tribulation, in which the two beasts (elsewhere called the Antichrist and the False Prophet) make their appearance, slay the two witnesses, and then have a final 1,260 days to impose their degradations (including the “mark of the beast”) on mankind and their defilements upon the Temple (ch. 13).

    Chapter 14 again contains a description of the events immediately preceding the parousia, including a total destruction of Jerusalem, “Babylon the great” (identified as Jerusalem in Rev 11:2 and 8) -- which has become polluted entirely with the sacrileges and desecrations committed in the final days of the Great Tribulation, including the murder of tens of thousands of those who remained faithful unto death, to receive their reward in heaven. (See Rev. 6:11, and 13:10 [“This is when God's holy people must persevere and trust!”].)

    Note (for those who believe the Rapture will take place before any of the faithful have to suffer through the Tribulation) how many of God's faithful elect are described as meeting their mortal deaths on earth during these final days. It is difficult to read any kind of dispensation for Christians into all of these passages -- and wait until we consider Jesus’ own words about the Rapture in the next post.

    These events with the two beasts and Babylon, keep in mind, are best read as an overlay on those already described above, associated with the seals and the trumpets. They are all happening in parallel, although John describes them (as he has to) in separate passages of his book (remember: chapters and verse numbers came much later; the original had neither, like the excerpts given in the handout).

    In such a tumult of catastrophic images, it can be difficult to draw precise parallels, or establish a definitive timeline. But that is not the point. Unlike the authors of the Gospels, John in Revelation is not giving us a narrative of events, but more of a kaleidoscope of what he saw and heard all at once in the vision Jesus gave him of the final days. The emphasis is on the sheer magnitude of the horrors that befall the unrepentant and the stiff-necked, even as those horrors multiply and intensify around them. John contrasts those images with the beatific faithfulness, even unto death, of Jesus’ followers, and the blessed and joyous reception that constitutes their reward in heaven.

    The next and final post in this series will focus on the terrifying “Day of the Lord” as foretold in the Old Testament, and the parousia as Jesus describes it to his disciples, and shows it to John in his vision.

    Sunday, December 18, 2016

    The End Times in Jesus' Own Words - Pt. III.A

    A. The “Great Tribulation” - a Necessary Condition for its Occurrence

    We continue our study in this Advent Season of End Times phenomena, based primarily on what Jesus is reported to have said about them. In Part One, I gave a background for the principal address we have from Jesus on the End Times -- the so-called Olivet Discourse, which forms the 24th and part of the 25th chapters of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, along with its parallels in Mark ch. 13 and Luke chs. 12, 17 and 21. The three versions of the Discourse may be viewed in a parallel column format, with the text color-coded to the specific questions asked by the disciples at the outset, in this downloadable .pdf document (which I refer to as “the first handout”).

    In Part Two, I showed how Jesus responded to his disciples’ questions about when Herod’s Temple would be destroyed as Jesus had prophesied, and what particular signs would act as harbingers of that event. That was a prophecy that saw its fulfillment in A.D. 70, or about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection -- within the lifetimes of many of those that heard him make it (Mt 24:34, Mk 13:30, and Lk 21:32).

    Now in this Third Part, I want to focus on Jesus’ words about what is called (after his own description of it) the “Great Tribulation” -- a time of trial and persecution (whose details we will take up in the next post) for many professing Christians. Jesus not only gives a fearsome description of this time, but he also provides (as with the destruction of Herod’s Temple) certain signs and warnings which will signify that the Great Tribulation is about to begin. As we shall see in a later post on this topic, his description of the timing of the Great Tribulation provides what should be a definitive answer to the prevailing question of these days: when will Christians still living be seized and carried up to meet their Lord in Heaven, given that St. Paul reported (“by a word from the Lord”) how that event would occur in 1 Th. 4:14-17:
     14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
    Among Evangelicals particularly, this event is known as “the Rapture” (and was the basis for the so-called, and highly successful, “Left Behind” series of fictional books by Pastor Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry Jenkins). Evangelical books and websites are filled with discussions of whether or not the End-Times Rapture will occur so as to rescue all believing Christians from undergoing the severe tests of the Great Tribulation that Jesus prophesies will take place. The defenders of each position have elaborate scriptural citations and arguments to support their contentions.

    In keeping with the theme of this series, I do not propose to go into any great detail about the Rapture, or to enter into any debates with the various schools of thought as to whether it will take place before, in the middle of, or just at the end of, the Great Tribulation. When Christians are so divided over what Scripture says to them, it seems best to focus instead on just what Jesus says about the Rapture, after we first look at what he said would precede it.

    For purposes of following along with this analysis, you may wish to download the second handout, a .pdf file at this link. There is no color-coding this time, as we are looking at just that part of the Olivet Discourse that was addressed to the third of the disciples’ four questions to Jesus: “What will be the sign of your coming again?” (Mt 24:3). This was actually the first question that Jesus addressed -- see the earlier discussion in Part One (and see the green-colored text in the first handout linked above).

    Jesus gives in this discourse a description of signs and events that will lead up to the climax of his parousia, or second coming. The events are fairly routine at first, but then they intensify with prophecies of the betrayal, persecution, torture and execution of his followers. [Nota bene:  these followers who suffer during the End Times for Jesus’ sake cannot be Jews who still await their Messiah -- they will be Christians. Hence you should take with a large grain of salt any exegesis of the Olivet Discourse that holds it to teach that Christians will be spared the sufferings of the Great Tribulation.]

    He precedes his account of those terrible events with a strong warning (Mt 24:4-5; see Mk 13:5-6, Lk 17:8):

    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.”
    He repeats this warning in Mt 24:10-11 and Mt 24:23-25 (parallels at Mk 13:21-23 and Lk 17:23), so a Christian ignores it at his or her peril. When we come to what the Book of Revelation says about the time of the Great Tribulation, we may better understand what underlies Jesus’ prophecy in Mt 24:10 that “many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another.” In other words, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, the End Times will put Christian faith, and Christian believers, to the severest of tests.

    The signs that will precede those terrible days, in addition to the appearance of many false prophets who will mislead Christian believers, will be “wars and rumors of wars -- nation will rise up against nation ... and in various places there will be [plagues and] famines and earthquakes” (second handout, pp 1-2). Such things will be bad enough, Jesus says, “but [they] are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Mt 24:8).  

    The betrayals (by family members!), lawlessness, apostasies and persecutions, says Jesus, will multiply as the End Times approach: Christians will be brought before the courts, they “will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony”, and they “will be flogged and even killed ...” (2nd handout, p. 2). Even these awful happenings, however, will still not be the sign of the Great Tribulation that precedes the Messiah’s second coming.

    Jesus invokes the prophet Daniel to describe what will be the most reliable sign of the approaching time of terror (Mt 24:15-20; 2nd handout, pp. 2-3):
    15 “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation’ which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet [Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11], standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 17 Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. 18 Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 Pray also that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath...”
    Before we consider the context of this invocation of Daniel’s ancient prophecy at this point in Jesus’ discourse, it behooves us to consider the words He says that immediately follow the prophecy Matthew quoted in vs. 15-20 [Mt 24:21-22, with my emphasis added]:
    21 “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will [Greek: eos tou nun oud’/kai ou me genetai]. 22 Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
    Luke, writing later than Matthew (and Mark), cites a different version from the one that Mark and Matthew give in their Gospels (Lk 21:23-24):
    23 “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled...”
    In my previous post, I pointed to the differences in Luke’s text of Jesus’ prophecy (written, most probably, after the Romans had destroyed the Temple), and commented how it showed signs of having been tailored to fit the facts of the Roman assault on Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 67-70, as well as its centuries-long aftermath (the “time of the Gentiles”, when no Jew was allowed to return to Jerusalem). In a certain sense, I noted, the version that Matthew and Mark gave of Jesus’ Temple prophecy could also refer to the Temple’s destruction by Titus, because that event was preceded by a desecration of the Temple by the Zealots in AD 66, exactly as Jesus had predicted, and came to pass within the lifetimes of his disciples.

    In addition, however, I explained how prophecies in the Old Testament could often be taken to have a dual fulfillment: applying both to the times of the Old Testament author, and to the times of the New Testament (e.g., Isaiah 7:14 -- included in the Old Testament reading for today). 

    Given Jesus’ phraseology (which I have put in bold above), I submit that a fair exegesis of these two passages shows that his prophecy of “an abomination of desolation [in the sense meant by the prophet Daniel]”, i.e., a desecration of the high altar, or innermost space, of the Temple at Jerusalem, could also refer -- given Jesus’ additional prediction of an unprecedented “Great Tribulation” following upon that desecration of the Temple -- to a future “abomination of desolation” erected in a future Temple at Jerusalem, i.e., one that is yet to be built.

    Supporting this exegesis of Mt 24:15-20 and Mk 13:14-19 is the simple fact that the invasion of Jerusalem by Titus’ forces in AD 70, and their subsequent destruction of the Temple and slaughter of as many as a million Jews, could not then qualify as having resulted, even if Jesus’ prophecy could be interpreted as applying to Jews who did not then accept him as the Messiah, in “a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor never will ...” (Mt 24:21). To cite just one subsequent example, Hitler’s extermination program in World War II resulted in the slaughter of some six million Jews. 

    What is more, the persecution of Christians for their faith by the Romans in AD 90-325 did not even remotely compare to Hitler’s massacre of the Jews in 1939-45, nor (I submit) to the worldwide persecution of Christians that is occurring everywhere as I write this, from the ACLU in America to Boko Haram in Nigeria, which worldwide persecution even now is accelerating.

    The final buttress for this exegesis of Jesus’ prediction in Mt 24:21 concerning a “Great Tribulation” that has not yet occurred is found in his very next sentence (24:22, with my emphasis added):
    “Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
    Jesus says that the days of the Great Tribulation will be “cut short” for the sake of the elect, i.e., those who will share eternal life with him after the horrors of “those days.” In other words, for the sake of God's elect, the final days of the Great Tribulation will be cut short -- by the parousia, the Second Coming of the Messiah, our Lord. His prediction in Mt 24:21, therefore, has not yet occurred.
    Moreover, whether or not Jesus’ prophecy of a terrible time beginning after Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” is read as applying to Jews in Israel in AD 70 or just to a future time for Christians after AD 70, there has been no recent such “abomination” (since there is no Temple in Jerusalem capable of desecration in these days) which could serve as Jesus’ sign for the beginning of the End Times.

    I ask that you suspend judgment on this point for now; I will return to it when we address the further testimony provided by the Book of Revelation. For purposes of this exegesis, let us assume that Jesus was making a prophecy, not only as to the Temple of Herod that stood most impressively solid in His own time, but also as to some future Temple upon Temple Mount that the Jews would erect at some much later time.

    If that assumption is correct, then it follows as a matter of logic that the Temple must first be rebuilt upon Jerusalem's Temple Mount before it may be desecrated for a third time -- by the AntiChrist, or his False Prophet, or by whomever (see again my future discussion of the Book of Revelation on this point). And since the Temple has not yet been so rebuilt upon Temple Mount (albeit the plans for its erection are ready to go), I maintain that there is no way, according to Jesus’ own words, that this age is yet approaching the End Times that Jesus described to his disciples.

    If my reading of Matthew 24:15 is not correct, then Mt 24:15-20, as well as Mk 13:14-18, apply only to the generation that was alive at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in AD 33. We then are left with St. Luke’s rather open-ended version of Jesus’ prophecy, as quoted earlier (with my bold emphasis):
    “... for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled...”
    Under this reading of the Gospels, one has to ask: “What are the ‘times of the Gentiles’, and how can one determine when they have been fulfilled?”

    And once again, I submit that logic dictates the answer, like it or not.

    For the phrase in Luke’s Gospel -- “the time of the Gentiles” -- coupled with Luke’s phrase “Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by [those same] Gentiles”, cannot refer to anything other than the Roman occupation of that city which started in AD 70, succeeded by Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount until this very day. Thus even if we take only St. Luke’s version of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse as our guide to when the End Times will begin, we see that such an era will commence only when Muslim occupation of the Temple Mount has ceased. 

    And for that to happen, Israel will have to prevail in another war to drive Muslims once and for all out of all Jerusalem, including her Temple Mount -- and another Temple will need to be rebuilt upon its original site, in which all Jews may worship once again as they did in the times of Jesus. Only then will the prophecies of Jesus as to the fulfillment of “the times of the Gentiles” in Jerusalem come to pass.

    So under either path of exegesis -- relying upon just Sts. Mark and Matthew, or relying upon only St. Luke, we arrive at the same endpoint: the End Times may, according to Jesus’ own words, take place only when there first has been built upon Temple Mount a third Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

    We have thus arrived at the necessary condition for the End Times (and the Great Tribulation) to commence as described by Jesus in his Olivet Discourse. In my next post, we will corroborate the above analysis from the eyewitness of John as given in the Book of Revelation, and will delve further into the details of the Great Tribulation itself. 

    Friday, December 9, 2016

    The End Times -- in Jesus' Own Words (II)

    If you have not done so yet, you may read the first post in this series here. There you will find an overview of the plan for this series, together with a link to download (.pdf) a parallel-text version of Jesus' Olivet Discourse, delivered to his disciples on the Tuesday evening before He was crucified. You should use that downloaded handout to follow what is below.

    We begin our dissection of the Olivet Discourse with the last two of the four questions put to Jesus by his disciples, after he prophesied to them that the huge and magnificent Temple in which they had just been would be torn down one day, "with not one of these stones left upon another." Jesus had referred to the Temple complex as "all these things" (in Greek, ταῦτα πάντα [tauta panta]), and the disciples used the same phrase when (according to the Gospels of Mark and Luke -- see page 3 of the downloaded handout) they asked him two questions (Mk 13:4, Lk 21:7):

    1. "Tell us, when will these things happen?"

    2. "And what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled"?

    Neither of these questions, however, is the one to which Jesus responds when he starts his discourse. As shown by the color-coding in the handout, he did not get around to addressing the specifics of when the Temple would be torn down until page 7 (Mt 24:15-16, Mk 13:14, Lk 21:20-21). He first warned them that there would be a distinctive sign as a precursor to the Temple's destruction: in Matthew and Mark's versions, it is what He called "the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing in the holy place/where it should not be".

    This was an explicit reference to the earlier desecration of the Temple that Daniel had foretold, and that took place at the hands of King Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC, just before the time of the Maccabees. Antiochus had gone so far as to slaughter a pig on the high altar. So to just what event was Jesus referring that occurred before the Romans finally stormed, burned and tore down the Temple in AD 70?

    For answer, we have to consult The Jewish Wars of Josephus, the first-century historian of the events culminating in the Temple's destruction. He describes the desecrations that occurred when a band of Zealots and brigands took over the rulership of the Temple, and dislodged the priests who had been in charge before:
    (147) Now, the people were come to that degree of meanness and fear, and these robbers to that degree of madness, that these last took upon them to appoint high priests. (148) So when they had disannulled the succession, according to those families out of whom the high priests used to be made, they ordained certain unknown and ignoble persons for that office, that they might have their assistance in their wicked undertakings; (149) for such as obtained this highest of all honors, without any desert, were forced to comply with those that bestowed it on them. (150) They also set the principal men at variance one with another, by several sorts of contrivances and tricks, and gained the opportunity of doing what they pleased, by the mutual quarrels of those who might have obstructed their measures; till at length, when they were satiated with the unjust actions they had done towards men, they transferred their contumelious behavior to God himself, and came into the sanctuary with polluted feet.

    (151) ... Those men made the temple of God a stronghold for them, and a place whither they might resort, in order to avoid the troubles they feared from the people; the sanctuary was now become a refuge, and a shop of tyranny. (152) They also mixed jesting among the miseries they introduced, which was more intolerable than what they did; (153) for, in order to try what surprise the people would be under, and how far their own power extended, they undertook to dispose of the high priesthood by casting lots for it, whereas, as we have said already, it was to descend by succession in a family. ...
    (155) Hereupon they sent for one of the pontifical tribes, which is called Eniachim, and cast lots which of it should be the high priest. By fortune, the lot so fell as to demonstrate their iniquity after the plainest manner, for it fell upon one whose name was Phannias, the son of Samuel, of the village Aphtha. He was a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but that did not well know what the high priesthood was; such a mere rustic was he! (156) Yet did they hale this man, without his own consent, out of the country, as if they were acting a play upon the stage, and adorned him with a counterfeit face; they also put upon him the sacred garments, and upon every occasion instructed him what he was to do. (157) This horrid piece of wickedness was sport and pastime with them, but occasioned the other priests, who at a distance saw their law made a jest of, to shed tears, and sorely lament the dissolution of such a sacred dignity.
    This defilement of the Temple by Zealots and brigands took place in AD 67, even before Titus and his soldiers began their siege of Jerusalem. When Jesus warned of a desecration of the Temple, he was a Jew, speaking to fellow Jews. The readers of Matthew and of Mark would have understood the significance of the events described by Josephus, because only fully qualified priests were ever allowed to perform the sacrifices at the high altar of the Temple, and to serve there. Replacing those priests with fools and buffoons chosen by lot, and having them "perform" the priestly functions as untrained as they were would have been seen by Jews in Jerusalem as being on a par with Antiochus' "abomination of desolation."

    It is also the consensus of most scholars that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew were most likely the first to be written, around AD 60 -- before the Romans sent a retaliatory force into Israel. So those authors did nothing more than report Jesus' prophecy, along with His account of what would happen to the Temple just before its destruction, but they most likely did not have the advantage of hindsight.

    When Luke wrote his Gospel, however, the siege and destruction of the Temple was most probably already an event in the past. Moreover, his audience was not so much Jews as it was educated Greeks -- with the events of AD 67-70, the Jews had been driven out of Jerusalem, and had begun the process of separating themselves from Jewish Christians. (They of course had nothing in common with Christians who were Gentiles, like the people for whom Luke probably wrote.)

    What corroborates these statements is how Luke changes the words of Jesus in describing what precursors would be a sign of the impending destruction of the Temple (and, by implication, Jerusalem). He has Jesus say (Lk 21:20): "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near." The feats of Titus and his soldiers in taking first the citadel of Jerusalem and then also of Masada were, by the time Luke was writing, known around the civilized world.

    Another clue to the timing of Luke's Gospel is in the details he adds to Jesus' warning to Jews to flee the city once the sign foretelling her destruction appeared. Matthew and Mark have Jesus saying  "then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains." (It should be noted, again in corroboration of the early date of the composition of their Gospels, that Josephus does not record the presence of any Christians remaining in Jerusalem when Titus' armies surround the city. And the early Christians have no stories that have come down to us about any trials or tribulations they endured in its siege.) Luke then adds these words to those in the other two Gospels (21:21-24):
    ... "and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written shall be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."
    This wording almost certainly draws upon Luke's knowledge that after putting to the sword all the defenders of the city and its Temple, the Romans exiled from Jerusalem all the Jews who survived the siege, and scattered them to other lands. After Titus did this, only Gentiles could occupy Jerusalem. Even if Jews had been allowed back, they would no longer have had a Temple in which to make sacrifices. Their rabbis declared a halt to the sacrifice of animals -- which, since there still is no Temple in Jerusalem, continues to this day.

    There is one final passage in the Olivet Discourse which I believe pertains to Jesus' remarks about the future destruction of the Temple. It is found in all three synoptic Gospels, and has been the occasion of much prophetic speculation. I refer to Jesus' words at Mt 24:34, Mk 13:30, and Lk 21:32 (page 12 of the downloaded handout, with my bold emphasis added):

    "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."

    There is that tell-tale phrase of Jesus again: tauta panta, or "all these things." As we saw above, when he first used it he was referring to his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple. Thus, even though this passage comes much later in the three Gospels, and comes in the midst of Jesus' discussion about the eskaton or End Times, it must be taken to refer back to his original prophecy. In direct answer to their first question quoted above, Jesus was telling his disciples that some of them would still be alive when the Temple was destroyed.

    Those who take the passage to apply to when the End Times will occur are, due to the lapse of nearly 2,000 years since Jesus first said those words, forced to invent elaborate theories like the whole structure of Dispensationalism -- with its "Church age" acting as a kind of comma between the time of Jesus' prophecy and the start of the final period before His second coming. I do not propose to go into any detail on that subject, because I think that such an application of the passage is misguided, given what we have in the original Greek ("tauta panta").

    I also am mindful of the fact that many of the prophecies in the Old Testament had a double significance -- they would apply not only to the time when the prophet made them, but also to the time of Jesus. An example is the famous verse in Isaiah 7:14 -- "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son ..." Thus many students of eschatology (or End Times) believe that Jesus' prophecy about a destruction of the Temple will recur during the fighting leading up to the Battle of Armageddon.

    For that to happen, of course, the Temple would first have to be rebuilt upon Temple Mount, and the Islamic structures now occupying that site would have to disappear. We are obviously not there yet, although the Middle East remains a powder keg that could ignite a full-scale war between Israel and its Arab neighbors at any time.  If war breaks out, we well could see Israel take full control of Temple Mount, and the religious pressure on the government to remove the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, to allow the rebuilding of the Temple to occur, would be simply enormous.

    This completes my exegesis of the parts of the Olivet Discourse that deal with Jesus' words about the fate of Herod's Temple. In the next few posts, we will look closely at the main subject of that Discourse, namely the Second Coming of Jesus, and the harbingers which lead up to that momentous day.