Many modern readers have felt uncomfortable with the picture of Jesus as an end-time prophet. Nevertheless, even if one starts with historical skepticism, Jesus clearly taught on the end time. Much of Jesus' final discourse in Matthew comes from Mark and Q, but even where Matthew adds elements (such as the trumpet in 24:31), we often have other evidence that Jesus spoke these words. Our earliest extant Christian document, 1 Thessalonians, alludes to some of the same words of Jesus ("according to the Lord's own word," 1 Thess 4:15): clouds, gathering of the elect, angel(s), lawlessness, apostasy, defilement of God's temple, the parousia, coming as a thief, sudden destruction on the wicked, and so on (4:13—5:11; compare 2 Thess 2:1-12; Waterman 1975; D. Wenham 1984). Some of Jesus' other words, for instance about unknown times and seasons (Acts 1:7), also appear there. But this common ground not only helps us defend the reliability of the Gospels; it also reminds us that Paul, unlike some Bible teachers today, saw no difference between Jesus' coming for the saints and his coming at the end of the age to judge the world.
Modern prophecy teachers have traditionally looked to current events for signs of the end, to stir end-time enthusiasm among Christians. While the goal may be worthy, the methodology runs counter to Jesus' own teaching. After listing many of the signs (usually hardships) that characterized the end among contemporary Jewish thinkers and visionaries, Jesus declares that the end is still to come (v. 6; compare Rev 6:1-8). Jewish people called such events the "birth-pangs of the Messiah" (Morris 1972:23), but Jesus declares that these are merely the beginning of birth pains (Mt 24:8). Besides missing Jesus' point, modern prophecy teachers are also almost always wrong; for one survey of missed prophecies—often reinterpreting the same biblical texts differently from decade to decade, as headlines change—see Wilson 1977.
While catastrophic events do not allow us to predict how soon the Lord is coming—such events have happened throughout history (Ladd 1956:72 n. 1; pace Frost 1924:18-19)—they do remind us that such problems characterize this age, summoning us to long for our Lord's coming all the more fervently. Jesus warns us what kind of sufferings we must face. His teaching presupposes important knowledge about the end time, but its repeated exhortations show that its emphasis is on how to live in light of that reality (see Lane 1974:446; Hill 1979:63). Thus it makes good sermon material if we catch Jesus' point!
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.