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. 


  1. Your quote from Luke about the time of the Gentiles should be from the 21st chapter. Right now it says it's from the 17th.

    1. Thanks for catching that, Milton -- I've fixed the reference.