Anticipation

Once the question was put to the well known 19th century evangelist Dwight L. Moody: “What is the secret of your success?”

The answer was: “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

Much about what Moody said is in line with the words of Jesus himself. In the passages of scripture known as the Olivet discourse, where he spoke on the signs of his coming and his return in glory, he gave this same kind of application. One day, in the last week of his earthly ministry, several days before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, the Lord described all this in a private teaching session with Peter, James and John on the heights of the Mount of Olives above the city of Jerusalem. The three gospels recount this teaching in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Here are two previous posts in this blog on the Olivet discourse (Mark 13):

The application, then,  of what Jesus had told Peter, James and John in the Olivet discourse, about the signs of his coming and his return in glory to gather together his people came at the end of his teaching. In light of his words about his return to take up his visible sovereignty in this world he gives his own application to his people of how to live in regard to the events that will come. Since believers in Jesus have the inside knowledge on the fact of the Lord’s return, it is reason not for calculation nor for speculation but for preparation. The incentive of his return is the incentive to live right and to work eagerly for Christ in hope and anticipation.

With the explanation of this incentive the Statement of Faith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gets it exactly right:

“The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal, visible, and premillennial. This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.”

That’s the emphasis which is so often missing in discussion of end times prophecy: the anticipation of the Lord’s return is an incentive and motivation to holy living and active, faithful service. That’s the conclusion and his own application of his own prophecy of the events around his return to earth in glory in the Olivet discourse. This the point that he himself came to at the conclusion of the Olivet discourse. With all that Jesus said that day on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, when explained the events leading up to and then his return in glory, to take up his visible kingship of the world, his own words pointed out what is significant for his disciples in the light of the predicted events. It wasn’t about speculation or finding the order of events on a timeline or a chart; it was about being faithful to the very end no matter what would happen as the end drew closer.

So it may seem that many believers don’t really get the impact of what he was saying to all of us in the Olivet Discourse. We may follow the fashionable paths of the conversations about end times prophecy as we have in the past two to three generations and miss the point of why Jesus said what he said. We’ve become caught up in analysis and a tendency to date setting and have too often passed over the call  of Jesus himself to a careful consideration and application of his words to our lives now. Since we have the privilege of the inside knowledge of the fact of the Lord’s return, he calls us not to use this knowledge neither for curiosity, nor for speculation nor for calculation but for preparation. His words are to fuel that incentive to live holy lives and work eagerly for Jesus in the hope of his certain return and loving anticipation of the hour that he is going to return.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

“But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time. It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” (Mark 13:28-37, Dale’s sight translation).

Believers in Jesus Christ must first of all pay attention for the signs of his return. His expectation is that they would have a continuous alertness to their lives to the signs of his coming, but with a his own reason why they are to pay attention. His expectation is what his followers, forearmed with the knowledge of his return and the preceding events, would first of all not be caught up in the routines of this world. His expectation was that his people were to pay attention to be able to recognize the signs of the end of the world as we know it, to when he returns and brings us the world as he wants it. But this expectation wasn’t to be the source of endless speculation and bickering about differing interpretations, but rather for diligence to be prepared for his return.

It’s extremely significant to understand Jesus himself expected that believers would be able to see and to recognize the signs of his return. All throughout the Olivet Discourse he used the word, “. . . you . . . ” in the plural sense to address the people whom he expected to understand and follow what he was saying. Certainly he meant the three apostles who were the immediate audience, who kept these words in their hearts and passed them down to us. But we need to include ourselves among the, “ . . . you  . . .” in the plural sense as well, just as we do throughout the entire New Testament whenever we see that expression used and it cannot be restricted just to that particular place and time by a qualification that arises directly from the immediate context. Jesus used the word, ‘’ . . . you . . . “ in the plural sense with the expectation that believers throughout all ages would be able to compare what he had already explained with what was happening and to be able to tell that he was very near. His expectation was that his explanation of what would happen at the time of his return would give enough of an indication that he was ready to return and that his arrival was just around the corner.

So the first part of this is the lesson from the fig tree, in verses 28-29: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. The word which I’ve translated “lesson” is literally “parable.” It could also be translated, “analogy.” It’s noteworthy that this is the second time that Jesus has used the fig tree as an object lesson within the past several days. So here he used a familiar occurrence that happened every year as an indication of what would eventually happen only once, namely, the complete fulfillment of the signs for his return. And the summer, in the Mediterranean climate, was the time of harvest – which goes right back to his earlier talk about the harvest,  the gathering of God’s people to himself at the return of Jesus. And then what Jesus meant by ‘these things’ were the previous signs which he had already explained. This would include the complete evangelization of the world (13:10). The most probable and significant application of what Jesus is talking about is to a definite period of time at the end where all the signs are taking place at an unprecedented intensity — including all the persecutions and upheavals.

The expectation of Jesus is clearly that his followers are to watch for the signs of his coming in all places and all ages. With this he contradicts the idea of the ‘imminence’ as applied to his return as meaning that there will be no identifiable and obvious signs preceding some kind of secret coming before his visible coming. He clearly expected his followers to be on earth and to have his words in hand as they watched the world for the signs of his coming. Even more, his expectation is that the watching for his coming would not require meticulous analysis of end times prophecy but understanding of his words according to the common sense meaning. This would mean that average believers with average intelligence could take his words and understand that he is near by comparing what he had said to what was happening in the world.  Here is a  list of what he had already explained would be the signs: first and most definitely the appearance of the Antichrist, evangelization of the world, worldwide persecution, and then the cosmic signs. All these would and should be something that would be understandable to an average believer with his words in hand and with an eye to what was happening in the world.

The attitude of anticipation and waiting doesn’t require deep and exact knowledge of Biblical prophecy. Indeed, we can see that this simply requires noticing the signs and understanding what they can mean. For example, during my college years, our family dachshund, Gretchen, knew that something was going to happen when my mother started spending more time in the kitchen doing some extra baking and food preparation. So she would lay on the rug near the back door of the house. She knew that someone from the family was going to come back home for a visit, and she wanted to be ready to give her greetings and spend some time with a beloved family member.

Along with the call to watch for the signs of his return, then, Jesus gives another promise for the future: the time of fulfillment of the signs of his return will not be long and drawn out. Rather, from what he said there is the indication that the time of contractions could be approximated to the normal lifespan of a human being at the most. And even more, he adds on the additional assurance that all these events will certainly come to the final culmination, upon the authority of Jesus himself.

This is what he is speaking about when he says, in verses 30-31: “Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  The point he is making is that there is the certainty of fulfillment within a normal person’s lifetime. He’s not giving an indication not of definite day and time but rather the approximation of the length of time within which the signs will be fulfilled. This restricts the time of fulfillment to within the lifetime of a normal person as the signs appear. The approximation of a lifetime is probably a much larger interval than it will really be, but it is wide enough and sufficient to keep anyone from becoming too comfortable and precise with calculating the time of his return too closely. This assurance then follows his earlier assurance that the days of spiritual, moral and political disaster would be cut short for the sake of his people (vv. 19-20).

He then adds on this assurance and notarizes it with his own stamp of authority upon his own words as more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   This notarization of the everlasting authority and reliability of his words is also, of course, applicable to all his words, of course. And here he is claiming a greater permanence for his words than was claimed for the Old Testament Law that the disciples had been brought up from early childhood to revere. This stamp,  the guaranteed reliability of his words, then make it no gamble to stake one’s life on faith in and obedience to his word in sacrifice and effort in all ages, but they provide the extra assurance that his disciples would need even more as the end approaches most closely and the trials of their faith become perhaps the most severe that will ever be experienced by his followers in all human history.

The certainty of the words of Jesus is therefore the stamp of assurance on all that he had to say to his people.  Jesus adds the emphasis here since it seems that his veracity and reliability may especially be tried and tested as things come closer to the end. Ultimately, though, scriptural faith in the scriptural Jesus must mean utter faith in his words to the end, whether that end is his coming in glory or the ends of our lives as our bodies succumb to physical death before he comes. And seemingly his extra emphasis on the utter reliability of his own words will be something that is utterly necessary in the final days before his coming, as well as something utterly necessary also for the days up to that time. A complete trust in his Word is not something that can be delayed until the signs are actually upon us. I couldn’t say that if we delay our trust until actual fulfillments are upon us that we won’t fall under the same kind of deception that falls upon the world of mankind as a whole at that time. We can and should rather take his statement, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,”   as his assurance that the time that things get to their worst that the best is just around the corner, upon his own authority and veracity as the eternal Son of God.

Even more then, we can understand that what Jesus had to say about his return came from the heart of overflowing love and concern for each of us. His words were passed on to us because he wants us to be ready and because he wants us to understand what was going to happen. He wanted us to have the greater trust in his word than anything else that could trip us up in the world around us. So therefore his call to pay attention to his words about the circumstances attending his return in glory is his call of love for us because he wants us to be ready for him. And as I’ve already written, paying attention doesn’t mean a certainty in any calculations of the precise time of his arrival. Rather it still means living and serving with the uncertainty of the precise time of his arrival.

THE UNPREDICTABLE DATE AND TIME OF THE RETURN OF JESUS CALLS FOR US TO SERVE HIM WELL. If our anticipation of his soon return is real, it will mean alertness, effort and consistency in the fulfillment of our spiritual duties. This is the application from the prediction of Jesus’s return that is so often lost or underemphasized when believers get into end times prophecy: real anticipation of his c0ming return means serving him well in this life.

While there will be signs of his return, as Jesus himself has explained. watching for Jesus’s return is necessary at all times because the exact time of his return has not been revealed. He has given strong indications of the approximate time of his return, but he has left it open enough so that there is no possibility of delaying anything until the last possible moment. This is deliberate: he has set up his prophecy in such a way that watching and alertness is necessary at all times because that moment cannot be predicted or calculated.

Here, in verses 32-33, is where Jesus lays it on the line for us about how we don’t know the exact time of his return: “But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time.” The exact time of the return is hidden in the secret counsel of God, according to what Jesus has just said. What this means is that the exact time of his return was not something that God the Father would reveal to the human consciousness of the Son of God in his earthly ministry to reveal to his people. And therefore since it was not something that Jesus was given to reveal, therefore no lesser being, no angel or human being can ever know that day or hour as well. Since it has not been revealed to any of his lesser servants either, it is deception for anyone to claim that he or she has that revelation. Note also earlier in the same chapter, in verse 6 and verses 21-22, in this same prophetic context: one of the marks of the false prophets and false Messiahs that were to come would be claims of certainty about something that Jesus himself did not claim certainty.

Since so we cannot know when the exact time – the day or hour that the Son of God appears in glory– really is, we can make no mistake about any kind of earthly claims to certainty on this point. Here Jesus himself in scripture has given us the warning, and no clearer warning could be given to the ages afterward about over-precision in the ‘when’ of his return, and against over-speculation and date setting. What the Son of God did not know in his human consciousness upon earth and did not have authority to reveal on earth is not something which any human being has authority to fill in. Whether someone presents himself or herself as a purported prophet or prophetess, or claims to have received a purported revelation from an angel, a lesser spiritual being (more likely a demonic angel of light), there is no following revelation to come that will give any more precision until he appears in the sky in glory.

Watching  for the return of Jesus Christ therefore does not mean predicting the time of his return, and sureness of his coming does not mean certainty of the day or hour. Make no mistake about it, this is a tremendous warning necessary for any who would get caught up in trying to pin down dates and times too precisely.  It is sheer spiritual insanity and the most debased kind of hubris to anyone to claim that something so significant that was not revealed to the Son to be revealed to us. And this was quite deliberate on the part of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves: if he had permitted it to be otherwise, our reaction would be to try to slack off until the last moment in our devotion to him in holiness and service.

So here’s a bit of lore about A. W. Tozer, which is unpublished to my knowledge, that demonstrates the correct application of this statement of Jesus. Tozer sat on the ordination committee of a pastor who was young at the time, and he later mentioned this to me when I asked him about what memories he had of Tozer. While he was himself undergoing the oral examination for ordination into the pastorate for our denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of the pastors on the ordination committee, who was known to be really into end times prophecy, questioned the pastor in such a way that it seemed like he was  trying to elicit some kind of precise time or date. So finally Tozer exclaimed,  “God himself didn’t know that – how can you expect him to know that?”

Again, it is deliberate that the exact time of the Lord’s return is unknown to us now and unknowably to us until he does actually return. The reason is motivation: the true incentive of the imprecise knowledge available to us of the Lord’s return is to serve him faithfully now, upon earth. That way he has given us no reason for distraction with the cares of our lives, for passive waiting or obsessive speculation. Rather this uncertainty is necessary for us, to do what is best for us in light of his return in glory, for our occupation and immersion in conscientious service.

Jesus explains this and drives it home with a pretty down to earth analogy in verses 34-37: “It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” 

I call this an analogy rather than a parable, since the term ‘parable’ brings up some rather strict, artificial rules from some interpreters. But the analogy of the master who is away and the servants who are left with responsibilities from him until his return, was a common reality in ancient societies, and the disciples then would understand it easily, and even in our society where slavery is illegal it is down to earth enough that we can understand it easily. The parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew adds the analogy of the thief in the night which was taken up by Paul as well, but Mark leaves it out for whatever reason, and whatever that reason may be does not cry out for us to fill it in with needless speculation. But this analogy would have definitely been applicable to the apostles who were sitting right there. They had been explicitly called as apostles, to be the emissaries of Jesus. It applies to the church then and now, as it has rightfully been understood throughout the ages of the church.

The call to faithfulness assumes that Jesus has already given definite responsibilities to his people throughout his word. From the preceding context also, this would mean dedication to world evangelization (13:10) and taking up the cross and standing for Christ even when it means probable martyrdom (13:11-13). So it would be quite legitimate to apply this to the responsibility to reach the world with the gospel, as in the three definite forms of the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-47, Acts 1:8.  Watchfulness therefore means serving and laboring for the Lord, and it is clear that he does not want to find anyone sleeping on his return. This is his warning against spiritual lethargy, slacking off, for whatever reason. In view of the previous context of the entire gospel of Mark, this would mean getting caught up in the activities of this world and self-indulgence and thus becoming the seed sown upon the thorns (Mark 4:18-19). So he himself sets before us the alternatives of faithfulness as meaning reward, unfaithfulness as losing the reward which is his approval. It’s a binary choice, from the Son of God himself. 

So for us to take up and share the concern of Jesus for our faithfulness in service must ultimately mean faithfulness to the assignment which Jesus has given to his people, both individually and as a fellowship of believers. There are so many other reasons that are so often given for us to be faithful in service – following a tradition, maintaining our church’s status quo or even national survival and prosperity. But these are not the incentive that Jesus himself gave, which was rather personal faithfulness to him, to receive his approval of what we’ve been doing for him in the meantime while we have been waiting for his return. It is just like the statement of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “The fact that Jesus Christ is to come is not a reason for stargazing but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.”

This entire consideration of the Olivet Discourse should spur us on to greater concern and prayer, then, from each individual and for each individual, as to serving well until the Lord comes. I think this would mean much less attention to our pious platitudes and clichés, which we often prattle to sound more spiritual than we are. It would mean less unfair dealing, childish directions and outright interference, hijacking and sandbagging to our brothers and sisters in Christ as they go along with us along the journey of following Jesus for a lifetime, toward greater maturity and steadfastness in Christ. It means rather for us each one to give due consideration to one’s one level of faithfulness, maturity and steadfastness in Christ first of all.

Jesus Christ is returning again; he is coming back to our earth to rule with perfect justice and to bring perfect happiness to his people. The hope of the world is not some man made utopia but the return of Jesus to bring his perfection back to our world to stay. So while he has given his people advance knowledge of his return, his expectation is not that we would spend our time either in procrastination or speculation. His expectation is that we would be constantly and steadfastly faithful to him in the meantime. The eagerness that we may have to see the Lord face to face, which we may include in our songs and prayers, will mean a steady application of ourselves to his assignment for our lives – and that will not be a burden for us, but our joyous preparation for the life beyond imagination when we are in his presence forever.

The return of Jesus Christ’s return is the reason first of all to be prepared with the most basic preparation necessary, to be in a right relationship with him.  Have you have entered his salvation through repentance and faith in him alone? Do you have the security in him that comes from a definite profession of faith and a life which shows the reality of having truly been born again of his Spirit?

Next, since Jesus Christ is the hope of those who have put their faith in him, that always remains a compelling reason to remain in that abiding relationship with him through continued faith, love and obedience, and for remaining in fellowship with him and with his people. He is the source for the strength to endure to the end as we remain in him and with his people.

Finally,  Jesus Christ is the yearning of those who remain faithful in service for him. All their aspirations and all their desires will be ultimately fulfilled at his arrival. And that always remains our reason for consistency in service to and  to be pleasing to him. That is the reason for us to seek to learn and live out his will is for the kind of people we are to be from his Word and for us to be faithful to his assignments to us in our lives until the end, to our last breath here or until his soon return. 

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Gathering

One of the distinctive emphases of the Christian and Missionary Alliance from the beginning was that of “Christ the Coming King.” It was fourfold gospel as presented by Albert Benjamin Simpson. He saw it as part of the truth of the gospel for all times and all places until Jesus returns. He wrote, “The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”

The literal, physical and visible return of Jesus Christ to this world has been a part of the hope of believers in Christ for over two thousand years now. It is something that is to be expected and longed for, as we grow in Christ. Yet I fear that the reality and impetus of this hope has waned in the church over the past generation in the lives of many. So there is still a need for renewed preaching and teaching on the return of Jesus to the church today, lest our hearts grow lukewarm and comfortable here and our hopes are turned to things that are second best rather than the best that is yet to come. And I give what follows from an unabashedly premillennial and posttribulational perspective, as a part of ethical disclosure of what is to come. If you come from a different perspective, please read this with a willingness to understand the perspective I put forth.

Jesus himself gave strong and clear predictions as to what would happen before his coming in glory. What he has said has been written down, passed down and preserved for us today, so that we would not become distracted and deceived as to the true hope for our broken and fallen world. In the week that preceded his death on the cross and resurrection he spoke to Peter, James and John of his return in glory to this world. This teaching session happened on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem and the Temple, probably around March or April of A.D. 30. Three men heard these words, and the account of Mark is probably mostly that of the apostle Peter, who was there to hear these things. So here is what he had to say:

“But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days. And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’

And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory. And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.” (Mark 13:14-27, Dale’s sight translation.)

Before the return of Jesus Christ there will be unparalleled religious deception in the person of the Antichrist. Make no mistake, he is a real person who is yet to be definitely and openly revealed to this world. His appearance will then foment the great persecution of believers that will come before the end. This will be the time of the the Antichrist who is to come. This will be the worldwide worship of a single wicked man, and it will be imposed worldwide by deception and by military power. There will then be a particular blatant attempt to set up this worship of the Antichrist in Jerusalem itself.

Jesus starts out this part of the prophecy with a statement that would be strange if it stood alone: ““But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand . . .” ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ is an allusion to the previous prophecy of Daniel 9:27. It is considered to have been fulfilled by many in 168 BCE when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes caused the regular Jewish sacrifice to cease in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and set up pagan worship there. But Jesus brought this up again many years afterward, and he evidently didn’t believe that it was completely fulfilled at that time. Rather, he points to a fulfillment that was yet to come in the future. And the early church definitely believed that there was a fulfillment in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the pagan standards,which in themselves were idols, were raised over the Holy City.

But there would be one that would be yet to come, a final appearance in the coming of the Antichrist. The ‘Abomination of Desolation’ seems to be the description of when an idol is raised on the Temple Mount in contradiction to the worship of the one true God in Jerusalem. It is something that is an utter and destructive abomination and affront to the one true God. So Jesus is predicting that this would happen yet again in the future before his return. And the parallel passage in II Thessalonians 2:3 seems to point to this as well. This is where the apostle Paul wrote, “[the day of the Lord] will not come unless the falling away comes first and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who will stand against and lift himself up over everything that is called God or something to be worshipped, so that he sits himself down in the Temple of God and sets himself up to be God.” In fact, much of II Thessalonians 2:1-12 can be considered to be parallel to Mark 13:14-23. It’s not unreasonable to see the apostle Paul in II Thessalonians 2:1-12 expanding on and applying these very statements of Jesus from the Olivet Discourse, and indeed, providing us with an apostolic commentary on this part of the Olivet Discourse.

Jesus
Mark 13:14-23
Paul
I Thessalonians 2:1-12
Abomination of desolation – 13:14 Antichrist setting himself up in Temple – 2:3
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the antichrists and false prophets to come
13:22
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the Antichrist to come
2:9-12

So then, it’s possible also to see, as many do, that the Antichrist will be the ultimate example of many antichrists who have come throughout history. I’ve heard others say that it seems like there have been candidates for the post throughout history, and that Satan seems to have had someone eligible for the post throughout history. It’s reasonable to think so, when you consider

  • Adolf Hitler: He proclaimed himself the emissary of the Almighty and the Founder of the Reich. Nazi soldiers died invoking his name.
  • Joseph Stalin: His propaganda was that he was the wisest, most beloved and genial man of the world, and that he was the only one who was caring for the poor and protecting the oppressed.
  • Mao Tse Tung: He proclaimed himself the ultimate power and accepted worship as people bowed before him, and there was a widespread belief that he healed.

And so on. It’s reasonable from scripture to see that the last great counterfeit of Satan, his great masterpiece of cunning, will use demonic power to deceive people into believing his self deification. And at any time the question must come to believers to consider whether the stage is being set for the appearance of the Antichrist. But then Jesus goes on to give more explicit instructions on what to do when this happens. The appearance of the Antichrist will then mean the beginning of a worldwide wave of persecution, beginning at Jerusalem. This will be the start of the period of worldwide catastrophes, otherwise known as the Great Tribulation. So these are the directions that Jesus gave: “ . . . then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days.”

The sign to flee will simply be the appearance of the Antichrist in Jerusalem as he sets himself up as God. It looks like it will be on a restored Temple, but it may well be that in the place of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, without necessarily being a physical Temple there may be sufficient to trigger fulfillment of the prophecies. But this prophecy was taken by the Christians in Jerusalem in AD 70 as the sign to flee to the town of Pella, but that doesn’t seem to be the complete fulfillment of the prophecy. The flight from Jerusalem come in a situation where no hesitancy is possible. The prayer for that not to happen on a Sabbath is a real recognition of the restriction of services to travellers in that time, such as the current lack of activity in modern Israel on the Sabbath.  And the horrors of that time will make the blessings of motherhood seem like a liability. These statements of Jesus show that the tremendous difficulty, brutality and horror of what was to come. The escape from persecution was not an end in itself, though, but rather itself a determination not to be caught in a compromising position.

The promise of Jesus is that God will cut short those days of persecution and the series of catastrophes to come. The Ruler of history will intervene to end history at its lowest depth of human depravity under Satanic direction. The period will be allowed to show what happens when God allows people to choose freely, and the refusal of mankind to receive his truth will erupt in depravity, deceit and violence without parallel. But God will not allow this time of evil to continue forever.  It will happen only for a short time and then the end will be final. Though from our perspective these words may not be comforting, for the people suffering in that time there will be great comfort in the knowledge that God is cutting it short.

Jesus went on, though, to tack on strong commands not to believe the false Messiahs and prophets to come. It’s noteworthy that he changed to the plural here instead of zeroing in on the singular Antichrist and false prophet that are in the book of Revelation: “And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

So why did Jesus speak in the plural of false Messiahs and false prophets rather than in the singular, like in the book of Revelation, where there is one Beast (the Antichrist) and False Prophet? I think that it comes down to simply this: his warning not to believe a person who points out that the Messiah is a particular person and in a particular place until his visible return before the whole world applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return before the whole world. And his warning not to believe them no matter what apparent miracles they might do applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return. This would be consistent with the apostolic guidance here, from the apostle John himself – one of the eyewitnesses to what Jesus was saying here, and the author of I John and the book of Revelation. “Children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heart that the Antichrist is coming, and now many antichrists have come to pass. From that we know that it is the last hour . . .” (I John 2:18). “Every spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, who you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.” I John 4:3

So at that time, when everything seems to be going toward the worst, the very best will happen. Jesus Christ himself will return gather together his people for himself. It’s understated here that this will cut short the apparent triumph of the false Messiah, but the emphasis is that the time of evil will end for the people of God. He will come to end the rule of evil and set up his kingdom over all the earth. They will be gathered together to be with him forever, and I understand this to be what is normally termed the post-tribulation rapture, though my preferred term is the Final Gathering, or the Gathering.

There will be unprecedented signs in the heavens before the Gathering takes place. The ignorance of the cosmic signs in the common preaching and teaching of the end times that are throughout scripture and which Jesus himself mentioned is amazing to me. But this thread of prophecy continues from the Old Testament prophets clear through to the end of the New Testament, and, with the emphasis that Jesus himself gave it, it deserves renewed scrutiny. I think that the reason it has been underemphasized in the past was the desire, with the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture, to define the word imminent in regard to the coming as ‘with no preceding signs.’ But, with the following verses, I think that imminent needs to be defined as ‘impending’ and as the next major event in God’s plan of salvation for his people.

So here is what Jesus had to say in that passage about the coming signs in the heavens:

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’”

There can be no question that Jesus is not making a scientific cosmological statement here, but taking up the Old Testament language from the book of Joel and elsewhere to describe what will happen at the close of the time of the final catastrophes, or, what we may call the Great Tribulation. Here are the places in the Old Testament where the signs are predicted: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, and Joel 3:15. All are signs of the wrath of God, and they are also repeated in the sixth seal of Revelation 6:12-17. The language that scripture uses here and elsewhere is simply describing, in metaphorical fashion, how these events will appear to someone who is standing on earth. It’s hard to tell exactly what the signs will be in scientific terms, since Jesus is not here giving a scientific explanation. The implication is that these phenomena will be divinely caused, and that they will be objective, visible phenomena that an earthly observer will be able to recognize them from their description. These signs, in addition to what Jesus has already described, will be visible signs that the end is near. 

After the coming signs, Jesus will return visibly to the earth as the Lord of glory. The entire earth will see him in his unveiled majesty and glory, and there will be no mistaking that it is him returning just as he said. This is his simple statement: “And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory.”

This will be the same return that was just as the angels predicted at his ascension into heaven:   This will be the same Jesus of Nazareth, who walked our earth, lived with us and taught in our towns and cities. This will be the same person who was crucified, resurrected and seen by the apostles for forty days after his resurrection. He will not then be coming in the humble circumstances as he did, but with the kingly, eternal glory that he received at this exaltation. It will be impossible for anyone on the earth not to recognize who it really is, and he will be visible to everyone on the earth as he is returning. Here is the fuller description of his visible appearance from the gospel of Matthew, from his parallel account of the Olivet discourse:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will wail, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

At his visible return Jesus Christ will receive his people left on earth to himself. There will definitely be a rapture at his visible, worldwide return! And we have the word of Jesus himself about it:

“And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.”

Personally, I’m not fond of the term ‘rapture’ for this part of the return of Jesus. The term describes the action of being caught up, but the term that I prefer for his aspect of his return is ‘The Gathering.’ And I think if we consider the scriptures on his coming, there are a number of other scriptures that place the gathering of his people together here, at his visible appearance. And it’s noteworthy that Jesus’s emphasis here on the gathering of his people to himself, not on judgment. In several other passages the two aspects of gathering of Christ’s people together to him and judgment of the unbelieving world in opposition to the return of Jesus are joined together. It’s noteworthy that the metaphor of harvest and threshing is applied to the Gathering and pressing wine is applied to the judgment of the wicked opposing the return of Jesus in these passages elsewhere in scripture.

The first passage where I think that you can find the prophetic thread about the Gathering is an Old Testament passage, in the book of Isaiah. I’ve never seen this passage cited in any previous discussion of the rapture, though I’ve seen it mentioned in the side references to the New Testament passages that mention the rapture. I was definitely surprised one day years ago when I was working my way through the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew and then the Greek from Alfred Rahlfs’s version of the Septuagint (the common Greek Old Testament in the first century AD). Here’s what Isaiah 27:12-13 had to say (Dale’s sight translation):

“In that day the LORD will thresh from the torrents of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt,
And you will be gathered up one by one, sons of Israel!
And on that day a great trumpet will be sounded,
And those who were as good as dead will come from the land of Assyria and the outcasts from the land of Egypt,
And they will worship the LORD on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem!”

Here, in this passage, we find the common elements of the Gathering that are later mentioned throughout the New Testament. These may be omitted or underemphasized due to what emphasis the speaker or author had at the time, but they are common themes:

  • Judgment of the wicked depicted as pressing wine in a winepress 
  • The sounding of a great trumpet
  • Gathering of the people of God to Jerusalem out of great distress and affliction depicted as a harvest

I don’t think that it’s too much at all to see this passage as the passage where Jesus was taking up, explaining and expanding the Old Testament promises to his people for all ages. It’s also noteworthy that the word used for ‘gather’ here in the Septuagint is the same verb as Jesus used in the passage in Matthew and Mark and in the noun form in I Thessalonians 2:1, where the apostle Paul discusses “ . . .  the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him . . .” The word itself is not either terribly common or uncommon but I think that it is significant that it carries through in these passages.

Then there is the similarity of the I Thessalonians 4 passage, which is often cited as the authority for a pre-tribulation rapture, but is notably similar to the passages in the Olivet discourse where Jesus describes his appearance before the world. There are some common elements, especially between the Matthew 24 and Mark 13 descriptions of the visible appearance of the Lord from heaven.

“We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you would be pained as those who have no hope. Because if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God will bring those who have fallen asleep in Jesus with him.”

“For I have this to say to you – based on an utterance of the Lord – that we who are alive who are left until the coming of the Lord will not get ahead of those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, in a cloud, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven. And the dead in Christ will rise first, then those of us who are alive and left around will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort each other with these words!” I Thessalonians 4:13-18

So Paul emphasis on gathering and on resurrection is more detailed about those who have died in Christ being resurrected as the same time as living believers are caught up and gathered together from the earth. Here are the similarities in the three passages. These s

Jesus
speaking personally as the Lord
Paul
basing his explanation on a direct utterance of the Lord
Lord coming in clouds Lord coming in a cloud
People who are alive are caught up by angels to be with the Lord People who are alive are caught up to be with the Lord (agency not explained)
Emphasis on rescue of living believers Emphasis on resurrection of living believers with believers who have died
Great trumpet (Matthew 24:31) Great trumpet

There have been a number of attempts to find a pre-tribulation rapture in the book of Revelation, but, in light of the previous passages, it’s easy enough to find the post-tribulation rapture:

“And I looked, and see there, a white clouds, and sitting on the cloud someone who was like a Son of Man, who had a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the Temple and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Put forth your sickle and reap, because the hour has come to reap, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ And the one who was sitting on the cloud put forth his sickle on the earth, and the earth was harvested.” (Revelation 14:14-17).

Then, immediately following that, there comes the emphasis on judgment that is also a part of the return of Jesus:

“And another angel came out of the Temple which is in heaven who also carried a sharp sickle. And another angel came from the altar who had charge of the fire, and he cried out with a great voice to the angle with the sharp sickle, ‘Put forth your sharp sickle, and gather the grapes from the vine of the earth, because the bunches of grapes have come to fruition. And the angel put forth his sickle on the earth, and he gathered up from the vine of the earth and he threw them into the winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was stomped down outside the city, and the blood of the winepress flowed up to the horses’ bridles for about 300 kilometers!” (Revelation 14:17-20).

And it’s not too much at all to see this as then pointing to the climax of the book of Revelation, to the description of the Lord’s visible coming with his people and the judgment upon the world which opposes him:

“And I saw heaven opened, and see there! A white horse! and the person who was sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with righteousness. And his eyes are like a flame of fire, and many crowns are upon his head.  He has a name written down which no one but he himself knows,, and he is dressed with a tunic dipped in blood, and his name is called, ‘The Word of God.’ And his armies in heaven follow him on white horses and are clothed in clean white linen. And a sharp sword comes from his mouth, so that he strikes down the nations, and he shepherds them with a rod of iron.  And he stomps down the winepress of the wine of the wrath of the almighty God. And he has on his tunic and on thigh a name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” Revelation 19:11-16 emphasis on judgment

Just by way of passing – there are some scriptures, such as Revelation 3:10, outside the normal passages which cited as evidence for the pre-tribulation rapture. The thing is that they do not demand the interpretation that they apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, it’s a circular form of exegesis to apply them to a pre-tribulation rapture, since it’s necessary to assume a pre-tribulation rapture to see them as applying to a pre-tribulation rapture.

So then, the goal of our hope in Christ is coming closer every and every day. The Lord’s return is nearer now than it was a moment ago, a day ago or a year ago. The real future of the believer in Christ is there with him. With the return of the Lord Jesus coming nearer and nearer, it is crucial for each one of us to settle the issues of salvation and Lordship. So if you have never made a heart commitment to Jesus Christ, now is the time to do so! And if you have, make sure that he remains as the Lord of your life until the end. Don’t waver from the hope that will bring such unspeakable and unimaginable joy and reward. And as that day comes closer, if you have made certain that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, live each day in love and holiness, in the image of Jesus himself. That will demonstrate to him and before all the world that you believe with all your heart that Jesus is returning!

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I was first persuaded that the post-tribulation rapture was the scriptural teaching by the exposition of J. Sidlow Baxter in his volume Explore the Book. Later I became aware of these more scholarly works:

George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture.

Robert H. Gundry, Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism.

The Wikipedia article gives a reasonable summary: Post-tribulation rapture.

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One thing that many people may not be aware of: there is a great hymn on the return of Jesus which is thoroughly post-tribulation and co-authored by none other than Charles Wesley himself! Unfortunately, I think that the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture in the past century and a half has often deprived the church of this great hymn of the Second Coming of Jesus. The hymn “Lo! He comes with clouds descending,” is decidedly post-tribulation in its outlook. Charles Wesley himself reworked the lyrics to the present form. Here the Cambridge Singer perform Lo! he comes with clouds descending. And here are the lyrics and history.

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Amen, come, Lord Jesus!