Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Signs of the Times and the End of the Age

Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:1-14).

The disciples, like the Pharisees, and indeed, all the Jews of Jesus’ day, took great pride in the temple. It was to the nation of Israel, as we might say today, a national symbol. In those terms, it might be compared to America’s Capitol Building, the White House, or the Statue of Liberty. More importantly, it was the center of Jewish religious life. It was where the sacrifice for sin was made. It was where the presence of God Almighty abode with his people. It was, in the Most Holy Place, where the High Priest, on behalf of all the people, would enter into God’s presence bringing the blood of the sacrifice for the atonement of their sin. The temple was supremely important to the 1st Century Jew.

The idea and function of the temple was important, both in political and religious terms, and this was reflected in its construction. Solomon had constructed a large and ornate temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant. Herod’s was smaller and less magnificent than Solomon’s, but it was still an edifice built to reflect its importance. Herod, the self-proclaimed king of the Jews, wanted to get on his people’s good side. The bulk of the work on the temple took a decade (between 20-30 BC) to finish; the whole thing wasn’t complete until about 60 AD (Packer and Tenney 1980). He built his subjects a structure in which they could be proud, in which their religious business could be conducted properly, and which would gain for him the admiration of his subjects. So it is a natural and understandable thing for the disciples, chests puffed up with pride, to point out the temple complex to Jesus while looking down on it from the mountainside.

Jesus doesn’t react in the same way as the disciples, though. He tells them that, one day, this magnificent temple will be utterly destroyed and, “…not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The disciples shock and confusion is demonstrated by their response to Jesus. “Tell us,” they ask, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” Their pride is in the temple. Its destruction, to them, can only mean the end of the world. They want to know what to look for so they can be ready.

But, Jesus is vague. It would’ve been more satisfying for the disciples in that moment, I imagine, if Jesus had given them a date and time. “Yes,” he might have said, “the temple gets it in 70 AD, but the world keeps chugging along well into the 21st Century…” Instead of giving them a detailed schematic of precisely how things were going to play out during the End Times, he warns them not to be deceived by false Christs. He tells them to watch for wars and rumors of wars. And, the things he describes – nation rising against nation, famines, pestilences, earthquakes – were all going on around the disciples at that time, just as they are going on around us today. The end of the age has already begun. The disciples were, and we are, living in the last days. Geopolitical conflicts and natural disasters can help confirm this fact, but they cannot show us when the end will come. Evidently, Jesus wants the disciples and those who come after, to feel a sense of urgency about the end of the age and the Last Day so that we do not procrastinate (Albrecht and Albrecht 1996).

So many Christians today attempt to read the Bible through the headlines of the newspaper. The alleged modern day prophets and self-proclaimed apostles try to figure out which woe or trumpet judgment of the book of Revelation we are passing through based on the world’s political situation or what color the moon is. They look for the coming of a glorious millennial kingdom and a rapture where Jesus returns secretly to spirit his followers from the earth, things which are foreign to Holy Scripture, at least in the way much of American Evangelicalism interprets those things. They have become distracted from what Christ has told us to focus on: Himself. Kretzmann, in his New Testament commentary, explains it like this:

There is no trace of an idea of a millennium in this [the disciple’s] question. The belief which the Jews held, and which Christ here supports, is that the present age of the world, the age of sin and death, will end with the Last Judgment, without any intervening time of millennial glory. This is indicated also in the answer of Christ, when He tells them to see to it, to take heed, to guard against deception and terror. For the signs that would precede both the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world would be of a nature to demand calm minds and brave hearts (Kretzmann 1921).

Jesus redirects our attention away from earthly glory, and the man-made and natural terrors of this age which will all pass away, to that which is really important – remaining faithful to Christ. We do well to remember Our Lord’s words here. Through all the terrors, trials, tribulations, and persecutions, “…he who endures to the end shall be saved.”

If we hear these words, “But he who endures to the end shall be saved,” as Law, there is no comfort in them. Indeed, they then serve the first function of the Law and show us our sin. How can I, a poor, sinful being, endure even one hour, let alone until the end? If it were a work left to us to perform, we could not. Christ, however, has become the ultimate sacrifice for sin. And he, our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, entered the presence of the Father, not with the blood of beasts, but with his own blood, and obtained for us eternal redemption from sin and death[1]. He has come to us through Word and Sacrament and created faith in us; By Word and Sacrament He sustains that faith. The temple and its sacrifices were the shadow of the reality to come through Christ. There is no longer any need of the “type” once the real thing has arrived.

So, rather than being frightened by the wars and rumors of wars, we should remember that we are living in the last days and that the hour is late. We need to repent of our sin and trust in the Lord Jesus. We need to gather around Word and Sacrament to receive his gifts. We need to remember that, though the world is indeed increasingly evil and hostile to God, Christians are ever nearer the great day of Christ’s return (Engelbrecht 2009).

Works Cited

Albrecht, G. Jerome, and Michael J. Albrecht. People's Bible Commentary: Matthew. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Packer, J. I., and M. C. Tenney, . Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980. 

[1] But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:11-15).