Our Unspoken Problem
Michael A. Rogers
Mike is retired, but teaches high school classes, blogs, and writes on biblical subjects. His book, “Inmillennialism: Redefining the Last Days,” was a finalist for the Southern Christian Writers Conference 2021 Notable Book Award.
Jesus said the great tribulation, the abomination of desolation, the worldwide preaching of the gospel, his coming, and the collapse of the cosmos would occur in his generation.
Bible-believing Christians have a problem that most of us don’t want to discuss. We believe Jesus’ second coming (and related events) will occur in our future. But Jesus taught otherwise.
When the Lord sent his disciples on their first preaching tour, he said: “As you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ … When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt 10:7, 23). If the Son of Man has not come, either the disciples are still preaching the kingdom in Israel, or Jesus erred.
Here is another example of his teaching: “There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt 16:28). As before, either the Son of Man has come in his kingdom, or someone has outlived Methuselah’s 969 years. Or Jesus is a false prophet.
Jesus gave his longest discourse about his coming on his last Tuesday on earth. As his disciples admired the ancient temple in Jerusalem, he made a shocking prediction: “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2).
The disciples grasped (and, perhaps, gasped at) the importance of this prediction. Israel’s worship had depended on the temple for a thousand years. The Babylonians had destroyed the temple six centuries earlier, resulting in exile for the Jews, after which they rebuilt it. What would its collapse mean for them this time?
The disciples also perceived the improbability of this prophecy. Herod had used enormous sums from the Roman treasury during his 46-year renovation of the temple (John 2:20). The Empire’s military – the enforcer of the Roman Peace protected this investment. Who, the disciples wondered, could destroy it?
The disciples reacted with two questions: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3).
Jesus answered them straight up. They had linked the temple’s fall to his coming and the end of the age; he did not alter their perspective. He answered their when and sign questions directly but in reverse order.
As for signs, Jesus first listed those that would not mean the temple was about to fall. Religious deceivers, wars, famines, and earthquakes (Matt 24:7) would serve only as “the beginning of the birth pains” that would bring that event (Matt 24:4–8 ESV).
Jesus’ signs increased in intensity. The disciples would experience persecution and widespread apostasy (Matt 24:9–13). Still, they would preach the gospel of the kingdom in all the world as a witness to the nations before the temple fell (Matt 24:14).
Then, the time of “great tribulation”—as foretold by the prophets—would come (Matt 24:21). The abomination of desolation would occur as armies surrounded Jerusalem (Matt 24:15–20; Luke 21:20). The “days of vengeance” – the time God would judge Israel – would follow (Luke 21:22).
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days,” Jesus said, the cosmos would collapse (Matt 24:29). Not literally, of course – the Lord was still describing “those things” surrounding the temple’s fall. And, the disciples understood this imagery their prophets had often used it.
Isaiah, for example, had described Babylon’s soon-coming judgment this way: “The stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine” (Isa 13:10). Babylon’s figurative cosmos collapsed, but the literal stars remained.
Jesus said the temple’s collapse would reveal the Son of Man ruling in heaven—he would be directing his agents as they toppled stone from stone. Jesus would come in the clouds of heaven to supervise the destruction (Matt 24:30). Afterward, he would send his messengers to all parts of the earth to gather the elect (Matt 24:31).
Jesus then answered the disciples’ other question – when would “all these things” occur? “Assuredly,” he said, “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matt 24:34).
They had asked a temporal question – when? He gave a temporal answer – in this generation.
And this is our embarrassing problem: Jesus said the great tribulation, the abomination of desolation, the worldwide preaching of the gospel, his coming, and the collapse of the cosmos would occur in his generation. Before his disciples finished evangelizing the cities of Israel. Before some who heard him died.
But our traditions tell us all (or most) of these things did not occur in Jesus’ generation. If this is true, we should agree with atheists like Bertrand Russell – Jesus was a false prophet unworthy of our worship.
God forbid. We have a problem, but this is not the answer.