THE PERSON AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS
THE OLIVET DISCOURSE The Second Coming of Christ
Probably the dominant interpretation in Christian circles regarding Jesus' second coming is that He just simply returns. Before He returns, nothing bad necessarily is happening; there is no cause for alarm; there is no tribulation before His return. Jesus just simply appears and ushers in the new Jerusalem and the reign of the Father.
Now some Christians may have never heard of this interpretation of the end times. That doesn't keep it from being the dominant interpretation of the end times in Christian circles. Of the 2 billion people on the earth who claim to be Christian, at least 1 billion hold to this interpretation because it is the official interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church in addition to being the official interpretation of the Anglican and Lutheran communities.
There are 2 problems with this interpretation. First, it contradicts both the OT and NT which explicitly claim that a time of great suffering precedes the end of the age and the return of Christ. Second, while not as important but still very important, it contradicts the way God has revealed Himself in you and me. How many of us thrill to stories in which good and evil are in conflict? In the greatest stories of good versus evil, doesn't evil almost win until at the last moment the good conquers the evil? Think not? Look at the top 20 films of all time. In 18 of them good does come into conflict with evil, evil almost wins until the good pulls it out at the last moment. (Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., The Ten Commandments, Titanic, Jaws, The Exorcist, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 101 Dalmatians, The Empire Strikes Back, Ben Hur, The Sting, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, The Graduate, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. If you count Scarlet as being evil, then Gone With the Wind makes it 19 out of 20.) Why are so many people touched by this theme unless God has instilled it into us? In other words, this theme most likely taps into the truth.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, describes this conflict of good and evil as the "eu-catastrophe." In other words, before the good can really come ("eu" being a Greek prefix meaning "good"), catastrophe--war/great conflict--must first occur. For this reason Tolkien's and C. S. Lewis' books are filled with major battles which precede the good: the victory of Rohan at Helms Deep (LOTR: The Two Towers), the victory of Gondor at Pelennor Fields (LOTR: Return of the King), victory over the White Witch (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), King Peter's near defeat (Prince Caspian), the Green Witch's near victory (The Silver Chair), etc. It's not that Lewis and Tolkien loved battles; they saw that the good comes only after and as a result of catastrophe. They saw that Christianity is a fighting religion. This is what God has placed into our lives in order to prepare us for the greatest eu-catastrophe of all, the tribulation preceding the return of Christ.
CHRIST'S RETURN (24:29-31)
First, Jesus informs us that He comes right at the end of the tribulation. (Earlier in v. 22 Jesus actually stated that He had to return in order to keep all mankind from being wiped off the face of the earth.) Well, couldn't the tribulation take place and Jesus return 1000 years later? If that is true, then v. 29 does not make sense because Jesus states that He comes immediately AFTER the Great Tribulation. In fact Jesus puts the word "immediately" at the beginning of v. 29 to emphasize the statement that He doesn't wait for 1000 years after the tribulation to return; He returns immediately after the tribulation.
Now some are going to claim that the tribulation of 24:1-28 refers only to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and that Jesus returned in a spiritual sense only after the Fall of Jerusalem. John Nolland, who authored the commentary on Matthew in the New International Commentary on the Greek New Testament, is no raging fundamentalist. He is a profound Greek scholar. He claims that in no way does the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD fulfill the prophecies of these verses. Unless Jesus got it wrong, then a much later and much greater tribulation awaits the world. Yes, there are similarities between the Fall of Jerusalem and the events described in these verses; however, the Fall of Jerusalem does not do these verses full justice. These verses point to a future tribulation. Christ comes at the point of our direst need.
Notice that Jesus says He comes as the "Son of Man." Who is this Son of Man? He is the divine figure Daniel prophesied about (Dan. 7:13-14) who comes in power to judge all people. When He judges His people, He saves them, whereas He damns His enemies and the enemies of His people. He comes to save His people at the climax of the Great Tribulation (24:22).
Accompanying Jesus' coming is the devastation in the physical universe. Now some scholars want to treat these natural phenomena as being only symbolical. In other words, before Jesus' return the sun does not turn dark; the moon does not turn red; the stars are not shaken. Maybe so; however, it is only logical that these natural disasters do occur for one of 2 reasons. First, it may be that the natural universe is aiding Jesus in judging those who are persecuting Christ's people. It is a standard biblical principle that Jesus DOES use the physical universe to punish the ungodly (the 10 plagues of Egypt). The second reason may be that God's coming is so stupendous that it shakes the universe. Look what happened whenever God came upon Mt. Sinai in just a limited way. The roar of thunder and the crash of lightning were of such a magnitude that everyone quaked in their boots. How much more incredible will it be whenever God comes fully at the return of Christ.
At this point with a loud trumpet blast Jesus sends out His angels to gather the saints from the four winds, that is, the four corners of the earth. We call this event "the rapture."
Now some just totally refuse to accept this as the rapture. They claim this is only the gathering of the Jews at the end of the Great Tribulation. There are several problems with that interpretation.
LESSON FROM THE FIG TREE (24:32-35)
At this point Jesus basically reiterates what He said earlier at the beginning of the sermon: "See that no one misleads you." The whole purpose of this discourse has been to instruct the disciples so that they will know not only when the final tribulation does come but also when it has NOT come. Jesus repeats this by pointing to the illustration of the fig tree. Whenever the branches of a fig tree grow tender and the buds begin to bloom, you know that summer is almost here. In the same way when you see these things occur--the evangelization of the whole world, the abomination of desolation, and the period of great tribulation, then you know that Jesus is at the door about to appear at any moment. (Jesus appearing at the door is the same description of Jesus' second coming that James uses in James 5:8).
Now Jesus is going to tell us not to speculate about when the great tribulation and His return will occur (24:36). No one knows when it is going to happen; however, when it does happen, He has given us the signs to recognize that we are in the midst of final tribulation. (We will look at 24:36 next lesson.)
(We've already addresses "this generation" earlier. The catastrophe which befell Jerusalem in 70 AD foreshadows this great catastrophe at the end of time.)
The Resurrection of Believers
Whatever else this passage means for us, it primarily teaches the future that you and I as believers are going to experience. When Jesus sends forth His angels to gather us from the four winds of the sky, He is referring to the great day of resurrection. Jesus doesn't go into detail here about what will happen to us, although He has touched upon it earlier in His parables:
Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun
in the kingdom of their Father (Matt. 13:43).
C. S. Lewis describes it as such:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,
to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to
may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now,
would be tempted to worship . . .
What kind of creatures will we be like? Paul and John claim that Jesus will transform us into His image: "who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory" (Phil. 3:21); "Beloved, NOW we are children of God; and it has not yet appeared what we shall be, we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him because we shall see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2).
Never Lose Hope
So what should our response to all this be? Faith and hope. God does not promise us a bed of roses while we are here on this earth. Instead He almost promises us the exact opposite, a life of hardship and tribulation. If you compared our lives though to that of a sentence, all the hardships and sorrows are merely the colons, commas, dashes, or parenthetical remarks in the sentence of our life; they are NOT the period which finishes the sentence. The sentence of the Christian life closes with the period (.) of Christ's return and our final salvation. As a result, we are to live lives of faith and hope.
To me one of the most touching scenes in The Pilgrim's Progress occurs at the end of the book. Throughout the whole book the hero, Christian, has proved faithful to Jesus, in spite of all the hardships and sorrows he's experienced. He had to fight with Satan; he saw his best friend burned at the stake; he is taken captive into the castle of despair; however, at the end of each episode he has emerged victorious.
At the very end though he reaches the banks of the Jordan River which he has to cross to get to the Celestial City (heaven). As he crosses the river, he begins to lose faith. He starts to sink. How very sad that is. He has come this far only to drown at the last moment. Happily for him though his new best friend Hope talks him through the ordeal so that he emerges from the river on the side of heaven totally victorious. As dark as it got, he never gave up. That is Jesus' encouragement and warning for us too--not to give up EVER.