Jesus talks about the completion of this age in several of his end-time passages, using expressions such as the “end” (telos) and “end of the age” (synteleias tou aiōnos). The Olivet Discourse was occasioned by the question from his disciples about the end: “As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”” (Matt 24:3).
Further into his discourse Jesus explains that his coming (parousia) brings about the end of this age. When Jesus returns, this age as we know it will be behind us and a new one will dawn. But before this happens Jesus outlines a number of discernible events that must happen before the end of the age. The first cluster of events Jesus prophesies is a combination of natural and human catastrophes:
“Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matt 24:4–8)
Jesus emphasizes that these are not events to signal the end has occurred, but that it has not occurred. In other words, the disciples ask for a sign that announces the end of the age, while Jesus immediately replies with what must happen before the the sign. The conditions that Jesus lists that must happen before his return are: False christs, wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes. These are the “beginning of birth pangs.” This metaphor indicates that they will be the start of painful experiences for God’s people that are part and parcel of eschatological events that lead up to his return. So it makes sense why Jesus would warn them not to think that the end has arrived when they witness them. In addition, they indicate that they will not be as intense as the “great tribulation” (thlipsis megalē). “For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen.” (Matt 24:21). It is noteworthy that the Greek term thlipsis (tribulation) was a common word used for painful child birthing. This would suggest that based on Jesus’ choice of terms in his discourse there will be three stages of intensity: the beginning of birth pangs, the great tribulation (i.e. intense birth pangs), and by implication the birth of Jesus’s arrival.
It is impossible to read Matthew 24 with Jesus’s explicit teaching of what must happen before his return and walk away thinking that Jesus can return at “any moment.” This is why many pretribulational interpreters have traditionally dismissed Jesus’ Olivet Discourse teachings all together relegating them away from “church teaching” of this age and apply them to some new category of believers such as “tribulation Jewish saints.” I have responded to this erroneous pretrib belief already. However, I want to expand on this point. It is contradictory for pretribs to claim that Jesus’ teaching in his Olivet Discourse on the end of the age does not apply to the church. Let me explain what I mean. Pretribs will write off the OD but they will affirm rightly believe that the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his same disciples a few weeks later is for the church. What is interesting is that there is a key link between these two teachings that pretribs fail to consider.
“Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:18–20)
The Great Commission was given to his disciples— who are representatives of the church—and told that he would be with them to the end of the age (i.e. church age): “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Most people do not think of the Great Commission as a prophecy. But this part of the Commission is an actual prophecy. Let me read this again: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is promising through a prophecy that he will be with you [i.e. believers through the church age and at its completion at the end of the age]. So the question remains, what does this have to do with imminence?
Here is the problem that pretribs face. How can Jesus’ return be imminent right up to the end of the age, while Jesus’ teaches in his Olivet Discourse that prophesied events must happen before the end of the age? Since Jesus teaches in his Great Commission that the church will be on earth to the end of the age, by logical application they will be here for the events that will transpire before the end of the age, as depicted in the Olivet Discourse. They cannot have their imminence cake and eat it too.
Many pretribs have recognized this contradictory point in their pretrib theology and have attempted to resolve it in several says. First, some have left pretribulationism, because they realized that Jesus did cannot contradict himself by teaching imminency up to the end of the age on one hand, while at the same time claiming that intervening events must happen before the end of the age. Second some simply choose to ignore this point. Third, some have equivocated and end up claiming there are two ends of the ages! This latter option is not surprising, because pretribs claim there are two future separate parousia events, two separate day of the Lord judgments, and two separate resurrections, one for Old Testament saints and one for New Testament saints. It is unfortunate that the apostle Paul was not privy to these (false) dichotomies, since he cited Jesus’ Jewish Olivet Discourse thirty times to instruct the Gentile Thessalonian church!
At the end of the day, the exegetical point remains: Jesus taught that the church age would occur up to the end of the age, while the prophesied events included in the “beginning of birth pangs” must happen during the church age before the end of the age. This is one of the clearest examples in the Bible that contradicts pretribulation imminence theology.