"For then there will be great distress, unequaled ..." (Matthew 24:21-34)

"For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Messiah!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the wilderness,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. Immediately after the distress of those days 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Matthew 24:21-34)

What was the 'great distress'?

Often this part of Jesus’ private discussion with his disciples is misinterpreted to mean that the end of the world is at hand. This is despite the fact that Jesus is warning those around him, who obviously did not experience the end of the world during their lifetimes.

If we read Jesus’ statement carefully, we can see clearly by the last sentence that Jesus was foretelling events that would transpire during the next few decades:
“I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
“This generation” clearly indicates an event to take place during the lives of those who were living at the time Jesus spoke this. Jesus spoke this about the year 32 AD, and many of his disciples were in their 20s or 30s at the time.

This 'end of the world' interpretation took hold during the Roman government's captivity of Jesus' teachings, which began during the Fourth Century and continued for over 1,000 years. It was made prominent by a number of the Roman bishops and Popes, who continued to warn people that if they didn't keep up their support of the church things would not end well for them at the 'end of the world,' which was continually being warned of being 'at hand.'

Yet this threat during out to be an empty one, because the world never ended.

So what is Jesus' warning them about?

Jesus was warning his followers about the impending Jewish-Roman wars, which lasted from 60 AD to about 140 AD. During this period, the Romans massacred the Israelites and early Christians, burnt down most of their cities and villages, and scattered those remaining among desert hideaways. No wonder the Roman interpretation of Jesus' warning was obscured and replaced with the doomsday theory.

This Roman misinterpretation led to an endless parade of doomsday prophets, who continued to predict the end of the world and the "second coming" in error over the centuries.

Two centuries after the Romans massacred the Israelites and early Christians, the early Bible canon was assembled by scribes appointed by Eusebius by order of Emperor Constantine. The Bible was put together and translated to the Roman native Latin from texts that were strategically chosen. Hundreds of other scripture texts were burned.

The Romans conveniently buried the evidence of their first- and second-century holocaust. In fact, the only way historians learned of the wars and any details was the late discovery of the writings of one Jewish scholar, Josephus.

The Jewish-Roman wars were followed by two centuries of Roman brutality against the Israelites and early Christians. 

Were the Jewish-Roman wars that bad?

Were these years as bad as Jesus is describing here? The historian Josephus described the events that unfolded as “savagery,” “butchery,” “torture,” “reign of terror,” “sham courts,” and “faked trials.”

This was undoubtedly a brutal period, one which began with the revolt of the Israelites against the Romans due to intolerable conditions - and ended with the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Israelites. Early Christians were but a faction within the Jewish community during this period, and Jesus was trying to warn his disciples of conditions the near future would bring.

For those who were living at the time, the destruction was really that bad. For anyone who has lived through such a holocaust, it does seem worse than what Jesus is warning: "unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again." Each human holocaust has been somewhat different, but for those who experienced them, they are each unequal when considering their effects upon individuals.

Consider, for example, those 6 million Jews who experienced the German holocaust. Or consider those who experienced the atomic bombs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. These events certainly were unequal in comparison, but for those who experienced them, they were devastating to no end. They were both cataclysmic events for those victims that experienced them.

Who were the 'false messiahs and false prophets'?

Jesus also predicts “false messiahs” and those saying “here is the messiah!” What does this mean? The word “messiah” is being translated from the Greek word Χριστός (Christos), meaning messiah or “anointed one.” The word reflects the Hebrew word, מָשִׁיחַ, which also means "messiah" or “anointed one.” The origin of the word comes from the description of God’s priests, who were His chosen representatives. This is seen among numerous verses of the Old Testament. Here are but a few:
[God said to Moses] "Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve Me as priests." (Exodus 30:30)

Those were the names of Aaron's sons, the anointed priests, who were ordained to serve as priests. (Numbers 3:3)

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed stands here before the LORD." (1 Samuel 16:6)
In every instance above, the word "messiah" could be inserted instead of "anointed." So the word “messiah” or “anointed one” is a role, not an individual person. We might compare it with the word “Lieutenant.” An individual who is a Lieutenant might be called “Lieutenant,” but there have been many Lieutenants in the army. In the case of "messiah," it is describing the role of being God's representative.

Thus, Jesus is describing a period where there will be many who will claim the position of being God’s representative when they are not.

Examples of this, as described by Josephus, include John of Gischala, Ananus, Simon Magus, some of the Zealots, and others who tried to become spiritual leaders during this period of crisis. Jesus is trying to warn his disciples against these charismatic but false teachers, so they would stay the course, and continue to follow Jesus’ instructions.

Since then, we have seen a parade of false messiahs and false prophets over the centuries among sectarian institutions. They deceived many, and some harmed their followers in other ways.

Was Jesus quoting Isaiah?

Then Jesus says: “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’” 

What does this mean?

This phrase is a quote from Isaiah, who was speaking for God as he predicted the fall of Babylon. It states that it is 'An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw: (Isaiah 13:1):
The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Isaiah 13:10)
So what are Jesus and Isaiah talking about here? They are each describing separate events – Jesus is describing the fall of Jerusalem and the Jewish massacre at the hands of the Romans and Isaiah is describing the fall of Babylon. But they both bring this concept of the darkening of the sun and the weakening of the stars. Why?

This is because both events resulted in great fires as cities were being burned. These fires created great smoke, which darkens the sun and stars. We can see this from the fires of the Western United States. The sun becomes dark and the stars are not visible for many days during and after large fires.

Both events also resulted in mass deaths - creating a double entendre. During both the fall of Babylon and the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, many were massacred - much of the population of those cities.

Likewise, at the time of death, as the eyes of a dying person are closing, the sun is darkened and the stars disappear - this marks the spiritual being leaving the physical body.

Was it a cataclysm?

This brings us to the next topic of Jesus’ discussion. While many have interpreted Jesus’ words to be describing some cataclysmic worldwide event thousands of years later, followed by Jesus riding over the clouds on horseback (oh, really?) what is actually being described is quite different.

Jesus is describing massive deaths, followed by events that unfold for each person at the moment of death.

Jesus is describing that he will there for each of his disciples and students - who followed and even spread his teachings – at their particular time of death. He will be there to escort each of them back to the spiritual dimension.

Yes, Jesus uses some allegory and symbolism to describe these events, primarily because the technology of what happens at the time of death is quite foreign to the mind, and the best way to describe what happens is to use allegory. For example, Jesus compares lightning coming from the east to his appearance after their death. This is an analogy.

We can see the gross mistranslation of Jesus' statements here when we consider the source of what is being translated into “the coming.” The Greek word is παρουσία (parousia), which is primarily used to describe someone’s “presence.” While it can describe an “arrival,” this is within the context of “appearance,” or “advent” according to the lexicon. Thus, Jesus is saying that he will be “present,” or will "appear" to them.

This is confirmed by the next sentence, which includes the phrase, “the son of man will appear in the sky.” Again, παρουσία is being used, but after this, we find the word οὐρανός (ouranos) used. This word is not as simple as “sky.”

According to Thayer's lexicon, the word can mean “the universe,” “the world,” “the aerial heavens or sky, the region where the clouds and the tempests gather, and where thunder and lightning are produced,” “the sidereal or starry heavens,” “the region above the sidereal heavens, the seat of order of things eternal and consummately perfect where God dwells and other heavenly beings.”

So to interpret this word as “sky” is simplistic and inaccurate. Jesus was talking about a deeper context here. Usually, real people do not appear or become present in the “sky.” Rather, an “appearance” or "presence" that takes place in οὐρανός is referring to a deeper realm.

And what is that deeper realm? It is the realm of the spiritual - the spiritual realm.

What happens when the body dies?

Each of us is spiritual - we are not these physical bodies. This fact is illustrated through scientific research during clinical death cases. There have been hundreds of thousands of documented clinical death cases now.

These have revived patients describing floating up above their body and looking down upon the body. They describe being able to travel very quickly to other locations and observe family members and other events.

Researchers have followed up on many thousands of these episodes and verified that the person indeed did see actual events – all the while their body lay lifeless in a hospital bed.

Many also describe moving to another space where they were met up by others. Some describe seeing Jesus, while others describe seeing angels. In most of these cases, these individuals or groups were described as having a purpose of escorting the person to their next destination.

In many cases, their life is judged at that point. While the process is short-circuited in such a case when the body is revived, this illustrates the reality that we are not these physical bodies: We are of another substance - a spiritual substance.

What does the fig tree analogy mean?

Jesus is describing a period of time where the populations of Israel and Judea - including some if not all of his disciples - would be slaughtered by the Romans. Directly following each spiritual person being forced out of the body at death, their life is judged, and they are escorted to their next destination.

This is the reason why death has also been described as "Judgement Day.")

Jesus is describing the fact that upon the death of those who followed his teachings and re-developed their loving relationship with God, Jesus and other angels of God (the “He” in “He will send His angels” is God) will appear to them to escort them back to the spiritual world. This is the event being discussed, and the basis for the myths that have been developed by many ecclesiastical Christian teachers described as Jesus' "second coming."

Jesus confirms this with his parable about the fig tree. He describes that when the twigs become tender, one can know summer is nearing. This is an analogy for death. When this sort of mass war breaks out, one can know that death is likely.

This is confirmed with his next statement, saying that “Even so [in the same way], when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” What is the “it” being described here? The Greek word εἰμί (eimi) is being translated to "it" here. This relates to something existing or being present. What is it? Many translators have taken this to mean there must be a person present, so they have translated this to mean “He is near.”

Within this context, we can see that “right at the door,” confirms that the "it" Jesus is discussing is death. When the moment of death is near, most people – as does Jesus – use the analogy of there being a doorway, because of the drastic change from being in the body to leaving the body – or as many say, “passing away.” In reality, at the time of death, the inner person - the spirit-person - suddenly slips from being within the body, to being outside of the body. Thus it is certainly accurate to use the word "doorway" while discussing this event - death.

It should be added that while the translators have managed to translate these words as though Jesus were God, Jesus describes himself in a more humble manner. As discussed previously, the correct translation of the Greek phrase, υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου - Jesus’ self-description - is not "son of man." The more accurate translation would be "servant of humanity".

The bottom line is that in this discussion - taking place privately between Jesus and his disciples - Jesus was forewarning them of events that would unfold during their lifetimes. He was telling them that they do not need to follow anyone else, but simply follow his teachings. He was also telling them that they would likely be killed during the massacres by the Romans, but that they should not worry, because he and God’s angels ("His elect") will be there for them at the time of death to escort them back to the spiritual dimension.

This was Jesus’ life. He was not sent by God down to the earth to threaten people and make them afraid by predicting the end of the world was coming. He came to the earth to teach us to love and serve God:
“My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me." (John 7:16)
Why? Because Jesus wants us to re-develop our loving relationship with God. Why? Because the Supreme Being wants us back. God wants us to come home. God knows we will only be happy when we return to our home in the spiritual realm - and our loving relationship with Him. This is also why the Supreme Being sent Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Noah, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, David, Samuel, Solomon and others who all brought the same message: love and serve God; and give our hearts to God. And this is why Jesus' most important teaching was:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)