As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
Rather than one question, there could be as many as three separate questions.
- When Will This Happen – This appears to relate directly to Jesus’ comment about the destruction of the temple (see previous musing).
- What Will Be the Sign of Your Coming – This may be asking about the Rapture.
- What Will Be the Signs of the End of the Age – This could be asking about the Parousia.
It is highly unlikely at this point that the disciples would have grasped any distinction between the Rapture and the Parousia. It appears as though the disciples believed that all of these would take place simultaneously (or at least in close proximity to one another), although there is no way to know this for sure. At any rate, Jesus deals with all three in this great eschatological discourse. Jesus seems to be using the destruction of Herod’s temple and of Jerusalem (which literally did happen within that generation in 70 AD) as symbols of his own second coming and the consummation of the age (which have yet to occur). But it is not always easy to clearly separate the various signs Jesus gives with the specific questions that they relate to. (1) Old Testament prophets often grouped events together by their topic rather than their chronology, and in this discourse Jesus appears to do the same. He addresses what are grammatically three separate questions, with one sweeping narrative. (2)
THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES – “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:32-36)
With these words, Jesus begins His discourse on the various signs.
Birth Pains – “All these [signs] are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:8)
War, pestilence, famine, and earthquakes have always been part of this fallen world. But when Jesus used the terms “beginning of birth pains” to describe end time conditions, the implications are abundantly clear. These calamities will increase dramatically in scope, intensity, and frequency before the end to such an extent that the beginning of the birth pains will be minor in comparison. (3)
Days of Noah – “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)
It appears from this text that by and large mankind will ignore the “birth pains” as they did Noah’s preaching. Life will go on pretty much the way it always has with people “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark” (Rapture?). Despite the recent hype of the end of the world, they “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood (Tribulation?) came.” One striking characteristic about the days of Noah that Jesus did not explicitly mention (but may have been implicitly implied) was the state of the world at the time of the end: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Think about it and let that comment sink in. Are we moving towards a similar society, where every inclination, is only evil, all the time? Is this the future of our “civilized” world?
- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Mt 24:3). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mt 24:3). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.