May 14, 2022 - Latter-day Prophecy By Jesus

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Today we’re going to talk about Latter-day Prophecy in the teaching of Jesus. What does Jesus have to say about the future, not only about the future destruction of Herod’s Temple, but specifically about events that have yet to be fulfilled in our future?


The vast majority of what Jesus has to say about the distant future is found in what Jesus says to his followers on the Mount of Olives. We find 3 versions of what Jesus says on this occasion: in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 17 and 21. You can be sure Jesus’ followers were listening very closely that day; most of these teachings they’re hearing for the very first time.


While Jesus’ followers are gawking at the amazing white marble structure of the Temple (a building that even the Romans highly admired), Jesus says, “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” An amazing prediction, 40 years into the future, a prediction that came true. (While part of the western wall around the Temple courtyard and the stairs leading to it are still there today, the Temple building itself, the naos (the marble part), has been so completely destroyed that no confirmed piece of it has ever been found.)


Jesus’ followers want to know! “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world (literally the aiōn or “age”)?” Notice that Jesus’ followers are asking for answers to 2 different questions: When will the Temple be destroyed? and, What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the world?


The tricky part here is that Jesus’ answers to these questions are packaged so closely together that it is easy for us modern readers to confuse the 2. It’s like if we were looking at a mountain range and could not tell that some of the mountains are close by, while some are more than 50 miles away. While some read Jesus’ words “This generation shall not pass away until all these things take place” as if he means the entire chapter, it is far more likely that this deadline refers to what Jesus has said about the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple.


Some wrongly conclude that Jesus was saying that “this generation” would witness his return. No, it is totally unlikely that this man who would soon rise from the dead would be so mistaken. Some of the words that Jesus spoke that day have obviously been fulfilled within the lifetimes of those who heard him. Some of those predictions may be fulfilled a second time in our future. And some can only be predictions that are yet to be fulfilled at the end of time.


The first prediction Jesus makes is that many will come in his name and say “I am Christ” (the Messiah). Jesus says, “There shall arise false Christs and false prophets and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” This prophecy is not time specific. We today have actually had more false prophets and messiahs than the ones we know of from Jesus’ day, and ours have deceived far more souls over a longer time. But Jesus warns that “many shall be offended,” literally “stumble” or “fall away” (the Greek verb is skandalizomai). So here Jesus is predicting a Great Apostasy. How great? Jesus says “many” will fall away from the faith, not “all”. Some may have fallen away in his day, but it looks like a truly great apostasy is still yet to come, or may be already underway. And nowhere does Jesus or anyone else say that “all” will fall away by the end of the 1st century.


Next, Jesus predicts there will be “wars and rumors of wars.” He says, “Nation shall rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” plus there will be “famines and earthquakes.” Again, these are not time specific (these have come true more than once), which is why Jesus warns them not to assume the end has come when they see such events (he says these are just the “birth pangs”). War broke out in Judea leading up to the destruction of the Temple, and there were violent struggles between 3 Roman emperors all grabbing for the throne. There was a huge earthquake that destroyed Colossae and Laodicea in 62 AD, plus the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. But the end will also be a time of wars and other disasters. So we need more definite clues.


Jesus says, “Then shall they hand you over to be tortured, and shall kill you, and you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” Certainly the years 60-70 AD were a time of intense persecution, but there were times where persecution has been even worse. And who knows how bad persecution will become when lawlessness is multiplied in the latter days?


Jesus also says, “And because lawlessness (anomia) shall abound, the love of many shall grow cold.” Certainly one can point to the horrible lawlessness surrounding the Zealot war against the Romans, as described by the historian Josephus. So this prediction of Jesus can be applied to the time before the destruction of the Temple. But again, how bad will lawlessness be in the latter days? We’ll have to see what the apostle Paul says about that on our next program.


It’s in this chapter about future prophecy that Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Many have taken this line to mean that eternal salvation is all about how well we obey without wavering until the very end of our life. No, Jesus is talking about survival through a great time of future suffering, whether it be the awful time up until the Temple was destroyed, or whether it be a final time of intense suffering before the return of Christ. Believers will be pressured to give up on Christ. That’s where we must ask, Will we endure to the end if/when that time comes for us?


But here is a specific helpful clue that Jesus gives us: “And this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come.” There is no way that the Gospel had gone to all nations before the Temple was destroyed. So this event must not be equated with the end of the aiōn which Jesus was predicting. For us, the question is: How can we tell when this requirement has been fulfilled? The word ethnÄ“ in this prophecy refers to ethnic groups, of which there are still hundreds who have yet to hear the Gospel in their own language. Is it enough if the Gospel has gone to every country, as defined by political borders? Only God knows for sure. But certainly we are closer to fulfilling this requirement now than ever before. On this point, Jesus is talking about the far distant future, and not about his followers’ lifetime. Every nation must hear the Gospel before Jesus returns.


But now Jesus brings us back to an event that was fulfilled at least once in the lifetime of Jesus’ followers, the defiling of the Temple: “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place.” The standard Jewish teaching is that Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled in the time of the Maccabees, when the Greek tyrant Antiochus Ephiphanes sacrificed a pig in the Temple.


Jesus disagrees. Jesus points to a future defiling of the Temple that will warn his followers that it's time to flee from the coming disaster. Such an event happened at least once in 68 AD, when the Zealots seized control of the Temple and installed a clown as high priest. When they did this, the Zealots then locked down the city to prevent people from escaping to the Romans, in what turned out to be one of the most horrifying episodes of Jewish history.


When they saw the defiling of the Temple, Jewish followers of Jesus remembered Jesus’ words: “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house, neither let the one in the field go back to get his clothes. And woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.” The time to flee was a cold rainy February in 68 AD. Jesus’ followers fled across the Jordan to safety. Those who didn’t flee were doomed.


Jesus goes on to say, “For then there shall be a great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved, but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” Josephus describes the final months surrounding the destruction of the Temple as being the worst of all time: “No other city has ever endured such horrors, and no generation in history has fathered such wickedness.” He says that the Zealots “murdered men and violated women for sport, and drank their spoils down with blood.” The Zealots would not allow the dead even a hole in the ground to be buried. Bodies piled up in the streets. Echoing Jesus’ words that because lawlessness is multiplied, the love of many would grow cold, Josephus writes that “no other lofty emotion disappeared so completely amid the horrors of the time as pity.”


So the Jewish war against the Romans does qualify as one of the greatest tribulations of human history. Luke 21 helps clarify how much of Jesus’ prophecy applies to the 1st century: “So when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains… There shall be great distress in the land and wrath against this people, and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”


But was this the worst tribulation ever? Or could Jesus’ words be fulfilled yet one more time? I suspect that there may be a greater future fulfillment of the Great Tribulation of which Jesus speaks, including still another defiling of a Temple that has not yet been built. Again, we will want to see what the apostle Paul has to say about this on our next program.


Jesus says in Matthew 24:29, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.” (What is that sign? The Gospel of Peter in the early 2nd century was the first to suggest that this sign might be the cross.) These are events that are still in our future.


Luke’s version adds some scary words: “And there shall be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations perplexed at the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and dread of the things coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.” Finally, Jesus says, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Jesus makes it clear that we should not listen to claims that his appearance would not be public and visible to all (he would not appear way out in the desert, or hidden away in some room, or even secretly in our hearts). Jesus compares his coming to lightning which lights up the sky from one end to the other. No one can miss it!


When Jesus returns, he says “he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather his elect from the 4 winds, from one end of heaven to the other,” or as Mark says, “from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.” Here is where Jesus appears to be speaking of the Rapture, where believers rise to meet Christ in the air. (We’ll talk about this more on our next program, where we’ll examine the specifics that the apostle Paul gives us.) Now, from where this gathering together is placed here in Jesus’ prophecy, it would appear that God’s chosen ones are gathered to meet him at the end of the Great Tribulation. Some, however, believe that we will be snatched up to meet Christ before the Great Tribulation, 7 years in advance. Either is possible; neither position should be taken as doctrine.


What we only find in Jesus is the description of how God will separate those who will rise to meet him from those who will not. In Luke 17, Jesus compares his coming to being as sudden as Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom: business as usual until the day God evacuates his chosen ones. Jesus says, “In that night there shall be 2 men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. 2 women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. 2 men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” (Notice that the first example is at night, and the other 2 during the daytime.)


So which is which? Which one is saved, and which one is lost? Since we are not told, one could argue that the ones who are taken are taken away to judgment, but the stories of Noah and Lot would indicate instead that it is the ones who are left behind who suffer judgment, and the ones who are taken who are rescued. Where are they taken? Jesus says, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” (The same word in Greek can mean either eagle or vulture, but in Latin, there are 2 different words; the Latin version clearly says “eagles.”)


Beyond the major clues given in God’s word, the timing of exactly what will happen in the latter days is problematic. In Mark’s version, Jesus says, “But of that day and that hour no one knows, no, not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” God has withheld the exact date of his return even from his Son (part of the emptying of divine advantages that Jesus went through when he came to earth).


So attempts to put a date on the beginning of the final generation or exactly how many years that generation will last are mistaken. Some have started the clock in 1948 with the birth of modern Israel, some have dated it to 1967 (the recapture of Jerusalem), and some have said that a generation is 40 years, some say 70. Jesus himself rejects all such date setting. Jesus simply says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Or as Luke says, “When these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.”


The earthly Jesus was in a unique position to tell us what the final judgment will be like, since he himself will be the judge, and (unlike the exact date of his return) his warnings are vital information for us to have now as we make decisions about our future. In Luke 13:24-30, Jesus warns us that many of us will strive to enter God’s heavenly house and will not be able. Some day, Jesus says, the master of the house will shut the door, and those who are still outside will knock, crying, “Lord, open to us!”, and he will say, “I do not know where you are from.”


In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that on Judgment Day, he will separate the nations like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The non-Jewish nations will be judged by how they have treated Jesus’ followers. Did they feed his followers who were hungry? Did they care for his followers who were sick or in prison? Whoever among the nations did so, Jesus says “As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.” To those who rejected his followers, Jesus says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He says “These shall go away into everlasting punishment.”


Jesus talks about a future hell more than anyone else in the Bible. The OT word translated as “hell” is the Hebrew term she’ol, which is the underworld, not necessarily a place of punishment (the same is true for the Greek Hades). The word Jesus uses for hell is Gehenna, the name for a 24/7 junkyard of burning garbage in a valley outside Jerusalem. Jesus says, “Fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Jesus says that Gehenna is the place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Jesus speaks of it as a place of fire, outer darkness, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth, a place we want to avoid at all costs.


The Good News is that Jesus has paid the eternal price of hell for every one of us, and all we can do is receive what Jesus has done for us in faith. That’s the only way we can know for sure that we are prepared to face our eternal future.


Jesus has quite a lot to say about the future. We should not be surprised; after all, Jesus holds the future in his hands. Some of what Jesus predicts was about events that would soon take place, but other parts of what Jesus says were for the far future, possibly for our own day.


What Jesus says, fits with the rest of what the Bible says about the latter days. That brings us the apostle Paul. Does Paul have anything to add to what Jesus and the book of Revelation have to say about the latter days? Indeed, he does. We’ll take a look at what Paul the apostle has to say about the latter days next time on Biblical Words and World.