The Time of Christ’s Return
The disciples were crushed. Jesus was leaving. They had followed Him for three years. The way had been long, the road rough, the obstacles many and the confrontations with the Jewish leadership perplexing.
But it was all worth the effort. In Jesus they had found their long-awaited Messiah (Jn. 1:41).
His credentials were impeccable. The lineage from which He sprang – the village in which He was born – the city in which He was raised – the compassion He demonstrated – the courage He displayed – the wisdom He exhibited – the source of authority He acknowledged – the miracles He performed – and the message He proclaimed, “. . . Never man spoke like this man” (Jn 7:46) – all collaborated to attest to His messiahship. It was, therefore, with reason that the disciples thought He was going to become King of Israel – that finally the yoke of ruthless, relentless Roman persecution would be broken. At last, they thought, under Messiah’s rule Israel would once again know the greatness and glory which had been hers a thousand years earlier under mighty King David and his wise son, King Solomon.
But their hopes and dreams notwithstanding, it would not be – not for that hour of history. The Jewish leadership had refused to gaze on the light of Christ’s truth or bask in the warmth of His holiness. His truth contradicted their error – His holiness condemned their sin. And so they found it expedient to reject His messianic claims. This, in spite of the fact that His life and ministry met all the criteria set forth in the writings of Moses and the prophets of Israel, the very Scriptures to which the Jewish leadership outwardly claimed allegiance. And so, tragically, His oft repeated call for national repentance had gone unheeded (Mt. 3:1-2; 4:17; 10:5-7). As a direct result, with great sorrow and deep compassion, He would proclaim to the nation from which He sprang and over which He had legal right to rule, “. . . If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hidden from thine eyes” (Lk. 19:42).
And so, at the appointed time, in the omniscient plan of God the Father, the steps of God the Son would unerringly wind their way to a hill outside the northern wall of the city of Jerusalem. There He would, as the true Passover Lamb, “taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9).
Jesus knew what was to shortly befall Him at Calvary. And, with saddened heart, He informed His followers that He was leaving (Mt. 23:39). His beloved nation would not see Him again until they proclaimed, “. . . Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Mt. 23:39).
One question towered above all else in the disciples’ thinking. It cried out to be answered. Since all of Israel’s national hopes were linked to the promised Messiah – and since Jesus was the Messiah – and since the national leadership rejected His messianic claims – and since He therefore declared that He was leaving to return another day – they asked, “. . . what shall be the sign of thy coming, and [the sign] of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3).
The Lord responded to their question in reverse order. The sign He foretold for the end of the age can be summed up in one word TRIBULATION – tribulation of such severity that “except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved” (Mt. 24:22). And He carefully outlined the characteristics of that coming Tribulation period (Mt. 24:4-22).
And the sign for His return would be the unveiling of His glory. In essence, He told them that His glory, which had been veiled with in His flesh during His first appearing, would be fully revealed at His second coming. That is, the sign of the Lord’s return to the earth would be the manifestation of His glory which would precede His return.
Having answered the question posed by His followers concerning the sign of the end of the age and His return, Jesus began to instruct His disciples concerning the time of His coming.
The Parable He Taught (Mt. 24:32-35)
“Now learn a parable of the fig tree . . .” (Mt. 24:32), instructed the Lord. It is as if He were saying, All right my friends, I’ve answered your question concerning the sign of My coming and the sign of the end of the age. Now let Me volunteer some truth concerning the time of My coming.
The Lord’s teaching concerning His return would become a beacon of hope for His disciples and each succeeding generation of believers. But primarily Jesus, as the Great Shepherd, looked down what men call the corridor of time to warn His sheep who would be living during the Tribulation period. His warning related to the danger and character of the time immediately preceding His second coming.
The Lord often taught in parables. The Greek word parable comes from para which means alongside of and ballo which means to throw or cast. This is the root from which the English language gets its word ball. Taken together, para and ballo (parable) means to throw or cast alongside of. The familiar definition, “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” is not too far from the truth. The Lord in His teaching would frequently throw alongside a familiar earthly story to help communicate a spiritual or heavenly truth. And always the parable was intended to convey one primary, fundamental, basic point.
In this case, the Lord chose to throw alongside the familiar fig tree, common in Israel, to teach a crucial truth. When the branch of the fig tree is tender and it puts forth its leaves, summer is near (Mt. 24:32). That fact is basic, axiomatic, fundamental, non-debatable, irrefutable – a fig tree with tender branches and emerging leaves indicated that summer was near – that’s the earthly story.
Based on that fact, the Lord presented the heavenly meaning: “So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors” (Mt. 24:33). The phrase “all these things” refers to the events of the Tribulation period as presented in Matthew 24:4-22. In other words, as a fig tree with tender branches and emerging leaves indicates that summer is near (the earthly story), so likewise when the Tribulation events begin to occur, you know that Christ’s return is near (the heavenly meaning). And that is the single, solitary, crucial truth that the Savior is here teaching. The generation to which the Lord refers and which will not pass away until all these things (Tribulation and Second Coming) be fulfilled (Mt. 24:34) is not the present generation which parallels the rebirth of the state of Israel in 1948, as many suggest. Rather, “This generation” refers to the generation which will be living after the Rapture of the true Church and during the Tribulation period.
And, as if to give somber, sober, sacred certainty to His teaching concerning the sign of the end of the age and His return, the Lord pledges, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). Some men mock the truth of His return, some laugh, some scorn, and some, like the proverbial ostrich who puts its head in the sand, will ignore it. But the certainty of the Lord’s Word being fulfilled is underscored by the fact that God has placed His Word above His name (Ps. 138:2). What His mouth has spoken, His right arm of power will perform.
Properly understood then, the Lord taught that just as the fig tree can indicate that summer is near, so too Tribulation events will indicate that His return is getting close.
But the fig tree is only a sign of approximation. It can simply point to the fact that summer is near. But more precise than that the fig tree cannot be. Similarly, Tribulation events will point only to the nearing of Christ’s return. More precise than that Tribulation events cannot be.
To emphasize that fact, the Lord adds, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Mt. 24:36). The contrast is this: believers living during the Tribulation period will know that the Lord’s return is getting close (summer is near), but they cannot know the hour or the day (the precise time). That knowledge is reserved alone for God the Father.
Two points are of paramount importance. First, the signs to mark out the end of the age and the Savior’s return will not be given until the Rapture of the Church has occurred and the Tribulation period begins. Second, no man, not even during the Tribulation period, will know the precise hour or day of Christ’s return. It is, therefore, both impossible and inappropriate for men to try and set dates for Christ’s return.
And since the signs of the end of the age and Christ’s return will not be given until the Tribulation period itself begins, all that can properly be said about the Lord’s return today is that (1) prophetic events may cast shadows, and (2) Tribulation shadows appear to be getting larger. Therefore, the Lord’s return may be drawing near.
Beyond that, no one can speak with biblical authority.
The Warning He Gave (Mt. 24:37-39)
It would be comforting to believe that the sign of the end of the age and Christ’s return will cause men to repent and turn in great numbers to the Savior. But such comfort would be ill-advised, because it rests on theological quicksand.
The Lord described the attitude of the human race immediately prior to His return this way: “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Mt. 24:37). What were the days of Noah like? Allow the Lord himself to tell us. “For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Mt. 24:38-39).
Not a few writers and preachers have waxed eloquent on the wickedness, licentiousness, immorality and perverseness in the days of Noah – and this supposed proof is cited: “. . . they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . .” Regrettably, the whole point of the Lord’s teaching is missed. Admittedly, the days immediately prior to the flood were wicked – but that is not the truth being taught by the Lord. There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – the problem was not wickedness, it was normalcy. Noah, a preacher of righteousness, warned that judgment was coming – destruction was imminent – a flood was on its way. He preached, pleaded and built an ark. And no one believed him! They laughed and mocked. It was business as usual. People went on their merry way – eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. There was no concern – no urgency – no repentance – no belief – no rushing to get on the ark.
But as for Noah and his family, they boarded the ark, “. . . and the Lord shut him in” (Gen. 7:16). And the rain began to descend, and the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the waters began to rise, and now the people remembered the words of Noah, the Lord’s servant, and now they rushed to the ark for safety. But it was too late. God strove with men for one hundred and twenty years (Gen. 6:3), but men had refused to hear His plea. And now the Lord himself had shut the door to the ark. It was forever too late.
And here’s the truth the Lord is teaching – the point He is emphasizing. As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be at the coming of the Lord. Men will be characterized by business as usual – no urgency – unconcerned – normalcy – total indifference to the sign of the end of the age and return of the Son of Man to judge the world.
And once again, for the unrepentant and unbelieving, the door will be shut and man’s destiny eternally sealed – it will be too late. How fearful it will be to fall into the hands of an angry God whose love has been spurned, whose grace has been rejected, whose mercy has been refused. See it visualized on the cover of this magazine. Realize that the world isn’t going to get better. Understand that friends and loved ones who reject Christ are under condemnation. Let your heart break for a lost and dying world. And ask your Father to open your mouth so that you can tell men who are hungry where to find the Bread of Life; tell lost sheep where to find the Shepherd; tell souls in darkness the way to the Light.
The Judgment He Foretold (Mt. 24:40-42)
When the Lord returns to the earth, His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4). And on that occasion, “. . . shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left (Mt. 24:40-41).
These words of the Lord have often been understood to refer to the Rapture of the Church. This interpretation, though often presented by godly Bible teachers, is in error. Let four reasons substantiate that statement.
First, Matthew 24 is dealing with the Tribulation period or the seventieth week of Daniel, which begins after the Church is raptured.
Second, the disciples asked for a sign concerning the Lord’s second coming to the earth, which is the central theme of this chapter (not the Rapture of the Church).
Third, the Lord’s somewhat obscure statement in Matthew 24:28, “For wherever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together” means wherever moral corruption exists, divine judgment must fall (Job 39:27-30). One of the reasons for the Lord’s return relates to judgment of this wicked world.
Fourth, in the days of Noah (which the Lord uses as a parallel), the righteous remained on the earth in the safety of the ark above the flood and judgment. It was the unrighteous who were taken away in judgment. But at the Rapture, the exact opposite occurs – the righteous are taken away, and the unrighteous remain on the earth to go through the judgment period.
Therefore, the one taken in the field (v. 40) and the one taken at the mill (v. 41) are not raptured but taken away in judgment, as it was in the days of Noah. And the ones who remain are the sons and daughters of God who will be ushered into the Millennial Kingdom which He will set up at His return.
The seriousness of this judgment is so great that the Lord gives an admonition: “Watch, therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (Mt. 24:42).
One day the Lord is going to shut the door – then it will be too late – men who have not climbed into the ark of safety in Jesus will be forever lost. How timely, therefore, the Lord’s instruction,
Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? Behold, I say unto you. Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest (Jn. 4:35).
But a day is coming when the harvest will be past. It will be too late to pick the fruit then. So pick up the phone TODAY – visit your neighbor TODAY – write a letter TODAY – invite someone to church TODAY – a loved one, a friend, a neighbor, an enemy – someone, please, whose supreme need is to get into the ark before the Lord returns to shut the door of salvation and unrepentant sinners find themselves in the hands of an angry God whose love cannot embrace what His holiness has condemned.
EDITOR’S NOTE: the Lord willing, in the next issue of ISRAEL MY GLORY, I will write on the “Sign of the End of the Age.”