Prophetic Background of "The Sign"
We will now begin a discussion of the portion of the Olivet Discourse that deals with the second question put to Jesus by His disciples, "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matt. 24:3b, A.S.V.).Background of the Discourse
In our study we have already seen the signs of the end of the age as designated in other Scriptures: the regathering of Israel (Zeph. 2:1-3); the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the world (Ps. 83:1f; Ezek. 20:33-39); the great apostasy (2 Thess. 2:1-12); the prevalence of Spiritism (1Tim. 4:1-3); the moral breakdown of civilization (2 Tim. 3:1-9); the conflict between labor and capital (James 5:1-6); the rise of lawlessness and decay of civil government and authority as intimated by the feet in the image-vision of Dan. 2. There are other indications in the Scriptures as well, but these are the outstanding signs of the times.
Doubtlessly the apostles, when they asked this question, knew of at least some of these signs. On this occasion, however, they did not ask concerning some of the signs, but were very specific in asking for THE sign of the end of the age. In the Greek the definite article has almost the force of a demonstrative pronoun in English. Thus the apostles asked for some event or sign which could be designated properly as the outstanding indication of His coming and of the end of the world. "Parousis and sunteleia tou aionos are the technical terms of the apostolic age, for the second advent of Christ and the close of the present order of things, and they occur in Matthew only, so far as the Gospels are concerned" --A.B. Bruce, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, Vol. I, p. 289a.
"Thy coming": The word used by the apostles is parousia which in the original is a composite term and literally means "to be present with or by the side of." Such is the import of this word in the Koine, the vernacular Greek of our Lord's day. From this question it is evident that the apostles expected some event or miraculous sign which would indicate the nearness of the Lord's return.
"The end of the age": The ordinary English translation uses the words "the end of the world," but a footnote of the American Standard Version gives the literal rendering, "The consummation of the age." There are three principal words in the original text which are usually rendered in our different versions by the single word "world." In the King James Version the English reader has no way of knowing which of these words was used. Relief is given to this situation in the A.S.V.
One of these words is Kosmos, which usually means the earth or the physical world with its civilization. Of course, there are shades of ideas expressed by this word.
A second word occurring frequently is oikoumene, or the inhabited earth. It primarily refers to the physical globe upon which we live but lays emphasis upon its population. The footnote of the A.S.V. correctly renders it the inhabited earth (Heb. 1:6).
The third word of popular usage is aion. This term primarily means age, era or dispensation. It, like other words, presents different shades of meaning. In a later discussion we will examine the varying hues of ideas signified by this last but most important word, the misunderstanding of which is causing havoc within conservative ranks.
It is a matter of great significance that the apostles used this last word which primarily means an age or dispensation of time. By their choosing it we see that they were not thinking of the destruction or the dissolution of the earth but were simply asking about the present era, which at that time was dawning. The translators of the ASV rendered an invaluable service by placing in the footnote "the consummation of the age" as the literal rendering of the original Greek. It is evident that the apostles were not thinking of what is popularly termed the "judgment day" or the "end of the world," but of the consummation of our present dispensation--of our Lord's return to earth, bringing the present dispensation to a close and ushering in a new era. Obviously, they were also expecting some omen which would be indicative of His return and of the new dispensation. Spontaneously they asked for the sign which would indicate the nearness of these two stupendous events.
Everything must be observed from the proper point of view. The Olivet discourse, especially the questions of the apostles, can never be correctly understood unless they are viewed from the proper perspective and unless the real Scriptural background is thoroughly comprehended. What is this background, and is it possible for us to reconstruct it today?
The association of ideas: One of the fundamental principles of psychology is the association of ideas. This law, operative in every thinking process, is the associating of mental images, even those remotely related. The mention of a given thought immediately brings into consciousness other related ones.
To illustrate, whenever I meet people who are acquainted with my wife and family, the first thing these friends do after greeting me is to ask about the welfare of my people. My presence instantly suggests them, hence the inquiry.
In the same way, in the minds of the disciples, the destruction of Jerusalem was associated very intimately with the hope of the Lord's coming and the end of the age--"The questioners took for granted that all three things were together: destruction of the temple, advent of the Son of man, end of the current age." --A.B. Bruce, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. I, p. 289a. What, then, is the basis for such an association of ideas?
Old Testament Background: In Zech. 14 we have a vivid picture of the closing scene of this age which is known as the day of the Lord. In vss. 1 and 2 we see a prediction of the last siege of Jerusalem in this period of wrath. At that time the Lord, by His overruling providence, will bring all nations against Jerusalem to battle. The besieging forces will be successful in battering down the defenses of the city: "And the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city." This is a prediction of the terrible havoc that will be wrought in Jerusalem and its environs. At the critical moment when victory for the besieging forces will seem to be within the enemy's grasp, the Lord will suddenly appear upon the scene and His feet, according to vss. 3,4, will stand upon the mount of Olives:
Then shall Jehovah go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east; and the mount of Olives shall be cleft in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south. (Zech. 14:3,4)
This will be a day the like of which has never been before and never shall be thereafter.
The Lord, who makes His sudden appearance at that time and who stops the fighting, will become King over all the earth. He will cause wars to cease and will lift the curse, establishing His glorious kingdom and authority throughout the world: "And men shall dwell therein, and there shall be no more curse; but Jerusalem shall dwell safely" (vs. 11).
Three outstanding points loom mountain-high before the one reading this chapter: the complete destruction of Jerusalem with the Temple; the sudden coming of Jehovah to this earth and the standing of His feet in that day upon the mount of Olives; the conclusion of this age and the introduction of the glorious, Millennial era.
Since these three definite predictions are associated in one prophetic picture, it is very easy to see how the apostles, upon hearing the Lord's prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, instantly thought of Zech. 14. It is true that they misunderstood the Saviour's prediction. When He uttered this oracle, He did not give the time element but simply foretold the fact. Since the introductory verses of Zech. 14 predict the destruction of the city with the Temple, naturally they thought that He was speaking of the demolition which will occur in the day of Jehovah. This hasty conclusion, however, was the reason for their question and of our Lord giving the Olivet discourse, providing one of the clearest and plainest outlines of the present age, its close and the introduction of the new era.