What are the Signs of the Second Coming and the End of the Age?

A common question asked by my students is "What are the signs of the Second Coming of Christ and of the end of the age?"

In this article and linked articles I will explore the answer according to the synoptic tradition and the writings of St. Paul.

The Signs of the Second Coming in the Synoptic Tradition

Jesus’ prophetic teaching, which includes the signs of the Second Coming, is contained in the so-called Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. This forms the spine of New Testament prophecy; that's why I teach students to begin with the Olivet Discourse. Start with what Jesus himself predicted, then Paul's prophetic teaching and the Book of Revelation will fall logically and simply in to place.

The Setting...

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’” (Matthew 24:1-3)

During the week leading up to the Crucifixion Jesus returns with His disciples from a day of ministry in Jerusalem to his lodgings at the home of friends in Bethany, a few miles east of the city. They descend eastward into the Kidron valley and then climb up the steep slope of the Mount of Olives.

The disciples look back at the temple complex, which is the focal point of the Jewish religion. Jesus has shocked them by predicting its future destruction. The disciples could only conceive of such an event being associated with the end of the age and therefore ask Jesus three specific questions:

* When will this [the destruction of the temple] happen?

* What will be the sign of your coming?

* What will be the sign of the end of the age?

David Pawson

Jesus gives specific answers to these questions. Luke's account answers the first question concerning the destruction of the temple, which took place in 70 CE (21:20-24). The main body of the sermon deals with the second and third questions together. Throughout the discourse Jesus broadens the scope of his prophetic instruction to include the entire cosmos.

Based upon a study of Christ’s prophetic discourse with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, British Bible teacher J. David Pawson has identified four successive signs of the Second Coming...

Disasters among the nations and in nature (Matt. 24:4-8)

Japan Tsunami

Above: Japan Earthquake and Tsunami March 11, 2011

Three types of disaster are specifically mentioned: wars, earthquakes, and famine.

These disasters have both natural and political causes. Jesus indicates that a marked increase in such disasters spreads alarm and insecurity. In such a mood people look for a savior, this creates an environment conducive to the rise of false “messiahs.”

In this climate, Christ’s disciples must protect themselves from deception by not allowing fear to make them vulnerable. Hence Jesus' admonition: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many." (Matt. 24:4-5). They can do this by understanding that these catastrophes are not death-pains of the old age, but birth-pain of a new age.

Deserters in the church (Matt. 24:9-14)

Pawson identifies three phases in this part of Matthew’s text:

Opposition: The followers of Jesus will be hated by all nations, which will bring a corresponding increase in martyrdom. Christians everywhere need to prepare for suffering and sacrifice.

Reduction: These pressures reveal the difference between genuine and nominal Christians. Mere church-goers give up. Their love cools as a result of moral compromise. They will turn away from the faith, betraying Christ and Christians.

Expansion: At the same time, churches purified under pressure become preaching churches. This will result in the completion of the task of world evangelization. Only then can history be wound up. In the context of the signs of the Second Coming, this preaching of gospel of the kingdom in the whole world (cosmos) as a testimony to all nations (ethnoi) is the final sign heralding the close of this age.

During this phase the danger shifts from false messiahs to false prophets, who are much more likely to deceive believers since true prophets are a continuing ministry the church. Jesus indicates that the greatest need for the church in the last days is discernment. Only those who persevere in faith and remain faithful during the time of waiting before the return of Christ, will know the eternal blessing of heaven.

John Carroll

However, John T. Carroll, Harriet Robertson Fitts Memorial Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia is right to point out that between the resurrection and the parousia, the community of faith is not left to its own devices. It has a mission, “to carry the teaching of the Messiah to all nations, making disciples everywhere (Matt.28:16-20).”

Dictator in the Middle East (Matt. 15-28)

The State of Israel and the wider Middle East conflict feature in both the synoptic and Pauline versions of the signs of the Second Coming. In the former tradition two aspects are predicted...

The Big Trouble: The troubles that have always afflicted God’s people will reach a climax in a short, sharp crisis known as the “Tribulation.” Matthew uses the Greek term thlipsis, meaning a pressing, pressing together, pressure. Jesus says more about this sign than the other three. He bases his warning on a phrase used three times in the late sixth century BC prophecy of Daniel.

Below: Antiochus Epiphanes coin

Antiochus Epiphanes

The prophecy of Daniel: Jesus relates the tribulation to the “abomination that causes desolation” prophesied in Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11. Daniel refers to a human conqueror who will utter blasphemous words and commit obscene deeds in Jerusalem provoking great mental and physical thlipsis among God’s people.

This prophecy was partially fulfilled by the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In a reign of terror over Jerusalem for three and a half years in the second century B.C., he ordered the Jews to burn all their copies of the Torah. He set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed pigs on it. He filled the priests’ rooms with prostitutes.

However, Daniel realized there would be another such period, even worse, “at the time of the end.” It will be for the same period, indicated by Jesus’ prediction that the days of this dictator would be “cut short.” It will be in the same place, which is Jerusalem.

At the same time there will be rumors that Christ has returned and believers are told where they can find him — they must not listen to these rumors.

Pawson notes that at the end of the Big Trouble...

* Christ has not yet come.

* Christians have not yet gone.

Dispaly in the sky (Matt. 24:29-31)

Two events will follow “immediately after the distress of those days.”

All natural sources of light will be extinguished. Sun, moon, and stars will be shaken out of their orbits. The sky which will be pitch-black will be filled with brilliant light, the glory of the Son of Man.

The nations will see Jesus riding on the clouds and will be overcome with grief. According to Paul, believers shall hear a loud trumpet, a call to God’s people to gather together (Matt. 24:31). Pawson believes that angels will escort believers to the Holy Land from all four corners of the earth. As believers are transported to Israel, unbelievers are left behind (Matt. 24:32-41).

The Signs of the Second Coming in the Pauline Tradition

Pauline eschatology presents two signs of the Second Coming, which are described as "mysteries".

The mystery of lawlessness (2 Thess. 1-12)

The mystery of Israel’s hardening and final salvation (Rom. 9-11)

How to Interpret the Signs of the Second Coming

The signs of the Second Coming and the end of the age are not intended to cause the believer's heart to be troubled. Jesus declared that these signs are not death pains, but birth pains.

I had the privilege at being present at the birth of both of my children, and I observed two things about birth pains...

* Once the contractions have started nothing can stop the birth process.

* The nearer we got to the birth the more intense the contractions become.

Using this analogy, Jesus teaches that the signs of the Second Coming indicate a process at work in the cosmos, ordained by divine purpose and overseen by divine providence, which is irreversible and which will result in the birth of a New Age of God’s Kingdom. The nearer we get to the close of this present age, the more intense the birth pains will become, but this is not a cause for alarm.

Jurgen Moltmann

I find the interpretive approach to the signs of the Second Coming of Jurgen Moltmann refreshing. Dr. Moltmann is the pioneer of the theology of hope, Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (1983-1993), and winner on the 2000 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his book The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology.

Click on the book cover purchase Dr. Moltmann's landmark text.

Moltmann argues that biblical apocalypses are not the pessimistic predictions of a global catastrophe which serve only to spread fear and terror so that mankind is paralyzed by the corresponding belief in their own doom. Instead, he insist that these apocalypses are “messages of hope in danger clearly and to resist it. They keep alive hope in the faithful God.”

This is expressed by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Moltmann contends that biblical apocalypses and catastrophe theologies have nothing to do with “the fantasies of global annihilation conceived by the modern prophets of disaster and the terrorists.”

For a more thorough understanding of the signs of the Second Coming and related end-time themes including the Rapture Rupture, the Big Trouble, the Millennium Muddle, and Future Destinies order my eBook Developing a Sound Eschatology, revised edition.

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For clear and concise study of the end times using a biblical theology approach with a discussion of selected basic themes including the hope of Israel, the second coming of Christ, the afterlife, judgment, hell and heaven, order my eBook At the End of time.

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