Thursday, 22 May 2014


The second part of a look at the Olivet Discourse (Mt 23:37-25:46).

Part 1 is here

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation” (Mt 24:9)

Christ warns us in the Olivet that persecution and tribulation are to be considered the norm for the believer in this age, and that true Christians ought always to live with the possibility of being delivered up to tribulation and even death (24:9) during this time on earth.

 We have known in the western world such an unprecedented period of peace and security for Christian believers now spanning centuries that many have come to dismiss the possibility that we might one day be called upon to suffer on our spiritual journey.  How ironic that we should have become this way when the very liberty we enjoy was bought for us by the blood of previous generations of believers!

  We must recognize that the long season of  tranquillity we have enjoyed in the West is an historical anomaly rather than an inherent Christian right. Both Christ and His apostles consistently warned us to have an expectation of tribulation whilst in the world (Jn 16:33; Acts 14:22). 

 The argument that rages in some sectors of Christendom today over whether the Church will escape the time of end time tribulation to come is symptomatic of an unhealthy attitude that has developed towards suffering for our faith. How academic our fierce debates must seem to a believer in a North Korean prison cell who is already in tribulation!

 The notion of avoidance of persecution and tribulation is completely alien to New Testament thought. Persecution was the regular backdrop to the apostolic era and informed all apostolic teachings and exhortations.

 How sad it is then to hear so many Bible teachers say that the “blessed hope” of Paul (Titus 2:13) was his belief in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture giving the believer a “get out of jail free” card for the coming Tribulation.Is this not a calumny against the memory of the apostle who endured so much for His Lord (2 Cor 11:24-27) and who considered “the sufferings of this present time not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us (Rom 8:18)?

 Unquestionably, the “blessed hope” that Paul and the other apostles actually looked for was not an avoidance of tribulation, but rather an end to that which they were already enduring. An end which they foresaw in Christ’s return (2 Thess 1:6-10).   In contrast many of our churches have raised up a generation of believers for whom suffering for their faith has become almost unthinkable.

But Jesus  had more to say,

For not only would there be an external threat to contend with but an internal one also.

   "...many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another" (v10)

Remember that these are words spoken of professing believers!

Ever since the time of the archetypal betrayer Judas Iscariot, Church history has testified to the fact that the greatest threat to Christians has always come from within its own professed ranks.

Notice today, as our post-Christian society spirals towards moral insanity, how there are increasingly loud and influential voices within so-called evangelicalism that are exhorting us to accept the spirit of the age in moral and sexual matters lest we be found to be "on the wrong side of history" or - worse still - be thought unloving & bigoted.

These troublers of Israel are a greater burden for the Church to bear than all of the external critics put together. Many indeed are those who are "offended" at the message of righteousness preached by Christ.
We need to know that it will ever be so.

 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be will be preached in all the world…” (Mt 24:14)

It is easy to skim past the words of this prophecy and miss something that is of great significance.

I invite you to read the words again.And to remember that the words were first committed to paper long before anything approximating to the worldwide spread of Christianity.

Do we not see here a most remarkable vindication of Jesus of Nazareth's teaching and ministry? Do the words of this prophecy not represent a remarkable confirmation that Jesus must have been precisely who He claimed to be?

 For here is a Man with a handful of unremarkable followers who is telling us that His Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in every country of the world. And now two millennia after He made that remarkable prediction, we can see that this is precisely what has happened! The Gospel of Jesus Christ spans the globe just as He said it would.   

We have to invite the sceptic to consider the likelihood of this fulfillment.

Jesus of Nazareth was an altogether unimportant figure in terms of the political power-systems of His day. It has often been observed that He did not do any of the things that men conventionaly do to win power and influence: writing books, raising armies, forming governments etc.

 During His short earthly life He acquired only a small degree of notoriety in an unimportant part of the vast Roman Empire before even that brief and limited fame was brutally extinguished by a shameful Roman crucifixion.

How likely is it then that His words should be known all around the world today? What were the chances of such an achievement given the forces arrayed against Jesus and the pitiful band of followers who succeeded Him?

Yet that global proclamation of the Gospel took place precisely as he Himself had prophesied that it would!

 Put that into some kind of perspective.

 If I were to stand up in my hometown here in a somewhat obscure corner of England and assert that I were starting a movement that was destined to sweep the globe and reach into all the nations, then you would be fully entitled to call for the men in white coats! Even today, in a world of instant global communications,  I would have virtually zero chance of making good on my claim.

 Yet Jesus and His disciples had none of the communication advantages that we take for granted today.  The messengers of the Gospel of the Kingdom were sent out on foot, tramping their weary way through dangerous bandit territory, over mountain passes, and along perilous paths into cities where their message was all too often violently rejected.     

Yet today the improbable mission is close to completion.    

The sceptic must be challenged to explain how this fulfillment could have taken place in histroy unless Jesus were precisely who He claimed to be: the Lord of history.

“…when you see the abomination of desolation…” (Mt 24:15)

 So significant are these words that the event to which they allude was being verbally communicated to the early churches long before the Olivet Discourse itself existed on paper. The apostle Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, highlighted the necessity of it taking place prior to the return of Christ (2 Thess 2:1-5).

 Both the Olivet and the later Thessalonian epistle agree that until this flashpoint event takes place, it will be largely “business as usual” on planet earth.  The incident that Paul identified was the “falling away” and “the appearance of the man of sin” (2 Thess 2:1-10). This is unquestionably the emergency that Jesus is alluding to here as the “abomination of desolation. 

 In the era preceding Christ’s first advent a Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes seemed to have fulfilled many of the prophecies of Daniel in a remarkable way particularly when he outraged the Jews by erecting an altar to Zeus in the temple court and sacrificing a pig upon it. This triggered a successful Jewish revolt under the Maccabees. 

 However it is obvious that Jesus was referring to an event that was yet future from His own perspective of the 1st Century AD. Hence we must look for some kind of repetition of the Antiochus episode in the Last Days.

 We cannot be certain what precise form the coming Abomination will take, but certainly at the time it will be an event instantly recognizable to an alert believer as that described by Christ in the Olivet or else His warnings concerning it would prove futile.

  Paul gives us additional information concerning the abomination when he reveals that the man of sin will  sit in the temple of God, showing that He is God”(2 Thess 2:4). In the Old Testament an abomination was an idol, a figure that attracted false worship and this is the key thought here. Interestingly in Mark's version of  the Olivet the masculine pronoun is used to describe the abomination (Mk 13:14), indicating that the abomination is to be thought of as a person as much as it is an event.

There must have been a considerable stir created in the believing community of Jerusalem when in 41AD the insane emperor Gaius Caligula announced his intention to place a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple and require that it be worshipped. 

Caligula was murdered before he could put his mad scheme into effect but for anyone familiar with Jesus’ words which had been issued only a handful of years earlier it must have seemed a close-run thing!

  The prophet Daniel was told that “from the time that…the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days” until the end (Dn 12:11).

This is highly significant information.

 The date of  the return of Christ is unknown to us today and speculations in relation to it are therefore wholly futile.But here we must remember the purpose of the Olivet as discussed in Part 1.

The teaching is to serve as an eschatalogical calendar signifying the proximity or otherwise of Jesus' return.   

At present the return is unknown because "the end is not yet" (v6). 

 But we must not forget that the Discourse is also to serve as a kind of piercing alarm call to that generation for which His return is near, "at the doors."(v33). I submit that it is the setting up of the abomination which will be the trigger event that starts the hourglass running for the Second Coming.

 Thus, the Second Coming will by this single occurrence be turned overnight from an unknown and unknowable future prospect to being an event that can all but be placed in the diary!

 Those who have rightly disciplined themselves to be wary of date-setting in relation to the Eschaton will instinctively shrink from the notion of such precise dating.

Nevertheless it seems clear from this verse in Daniel that God intended that, when the event was very close (“even at the doors” Mt 24:33) then His Last Days Church ought to be in a position to pinpoint with some degree of precision the very date of the Lord’s return.

 But, it may be objected, are we not told that His coming will be  “like a thief in the night”, that is it will be completely unexpected?

Yes, but to this we should ask ourselves two questions:

 Firstly, which precise event was in view when Christ said that He would come like a thief in the night?

Secondly, for whom were we told that His coming would be like a thief in the night?

 The first question is easy enough to answer. The Book of Revelation clearly reveals that this prophecy is to be fulfilled at Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).

 Some, in trying to argue for an earlier ingathering of the Church in a pre-tribulation translation say that He must therefore, come like a thief twice; once in a pre-tribulation rapture and then again at the climax of world history on the Plain of Esdraelon.

But this is to completely misunderstand the force of the analogy.

 Jesus was describing the kind of traumatic event (comparable to that suffered when one’s home is burgled) that takes a person totally by surprise and thus “overtakes” him (1 Thess 5:4).

 Such an unlooked-for event, by its very nature can only occur once. The burglar who empties your home and leaves a thank-you card stating the date of his next visit would certainly find that you were well prepared for him the next time as Jesus Himself observed (Mt 24:43)! 

 Consider what the effect of a pre-tribulational rapture would be on Mankind.

 A generation of unbelievers which has been “tipped off” as to the truth of the Bible’s message by such overwhelming evidence as would be provided by the supernatural disappearance of millions of Christians would certainly seek to investigate the astonishing phenomenon that had occurred.

 They would inevitably be driven in vast numbers to the pages of the Bible for an explanation of such an astonishing event. When faced with such undeniable proof of the veracity of the scriptures that the removal of the Church would represent; we must envisage overwhelmingly large numbers of these people beginning to prepare themselves - in some way at least - for the impending calamity of the Day of the Lord.

I am not saying that they would necessarily repent - repentance is a gift of God.

 Rather I am saying only that Christ's return could not possibly be wholly unexpected for them. Yet the Bible is clear that the people of the world will be wholly blind-sided on the day of His coming (Mt 24:38-39).

Hence there cannot be two returns "like a thief". There can be only one and we are specifically told that it takes place at Armageddon. 

And this helps to answer our second question.  For whom will His coming be like a thief in the night? Paul assures us that this fate is reserved only for the “sons of the night, and will not be the fate of  the “sons of the day” (1 Thess 5:1-5).

 Believers in Christ will be present on earth in that Day but it will only be to the unsaved and the unready that His return will seem as a thief in the night. To them only on that Day will this event be the most extreme trauma and unforeseen disaster. 

 The Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christian, who remains alert and endures to the end (24:13) need not fear any such calamity, but instead will welcome the crisis.  Such a person will have been prepared for Christ’s return by the trigger event of the setting up of the abomination and his knowledge of the scriptures relating to it.

 The scriptures are quite clear in teaching that it is only to those who do not “watch” that will He come like a thief (Rev 3:3).