Reign, Return, and Rapture (Part 2)
The Span of Christ’s Reign
As a preliminary point of import, something must be said of the reign of Jesus. Specifically, when did it begin, and when will it end?
As to when it began, throughout his ministry, Jesus welcomed the title Christ, which means anointed king. By virtue of his being king, something of his reign had already begun during his ministry on earth. Jesus cast out a demon and told the crowd, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). “Has come” is an aorist indicative, from which we infer the kingdom had already arrived. Of course, the kingdom is like leaven (Matthew 13:33), so its inauguration wasn’t as visible as some expected, and it came in fuller ways over time (Acts 2, for example).
In Matthew 11, Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by the Father” (11:27), and after his resurrection, prior to his ascension, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18); therefore, with a clear word from Jesus, he had begun to reign. All authority was his. If that doesn’t mean, “I’m reigning as king,” I don’t know what it means.
In Philippians 2, Paul said, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:9-11).
In Ephesians 1, Paul said Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Father, above all other rule and authority (1:20-21). And in Colossians, Paul said, “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13).
And as a last and more practical comment regarding the start of his reign, the sermons preached through the ministry of Christ primarily refer to the kingdom as being at hand; however, through Acts and the other New Testament works, Christians preached the good news of the kingdom as an apparent reality.
So as to when his reign began, the seed was planted during his ministry, and the obvious status of his reign was further clarified by subsequent Biblical writers.
Now, when does his reign end? With all the complexities of the last days of the world (eschatology), there’s an exceedingly clear word from Paul upon which we can stand; and no further explanation is needed. Paul wrote, “22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:22-26).
Jesus will deliver the kingdom back to the Father after he has destroyed every enemy, the chief enemy being death. Paul specifies why his reign will end after he has destroyed physical death: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” So, as a matter of great practicality, any generation for the past two thousand years can ask, “Is there still death?” If the answer is “yes,” then Christ is still reigning. This undermines the premillennial understanding that the resurrection will transpire prior to the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. Paul says it in quite the opposite terms.
I begin with all of that because some (realized eschatologists) say Jesus already returned and there is therefore no longer a future prophetic word for the church in 2018. However, if we understand the clear Scriptures, which testify (1) Christ is reigning and (2) he will reign until death is totally destroyed, then we can reasonably conclude that he hasn’t yet returned for his final judgment described in Matthew 25, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Peter, and Revelation.
Now, going forward with the message today, we will discuss two matters, namely, (1) What Jesus says about the end of the world; (2) What Jesus advises saints concerning our journey toward the end. Note: Because of the complexities of this chapter, we will have a third installment added next week.
The End of Time
When will it be? Everybody wants to know that answer. In verse 3, the disciples asked, “when will [the destruction of Jerusalem] be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end (gr. συντέλεια) of the age?”
We learned last week how the disciples assumed the destruction of Jerusalem was parallel to the end of the world. Despite that misunderstanding, Jesus did give an answer concerning the end. He explicitly mentions the end in verses 6, 13, and 14, and he intimates the end in verses 36-51.
Unfortunately, as we will see, nothing definite is granted to the disciples (nor us) concerning when the end will be. Jesus gives a general idea of the goings on of the fallen world until the end, but we don’t know when that end will transpire. The obscurity of these prophetic words is very telling, and I’ll say something about that in a moment.
Nevertheless, here’s what Jesus does say. He says, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but this is not the end” (v. 6). He continues, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (v. 7), after which he says, “These things are only the beginning” (v. 8). He further says, “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (vv. 9-11). And lastly he says, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14). Doesn’t that sound precisely like the last two thousands years of Christian history?
Of those verses, I want to simply make two points: (1) What we call “the end,” Jesus calls “the beginning;” (2) Jesus purposely spoke in obscure terms.
The Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End
In my time on this small island, I have heard—I don’t know how many times—“The end is near!” Every time there is an earthquake or hurricane or war, somebody says so. Just the other day, a man told me, “The end is almost here; prophecies are being fulfilled left and right.”
What have we missed? Jesus said of wars, earthquakes, world calamities, “these are but the beginning!” (v. 8). They’re not the end. They’re the beginning. And by the way, they began 2,000 years ago. And you know, they’ve continued quite similarly ever since—some of the worst and darkest being the previous century. I read something humorous from one theologian the other day. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said that every generation of Christians since the time of Christ thought they were the last generation of Christians. Because why? Because there has not been a generation for two thousand years that was free of the calamities Jesus described.
What we should understand from these verses is this: The goings on of the world are primarily those of wars, natural disasters, calamities, false prophecies, apostasies, and darkness. It has been that way, and it will be that way until the very end. So, simply because we witness Hurricane Michael wiping through the Florida panhandle or ISIS destroying the Middle East, we shouldn’t assume we are the final generation to live on planet earth. That’s the first point about these things. But secondly…
Jesus Foretold the End in Obscurity
Did not Daniel prophesy with such precision to know the exact kingdoms which would rise and fall subsequent to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon? First the Medo-Persians, then the Grecians, then Rome!
Did not Jesus name his betrayer? Did not Jesus predict Peter’s threefold denial? Did not Jesus predict the exact nature of the destruction of Jerusalem (see. v. 2)? Why, then, did he speak so generically of the end of the world?
Here’s why: Jesus said in verse 36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
He went on, “For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man…Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (vv. 37-39, 42).
Further, he said, “But know this [you won’t know when I’m coming, but here’s one thing to know], that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (vv. 43-44).
So, as a first point, Jesus didn’t even know on what day he would return. As far as his humanity could see, he may return in a hundred years! He did not know the day or hour. [Note: I believe he now knows. But during his ministry, he didn’t know. So he warned, “Be ready always!”]
And second, he intimates that our ignorance on the day and time of his return is by design of God to keep us awake. By virtue of knowing he will return, and by virtue of not knowing when it will be, he keeps us in an eternal state of readiness. He may return half-way through this sermon! Our ignorance is designed to prompt constant spiritual sobriety.
I believe this is why Jesus spoke in such indefinite terms.
The Darkness of Our World and Christ’s Exhortation
Let’s close the message today with an exhortation amidst the prophecy. In the final age of history, there will be wars, death, persecution, hunger, heresies, false prophecies, false Christs, deceptive philosophies, and plausible arguments, like, “Where is the promise of his coming?” All of these are weapons bent on leading astray the elect.
In verse 5, he warns of those who will be led astray; in verses 10-12 he says the love of many will grow cold, and the faiths of many will be lost amidst the calamities of life.
In verse 24, he says, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” Why does he keep warning against apostasy? Because he knew (and now looking back, we know) wars, persecutions, and plausible arguments have, to a great degree, been successful in leading astray the faithful. So he’s saying, “Don’t lose sight of the goal; don’t forget these predictions; don’t lose sight of the general nature of a fallen world, thereby losing hope and faith in the Christ.”
In verse 13 he says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” So the word of admonishment is simply, endure! When you encounter various trials and hardships, don’t see it as a sign of abandonment, thereby losing your faith; see it as a confirmatory word of Christ, thereby affirming your faith! Endure!
Despite the harrowing nature of the final age in human history, Jesus reminds us in verse 35, “My words will not pass away.” Irrespective of the nature of the trial you encounter—death, rejection, war—Christ’s words are immovable. So don’t lose faith in them. Cling to them. And if to your last dying breath you clung tightly to his words, he will set you over much in the life to come. He will give you much. You will be the faithful and wise servant to whom he will grant much.
Despite the dark and difficult nature of this prophetic word in Matthew 24—one from which there have been countless debates and contentions and confusions—a few things are clear to everyone:
(1) Nobody knows when the end will come; (2) The world will continue in disarray all the way to the end; (3) Disciples of Jesus are to be grounded in his words and therefore not dissuaded by physical distress, spiritual distress, or competing spiritual forces.
Jesus must reign until the last enemy—death—has been permanently abolished. Knowing not when that day will come, we look hopefully to the future. We are not moved by false prophecies and predictions; we are not dissuaded by destructive philosophies; we are not thrown off by wars and natural disasters. We wait eagerly for the return of Christ, knowing not when he will return but that he will return. Knowing not how he will return but that his return will be evident to all. And until the end comes, we endure.
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