The Beginning of Sorrows
The horrific news on October 7, 2023, of the Hamas terrorist breach of the Gaza border into southern Israel, and the inconceivable slaughter of over 1200 Israeli citizens and the capture of 240 hostages smells of the fiery breath of the Dragon in Revelation 12:1-12. God cursed Satan and vowed that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent of Eden (Genesis 3:15). The Devil seeks to devour the “seed of the woman” – the “man child” who was born to rule the nations in peace. Satan’s final solution is to destroy all three promises of the Abrahamic Covenant: the land, the seed and the spiritual blessing through the Son of the Woman, Jesus the Son of God (Genesis 17:1-8). The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is about this conflict between Satan and God. Matthew 24, 25 describes the events of the last seven years leading up to the promised return of Jesus to defeat Satan and to establish His rule over Israel and all nations in peace.
This discussion between Jesus and His disciples is the New Testament foundation stone of end times prophetic study. Yet, it has been the dividing stone historically of eschatology – the study of end times – because of preconceived theological biases against Israel. Those from Orthodox and Reformed Theology, who interpret scripture allegorically, see the Church replacing Israel and therefore take the view that the return of Jesus described in this discourse is the rapture and therefore assume it must be at the end of the Tribulation. We are dispensational in eschatology and interpret all scripture literally and hold that the Jewish context of the Book of Matthew demands that the interpretation of this discourse can be applied to motivate all believers, but it specifically warns believers in Israel during the Tribulation after the Rapture of the Church. The glorious global appearing of Jesus described here is the second advent of Christ to touch down on the Mount of Olives and not the Rapture which is the catching up of the church to meet the Lord “in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-19). But even among literal interpretating, pre-Tribulation Rapture dispensationalists, there lingers a long-perpetuated misunderstanding that somehow in the middle of this message to Israel about the Tribulation, which was and still is in their prophetic future, there is a randomly placed message about the Rapture. A few phrases are taken out of context like “one will be taken and the other left behind,” and “of that day and hour knoweth no man.” Based on a few similarities to the Rapture in terminology, it is assumed that the coming of Christ in these chapters must mean the Rapture. This is akin to reading someone else’s mail and assuming it is intended for us the Church, when in fact it is addressed to Israel. We must be guided by Jewish awareness of the context of this conversation as being between Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and His Jewish disciples about future events to happen in the end times within the land of Israel.
Let’s examine the text rather than read into it. To correctly interpret Jesus’ answers, we must understand the disciples’ questions in the context of the previous chapters. We find a key in Matthew 23:37- 24:2. He had just taught them that due to the rejection of Him by Israel’s religious leadership, Israel’s “house” would be left desolate or, without a Davidic dynastic monarchal government . Based on their next comments, they assumed that He was only referring to the physical structure of the Temple. It stands to reason because the disciples had just spent a considerable amount of time touring through the vast thirty-seven-acre complex which was in the final phase of a four-decade long Herodian reconstruction. They were awestruck as seen in their description, “as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts” (Luke 21:5). He began to expound upon “all these things” not only the destruction of the Temple but more to the larger issue – Israel’s national rejection and the impending destruction and loss of their status as a nation.
“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes” (Luke 19:41,42).
Then He doubled down on their preoccupation with the glory of the Temple when He said, “See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The Son of God spoke of Jerusalem’s spiritually worship, and rebellious religious leadership, “Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39). Israel was about to enter a 2000-year period of desolation. According to His previous statement, the Temple and city would be destroyed in their lifetime as history recorded it in 70 AD. (Matthew 23:36)
It must have been in stunned silence that they followed Him down the dark path from Mt. Zion, across the Kidron Valley then up the steep incline of Mt. Olivet where they finally summoned the nerve to ask the ‘when’ and ‘what’ about two events. We could restate the questions.
- When and what shall be the “sign of thy coming?”
- When and what shall be the sign of “the end of the world?” (24:3).
His answer filled two chapters. The events He would list in verses 6 -15 describe a future period that can be summarized by the phrase the “beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8). He then coins a new term for Greek and Aramaic speaking circulation, the “Tribulation” and the “Great Tribulation” (24:21,29). This relabels the Old Testament terminology of “Jacob’s time of trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7); “the day of the LORD” (Joel 3), and Daniel’s 70th week (Daniel 9:24-27). The Tribulation is divided into two parts of three and a half years (Daniel 7:12; 9:27; Revelation 12:14). The first half, the Tribulation is “the beginning of sorrows” followed by the second half which He labels, Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:15-26).
Whose Tribulation is it? The Jewish scribes of His day would have known this final period by the phrase, “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7), or as the 70th week in Daniel 9:24-27. It is Israel’s Tribulation “thy people.” Jesus connects the dots of this teaching to this period in Daniel with the phrase “the abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27). A future prince from the revived Roman and fourth empire of Daniel’s prophecy will confirm a covenant of peace and desolate the Temple with idolatrous abomination in the middle of that “week” of seven years (Daniel 2:40-25).
Who is the object of the Tribulation? While it is God’s judgment of those nations who come “against thy people and upon thy holy city” (Dan. 9:24-27), ultimately it is God’s judgment of Israel as is indicated by the phrase “Jacob’s time of trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). “For I am with thee, saith the LORD, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure and will not leave thee altogether unpunished” (Jeremiah 30:11).
What is the “end of the world?” The phrase in the Greek means the end of the age. The age of what? It is clarified in Luke 21:24 “Jerusalem will be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” The Gentile domination of Israel, which began with Israel’s Babylonian Captivity in 586 BC will last until Jesus returns to earth to defeat the Gentile nations who are poised to destroy His people at the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16; 19:17-21).
“What shall be the sign of the end of the world?” He answers the second part of the question first. They were asking about the end of this age of “Jerusalem being trodden down of the Gentiles.” They were inquiring as to when Roman domination would end with Him reigning as the Messiah establishing His Kingdom and ruling over the Gentiles whom He prophesied would destroy their temple. The last half or “Great Tribulation” described in Matthew 24:16-20 matches up with Satan the Dragon, trying to destroy Jesus the son of Israel (Revelation 12). The sign of the end of the age is Tribulation and Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21).
“What shall be the sign of thy coming?” (Matthew 24:3) “Then” is a sequence marker. The sign will have world-wide visibility “in the clouds of Heaven by power and great glory.” Between the “after” in verse 29 and the “then” in verse 30 there are simultaneous signs in the heavens, basically lights out. “ the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” So the answer to “What shall be the sign of thy coming?” is that there will be a grand finale of heavenly fireworks. The curtain comes down on man’s dark rule and the lights in God’s grand theater go black as the global audience gazes skyward in despair. In John’s later vision, he saw “the heaven opened and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire” (Revelation 19:12.13). “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him” (Revelation 1:7). The sign of His coming is “as the lightening cometh out of the east and shineth even to the west,” and “in the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory.” It will be impossible for anyone miss (Revelation 1:7; 19:11-19).
How will God deal with Israel? Israel is seen as His flock by Ezekiel.
“And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face. Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, saith the Lord GOD. And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant: And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for the which I lifted mine hand to give it to your fathers” (Ezekiel 20:33-42).
God’s ultimate purpose with Israel is to spiritually redeem them.
“Thus, shall they know that I the Lord their God am with them;” “a new heart also will I give you…I will put my Spirit within you;” “My servant David shall be king over them;” “I will be their God and they shall be my people; “I will be known in the eyes of many nations” (Ezekiel 38:23-30).
The first question they asked applied to both questions – “When” shall these things be.
This question still dominates minds today because we only read His words occasionally when the Middle East flares up again, instead of thoroughly examining His extensive answer. He said that they would know the end is near, even at the door, when they see “all these things” ie: all the events of The Tribulation and of the Great Tribulation period that Jesus listed. Only the generation alive to witness “all these things” will see the glorious appearing of Jesus. The events that we are now witnessing are more appropriately called the Shadows of the Tribulation or a foreshadowing of the events. There is nothing in the text, in His mind nor theirs, that hints to the idea of “the Church.” Therefore, they had no concept of a Rapture of the Church. They had no New Testament writings, but only the Old Covenant prophecies about Israel’s future travail and triumph. The list Jesus gave in Matthew 24 of the events during the end time are signs of His Second Coming to earth. It is addressed especially to those Jewish saints, like the 144,000, who will be alive in the Great Tribulation and read His words, “Be not troubled, for the end is not yet.” He is warning the final generation of the beginning of Jacob’s sorrows. How great must that sorrow be in comparison to Israel’s current dark hour? The horror stories of the massacre of 1400 Israelis have surfaced in videos taken with the body cameras of the murderers as well as the cameras of international media who were imbedded with the terrorists. How can it be worse? Israel will prematurely accept a false Messiah in desperation for a Peace Covenant and because they are granted permission to rebuild their Temple. Three and a half years into his rule, the Anti-Christ, possessed by Satan, will rise and claim to be God in flesh. Israel didn’t go for that line 2000 years ago when the real Son of God came. By the time they wake up to the grandest of Satan’s delusions they will be experiencing a double holocaust (Zechariah13:8,9). God preserves a remnant of one third of Israel through the “fire.” These will all believe on Jesus as their Messiah when he rescues them from annihilation (Zechariah 13:6,9; Revelation 1:7). That is the only literal interpretation of the verse “he that endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
What did Jesus expect the response of the disciples to be? He knew it would be deeply troubling to assume that “all these things” would happen in their lifetime. Therefore, He said, “see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6). Then he told them “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come… Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh ” (Matthew 24:42,44). Then He gave them a parable. “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing” (Matthew 24:46). After telling them parables to urge their readiness He said, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:13). He told them to be good and faithful servants in His absence. “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21). Then “the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory” (Matthew 25:31).
Finally, He answers the “when” question. No man knows exactly when. Jesus refocused their preoccupation from when to whom they were to fear and serve in the interim. What had he told His disciples to pray? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” His will is that none should perish. His command is that this Gospel of salvation go to the remnant of His people until the last second before the Rapture. The remnant of 1/3 of Jews from all twelve tribes will be saved once the Church is gone (Revelation 7). I believe we are so close to the Rapture and the Tribulation that we may be sharing the Gospel now with some who may indeed be saved later and become those evangelists after we are gone. We must believe His promise that the Word of the Gospel sown in hearts will not return void. Pray for His will to be done in the hearts of those peacekeepers protecting Jerusalem and Israel and obey his will by telling them His Gospel.