Preparing the Church for the Return of Jesus
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And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am you may be also. John 14:3
It was a dramatic moment. Just forty days earlier the disciples had greeted with skepticism the news that the tomb was empty and that He had arisen from the dead. But since that time He had been with them; He had talked with them, explained the scriptures to them and even had eaten with them. They had touched Him, and as John said, they handled Him. (I John 1:1) There was no longer a question about His resurrection from the dead. While His body was different now than it was before the crucifixion, it was just as real.
He had gathered them together, as usual, and was telling them to wait for the Holy Spirit, when suddenly He began to lift off the earth. They watched in awe as He went up into a cloud, and He was gone. Just like that! It was unbelievable! They could not take their eyes off of the cloud; they just stared, with their mouths wide open.
Then two angels appeared and announced to the disciples that Jesus is going to come back. Not in some spiritual way, but physically, in the same body, in the same way, as when He left. (Acts 1:1-11)
Jesus is coming back!
If there is any one thing we know from prophesy, we know that Jesus is coming back. He promised He would, and so there is absolutely no question. The question, however, that so many ask is, What will be the circumstances and nature of His return?
The disciples also wanted to know the answer to that question, and so they asked Jesus, What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24: 3)
What follows in Matthew 24:4-31 is a straightforward answer to their question. Since they were sitting on the Mount of Olives at the time, the answer Jesus gave is called the Olivet Discourse, and it can be divided into three distinct parts:
Matthew 24:4-8The beginning of the end of the age, which is like birth pangs.
Matthew 24:9-28The tribulation and the wrath of Satan.
Matthew 24:29-31The return of Jesus.
The Beginning of Birth Pangs
And Jesus answered and said to them, See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, I am the Christ, and will mislead many. And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. (Matthew 24:4-8)
Jesus begins His answer by listing several signs for them to watch.
Jesus is the Head of the church and the only person worthy of worship. He, and He alone, is the Christthe Anointed One of God. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. A false christ is one who puts himself in the place of Jesus, claiming to have truth that supercedes Jesus. There have been many such persons in the centuries of the church, and some, like Mohammed, have been successful in persuading many to follow after them.
Wars abound in our time. A study shows that wars have increased almost exponentially in the last five hundred years.1 With weapons of mass destruction, high-tech weaponry and the means to deliver them over long distances war takes on a new dimension. As terrible as the atomic bombs were that were dropped on Japan in World War II, they pale in comparison to the nuclear capabilities of more than a dozen nations today. Even terrorist organizations seem to have the ability to deliver mass death almost anywhere in the world.
These things have all been around for all history, so it is not merely the presence of these signs that is important. Rather it is their intensity. Just as birth pangs become more intense and frequent as the time approaches for the birth of a baby, so these events will become more pronounced and frequent. So as the time approaches for Jesus return we can expect an increase in all of these things.
The culmination will be the appearance of one false christ who is going to be the final one. Paul calls him the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction. (II Thessalonians 2:3) John describes him in Revelation as a beast with seven heads and ten horns who receives great power from Satan. (Revelation 13:1-10) This one, to whom many give the title the Antichrist, will achieve world domination and demand worship from all the people of the world for a period of time.
Tribulation, Death, Apostasy
Jesus continued by describing several more things that will happen in the time leading up to His return. As the intensity of the birth pangs continues to increase, the followers of Jesus are subjected to a series of pressures. Energized by Satan, the Antichrist institutes a system whereby he can effectively control the peoples of the world. This system has two prongs.
First, true to his title the Antichrist declares himself to be god and requires that all the people worship him. Satan empowers him through supernatural signs and wonders, and many people will be deceived into believing that he is indeed the savior of the world.
Secondly, he institutes a world economic system, so that no one can perform any financial transaction without becoming a part of his structure.
As Jesus spoke to His disciples He announced that there would be a time of great persecution. The event that initiates this tribulation is the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet. (Matthew 24:15; see Daniel 9:27) The abomination of desolation occurs when the Antichrist enters into the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem and declares himself to be god.
Jesus further elaborated and said that it would be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall be. (Matthew 24:21) The goal of the Antichrist is to eliminate the people of God, and he begins in Israel where he attempts to kill the Jews. That is why the angel tells Daniel, And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until [this] time. (Daniel 12:1)
But it will not end there. It will soon spread to all the people of God throughout the world. When God intervenes to rescue a remnant of at least 144,000 faithful Jews, Satan becomes enraged and turns his immense anger on the church:
And the dragon [Satan] was enraged with the woman [Israel], and went off to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And it was given to him [the Antichrist] to make war with the saints and to overcome them; and the authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. (Revelation 12:17; 13:7)
Apostasy and Betrayal
And at that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. (Matthew 24:10)
Jesus also spoke of apostasy and betrayal. The word apostasy simply means falling away, and Jesus warned us that because of the pressure from the intense tribulation many believers would deny their faith. It is one thing to stand in our beautiful auditoriums and sit in plush pews and claim to be Christians. It is something else to risk losing everything, including loved ones and our own life, for that same confession. There are many people in our churches today whose faith has never truly been tested, and during this time of tribulation many of those will fail the test.
But it is worse than that, because many of these people who fall away will be trusted by others in the church. Many who hold to their own confession will discover that those whom they trusted will betray them. That will produce an attitude among believers of mistrust, not knowing who they can trust, and as a result many will become isolated from other believers. Once that happens they are vulnerable to the enemy.
It is common when a nation is preparing to go to war for it to produce a lot of propaganda to prepare its citizens, and particularly those upon whom it will call to risk their lives in combat. Such a situation often produces a sense of unity throughout the nation so that its citizens have a sense of supporting one another. There is nothing the enemy would like to do more than to provoke disunity and division.
And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. (Matthew 24:11)
Another characteristic that Jesus mentions of this time is that there will be a false spiritualism, a supernaturalism that appears to be genuine to the one not trained in the Word of God. As a result, there will not only be many non-believers who will be misled, but many believers as well.
In Matthew 24:24 Jesus warned that these false prophets would have the ability to perform great signs and wonders, so that even the elect are in danger of being misled. Many of us have seen so-called magicians perform acts of illusion, but what happens with the Antichrist in this time will be very real. In this time there will be one who will assist the Antichrist:
And he performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast [Antichrist]. (Revelation 13:13-14)
With our satellite communications today even a small group of wonder-workers can be known world-wide and generate a tremendous amount of support.
Being a Christian is no guarantee that you will be safe from this deception. Jesus warned that even some, perhaps many, believers will be deceived. (Matthew 24:24)
And because lawlessness is increased
One of the ways in which a person can gain great political power is to create a situation where the normal moral fiber of society is torn and destroyed. When the normal order of law breaks down so that external societal restraints are removed, normally law abiding people often become criminals, looting and stealing, even if it means hurting those around them. Their love and respect for one another, the glue that holds societies together, fades as the external structure disappears.
This can be often seen in mob riots, but one of the best examples was Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Germanys loss in World War I in 1918 and the subsequent punitive actions of the victorious allies devastated Germanys economy, creating great hardship. Into this situation stepped Adolf Hitler, who was the head of a small radical and violent political party. His strategy was to create great chaos into which he would step and bring order.
It is going to take great personal integrity and endurance to survive in such a situation without succumbing to the mob atmosphere.
Lawlessness in the Church
most peoples love will grow cold. (Matthew 24:12)
Jesus use of the word love in Matthew 24:12 gives an added dimension to His warning. The word love used here is the word agape in the Greek. There are several words in the Greek that can be translated in English as love. As used by Jesus in this case, agape refers to either the believers love of God or, as in John 13:35, the love of believers for one another.
From this it can be inferred that Jesus is specifically talking of and to the church. He is warning of lawlessness, by which Jesus means rebellion against authority. In Revelation 2:4 Jesus warned the church in Ephesus that they had left their first love. During His final celebration of the Passover with His disciples, Jesus told them that if you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:15)
Lawlessness in the church is not living in obedient submission to Jesus as Lord. The persecuted church must learn to walk in humble obedience to God and to His appointed men of authority. The writer of Hebrews states, Obey your leaders, and submit to them. (Hebrews 13:17)
Preaching of the Gospel
Finally Jesus said the gospel of the kingdom would be preached to the whole world. In recent years the evangelical church has had a strong sense of evangelism, and among evangelical churches today there is often a sense of urgency to go into all the world to preach the gospel. This desire is good and healthy, but Jesus is not waiting for us to reach all of the world with the gospel before He initiates the events that lead to His return.
Jesus statement here that the gospel would be preached to the whole world is said in the context of a persecuted church suffering tribulation. As was stated above, the tribulation would occur after the abomination of desolation, and thus the preaching that Jesus referred to here also occurs after the same event. Thus, this is not evangelism as we know it today, but most likely a supernatural preaching of which everyone in the world would be aware.
One possibility as to how this would occur is given in Revelation 11 where the two witnesses declare the word of the Lord to the entire world. These two men testify supernaturally to the whole world during this time of tribulation.
The Return of Jesus
Jesus promised His followers, the elect, that for their sake He would not allow the tribulation to run its full course. So far, Satan has had his way with the tribulation, and if he were allowed to continue then he might be successful in eliminating the faithful from the face of the earth. But on a day and at a time that no one knows Jesus says, Enough is enough.
The day of the Lord
But 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 the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:29-30)
At this point in the narrative Jesus turned to the Old Testament prophets to provide the description of what it is going to be like when He says, Enough. There are going to be signs in the heavens; the sun will turn dark, the moon also will not give its light and the stars will fall from the sky. These are the same types of signs that the prophets said would herald the day of the Lord. (See for example Joel 2:30-31)
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear everywhere over the earth, so that all men everywhere will see it together. It will appear suddenly, like lightning flashing from the east to the west.
More importantly, these would also be signs for the believers who are still remaining. It is easy to imagine that after years of being hunted and killed the remaining saints will be discouraged. For most of them they will probably be in hiding, surviving in what ever way they can. Suddenly they look up and see supernatural signs in the heavens, and they know that Jesus is on His way to rescue them. No longer do they have to slink around like hunted animals, but they can stand up straight, proud that they have remained faithful and rejoicing that they will soon see Jesus. As Luke states it, When you see these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:28)
But the one who endures to the end, it is he who shall be saved. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. (Matthew 24:13, 31)
The Day of the Lord is when Jesus comes to bring Gods wrath and judgment on Satan. But before He starts He must remove the remaining faithful believers, the elect, so that they will not experience the wrath of God. So He sends forth His angels to gather them together and bring them to Himself. This is what is often called the rapture, or catching up, of the church. Marvin Rosenthal calls this the pre-wrath rapture of the church.2
It is quite sobering to read Jesus answer to the disciples question, and it should give us reason to stop and think. If the rapture of the church occurs prior to the tribulation then there is no need for Jesus to give such warnings. If believers will not go through a time of great testing, then why would Jesus say to us, The one who endures to the end, it is he who will be saved?
The rapture is not a time of escape, but a time of great victory. Concerning this time, Luke records Jesus as saying,
But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:28)
Jesus has a reason for telling us these things, and it is so that we may be warned beforehand. Behold, He says, I have told you in advance. (Matthew 24:25)3
1Krus, David J. and Blackman, Harold S., Time-Scale Factor as Related to Theories of Societal Change, Psychological Reports, 1980, No. 46, pp. 95-102.
2 Rosenthal, Marvin, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1990.
3 For a detailed examination of prophetic scriptures, see The Coming Day of the Lord: Understanding the Prophecies About the Return of Jesus, by Daniel M. Sweger.