The Little Apocalypse; How to distinguish between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Return of Christ.
Little Apocalypse – The Greek word translated as “revelation” in Revelation 1:1 is apokalupsis. This is transliterated to English as apocalypse. Matthew 24 is sometimes called the little apocalypse because it contains Jesus’ most comprehensive description of future events.
Return of Christ – In Mathew 24:30-31 Jesus said,
“They will see the Son of Man coming
on the clouds of the sky
with power and great glory.
and He will send forth his angels
with a great trumpet
and they will gather together his elect
from the four winds,
from one end of the sky to the other”.
This seems to describe the physical return of Christ, but a few verses later He added:
“Truly I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34).
The purpose of this article is to study the text to understand whether Jesus said that He would return in the first century.
Parallel chapters – Luke 21 and Mark 13 contain the same explanation. A separate article (Little Apocalypse Support) compares the three gospels, as support to the current article. The reader is advised to first read that other article.
Variations confirm reliability – The three chapters closely resemble each other, but there are also many differences. The similarity of the chapters is quite amazing if one remembers that these gospels were written about 30 years after Jesus was on earth. Prior to that Christians mainly relied on verbal teachings. The variations actually confirm the truth of the Bible because they show that these are the reports of three different people of the same events.
Interpretation of the variations – When at least two of the three authors agree, one can accept their report as factual. When one author mentions something which the other two do not, it will be assumed that that was also actually said, for “the Helper, the Holy Spirit … will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).
Sections –To discuss these chapters, they are divided below into sections, and each section is discussed separately. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the NASB.
Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6
The conversation started when, while they were leaving the temple, the disciples pointed to the beautiful temple building. Jesus responded and said:
“Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down”.
He must have said this with sadness in His heart, for in Matthew 23:37-38 He said,
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!”
“Your house” refers to the temple.
Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3-4; Luke 21:5-7
From there they went to the Mount of Olives, where the disciples asked Him:
“When will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Since this conversation took place on the Mount of Olives, it is sometimes also called the Olivet Discourse.
Jesus only mentioned the destruction of the temple, but the disciples now included His “coming” and “the end of the age” in their questions. The stones of the temple were huge; each more than 40 feet in length and the disciples assumed that the temple will be destroyed at the return of Christ and that that will be the “end of the age”.
With respect to these things, the disciples asked two things:
- when and
- what the sign will be that these things are about to take place. The Jews were fond of signs (Mark 8:12).
THE FALSE TEACHERS
Matthew 24:4-5; Mark 13:5-6; Luke 21:8
When Jesus responded, He did not answer their questions immediately. He started by warning them against false teachers:
“Many will come in My name, saying,
‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many”.
Matthew 24:6-8; Mark 13:7-8; Luke 21:9-11
The disciples asked for signs of the end, but Jesus next warned them of things that are not signs of the end, namely wars, rumors of wars, plagues, famines, and earthquakes.
MatT 24:9-10; Mark 13:9-12; Luke 21:11-19
He then warned His disciples that they will be persecuted and killed. They will be hated by all “because of My name”. They will be brought “before kings and governors for My name’s sake” (Luke 21:12).
“At that time many will fall away and will betray one another”.
Jesus continued to say that when they are brought “before kings and governors” it will provide them with an opportunity to testify. He told His disciples not to prepare beforehand to defend themselves, for He would give them wisdom which none of their opponents would be able to refute (Luke 21:12-15).
He also said:
“Most people’s love will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matt 24:12-13; Luke 21:19; Mark 13:13).
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14; Mark 13:10).
“The end” in the first quote may perhaps be understood as the end of the person’s life, but for the following reasons it more probably refers to “the end of the age”:
- The disciples asked about “the end of the age” (Matt 24:3).
- In the next verse (Matt 24:14), “the end” is “the end of the age”.
In addition to these references to “the end”, all three gospels refer to the non-signs as “not yet the end”. Of the twelve times that the phrase “the end” is used in the gospels, seven are in the chapters containing the Little Apocalypse. This shows the unique nature of the Little Apocalypse; It is Christ’s most comprehensive discussion the “the end”.
A separate article is available on the phrases “the end”, or “The End of the Age”. In that article, it was concluded that “the end” is when the peoples of the world are separated into two groups. “Those who commit lawlessness” will be thrown “into the furnace of fire”, but “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:41-43; 49-50). This happens at His coming.
SO FAR ONLY GENERAL WARNINGS
So far Jesus has not answered the disciples’ questions. So far He has said nothing of the destruction of the temple or of His return to this world. So far He has used the phrase “the end” three times, but only to say:
That the non-signs are “not yet the end” (Mark 13:7);
That “the one who endures to the end … will be saved” (Matt 24:13), and;
That “gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).
He, therefore, has not explained what will happen at “the end” or when it will be.
So far He has warned that false prophets will arise, that wars, plagues, and famines do not mean that the end is near and that they will be persecuted, causing many to fall away and betray one another. These things do not describe any specific period or event but are the general experience of believers until “the end of the age”; applicable to all times and places.
THE ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION
Matthew 24:15-22; Mark 13:14-20; Luke 21:20-24
But then He spoke specifically about Jerusalem. Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 refer to the “abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet”. Luke, writing to non-Jewish believers, who were not familiar with Daniel’s prophecies, interpreted the “abomination of desolation” for his readers as “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20). This is the first reference in the Little Apocalypse to a specific historical event, namely the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman in AD 70. This was during the First Jewish-Roman War in the years 66-73, following after years of Jewish rebellion.
Since the description in Luke is easier to understand, Luke is quoted here:
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains … and those who are in the country must not enter the city. … These are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. … there will be great distress (Matthew – “a great tribulation”) upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations” (Luke 21:20-24; Matt 24:15-21; Mark 13:14-20).
Since Jesus told them to flee to the mountains, this is not the return of Christ, for then it would not help to flee to the mountains.
The purpose of this warning is that, when they see the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem, they must flee immediately to places where they cannot be found (the mountains). According to historical accounts, the Christian Jews did flee from Jerusalem just prior to the Roman attack.
THE TIMES OF THE GENTILES FULFILLED
Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20; Luke 21:24
The warning to flee Jerusalem closes with differently worded statements in the three gospels:
In Luke: “Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).
In Matthew and Mark: “Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt 24:22; Mark 13:20 is similar).
This verse in Luke is sometimes isolated from its context, and given an end-of-time interpretation, but consider the context:
Luke 21:20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains… 22 … these are days of vengeance … 23 … there will be great distress upon the land … 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword … and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
In this context, the “times of the Gentiles … fulfilled” in Luke 21:20 must be interpreted as the end of the time of “great distress” caused by the Romans with their attack on Jerusalem in AD 70.
Luke 21:24 and Matthew 24:22 are therefore the reports by two different people of the same words of Christ, both describing the attack on Jerusalem in AD 70. This is confirmed as follows:
- Both refer to destruction.
- Both refer to time (“those days had been cut short” versus “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”).
- Both refer to the end of the time of destruction,
- These verses are found in the same place in the sequence of the descriptions in the two chapters.
Matthew 24:22, Mark 13:20 and Luke 21:24 may be combined as follows:
Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Romans (Gentiles). If these days were allowed to continue, they would have killed everybody in Jerusalem and the vicinity, but God put a time limit on the persecution.
The disciples asked about both the destruction of the temple, “Your coming” and the “end of the age”. So far:
Jesus responded by giving His disciples certain general principles that are applicable to all times and places, such as that some will try to mislead them by claiming “the time is near”, and that they will be hated and persecuted.
Then He shifted the focus to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 specifically, warning His followers to flee to the mountains without delay, for Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Romans, slaughtering the residents.
Although He has referred to “the end”, He has not yet elaborated on His return to this world. Nor has He given any specific about “end of the age”.
THE SIGNS AND WONDERS
Mat. 24:23-28; Mark 13:21-23; Not in Luke 21
Next Jesus warned them that “false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders”, saying that Jesus is “in the wilderness” or that He “is in the inner rooms”. Jesus warned them not to follow these false prophets, “for just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be”. In other words, these false prophets will claim that Jesus has already come. Earlier He warned the disciples of people that will mislead them by saying He is near (Luke 21:8), but now He is warning them against false prophets claiming that He has already come.
This warning of false prophets does not relate to the previous section on the attack on Jerusalem. Note the differences:
In the Jerusalem-section the threat was the Roman armies, but now the threat is false prophets, performing “great signs and wonders”.
In the Jerusalem-section the Christians in Jerusalem were warned to flee to the mountains, but now they have freedom of movement to go to “the wilderness” or to “the inner rooms”, and are warned not to follow the false prophets.
Christ therefore is no longer dealing with the attack on Jerusalem in AD 70.
THE SUN, MOON, AND STARS
Mat. 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky”. “Men will faint from fear because of the roaring of the sea and the waves and the things which are coming upon the world”.
The phrase “immediately after” links this section to a previous one. The previous time that we saw the word “tribulation” was in verse Matthew 24:21, which is in the Jerusalem-section. But the word “tribulation” also appears in verse 9, describing tribulation as characteristic of the entire church age. So what “tribulation” does Matthew 24:29 refer to?
To answer this question, we notice the following pattern in the gospels:
Matthew and Mark mention the false prophets performing “signs and wonders”, and then continue by saying “immediately after the tribulation of those days”.
In Luke, we find neither.
It is therefore concluded that “the tribulation of those days” (Matt 24:29) refers to the period of the false prophets that perform “signs and wonders”. Since tribulation is always part of the Christian experience (Matt 24:9), this is also a time of tribulation.
This means that the false prophets, that perform “signs and wonders”, and teach that Christ already came, will appear immediately prior to the “signs in sun and moon and stars“ (Luke 21:25). These “false prophets” may be compared to the end-time “beast coming up out of the earth … had two horns like a lamb” (Rev 13:11) and “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men” (Rev 13:13). In Revelation Jesus is called a lamb. This beast from the earth, therefore, looks like Christ. A false prophet is somebody inside the church; not somebody that attacks the church from outside.
THE SON OF MAN COMING
Matt 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27; Luke 21:27
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other”. (Matt 24:30-31)
Since “His elect” are gathered from out the peoples of the world, this is “The End of the Age”, when the peoples of the world are separated into two groups; “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46)
The word “then” with which this section starts, connects it to the signs in the sky in the previous section. Just like the darkening of the sun, moon and stars follow “immediately after” (Matt 24:29) the false prophets performing “great signs and wonders” (Matt 24:24), the coming of the Son of man follows immediately after the darkening of the sun, moon and stars.
The false prophets, performing miracles, the darkening of the sun, moon and stars, His coming and the gathering together of “His elect” therefore belong together, and describes “the end of the age”.
THREE MAIN SECTIONS
The Little Apocalypse may therefore be divided into three main sections:
General – He firstly gave general principles that are applicable to all times and places. This includes the false teachers proclaiming “He is near”, the non-signs, such as wars and earthquakes, the persecution, falling away and betrayal, and the preaching of the gospel to the entire world.
Jerusalem – He secondly warned them about the severe tribulation of the Jewish nation and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The end – He thirdly described specifically “the end of the age”; the false prophets performing miracles and claiming that Christ already came, immediately followed by the signs in the sun, moon and stars, and concluded.
Matt 24:32-35; Mark 13:28-31; Luke 21:28-33
“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.” (Luke 21:28-33)
“These things” do not include the wars, earthquakes, famines and pestilences, because the latter are non-signs. For the following reasons it is proposed that “these things” refer to the false prophets performing “great signs and wonders” and to the darkening of the sun, moon and stars:
The darkening of the sun, moon and stars follows “immediately after” the false prophets performing “great signs and wonders” (Matt 24:24).
The coming of the Son of man follows immediately after the darkening of the sun, moon and stars.
The “great signs and wonders” and the darkening of the sun, moon and stars, therefore, form a unit with the return of the Son of man.
“Redemption” is when the angels will gather together His elect. While Matthew and Mark read, “He is near”, the parallel verse in Luke 21:31 says that “the kingdom of God is near”.
Due to the controversial nature of the quoted statement, a separate study has been made of how the gospels use the phrase “this generation“. In that article, it is concluded, on the basis of the usage in the gospels, that “this generation” most probably refers to Christ’s contemporary generation. For instance, just prior to the Olivet discourse Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation” (Matt 23:36), which is an undisputed reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple A.D. 70.
It is certainly possible that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 refers to the last generation that will see the signs of the end, instead of to Christ’s contemporary generation. Each “this generation” must be evaluated in the particular context, and the previous verse refers to the people that will see the signs. The meaning would then be that the generation that sees the signs of the end, will also see the second coming and experience the judgment. In other words, when the signs come, they will not drag on for many generations but will happen within a generation.
On the other hand, the previous verse says, “when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near”, as if Jesus said that His disciples will see “these things”. And even if “this generation” here does refer to the last generation that will see the signs, this will not solve the bigger problem, for this is not the only time that Jesus said that He will soon return to this world. Furthermore, Paul and Christ’s apostles also believed that He would return soon, which implies that they understood Him to teach that.
Commentators offer different solutions, such as that Jesus was mistaken, that Jesus’ words are reported incorrectly, or that “the Son of man coming” was symbolically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. A separate article (Why did He Not Return in the First Century as He promised?) has been developed to discuss these views. Please see below.
NO ONE KNOWS THAT DAY OR HOUR
Matt 24:32-35; Mark 13:28-31; Luke 21:28-33
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt 24:36).
The disciples asked, “when will these things happen” (Matt 24:3)? The Son responded firstly by warning them not to be misled by false prophets saying “the time is near” (Luke 21:8) or that He already came (Mark 13:21). He secondly indicated that He does not know the day and hour, but He did know that it would not be in the distant future, for “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). This conundrum is one of the main purposes of this series of articles.
Some people are troubled with the realization that Jesus does not know everything. The Bible teaches that God is one (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19) and clearly distinguishes between God and Jesus (e.g. John 17:3; 1 Tim 2:5). On the other hand, the Bible refers to Jesus as “God” (e.g. John 1:18; Titus 2:13-14). An article is available which discusses the Son of God.
Many interpreters solve the problem of Christ’s statements of the nearness of the end by concluding that He was referring to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Since one of those statements is included in the Little Apocalypse, they, therefore, conclude that the Little Apocalypse also does not go further than A.D. 70.
In contrast, it has been discovered here that the Little Apocalypse is be divided into three main sections. The first section includes general principles applicable to all times and places. The second describes the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, but the third is neatly separated from the events of A.D. 70 and describes Christ’s return to this world. The Little Apocalypse, therefore, goes beyond the events of A.D. 70.
Articles in this series
- When and how will Jesus return?
- Christ’s Return in the book of Revelation
- What did Jesus mean by “the End of the Age“?
- Little Apocalypse – Jesus’ description of the End
- Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 side-by-side
- “This generation will not pass away until …” (Matt 24:34)
- “You will not finish … until the Son of Man comes” (Matt 10:23).
- What does “the Kingdom of God” mean?
- “Some standing here shall not taste death until …“ (Matt 16:28).
- Jesus said and His disciples believed that He will return soon.
- Did He return “soon” by His Resurrection?
- Did He return “soon” by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70?
- Why did Jesus not return soon?
- List of articles with brief descriptions