By J.C. Ryle
Jesus went out from the temple, and was going on his way. His disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, "Don't you see all of these things? Most certainly I tell you, there will not be left here one stone on another, that will not be thrown down."
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?"
Jesus answered them, "Be careful that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will lead many astray. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you aren't troubled, for all this must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be famines, plagues, and earthquakes in various places. But all these things are the beginning of birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to oppression, and will kill you. You will be hated by all of the nations for my name's sake. Then many will stumble, and will deliver up one another, and will hate one another. Many false prophets will arise, and will lead many astray. Because iniquity will be multiplied, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved. This Good News of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
These verses begin a chapter full of prophecy--prophecy of which a large portion is unfulfilled--prophecy which ought to be deeply interesting to all true Christians. It is a subject to which the Holy Spirit says, we "do well to take heed." (2 Peter 1:19.)
All portions of Scripture like this, ought to be approached with deep humility, and earnest prayer for the teaching of the Spirit. On no point have good men so entirely disagreed as on the interpretation of prophecy. On no point have the prejudices of one class, the dogmatism of a second, and the extravagance of a third, done so much to rob the church of truths, which God intended to be a blessing. Well says Olshausen, "What does not man see, or fail to see, when it serves to establish his own favorite opinions?"
To understand the drift of the whole chapter, we must carefully keep in view the question which gave rise to our Lord's discourse. On leaving the temple for the last time, the disciples, with the natural feeling of Jews, had called their Master's attention to the splendid buildings of which it was composed. To their surprise and amazement, He tells them that the whole was about to be destroyed. These words appear to have sunk deeply into the minds of the disciples. They came to Him, as He sat upon the Mount of Olives, and asked Him with evident anxiety, "Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?''--In these words we see the clue to the subject of the prophecy now before us. It embraces three points--one, the destruction of Jerusalem--another, the second personal advent of Christ--and a third, the end of the world. These three points are undoubtedly in some parts of the chapter so entwined together, that it is difficult to separate and disentangle them. But all these points appear distinctly in the chapter, and without them it cannot be fairly explained.
The first fourteen verses of the prophecy are taken up with general lessons of wide range and application. They seem to apply with equal force to the close of both Jewish and Christian dispensations, the one event being strikingly typical of the other. They certainly demand special notice from us, on whom the latter ends of the world are come. Let us now see what those lessons are.
The first general lesson before us, is a warning against deception. The very first words of the discourse are, "Be careful that no one leads you astray."
A more needful warning than this cannot be conceived. Satan knows well the value of prophecy, and has ever labored to bring the subject into contempt. How many false Christs and false prophets arose before the destruction of Jerusalem, the works of Josephus abundantly prove. In how many ways the eyes of man are continually blinded in the present day, as to things to come, it might easily be shown. Irvingism and Mormonism have been only too successfully used as arguments for rejecting the whole doctrine of the second advent of Christ. Let us watch, and be on our guard.
Let no man deceive us as to the leading facts of unfulfilled prophecy, by telling us they are impossible--or as to the manner in which they will be brought to pass, by telling us it is improbable and contrary to past experience. Let no man deceive us as to the time when unfulfilled prophecies will be accomplished, either by fixing dates on the one hand, or bidding us wait for the conversion of the world on the other. On all these points let the plain meaning of Scripture be our only guide, and not the traditional interpretations of men. Let us not be ashamed to say that we expect a literal fulfillment of unfulfilled prophecy. Let us frankly allow that there are many things we do not understand, but still hold our ground tenaciously, believe much--wait long, and not doubt that all will one day be made clear. Above all, let us remember that the first coming of Messiah to suffer, was the most improbable event that could have been conceived, and let us not doubt that as He literally came in person to suffer, so He will literally come again in person to reign.
The second grand lesson before us, is a warning against over-optimistic and extravagant expectations as to things which are to happen before the end comes. It is a warning as deeply important as the preceding one. Happy would it have been for the Church, if it had not been so much neglected.
We are not to expect a reign of universal peace, happiness, and prosperity, before the end comes. If we do, we shall be greatly deceived. Our Lord bids us look for "wars, famines, pestilence," and persecution. It is vain to expect peace until the Prince of Peace returns. Then, and not until then, the swords shall be beaten into ploughshares, and nations learn war no more. Then, and not until then, the earth shall bring forth her increase. (Isaiah, 2:4 Psalm. 68:6.)
We are not to expect a time of universal purity of doctrine and practice in the Church of Christ, before the end comes. If we do, we shall be greatly mistaken. Our Lord bids us look for the rising of "false prophets," the "abounding of iniquity," and the "waxing cold of the love of many." The truth will never be received by all professing Christians, and holiness be the rule among men, until the great Head of the Church returns, and Satan is bound. Then, and not until then, there will be a glorious Church, without spot or blemish. (Ephes. 5:27.)
We are not to expect that all the world will be converted before the end comes. If we do, we shall be greatly mistaken. "The Gospel is to be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations," but we must not think that we shall see it universally believed. It will "take out a people," wherever it is faithfully preached, as witnesses to Christ, but the full gathering of the nations shall never take place until Christ comes. Then, and not until then, shall the earth be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Acts 15:14; Habak. 2:14.)
Let us lay these things to heart, and remember them well. They are eminently truths for the present times. Let us learn to be moderate in our expectations from any existing machinery in the Church of Christ, and we shall be spared much disappointment. Let us make haste to spread the Gospel in the world, for the time is short, not long. The night comes when no man can work. Troublous times are ahead. Heresies and persecutions may soon weaken and distract the churches. A fierce war of principles may soon convulse the nations. The doors now open to do good may soon be shut forever. Our eyes may yet see the sun of Christianity go down like the sun of Judaism, in clouds and storms. Above all, let us long for our Lord's return. Oh! for a heart to pray daily, "Come, Lord Jesus!"
"When, therefore, you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take out things that are in his house. Let him who is in the field not return back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are with child and to nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your flight will not be in the winter, nor on a Sabbath, for then there will be great oppression, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever will be. Unless those days had been shortened, no flesh would have been saved. But for the sake of the chosen ones, those days will be shortened.
"Then if any man tells you, 'Behold, here is the Christ,' or, 'There,' don't believe it. For there will arise false christs, and false prophets, and they will show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones.
"Behold, I have told you beforehand. If therefore they tell you, 'Behold, he is in the wilderness,' don't go out; 'Behold, he is in the inner chambers,' don't believe it. For as the lightning flashes from the east, and is seen even to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For wherever the carcass is, there is where the vultures gather together.
One main subject of this part of our Lord's prophecy, is the taking of Jerusalem by the Romans. That great event took place about forty years after the words we have now read were spoken. A full account of it is to be found in the writings of the historian Josephus. Those writings are the best comment on our Lord's words. They are a striking proof of the accuracy of every tittle of His predictions. The horrors and miseries which the Jews endured throughout the siege of their city exceed anything on record. It was truly a time of "oppression, such as has not been since the beginning of the world." It surprises some to find so much importance attached to the taking of Jerusalem. They would rather regard the whole chapter as unfulfilled.
Such people forget that Jerusalem and the temple were the heart of the old Jewish dispensation. When they were destroyed, the old Mosaic system came to an end. The daily sacrifice, the yearly feasts, the altar, the holy of holies, the priesthood, were all essential parts of revealed religion, until Christ came, but no longer. When He died upon the cross, their work was done. They were dead, and it only remained that they should be buried. But it was not fitting that this thing should be done quietly. The ending of a dispensation given with so much solemnity at Mount Sinai, might well be expected to be marked with peculiar solemnity. The destruction of the holy temple, where so many old saints had seen "shadows of good things to come," might well be expected to form a subject of prophecy. And so it was. The Lord Jesus specially predicts the desolation of "the holy place." The great High Priest describes the end of the dispensation which had been a schoolmaster to bring men to Himself.
But we must not suppose that this part of our Lord's prophecy is exhausted by the first taking of Jerusalem. It is more than probable that our Lord's words have a further and deeper application still. It is more than probable that they apply to a second siege of Jerusalem, which is yet to take place, when Israel has returned to their own land--and to a second tribulation on the inhabitants thereof, which shall only be stopped by the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such a view of this passage may sound startling to some. But those who doubt its correctness would do well to study the last chapter of the prophet Zechariah, and the last chapter of Daniel. These two chapters contain solemn things. They throw great light on the verses we are now reading, and their connection with the verses which immediately follow.
It now remains for us to consider the lessons which this passage contains for our own personal edification. These lessons are plain and unmistakable. In them at least there is no darkness at all.
For one thing, we see that flight from danger may sometimes be the positive duty of a Christian. Our Lord Himself commanded his people under certain circumstances "to flee."
The servant of Christ undoubtedly is not to be a coward. He is to confess his master before men. He is to be willing to die, if needful, for the truth. But the servant of Christ is not required to run into danger, unless it comes in the line of duty. He is not to be ashamed to use reasonable means to provide for his personal safety, when no good is to be done by dying at his post. There is deep wisdom in this lesson. The true martyrs are not always those who court death, and are in a hurry to be beheaded or burned. There are times when it shows more grace to be quiet, and wait, and pray, and watch for opportunities, than to defy our adversaries, and rush into the battle. May we have wisdom to know how to act in time of persecution! It is possible to be rash, as well as to be a coward--and to stop our own usefulness by being over hot, as well as by being over cold.
We see, for another thing, that in delivering this prophecy, our Lord makes special mention of the Sabbath. "Pray," he says, "that your flight be not on the Sabbath day."
This is a fact that deserves special notice. We live in times when the obligation of the Sabbath upon Christians is frequently denied by good men. They tell us that it is no more binding on us than the ceremonial law. It is difficult to see how such a view can be reconciled with our Lord's words on this solemn occasion. He seems intentionally to mention the Sabbath, when He is foretelling the final destruction of the temple and the Mosaic ceremonies, as if to mark the day with honor. He seems to hint that, although His people would be absolved from the yoke of sacrifices and ordinances, there would yet remain the keeping of a Sabbath for them. (Heb. 4:9.) The friends of a holy Sunday ought carefully to remember this text. It is one which will bear much weight.
We see for another thing, that God's elect are always special objects of God's care. Twice in this passage our Lord mentions them. "For the elect's sake the days of tribulation are to be shortened." It will not be possible to deceive the "elect."
Those whom God has chosen to salvation by Christ, are those whom God specially loves in this world. They are the jewels among mankind. He cares more for them than for kings on their thrones, if kings are not converted. He hears their prayers. He orders all the events of nations and the issues of wars for their good, and their sanctification. He keeps them by His Spirit. He allows neither man nor devil to pluck them out of His hand. Whatever tribulation comes on the world, God's elect are safe. May we never rest until we know that we are of this blessed number! There breathes not the man or woman who can prove that he is not one. The promises of the Gospel are open to all. May we give diligence to make our calling and election sure! God's elect are a people who cry unto Him night and day. When Paul saw the faith, and hope, and love of the Thessalonians, then he knew "their election of God." (1 Thess. 1:4; Luke 18:7.)
Finally, we see from these verses, that whenever the second advent of Christ takes place, it will be a very SUDDEN event. It will be "as the lightning flashes from the east, and is seen even to the west."
This is a practical truth that we should ever keep before our minds. That our Lord Jesus will come again in person to this world, we know from Scripture. That He will come in a time of great tribulation, we also know. But the precise period, the year, the month, the day, the hour, are all hidden things. We only know that it will be a very sudden event. Our plain duty then is to live always prepared for His return. Let us walk by faith, and not by sight. Let us believe in Christ, serve Christ, follow Christ, and love Christ. So living, whenever Christ may return, we shall be ready to meet Him.
But immediately after the oppression of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky. 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. He will send out his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect ones from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
"Now from the fig tree learn this parable. When its branch has now become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near. Even so you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Most certainly I tell you, this generation will not pass away, until all these things are accomplished. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
In this part of our Lord's prophecy, He describes His own second coming, to judge the world. This, at all events, seems the natural meaning of the passage. To take any lower view appears to be a violent straining of Scripture language. If the solemn words here used mean nothing more than the coming of the Roman armies to Jerusalem, we may explain away anything in the Bible. The event here described is one of far greater moment than the march of any earthly army. It is nothing less than the closing act of this dispensation, the second personal advent of Jesus Christ.
These verses teach us, in the first place, that when the Lord Jesus returns to this world, He shall come with peculiar glory and majesty. He shall come "in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." Before His presence the very sun, moon, and stars shall be darkened, and "the powers of heaven shall be shaken."
The SECOND personal coming of Christ shall be as different as possible from the FIRST. He came the first time as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He was born in the manger of Bethlehem, in lowliness and humiliation. He took on him the form of a servant, and was despised and rejected of men. He was betrayed into the hands of wicked men, condemned by an unjust judgment, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, and at last crucified between two thieves. He shall come the second time as the King of all the earth, with all royal majesty. The princes and great men of this world shall themselves stand before His throne to receive an eternal sentence. Before him every mouth shall be stopped, and every knee bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. May we all remember this. Whatever ungodly men may do now, there will be no scoffing, no jesting at Christ, no infidelity at the last day. The servants of Jesus may well wait patiently. Their master shall one day be acknowledged King of kings by all the world.
These verses teach us, in the second place, that when Christ returns to this world, He will first take care of His believing people. He shall "send his angels," and "gather together his elect."
In the day of judgment true Christians shall be perfectly safe. Not a hair of their heads shall fall to the ground. Not one bone of Christ's mystical body shall be broken. There was an ark for Noah, in the day of the flood. There was a Zoar for Lot, when Sodom was destroyed. There shall be a hiding-place for all believers in Jesus, when the wrath of God at last bursts on this wicked world. Those mighty angels who rejoiced in heaven when each sinner repented, shall gladly catch up the people of Christ to meet their Lord in the air. That day no doubt will be a dreadful day, but believers may look forward to it without fear.
In the day of judgment true Christians shall at length be gathered together. The saints of every age, and every tongue shall be assembled out of every land. All shall be there, from righteous Abel down to the last soul that is converted to God--from the oldest patriarch down to the little infant that just breathed and died. Let us think what a happy gathering that will be, when all the family of God are at length together. If it has been pleasant to meet one or two saints occasionally on earth, how much more pleasant will it be to meet a "multitude that no man can number!" Surely we may be content to carry the cross, and put up with partings for a few years. We travel on towards a day, when we shall meet to part no more.
These verses teach us, in the third place, that until Christ returns to this earth, the Jews will always remain a separate people. Our Lord tells us, "This generation shall not pass away, until all these things are fulfilled."
The continued existence of the Jews as a distinct nation, is undeniably a great miracle. It is one of those evidences of the truth of the Bible which the infidel can never overthrow. Without a land, without a king, without a government, scattered and dispersed over the world for eighteen hundred years, the Jews are never absorbed among the people of the countries where they live, like Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Germans, but "dwell alone." Nothing can account for this but the finger of God. The Jewish nation stands before the world, a crushing answer to infidelity, and a living book of evidence that the Bible is true. But we ought not to regard the Jews only as witnesses of the truth of Scripture. We should see in them a continual pledge, that the Lord Jesus is coming again one day. Like the sacrament of the Lord's supper, they witness to the reality of the second advent, as well as of the first. Let us remember this. Let us see in every wandering Jew a proof that the Bible is true, and that Christ will one day return.
Finally, these verses teach us, that our Lord's predictions will certainly be fulfilled. He says, "heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."
Our Lord knew well the natural unbelief of human nature. He knew that scoffers would arise in the last days, saying, where is the promise of His coming? (2 Pet. 3:4.) He knew that when He came, faith would be rare on the earth. He foresaw how many would contemptuously reject the solemn predictions He had just been delivering as improbable, unlikely, and absurd. He warns us all against such skeptical thoughts, with a caution of peculiar solemnity. He tells us that, whatever man may say or think, His words shall be fulfilled in their season, and shall not "pass away," unaccomplished. May we all lay to heart His warning. We live in an unbelieving age. Few believed the report of our Lord's first coming, and few believe the report of His second. (Isaiah 53:1.) Let us beware of this infection, and believe to the saving of our souls. We are not reading cunningly devised fables, but deep and momentous truths. May God give us a heart to believe them.
But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
"As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they didn't know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field--one will be taken and one will be left; two women grinding at the mill, one will be taken and one will be left. Watch therefore, for you don't know in what hour your Lord comes. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore also be ready, for in an hour that you don't expect, the Son of Man will come.
"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master finds doing so when he comes. Most certainly I tell you that he will set him over all that he has. But if that evil servant should say in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come in a day when he doesn't expect it, and in an hour when he doesn't know it, and will cut him in pieces, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There is where the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be.
There are verses in this passage which are often much misapplied. "The coming of the Son of man" is often spoken of as being the same thing as death. The texts which describe the uncertainty of His coming are often used in epitaphs, and thought suitable to the tomb. But there is really no solid ground for such an application of this passage. Death is one thing, and the coming of the Son of man is quite another. The subject of these verses is not death, but the second advent of Jesus Christ. Let us remember this. It is a serious thing to wrest Scripture out of its true meaning.
The first thing that demands our attention in these verses, is the dreadful account that they give of the state of the world when the Lord Jesus comes again.
The world will not be converted when Christ returns. It will be found in the same condition that it was in the day of the flood. When the flood came, men were found "eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage," absorbed in their worldly pursuits, and utterly regardless of Noah's repeated warnings. They saw no likelihood of a flood. They would not believe there was any danger. But at last the flood came suddenly and "took them all away." All that were not with Noah in the ark were drowned. They were all swept away to their last account, unpardoned, unconverted, and unprepared to meet God. And our Lord says, "so will be the coming of the Son of Man."
Let us mark this text, and store it up in our minds. There are many strange opinions current on this subject, even among good men. Let us not flatter ourselves that the heathen will all be converted, and the earth filled with the knowledge of God, before the Lord comes. Let us not dream that the end of all things cannot be at hand, because there is yet much wickedness both in the Church and in the world. Such views receive a flat contradiction in the passage now before us. The days of Noah are the true type of the days when Christ shall return. Millions of professing Christians will be found thoughtless, unbelieving, godless, Christless, worldly, and unfit to meet their Judge. Let us take heed that we are not found among them.
The second thing that demands our attention, is the dreadful SEPARATION that will take place when the Lord Jesus comes again. We read twice over, that "one shall be taken and the other left."
The godly and the ungodly, at present, are all mingled together. In the congregation and in the place of worship--in the city and in the field--the children of God and the children of the world are all side by side. But it shall not be so always. In the day of our Lord's return, there shall at length be a complete division. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; at the last trumpet, each party shall be separated from the other forever more. Wives shall be separated from husbands--parents from children--brothers from sisters--masters from servants--preachers from hearers. There shall be no time for parting words, or a change of mind, when the Lord appears. All shall be taken as they are, and reap according as they have sown. Believers shall be caught up to glory, honor, and eternal life. Unbelievers shall be left behind to shame and everlasting contempt. Blessed and happy are they who are of one heart in following Christ! Their union alone shall never be broken. It shall last for evermore. Who can describe the happiness of those who are taken, when the Lord returns? Who can imagine the misery of those who are left behind? May we think on these things and consider our ways.
The last thing that demands our attention in these verses, is the practical duty of watchfulness in the prospect of Christ's second coming. "WATCH," says our Lord, "for you don't know in what hour your Lord comes." "BE READY, for in an hour that you don't expect, the Son of Man will come."
This is a point which our blessed Master frequently presses upon our notice. We hardly ever find Him dwelling on the second advent without adding an injunction to "watch." He knows the sleepiness of our nature. He knows how soon we forget the most solemn subjects in religion. He knows how unceasingly Satan labors to obscure the glorious doctrine of His coming again. He arms us with heart-searching exhortations to keep awake, if we would not be ruined for evermore. May we all have an ear to hear them.
True Christians ought to live like WATCHMEN. The day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. They should strive to be always on their guard. They should behave like the sentinel of an army in an enemy's land.
They should resolve by God's grace not to sleep at their post. That text of Paul deserves many a thought--"let us not sleep, as the rest do, but let us watch and be sober." (1 Thess. 5:6.)
True Christians ought to live like GOOD SERVANTS, whose master is not at home. They should strive to be always ready for their master's return. They should never give way to the feeling, "my Lord is delaying his coming." They should seek to keep their hearts in such a frame, that whenever Christ appears, they may at once give Him a warm and loving reception. There is a vast depth in that saying, "Blessed is that servant whom his master finds doing so when he comes." We may well doubt whether we are true believers in Jesus, if we are not ready at any time to have our faith changed into sight.
Let us close the chapter with solemn feelings. The things we have just been reading call loudly for great searchings of heart. Let us seek to make sure that we are in Christ, and have an ark of safety when the day of wrath breaks on the world. Let us strive to live that we may be pronounced "blessed" at the last, and not cast off for evermore. Not least, let us dismiss from our minds the common idea that unfulfilled prophecy is a speculative and not a practical thing. If the things we have been considering are not practical, there is no such thing as practical religion at all. Well might John say, "Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure." (1 John 3:3.)