Summer 2004

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 18

A Change of Rulership

David Hulme

It’s the final week of Jesus’ life on earth. After sidestepping traps set by the religious leaders of the day, He responds to questions about the end of the world.

The more time went by in the week before Jesus’ final Passover, the more the religious leadership tried to corner Him. Perhaps He could be trapped into saying something illegal.

Two groups—the Pharisees and the Herodians—who would not normally have been in alliance, came to Him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22: 16–17).

But Jesus saw through their duplicity and said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” The coin had Caesar’s head imprinted on it. So Jesus continued, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (verses 18–21). With this He silenced them.

The same day another religious group, the Sadducees, tested Him with a question about the resurrection. They invited Him to give His opinion as to what would happen to a woman who married seven brothers in succession. After all, according to the law of Moses it was a theoretical possibility when a man died without an heir. They asked, “At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Luke 20:27–33).

It was interesting that the Sadducees should ask about the resurrection, because they didn’t believe in it. Jesus showed them that they didn’t know the Scriptures or the power of God and were therefore mistaken in their understanding. He taught them that at the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Correcting their erroneous view, Jesus quoted the book of Exodus, where God spoke to Moses, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus added, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12: 24–27). Once again people were left speechless by His explanations.

Then a Pharisee asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied that there are two great commands that encapsulate the law. The first is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He said, “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then He added, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35–40).

The Pharisee was impressed. Jesus noted that the man had understood well and told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

After this no one dared ask Him any more questions.

Jesus then directed the discussion to the relationship between Christ and David. Observing that in the book of Psalms David calls Christ ‘Lord,’ Jesus asked how Christ could then be the son of David (Luke 20:41–44).

This was the kind of puzzling question that delighted the crowd and silenced the religious leaders. 

This was the kind of puzzling question that delighted the crowd and silenced the religious leaders. It was an opportunity for Jesus to explain to the people that, while the scribes and Pharisees had ecclesiastical authority, they were not to be followed in their hypocrisy. He said: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matthew 23: 1–5a).

He commented on their flowing robes and on their desire for recognition in the street and for the most important seats in the synagogue and at banquets. He added that they were overly concerned with money and appearance, saying, “Such men will be punished most severely” (verses 5b–7; Luke 20:46–47).

Jesus taught that men are not to be given titles like “Rabbi,” because only Christ is the Master. Neither are we to call anyone on earth “Father,” since we have only one Father, in heaven. Nor are we to be reverentially called “Teacher,” for we have only one Teacher, Jesus Christ, who stressed humility among leaders (Matthew 23:8–12).

Next Jesus expressed His disgust for the scribes and Pharisees with seven statements that begin with the word woe. Jesus characterized them as hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, blind Pharisees, whitewashed tombs, snakes and vipers. This is the most powerful indictment of the religious hierarchy recorded in His entire ministry.

Of Jerusalem itself, Jesus said that the inhabitants had killed the prophets and stoned to death those God had sent. He said that He had longed to gather Jerusalem’s children together, but they had been unwilling. Now the city would be left desolate and they would not see Him again until they could say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (verse 39), a reference to His second coming.

As Jesus sat and watched the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury, He also noticed a poor widow putting in two very small copper coins worth less than a penny. He said to His disciples, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 41–44). It was a condemnation of the wealthy, corrupt and hypocritical religious leadership, who in fact were burdening the poor into giving more than they could afford.

The End of the World? 

As they were leaving the temple enclosure, Jesus’ disciples drew His attention to the magnificence of Herodian Jerusalem. It was a city built in the Roman style as a tribute by the house of Herod to their imperial overlords.

One of the disciples said, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” But Jesus was evidently not impressed with the apparent permanence of the buildings. Knowing what was in Jerusalem’s near future, He said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1–2).

Arriving at the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Him in private, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3, New King James Version).

They knew that Christ would return as King of kings and Lord of lords. But the question was, when would that happen? They could not help but think that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem’s magnificent temple and its surroundings would come only when the world as they knew it would end.

Jesus said: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” Jesus first gave a warning that many would come claiming His position as Messiah and the returning Lord of lords, and would deceive many (verses 4–5, NKJV).

What did Christ mean when He said we should beware those who say “I am the Christ”? 

Now, most people are not deceived by the religiously deluded who think they are Christ. When we see such people or hear their claims, we conclude that they are deceived. So what did Christ mean when He said we should beware those who say “I am the Christ”?

In the past century HitlerPol Pot and Mao Zedong all believed they could solve their nation’s woes. Each believed that he was the anointed one to solve all of his people’s problems. In a counterfeit of what Jesus Christ will do at His return, Adolf Hitler began what he said would be a 1,000-year Reich. Mussolini went further, declaring himself to be the great Lawgiver, the Super Hero. These men and others like them through the centuries have deceived many with their preposterous, inflated claims to omnipotence.

It is as Christ said it would be. What they have done in their folly is attempt to usurp Christ’s own future role of ruling the world in peace and harmony. There is only one Messiah. He has come once, and He is yet to come again to set up the kingdom of God on this earth.

Signs of the Times 

Jesus continued His reply to the disciples’ question about the timing and evidence of His return and the end of the age by warning them not to fear every war and revolution that happens. He said that such things would have to occur in the course of events. They do not necessarily mean that the end of the age is imminent. In fact, He said, “such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (verse 6).

He said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:10–11).

There would also be persecution of believers. He said to His followers, “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them” (Mark 13: 9). They were not to worry about what to say under such circumstances. The Holy Spirit would help them at the time. But the end of the age would still not have arrived.

The next thing Jesus listed was that even family members would betray each other in the progression toward the end of the age of human rule. Further He said, “All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life” (Luke 21:16–19).

He also warned that there would be an increase of false prophets, deceiving many people with their predictions and teachings. Then people’s natural affection for each other would begin to fail in an onrush of immorality and wickedness.

But the good news of God’s coming kingdom would be announced in all the world as the only hope for a solution to humanity’s problems. Then, Jesus said, the end of human misrule would come.

Is there a crisis so overwhelming that it will end the world? In this day of man-made catastrophes and predictions of ecological doom, it’s not an unfamiliar thought. 

The disciples had asked Jesus a question that has resonated ever since. It is, in a sense, one of the ultimate questions: When will this age of man end? People have asked the question in other ways, such as “Is the world about to end?” and “Is there a crisis so overwhelming that it will end the world?” In this day of man-made catastrophes and predictions of ecological doom, it’s not an unfamiliar thought.

The Desolation of Jerusalem 

Next, Jesus gave some details about events in the Middle East before His return. These are not generalities. According to the Gospel writer Mark, Jesus said, “‘So when you see the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not’ (let the reader understand), ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains’” (Mark 13:14, NKJV).

Matthew’s Gospel records almost the same words, while Luke refers only to armies surrounding Jerusalem and mentions that the desolation of the city is near. The same Greek word for “desolation” is used for both the abomination and the armies. This leads to the thought that it is the armies surrounding Jerusalem that are the abomination. Another explanation is that either an idol or a person is set in a holy place in Jerusalem, making the place desolate by its presence.

Yet we are also to be aware that the book of the prophet Daniel has something to tell us about these matters. The book provides much prophetic information about the desecration of the temple at Jerusalem in 167 B.C. by the unpredictable king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes. So in the minds of His biographers, Jesus was making a connection between Daniel’s account of Jerusalem’s prophetic history and what will yet occur there.

Antiochus had set up an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering at the temple. He had gone as far as to sacrifice a pig on that altar. (The pig is, of course, one of the unclean animals listed in the Bible.) In this way he desecrated the precincts of the temple. This was the original abomination of desolation.

Something similar would happen again, since Antiochus was a prophetic type of a future antichrist. In A.D. 70 the Roman armies destroyed the temple and much of Herodian Jerusalem. In 135 the Roman emperor Hadrian began the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Hellenistic, gentile city, naming it Aelia Capitolina. He installed a statue of himself on the Temple Mount.

There is yet a third fulfillment of the abomination of desolation to come, because the final antichrist figure will be alive at the time of the Second Coming.

A Question of Survival 

When Jesus spoke of these matters, He was giving specifics based on previously fulfilled prophecy that will also have a future fulfillment. When these things begin to happen, Jesus said that those in Jerusalem should flee for their lives to the mountains. Those mountains are across the Jordan River. History records that early Christians did flee to Pella, now in northern Jordan, just before the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem. The city was surrounded by armies—Roman legions—and it was certainly left desolate. There will be a future time when the inhabitants should once again leave the city for their own survival.

Looking to the final fulfillment, Jesus said, “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” He went on to say that there will be no worse time in human history, “for then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:19–22). Thankfully those days will be cut short by God’s own intervention, because God will act to preserve human life from extinction.

People want to know, what is the sign of His coming? Here is Christ’s own answer.

At that time there will be false prophets who will say that Christ has already returned. But they’ll be wrong, because His return will be very evident to all, not a secret. As He said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (verse 27). People want to know, what is the sign of His coming? Here is Christ’s own answer. It will be like lightning flashing across the sky. It will be preceded by startling occurrences in the heavens and on earth. Notice this description: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea” (Luke 21:25).

Then finally humanity will see the sign that so many have looked for. Jesus said, “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matthew 24:30–31).

This, then, was Jesus’ specific lengthy response to when the end would come and how He would return.