‘When will this happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?’ Matthew 24:3
This is a big question! Actually it’s two questions, ‘when’ and ‘what’; the first is a response to Jesus saying that the temple will be completely destroyed, and the second is added by the disciples, perhaps because they assume that the world will end when the temple is thrown down. They have just pointed out to Jesus its magnificence and permanence, so this is a reasonable assumption to make. Jesus reminds them forcefully with what follows (Matt 24:4-35) that nothing is permanent except the kingdom of God.
Many people have argued for centuries about the correct way to interpret this passage, and others like it. David Pawson once said that the Bible contains hundreds of prophecies, only about 80% of which have come true – the other 20% are about the future! Some say that this current coronavirus outbreak is evidence that Jesus is coming soon, based on Luke’s inclusion of ‘pestilences’ in his equivalent teaching (Luke 21:11). We must be careful here; they said the same during the Black Death of 1348-9. But Jesus also said that we must ‘interpret the signs of the times’ (Matt 16:3), and it may be that the intensification of these things is the important point to take note of.
Rather than try to analyse all the possible scenarios of the end times, or to relate current events to the words of scripture, all that we will do here is notice one very important theme that runs right through the passage. It is summed up by v4: ‘Jesus answered, “Watch out that no one deceives you.”’ This theme stands up to scrutiny regardless of your slant on eschatology (the study of the end times) and is a constant warning to Christians everywhere, at all times. The particular deceptions that Jesus warns of here are ‘false Christs’ (v5, v23-24); people who pretend to literally have all the answers, and false prophets (v11, v24); people who pretend to speak on God’s behalf.
Both of these groups of deceivers can be very persuasive, and may be skilled at using Biblical language, so that those who do not understand Biblical principles will be deceived. They may even display supernatural power (v24) in order to sway believers, and how readily we seem to be taken in by such displays. Perhaps that is why Jesus refused to do a miracle ‘on demand’ to prove who He was on a number of occasions (e.g. Matt 12:39, Matt 16:4).
So how do we guard against such deceptions? With regard to false prophets, a friend of mine used to work in a bank and was trained to recognise counterfeit notes. This was done by giving her genuine notes and asking her to become intimately familiar with every detail of them, so that when a fake note was presented, she would know that something was not quite right. In the same way, the more we know Jesus and His Word, the less likely we are to led astray by someone whose words do not quite match up.
Jesus Himself gives us the answer to the problem of false Christs. He says that we shouldn’t believe any of them, ‘For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’ (v 27). In other words, when the real Christ returns, it will be impossible for anyone to miss!