Here Is He!
Our study of the Olivet Discourse so far shows that unless we come to grips with what it meant for a particular people at that time, we have the very real danger of misapplying that information to us in our age. This has become quite apparent with the rash of so-called Christian literature that has come out in connection with the turn of the millennium and the possible implications of the Y2K `bug'. Here are a few quotes of such alarmed church leaders:
After studying 250-300 major reports from experts globally, I can honestly say that I'm shocked, startled, and stunned. If they are right, then Luke 21:25 [cites the signs heralding the Second Coming of Christ] is just ahead of us...This could be the prelude of the final sign before the return of Christ...This is an emergency video...”.
The so-called “millennium bug” could unscramble the electronic minds of computers worldwide in the year 2000...and the universal panic inspired could be the catalyst for the rise of the Antichrist, the mark of the beast “666” system for buying and selling, and the advent of the great tribulation!
It's hard to say that the Bible does not say anything about the Y2K problem...because of the prophetic signs that have appeared in the last fifty, or so, years...The confusion created by the Millennium Bug will create a hunger for “religion,” and the religion of the future will offer it...Will it be the universal adoration and worship as is predicted for the Antichrist?
Sadly, this kind of totally misunderstanding the biblical text has been around a lot longer than just the last few years. But turning scripture into so me kind of mathematical formula that simply needs to be unravelled, whether by a computer code, or otherwise, would have been completely foreign to the people of Jesus' time. The Jews then were very much Semitic - middle eastern in character. Unlike the Greeks, who, as the apostle Paul points out, look for `wisdom' (the framework they constantly looked for to undergird mankind), the Jews looked for miraculous signs (1 Cor.1:22). They were full of the richest imagery, and the inter-testamental period had provided much of that. Stories were their forte, as their Scriptures clearly show. And with any story, there is that crescendo at the end - the climax, or the sign that proves it was true all along.
The Lord retells that old, old story now. The story they had heard and reheard as children and youth and adults: The story about the coming great Day of the Lord. For that hasn't changed. Only, there's more to tell now.
The Signs before The Sign
We have just seen that the things the Lord Jesus tells His disciples come from an extensive part of Old Testament prophecy. It tells us of a time when creation will show something quite beyond its normal broken self - much as sometimes that normal self can give us terrible disasters! For what creation will tell then is a specific pointing to the fulfilment of the Word. These signs involving the sun, moon and stars were well-known precursors of the Messianic deliverance everyone in Israel looked for. The same signs which would appear when He came to judge.
These signs will follow immediately after the period of time spoken of in the verses 15 to 28. After the time of great insecurity, there will suddenly be awesome things everyone will see.
It is difficult to see how Jesus is still now referring to the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath. If anything, we get the picture that this is something which has a reoccurring pattern to it. There is a parallel to this end- time prophecy in just a few days after Jesus spoke these words, just like there will be further parallels after the fall of Jerusalem, and right up until Christ returns..
The Sign is The Son
Matthew differs from Mark and Luke in the added description of “the sign of” when prophesying the return of the Lord Jesus. This has resulted in some interpreting this to mean a special mark or emblem in the sky - for example, a huge cross. A few have even believed in evidence proving this through such phenomena as certain cloud formations at a particular time and place, forming such shapes as a cross, or the face of Christ. It's meaning, though, isn't this obscure.
Back in verse 3 the disciples had asked, “What will be the sign of your coming?” This is the answer. He Himself coming back will be the sign. So the word “sign” here is used in the same way as the word “name” is often used of God. For just as what is done “in the name of God” is done by God, so “the sign of the Son of Man” is the Son of Man. The Gospels of Mark and Luke again agree with Matthew.
This is also consistent with what Jesus said earlier in Matthew 16, in reply to the Pharisees and Saducees, who trying to test Him by asking Him to show a sign from heaven. Then He answered them, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” The sign of Jonah was the three days and three nights he spent in the belly of the big fish. Here it is drawn in as directly paralleling Christ's three days and three nights in the womb of the tomb.
In a time when everything is completely dark and thoroughly shaken, Christ Jesus will return. A return that will be the most publicly seen event of all time. Forget the live television coverage of even the World Cup Soccer Final. While billions saw that, trillions will see this! No one will have any choice or in any way be unable to see. It couldn't be a greater contrast to His first coming!
Knowing the Sign
The Lord then turns to illustrating the great and glorious picture of His return with a simple scene from nature - the Parable of the Fig Tree. In the same way that His Second Coming will come in the fullness of time - in the right season - so a plant changes according to the seasonal cycle. The fig tree provides such a valuable source of food and was so widely used, both fresh and dried, that it is called “the poor man's food.”. So those depending on the fig tree took comfort in knowing, through the leaves sprouting out, that soon the fruit would come again.
The opposite situation makes this point vividly too - for if the fig tree didn't sprout those new leaves, it was going to be a bad harvest - perhaps only the one harvest this year (for this climate often meant two harvests), if any at all.
In the open, multi-layered character of biblical apocalyptic literature, the time when these things happen is for us both already, and not yet. Just as Jesus answered the disciples' first question of verse 3, about when the temple would be destroyed, with a fulfilment in the fall of Jerusalem, so he answers now the second question about His coming.
So, in what occurred during the fall of Jerusalem there would have been distinct events which the early church would have seen as fulfilment. This helps to explain verse 34, which has caused much controversy. When one looks at the key term in the middle of the debate, “this generation”, it obviously involves those the Lord is speaking to then. But it also interlayers in meaning with “this kind of people” - meaning the Jews at any time or in any age. This openness in meaning occurs with the same word used in the Septuagint Greek Translation of the Old Testament (translated around one hundred years before Christ) and in several other New Testament passages (Acts 2:40; Phil.2:15; Heb.3:10). Certainly there is fulfilment for the people then, but this does not exhaust this prophecy's full meaning - something the Old Testament has already shown us.