When Spring flowers bloom and warm winds melt away winter’s grip, the festivities of Easter Sunday are heralded with the chatter of Jesus’ soon return. It happens like clockwork each year. As the cooler evenings of September usher in the Jewish Feast of Trumpets, doomsday prophets awake once again to predict Jesus’ return. In addition to these bi-annual markers, one other event provokes end-time suspicions. When tensions arise in the Middle East, the alarms resound once again. Needlessly, the apocalyptic boy cries wolf far too often.
In my earlier years of faith, talks of Christ’s return did not settle well with me. I looked forward to seeing Jesus, but the tangled wires of end-time prophecies, knotted with political plots and fear-motivated alter calls, brought little hope. I struggled to make sense of the teachings I heard. Most of them were cliff hangers that ended with a sales pitch to buy a book or DVD series. Others were fear-driven pulls for audiences to “get saved or get left behind.” Over time I came to expect God’s wrath and darker days to be the signal of the world’s end.
Then I laid aside the prominent books of Bible teachers and decided to do a little studying. I grabbed my Bible, and within a few weeks, I carefully studied through the most common end-time passages in the Bible. From these three passages, I believe, every follower of Jesus can shape a healthy view of the end times: Matthew 24, 2 Thessalonians 2, and 2 Peter 3.
In these texts, we find Jesus, Paul, and Peter speaking to the same event from unique viewpoints. Generally speaking, Jesus addresses the Jews who would see some of His prophecies fulfilled in their lifetime. Paul speaks to the Gentile church, who questioned whether they had missed Christ’s second return. Finally, Peter speaks of the world, which will face God’s judgment.
I’d strongly encourage you to look at these passages and allow God to reveal His Word to you. I’m all for reading extra-biblical views, but they must fall second to direct revelation from Jesus.
What do these passages say? Let’s look at them in the chronological order they were delivered.
Jesus: Matthew 24
The context of Jesus’ discourse was a response to three questions His disciples asked. They inquired,
- When will these things be? (In reference to Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem temple’s destruction.)
- What will be the sign of Your coming?
- What will be the sign of the end of the age?
Jesus answers by giving the condition of the world, which will earmark the “beginning of sorrows.” What are these conditions? War, famine, pestilence (diseases), and earthquakes will come. He warns us not to be deceived because many will come claiming, “I am the Christ.” Note how Jesus did not predict that many will come saying, “I am Jesus.” The false label to be used is “Christ” or anointed one. False leaders will move in power, which will lead the masses into deception. This prediction is happening now and has been occurring for centuries. From religious to political leaders, many have risen with a self-imposed title of an “anointed one.” They have led entire generations down the dark paths of destruction. For example, when Adolf Hitler rose to power, he gave himself the title of “the Fuhrer.” This title in the German culture implicated one who is appointed to save or transform a nation. Though the connotation has more of a political or military tone, the concept fulfills Christ’s prediction. Hitler took on a messianic title to shape the way Germans received him. We’ve seen musicians, philosophers, and rogue tyrants claim a similar Christ-like title. I’ll cautiously leave them unnamed, lest I offend any followers.
In the midst of all this, Jesus says tribulation or distress will come to his followers. (Matt 24:9) Now before you freak out about tribulation, read what He says. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and all nations will hate you for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.” This prediction has been occurring since the birth of the church. The Christian faith was born in persecution. It grows in persecution. By all historical measures, it also becomes the most potent and beautiful under the heavy hand of oppression. To believe Christian faith can flourish best in peace and tranquility betrays an ignorance of historical church growth. When we hear the word tribulation, many imagine a hopeless scenario of believers running fearfully for their lives. But this is not a clear picture of the word. The Greek term for tribulation is “thlisipn.” It is better translated as “distress.” There will be distress among Jesus’ disciples, but we shouldn’t forget the promises God has given to for times of distress. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11) In Jesus’ teaching, the word tribulation is derived from a picture of grapes being pressed to produce wine. What if the tribulation we dread is the process through which the church matures into the beautiful bride Jesus desires? This tribulation, I believe, may not be a punishment as much as refining work. Again, looking at church history. Believers have endured tribulation for centuries. Today, more Christians are giving their lives for Jesus than any other time in history. Consider these facts.
- According to the Center for Studies on New Religion, the rate at which Christians were killed in 2016 was estimated to be one slain every six minutes.
- A BBC report in May of 2019 told of many Christians killed in the Middle East. In 2013 Christians numbered around 1.5 million in the nation of Iraq. In 2019 believers had been reduced to 120,000. This decrease was not a reflection of many defecting from their faith. Shockingly, it indicates the genocide of Iraqi believers.
- According to OpenDoorsUSA.org, a notable source on Christian persecution, eleven Christians are slain per day in the regions they have deemed the most hostile toward Christian faith.
As you would expect with such a volatile situation, these numbers have a margin of error due to the limited ability to gather information. These facts show us how the earth drinks in the blood of the martyrs now more than ever. In addition to this tribulation, Jesus says, the love of men will grow cold.
A thread of hope glimmers in Jesus’ narrative. He says, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” The church will grow strong amid this tribulation and take the gospel to the ends of the earth with exceptional vibrancy. Every ethnic group will hear the good news of God’s kingdom. Following this historic finish line event, the end begins.
Jesus continues saying, the “abomination of desolation” will rise. This leader is the Antichrist. With his ascent to power, there will be “great tribulation.” (Matt 24:21). However, this period will be brief. Jesus implies it may even be a few weeks. This period will inspire more false Christs, followed by the falling of stars and the darkening of the sun.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens. The whole world will see Him coming in the clouds of heaven with “power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24:30-310) Jesus concludes in saying, “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. (Matthew 24:36)
Paul: 2 Thessalonians 2
A rumor had brought much concern to the Thessalonian church. False reports of Jesus’ return provoked fears within the growing Gentile community. Paul wrote to set things in order by encouraging the church not to be “shaken in mind or troubled… as though the day of Christ had come.” He referenced a portion of his previous letter to the church. In it, he described how believers would be “caught up” with the Lord on the final day. (1 Thessalonians 4:17) In Paul’s second letter, he repeats much of what Jesus taught concerning the end-times. He begins with a warning not to be deceived. (2 Thessalonians 2:3). He says there must first come a falling away or apostasy. This indicator is similar to Jesus’ statement of how false Christs will arise and lead many into deception. Then Paul says, “the man of sin” will be revealed. He also repeats Jesus’ teaching of lawlessness increasing in the world. Then he says after the rise of the Antichrist, the Lord will consume him “with the breath of His mouth and destroy (him) with the brightness of His coming.” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Peter: 2 Peter 3
Peter comments briefly on the condition of humanity before Christ’s return. His analysis is similar to Paul and Jesus’ description of a lawless society. Peter restates how Jesus will come “as a thief in the night.” (2 Peter 3:10) He also emphasizes how the “heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat…” He then moves his letter to encourage believers to, “be diligent” and “to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless;”
These three passages offer us a simple end-time picture. There will be trouble, but the church will rise and bring the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Yes, the opposition will increase, but it will be brief and quickly dismantled by the literal appearance of Jesus in the sky.
As believers, how should we respond to these scriptures? Should we divisively campaign to promote our end-time view in church circles? Should we stockpile food and ammunition to prepare for the rise of the Antichrist? Should we run up credit cards and live luxuriously, hoping for a painless transition into glory? I can only grin at such foolish notions of self-preservation. Unfortunately, many believers have endorsed such sentiments. We are charged with helpful directives from each of these passages.
Jesus follows His prophetic prediction with various parables. In them, the message is clear. Everyone will give an account for the life they’ve lived. If we take our salvation for granted, there will be consequences. Jesus concludes in saying how we treat “the least of these” will prove to be a reflection of our relationship with Him. Paul, in a similar tone, charges the Thessalonians to “not grow weary in doing good.” Concerning the relational aspects of the church, he urges them to work toward peace and not allow divisiveness and contentions. Finally, Peter refers his readers to Paul’s insights on the matter of Christ’s return and the gospel as a whole. He continues in saying we are to, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
It is easy to be thrilled by the nuances of prophetic foresight. But let me point out the cautionary fine print. In almost every move of God since 1900, there is an alarming trend that repeatedly emerges. Each revival came to a close when its leadership abandoned the priority of making disciples and preaching the gospel. To what focus did these many movements transition? They began to promote salvation as a means to evade the soon coming judgment of God. From the Azusa street revival to the Jesus movement, these eras of grace were splintered by offenses as leaders moved aggressively toward apocalyptic teachings.
If we shift from our calling to make disciples to peripheral doctrines, the loss is generational and subsequently eternal. God has entrusted us with one primary task. If we exchange the task of making disciples, for indulging in complex theories of Christ’s return, we only demonstrate shallow faith. Yes, Jesus is returning, but we have been entrusted to complete a work greater than making calculated predictions of His advent.