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Taking the First Steps Toward Understanding the Tribulation I

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Matthew 24:3b

...and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?

Discourse on Signs

It’s important to note that the disciples are asking Jesus about signs – the signs heralding the end of the age and the establishment of the kingdom. And a good deal of what follows consists of a description of those signs – a plethora of signs. It’s this very fact that the parable of the fig tree is all about beginning with verse 32.

The phrase “end of the world” is better translated “end of the age.” It’s not the end of the world (aion - age) that the disciples are inquiring about, but the end of the age - meaning, no doubt, the end of the then current era of Roman bondage and the beginning of the long promised Davidic kingdom - and, with it, Israel’s preeminence among the nations.

Matthew 24:4-6

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Pseudo Signs

Here in Matthew’s account - though not in either Mark’s account or Luke’s - Jesus ignores the disciples’ curiosity concerning the destruction of the temple – and plunges into an answer that focuses on The Tribulation and the Second Coming. Several features here need to be carefully noted:

  • first, there’s the list of specific events found in verses 4-6 - including deception, wars, and rumors of wars;
  • second, there’s the phrase “the end is not yet” found in verse 6; and, finally,
  • there’s the phrase “these things must come to pass” also found in verse 6.

The list found in verses 4-6 is not meant to be all-inclusive; it’s a synecdoche - a figure of speech that uses part of a whole to stand for the whole. Verse 6...

And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Matt. 24:6

...tells us that the list is meant to include events that arise from “run of the mill” sinfulness and are, therefore, unavoidable features of every era of human history - no exceptions. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “these things must come to pass.” They’re inevitable! But because they’re so common they can’t be considered, in and of themselves, precursors of the “End.”

Matthew 24:7-8

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

All these are the beginning of sorrows.

Genuine Signs

Verses 4-6 comprise a single unit of thought - what’s called a pericope. More specifically, verse 4 is a verbal clause - warning the disciples not to be deceived - and verses 5 and 6 are adverbial clauses modifying verse 4 - explaining what to watch out for and how to avoid deception. But that’s not the direct answer the disciples are looking for. Clearly, then, verses 4-6 are parenthetical to the passage as a whole.

The answer the disciples are looking for begins with verse 7 - which is itself an adverbial clause that takes us back to verse 3...

...Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Matt. 24:3

In short, starting here in verse 7 we have a description of events that do indeed herald the approach of The Tribulation, though not its actual start.

ASchematic2Tim21113

Notice how in verse 7, Jesus switches terms on us: from “wars and rumors of wars” to “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out that the phrase “nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” is an idiom used by Jewish rabbis to designate total conflict within whatever geographic area the context delimits. For example, in Isaiah 19:1-4...

The burden of Egypt. Behold, the Lord rides upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.

And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom.

And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.

And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.

Isaiah 19:1-4

What we have here is Egypt embroiled in total warfare – in short, a civil war encompassing the whole nation.

Likewise, in 2 Chronicles 15:1-7 we have the entire Middle East engulfed in total war...

And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded:

And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.

Now for a long season Israel has been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law.

But when they in their trouble did turn unto the Lord God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them.

And in those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries.

And they were broken in pieces, nation against nation, and city against city: for God did vex them with all adversity.

Be ye strong therefore, and let not your hands be weak: for your work shall be rewarded.

2 Chronicles 15:1-7

World Wars I and II

Because the events of verse 7 are clearly world-wide in scope, Jesus is speaking here of military conflict encompassing the entire world. He’s saying, in short, that global warfare will herald the approach of The Tribulation. Dr. Fruchtenbaum rightly points out that World Wars I and II - actually one war separated by just twenty years - are the first two wars in history that perfectly fit Jesus’ prophecy; that, therefore, they are obvious harbingers of The Tribulation.

In all probability, however, World Wars I and II are only the first shots across the bow - with World War I the alarm bell signaling the beginning of the “Birth Pangs” mentioned in verse 8. It’s quite likely that there will be further catastrophes leading up to The Tribulation. That’s because verse 7 is not describing a series of unrelated events, but a “perfect storm” of calamities - all converging at a single point in time. What Jesus has in mind when he says “famines”...

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

Matt. 24:7

...is very telling - and portends that “perfect storm.” He obviously doesn’t mean a few isolated instances of famine - the likes of which have plagued every era of human history. He dealt with that kind of famine in verses 4-6.

Once again, the geographic area delimited by the context here in verse 7 is the entire world; therefore, what Jesus is pointing to is a worldwide food shortage affecting not just a handful of undeveloped countries in the Third World, but fast developing countries in Asia and parts of the Middle East, and even fully developed countries in the West. From that, several inferences can be drawn: worldwide food shortages of the severity and scope suggested here in verse 7 can only be the result of a single cause: a collapse or partial collapse of the existing world economic order with its convoluted network of interlocking central banks and international monetary agencies - a collapse so severe that all attempts to mitigate the spreading famine will fall woefully short of the mark.

No specific grounds for the collapse are indicated - though it’s clear that food-shortages always follow in the wake of wide-ranging wars and, of course, natural disasters, which are also prophesied in verse 7. And never too far behind famine is pestilence - a good example of which was the flu epidemic that ravaged the whole earth at the end of World War I and, of course, the food shortages and famine that followed close behind - with estimates of the death toll ranging from 50 million to as high as 100 million - 675,000 deaths in the US alone.

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