Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Eschatology: Lesson 2 – The Great Tribulation of Matthew 24
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2003, 2010, 2013
Overview of Matthew 24
1 – 3 the setting and the question of the Disciples- signs of the times
4 -14 signs of the present evil age and of our mission – there were bad times ahead
15-22 the abominable desolation and the great tribulation – coming of the Son of Man
23-26 false messiahs and false prophets deceive many
27-28 true and false coming of the Son of Man – signs of His coming
29-30 signs in the heaven and of the Son of Man
31-33 parable of the fig tree
34 this generation shall not pass till this takes place – the end of the age
35 passing of heaven and earth
36-51 call to alertness and faithfulness
The Bible speaks of a time of Great Tribulation which God would unleash as a judgment here upon earth. The interpretation of these events falls into two basic models of the end times with variations within each. On the one hand some take the historical approach which sees most of the events of Matthew 24 as applying to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD by the Romans in its war with the Jews. The futuristic approach places these events in a time yet to come. The primary text about this time is found in Matthew 24.
Overview of Matthew 24
The occasion was a question asked by the disciples
In Matthew 23, Jesus was in the Temple at Jerusalem warning the Scribes and Pharisees about their desecration of the worship of God, and of the immoral lives they were leading. He concluded his warnings with several references to the warnings of the Prophets which he applied to their impending destruction. God was about to withdraw his restraints upon the pagan world around them. He would use them as he had in the past to execute his judgment upon his rebellious covenant nation.
36 “Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.
38 “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!
As Jesus and his disciples left the Temple area he looked back and made reference to the Temple to directly predict that God was about to destroy it. Matthew 24 begins with these words which set the background for the rest of the chapter:
1 And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him.
2 And He answered and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
On the Mount of Olives, Jesus answered their questions
3 And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Overlooking the temple area and Jerusalem, the disciples asked this three-part question. They were responding to what he had just told them, and they obviously saw the three parts as relating to this impending destruction.
They asked …
– when will these things be?
– what will be the sign of your coming?
– and (what will be the sign) of the end of the age?
Difficulties in interpreting Jesus’ answer
The answer must not be taken out of the context in which it was given. We need to remember what “things” the disciples were asking about. We must determine what “coming” of Jesus they had in mind. And we need to clarify what “age” they envisioned as ending.
Was their main concern the destruction of the Temple which Jesus had just mentioned, and the end of the era where the Temple worship had dominated the lives of God’s people since the time of Moses? Or were they asking about the final end of all things?
We need also to determine how Jesus, with his greater knowledge of the eternal decrees and plan of the ages, answered them. Did he address their question as they intended it? Or did he ignore it and give an answer to the question they should have asked if they knew more than they did? Or did he both answer their question and expand upon it giving more than they expected to hear?
Simply put, does this answer of Jesus speak of the destruction of the Temple at all? Does he speak of it exclusively? Or does he speak of both the Temple’s destruction (which did take place in 70 AD) and of the final judgment which would take place before the final day of God’s judgment of the world?
We should also keep in mind that there was a prophetic purpose in this chapter. We should not view it as a mere foretelling of future events. There was a primary attitude and expectation which Jesus was prescribing.
Signs of the Times
Jesus begins this section with a warning:
4 And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you.
5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.
6 “And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.
7 “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes.
8 “But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
Evidently there will be deceivers who will try to give them false answers to their questions, deceptions intending to confuse and frighten them. There will be false Messiahs, wars and rumors of wars. But these are not to be taken as signs of the end. They are things that must be, the normal course of events in a fallen world. They were nothing new. Such things characterize the age in which we live extending from the fall in Eden to the final consummation of the earth in it’s present state.
There have always been false prophets who claimed to be anointed ones sent from God. The great Anointed One, the promised Messiah, would also be impersonated by deceivers.
The Apostle Paul studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel who spoke of a man named Theudas who had been slain and had gathered a following of over 400 who were deceived into thinking he was the Promised One sent from God. He also mentioned Judas of Galilee who rose up in the days of the Roman census drawing people to follow him (Acts 5:34-39).
Simon the sorcerer from Samaria said that he was the great one (Acts 8:9-10). Early Christian writers call him Simon Magus, one who claimed to have been the divine Son of God and the Creator.
The early church writer Origen tells of a man named Dositheus who claimed to be the Messiah. Similarly the Jewish historian Josephus said that in the time of the Apostles many impostors were arrested by Felix every day. These men were said to have deluded the multitudes.
It is clear that in the years shortly after Jesus spoke these words, there were many who came falsely claiming to be the Christ. They were able to mislead many.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
War has been a characteristic of man’s existence and evil heart all through history. In some centuries there have been hundreds of major conflicts.
In apostolic times insurrections and wars took place all around the Roman Empire. The idea that the Pax Romana was a time of peace is quite deceptive. The only peace was for those who were on the side of the Emperor. Border conflicts were a constant feature of Rome. Conspiracies within the Empire produced violence and uprisings which are well attested in the records of the time. In one 18 month period Rome had four different emperors: Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Each came to a violent death. An uprising in Alexandria resulted in the slaughter of 50,000 Jews. In Damascus 10,000 Jews were reported to have been massacred. Another 50,000 were slain in Selucia. In the battle of Caesarea between the Syrians and the Jews 20,000 Jews died and many villages were divided. Emperor Caligula ordered his statue to be erected in the Jerusalem Temple. Though the Jews didn’t allow it, they feared retribution from Rome.
Jesus cautioned his disciples that there will be wars and rumors of wars. And nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. The point Jesus was making is that such things should not frighten them. Such things are typical of the times. They do not mean the end has come (Matthew 24:6).
Famines and Earthquakes
Natural disasters are certainly not limited to the future. There have been many famines in history, many of which are recorded in the record of the Old Testament. One of the most noted is the one at the time of Isaac and Joseph where the entire family of Isaac went to Egypt to be fed by Joseph who had been providentially place in a high position of favor with the Pharaoh. Many times families, cities and nations were ravaged by famine.
Modern history shows us that famine is still with us today. There was the great famine of Northwest China from 1928 to 1929 where over three million died. In the USSR from 1932 to 1934 over five million died from a famine. Again China suffered a famine in 1943 which killed nearly eight million people. The great Nigerian famine which lasted from 1967 to 1974 took the lives of nearly three million. To say that a great famine would be a unique sign of the end of the world is both to ignore the history of the world and to forget the comment Jesus made saying that these “signs” do not mean the end had come (Matthew 24:6,8).
There are those who ignore these words of Jesus when they see earthquakes as a sign of the end of the world. Some even claim, contrary to fact, that the number and severity of earthquakes is greater now than ever before. They are part of earth’s geological history. Their frequency changes in cycles with periods of relative calm and periods of extremely severe activity.
This is a list of just a few well attested earthquakes of the past since these words of Jesus were spoken to his disciples. Great earthquakes took place in 365 AD leveling Pharos of Alexandria. In 476 AD one destroyed Rome. In the year 526 AD 250,000 were killed in Antioch. In 1556 an earthquake in China killed 830,000. In 1692 Port Royal in Jamaica was destroyed. In 1783 there were 181 villages in Italy destroyed killing about 30,000. The list could go on. A decent search of earthquake records will show that this too is a sign of the times in which we live extending from creation to the present.
In the generation of the Apostles, before 70 AD, great earthquakes were recorded in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome, Judea, as well as a particularly bad one in Pompeii in 63 AD.
Robert Hooke in his Discourses on Earthquakes (in 1667) wrote that over 700 major natural catastrophes had taken place in one century alone.
Yes, these are signs of the times. Not of the end times. They are signs of the times in which men live on earth. Jesus warned that they should not frighten us into thinking that the end has come. They are expected tragedies which have plagued human history and will continue to do so until the earth as we know it is no more.
Times of persecution
The context continues in the following verses.
9 “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name.
10 “And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another.
11 “And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many.
12 “And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.
13 “But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.
14 “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.”
We should not be frightened into speculations about the nearing judgment of God simply by seeing things which are signs of the times of fallen humanity on earth. Things which have always been can’t act as indicators that God’s time-table is about to come to an end. Among the things which we should expect to see continuing, is the persecution of believers for their faith in the revealed promises and principles of God.
Persecutions, killings, betrayals and hatred have always been the lot of God’s people on earth. As early as the murder of Able at the hands of Cain the hatred and jealousy of those not trusting in God has resulted in violence and persecution. It has been seen repeatedly throughout Old Testament history, and was very common in the years leading up to the moment when our Lord addressed his disciples on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24.
During the life of Jesus on earth we read about the killing of John the baptist by King Herod, the plots of the Jewish leaders to arrest and kill Jesus which plagued him during most of his ministry, and the final act of violence in his false arrest and crucifixion.
The book of Acts confirms that persecutions continued against the early church in the time of the Apostles after the death of Jesus. Almost immediately the leaders of the church were arrested, threatened, and arrested again. Stephen was stoned to death. Saul of Tarsus hunted down Christians to have them cast into jails. Herod had James put to death by the sword. Paul was mobbed, stoned and left for dead. He was arrested on obviously false charges in Jerusalem, survived plots against his life, twice sent to Rome as a prisoner, and it is believed that he was executed for his faith under Nero. Other Apostles and believers met with tortures and violent deaths during this same time period.
There have been many false prophets too. In 1 Kings 22:6 we see that King Ahab maintained 400 court prophets who always told him whatever he wanted to hear. For every true prophet of God, there were many others who tried to turn the people of God in a different and rebellious direction.
There were many false prophets in the time of the Apostles. In the epistles of the New Testament there are many warnings against the Judaizers who attempted to undermine the finished work of Christ. Paul warned the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20:29-30 of “savage wolves” among them who were teaching perverse things drawing away disciples after them. The Apostle also warned Timothy (2 Timothy 3:13) that evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
Peter warned in 2 Peter 2:1, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.”
1 John 4:1 tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
But Jesus warned his disciples that they shouldn’t get discouraged by these persecutions and false prophets. There have always been enemies of this sort. They are not signs of the end.
Human society was created to live within the boundaries of God’s law, his moral principles. When evil grows it opposes those boundaries. Some periods of history have been more lawless than others. In the time of the New Testament lawlessness had become a serious problem. Prostitution, homosexuality and infanticide were promoted and protected by Roman law as were many other offenses against God’s revealed moral order.
Jesus said in John 14:15 that to love him was to keep his commandments. To show our love for God we are to obey his holy moral principles. When we honor our Creator’s ways in our treatment of others, we are showing evidence of our Lord at work in our otherwise selfish hearts. It’s an evidence that grace has sovereignly transformed us. When we break his law about how we treat others, we show an alarming sign that we are lacking the love God says ought to be there in his children.
When a society is lawless, it is a society without love. It becomes characterized by self-centeredness, killings, theft, secret plots, oppression, greed, immorality and false religion. When love in a society dies, it grows cold like a corpse. The word translated as “cold” in Matthew 24:12 is psucho (ψύχω). It is directly related to the Greek word psuchae (ψυχή) which is the common word for “breath or soul”. It is believed that this particular form of the word relates to the cold chill of the wind or breath blowing across something.
There was an abundance of lawlessness in the time of Jesus and the Apostles. Much of the New Testament was written to help Christians overcome temptations to immorality. Corinth was shamed by Paul for tolerating gross sins. The Jewish leaders replaced God’s demands for love and mercy with a set of strict rules that made loopholes in the moral law of Scripture.
As lawlessness rises in the world as it has in many periods of our history it should not discourage believers to give up. These things are not the sign that the end has come. They are signs of the times of man on earth. The cycle of sin keeps on. These things should stir us to renewed effort to promote evangelism and to influence society toward godliness in every way we know how.
But the One Who Endures … Will Be Saved
Salvation implies some danger from which we need to be delivered. In some cases it is the eternal danger of our souls from which the gospel of Jesus Christ saves us. But in other places the context shows us that a more temporal danger is meant. In this context the danger is not eternal, but comes from the onslaught of attacks against believers by those who do not submit to the ways of God. Who will be saved from these things? It’s a promise for those who endure through these attacks to the conclusion of them. A redeemed heart is one in which God has implanted a true saving faith. This trust in God strengthens the person so that he does not give in to the temptations and fears these calamities of the times of man in his fallen estate might instigate.
There is a change in the flow of thought here. Here the idea of an “end” is introduced. There will be an end, a time when deliverance takes place from these matters which plague God’s people. This is a general principle we see active all through Scripture. God does not always preserves his faithful people from every adversity, but from falling as a result of it. They are able to bear up through the times of calamity. When they suffer outwardly he is their strength and comfort. This principle certainly applies to the end of the earth. It also applies to the more immediate concerns of the church in the time of the Apostles to whom Jesus was speaking on the Mount of Olives.
The impending doom Jesus had just pronounced against the apostate Jews and their Temple is the immediate context of these remarks. Without introducing other ideas into the context to color the words of Jesus, we understand this most naturally to refer to the immediate concerns expressed by the Apostles. Their questions about the destruction of the temple should be joined with this promise and assurance. Though God will allow the Temple to be destroyed with not one stone is left upon another, those who endure will be saved from the calamities associated with this event.
It is interesting to note that while over a million rebellious Jews were brutally slaughtered in the attack on Jerusalem in 70 AD which also brought the destruction of the Temple, there is no record of any Christians being killed in the conflict. Those who were faithful to Christ and heeded his warnings were spared when the great judgment Jesus spoke of finally came.
The Gospel of the Kingdom .. to the Whole World
At this point Jesus introduced something other than the previous things he mentioned which are continuing signs of the present age. What he mentions now should be considered a sign of the end of which he was speaking. The good news about the Kingdom of God would be declared in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations. That will mark the time when this particular end will come.
The good news relating to the Kingdom was that the promised Messiah had come. He would accomplish his task to replace the sacrifices by fulfilling all that they represented. This message was not to be limited to the Jews only, but was to be proclaimed to the Gentiles as well, to the whole world.
When does this take place? Certainly the whole world has not yet been evangelized even today. But is that what this means? Thankfully we are not left to theological speculation to find out. The words used here are very common ones which are defined by their various uses in Scripture. There are even interpretive comments in the New Testament to show us what our Lord meant here.
First, the term world needs to be rightly understood. It does not mean the physical planet as if every geographic place must be reached with the gospel. The Greek word used here by Matthew in verse 14 has a different meaning. It is not the word that means the physical world. It is the Greek term oikoumenae (οἰκουμένη). It is the same word Luke uses in Luke 2:1 when we are told that in the time of the birth of Jesus “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”
The New American Standard Bible translates this passage in Luke as “all the inhabited earth.” This was a term used to describe those living in the civilized realm of the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Certainly Caesar didn’t tax civilizations living on distant continents outside of his civil powers, and certainly not those on continents and islands which were then unknown to them. In this present text (Matthew 24:14) the NASB has a marginal note showing that this Greek word for world means “the inhabited world”. The more common word for world in Greek which included even the barbaric nations outside the Roman Empire was not used here.
So, when did the message of the Kingdom extend throughout the Empire, beyond just the Jews and included even the Gentiles? It started at Pentecost. Jews from all over the Empire had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost which was prescribed by God through Moses. When Acts 2:5 records, “men from every nation under heaven” were there to hear the gospel, each in his own language, we are not to expect that heathens from the undiscovered Americas had arrived to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost along with those from the pagan lands in the far Eastern parts of Asia. The context clarifies it for us.
When Paul wrote to the Romans he commended them for their faith which at that time was “spoken of throughout the whole world.” When he wrote to the church of the Colossians he said in Colossians 1:6 that the gospel had “come to you, just as in all the world.” Later in that same chapter (Colossians 1:23) Paul said the gospel had been, “proclaimed in all creation under heaven.”
According to these inspired words of the New Testament, during the time of the Apostles the good news to the Gentile nations had been essentially extended to all the earth, that is to all the nations. This all took place within the time-frame of the book of Acts.
Then Shall the End Come
Considering that in this context Jesus was dealing with God’s promised judgment upon the apostate Jews he had just been addressing in the Temple, and that his remarks about the total destruction of the Temple took place in 70 AD, we have good reason to believe that this was the “end” he was speaking of.
By the time of the destruction of the apostate Jewish worship in 70 AD, the gospel had been proclaimed to the nations of the whole world in the sense in which that same expression is used throughout the New Testament. To extend this promise so that it only applies to the final day of judgment at the end of the world which is yet future, requires that we both ignore the biblical expressions Jesus employed, and that we import speculative ideas alien to the context of Matthew 24.
The prophetic purpose of the words of Jesus is one of warning and promise. The calamities and persecutions of this present age should not frighten the Apostles into believing the end had come. But when the gospel had spread to the Gentile nations (as it had by the time the Book of Acts was completed) God would bring about the end of the Jewish era by a horrible judgment which would include the complete destruction of the ancient Temple.
There Were Bad Times Ahead
Jesus explained that soon God’s judgment will be felt by those who are in Judea (24:16). The abomination of desolation described in Daniel 9 was about to be revealed (24:15). And there will be a time of great tribulation (24:21). Jesus described it this way …
15 “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),
16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains;
17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house;
18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak.
19 “But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days!
20 “But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath;
21 for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.
22 “And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short.
the Abomination of Desolation:
In Daniel 9:24-27 we read about the 70 weeks.
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place.
25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.
27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
The term 70 Weeks has been interpreted and applied in many ways. Literally it says “seventy sevens”. When we do the math, seventy sevens comes to 490. But there are many approaches to this obviously symbol-filled passage. Throughout Scripture God used the number seven to represent completeness or perfection. Multiples of powers of ten act as a superlative of the symbolic meaning. In this sense, the expression “seventy sevens” carries the figurative meaning of “the great completeness of completeness.” However this use does not in itself rule out possible quantitative meanings. To help understand what Daniel and Jesus meant, we need to see how their words fit into the historical context in which they were spoken.
Daniel wrote during the captivity of Israel after the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed in 586 BC. The Jews in captivity needed encouragement and a reminder of the promise God had given them that they would one day be restored to the promised land. In the captivity there was no Temple and no sacrifice being made back in desolated Jerusalem.
If we understand these sevens to represent years then adding 490 to 457 BC when King Artexerxes issued the decree that sent Ezra back to Jerusalem to restore the Temple worship, it takes us to the year 33 AD. Recognizing that these are symbolic numbers (if weeks are years) we can assume that fractions don’t count much. That brings us to the time just after the ascension of Jesus Christ, the events of Pentecost in Acts 2, and the beginning of the Apostolic era. Of course many different interpretations have been offered by those holding to the various views of Eschatology. The futuristic theories (which project the end of the 70 Weeks to the end of the era of the church established by the Apostles) must insert a large gap of several thousand years into the “seventy sevens.” This is a “gap” far longer than the time period about which God moved his Prophet Daniel to write.
The content of Daniel’s message tells what happens relating to these seventy sevens which have been decreed for the people and the holy city of Jerusalem. The goal of these seventy sevens is that the transgression will be finished, there will be an end of sin, and an atonement made for iniquity. This will bring in everlasting righteousness, seal up vision and prophecy, and anoint the most holy. The word “place” is inserted by translators making it read “holy place”. That is not what it says in the inspired text.
The time is divided into periods bounded by certain events.
– 441 “years” from the issuing the decree to Messiah the Prince.
– Then Messiah (the anointed) will be cut off having nothing, and the city and sanctuary will be destroyed.
– In the middle of the last week the sacrifice and offerings will stop. An abominable desecration will arrive until there is a complete destruction.
Daniel 11:31 expands saying, “And forces from him will arise, desecrate the sanctuary fortress, and do away with the regular sacrifice. And they will set up the abomination of desolation.”
It appears that this desecration grows until it brings about the end of the sacrifice and comes before the destruction of the Temple.
It’s striking how well this description fits with what we know about the work of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. He came to put an end to transgression and to make atonement for sin. He established a righteousness in which his people will be everlastingly declared innocent. At the end of the era of his first appearing on earth when his Apostles finished their work, the Bible was completed bringing an end to continuing visions and prophecy.
If the sevens of Daniel are weeks of years, then the sixty-two and seven years since the decree to free the people receiving Daniel’s prophesy to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah brings us to the beginning of the era of Jesus Christ’s ministry. The Temple and city were built again when that decree of Artaxerxes was issued just as Daniel had spoken. But there was trouble for Israel from her enemies in the years that followed. One oppressive nation after another distressed God’s nation.
The life of Jesus was not well received by his own nation. He was cut off from them and rejected. He appeared to have nothing visible to show his glory (which he had set aside in his incarnation). Even the Temple of God had become a desolation from the abuses of their own Priests.
After about three and a half years of ministry (half of Daniel’s last week) Jesus completed the sacrifice on the cross making any further sacrifices for sin meaningless. He completed the promises of the Covenant instituting a new form of worship and a greater clarity of God’s ancient pledge to gather from among fallen sinners a people who would be his spiritual family forever.
The final destruction of the unbelieving covenant nation of Israel was completed within one generation of his ministry when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman army being used by the hand of God coming in judgment.
Keeping in mind this reference to Daniel which Jesus made in Matthew 24:15, we can appreciate the warning that follows in verses 16-20.
We should also note that other desecrations made by pagans who defiled God’s Temple by their disrespectful acts are at best only secondarily consistent with Daniel’s prophesy.
There was the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanese which was recorded by Josephus in his Jewish Wars (I.1.2), and in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees 1:32-42. In 167 BC he had a pagan altar built over the altar of burnt-offering in the Temple. There he intentionally desecrated the place of sacrifice with swine blood. Many Jews were slaughtered and tortured to death.
There was also the desecration by the Romans during their domination of Jerusalem when they brought into the Temple area the Roman ensigns of the Emperor they considered to be empowered by the god’s.
But the primary desecration, as the prophets and Jesus described it, was done by God’s people themselves, by the priests who defiled the place of worship with their perverted teachings and sacrifices. Daniel 11:30 describes the desecration as being committed by those who had forsaken the holy covenant. God’s law required that priests be pure and set apart as holy. If they became corrupt their work in the Temple was corrupted. Ezekiel warned in 5:11 with these words of Jehovah, ” ‘So as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘surely, because you have defiled My sanctuary with all your detestable idols and with all your abominations, therefore I will also withdraw, and My eye shall have no pity and I will not spare.’ ”
At the time of Jesus the Priests of God’s covenant had changed the house of worship and prayer into a den of thieves. Jesus cast out the money-changers at the beginning of his ministry and again at the end of it in the week just before his death.
In the law God used the disease of Leprosy to represent moral defilement. When a house was contaminated from Leprosy the Priest would declare it unclean. Leviticus 14:45 says, “He shall therefore tear down the house, its stones, and its timbers, and all the plaster of the house, and he shall take them outside the city to an unclean place.”
Since the Temple had become defiled by these corrupt priests, it must also be torn down leaving not one stone upon another. This fulfilled the principle illustrated by the cleansing of a house defiled by Leprosy. The destruction of the Temple which had been so abominably desecrated had to take place.
In Matthew 23:38 Jesus said to these corrupt priests, “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” This is the same Greek word used here in 24:15 in quoting Daniel. The desolation had already taken place in the time of Jesus on earth. Jesus himself said so.
The warnings that follow in Matthew 24:16-20 tell those in Judea to flee into the mountains when they perceive this taking place. God’s judgment was about to fall. The one up on the house should not worry about his possessions in his house, and those in the fields should not worry about taking time to get their coats. The pregnant women and those nursing would be faced with distress by having to flee so quickly when the judgment falls. They should pray that this doesn’t come during a storm or on the Sabbath.
When the siege of Jerusalem took place in 70 AD, the attacking armies of Rome hesitated awhile according to the historic account of Josephus in his Wars of the Jews. The Roman commander Cestius suddenly withdrew his army “without any just occasion in the world.” The Jews ignored the opportunity to escape when the city was surrounded by the enemy. Instead they brazenly attacked the Romans.
During that time, the record shows that the Christians remembered these words of Jesus and fled from the city. Josephus comments on this pause in the attack with the following words, “affording the Jewish Christians in the city an opportunity to calling to mind the prediction and caution given them by Christ about thirty-three years and a half before, that ‘when they should see Jerusalem encompassed with armies’ they should ‘flee to the mountains.'”
The Great Tribulation
In Matthew 24:21-22 Jesus again uses words from Daniel to describe the great time of tribulation that was ahead. Jesus said,
21 for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.
22 “And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short.
The words Jesus used came from Daniel 12:1 “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.”
Does the attack of Rome qualify as the greatest tribulation upon Israel during the time when that nation represented the people of God on earth? The historic records affirm that it certainly did.
In 70 AD Jerusalem was attacked by Rome. It is said that over a million Jews were killed in the siege. More than 17,000 were taken away as slaves. The Temple was laid waste not to be rebuilt again.
The record of Josephus in his book Wars of the Jews describes the events as they were seen at that time. He tells us that during the siege the Jews in the city experienced a horrible famine. They fought among themselves and killed one another. Food was taken from children by their own parents and from the parents by their children. It was a barbaric time of moral degeneration by a people who had for the most part forsaken God’s law. One story tells of a mother who roasted and ate her infant child (Wars 6:3:4).
Those trying to escape were tortured and crucified by the Romans (5:11:1). At one time there wasn’t room on the hills for another cross so several Jews were crucified on the same crosses. A rumor among the Romans reported that some Jews trying to get away had swallowed gold to get it out of the city. In one night 2,000 fleeing Jews were dissected. Some of the descriptions are so offensive I would not repeat them here (5:8:4).
Josephus records that the Roman armies, “plowed the city under” totally destroying it. Not one stone was left upon another.
It’s hard to imagine any time of tribulation worse than this. It was greater than anything that took place before that time, and greater than any which was yet to come.
If Jesus was describing an event that would not take place until the end of the age, then why would he bother to mention that nothing after it would be as horrible? If it was at the end then nothing would take place after it. The end is the end, so nothing at all would follow.
The events that fell upon the unbelieving Jews in 70 AD present a very real, physical and literal fulfillment of everything Jesus said would take place. That was the issue in the context of the first question posed by the disciples in their discussion with Jesus on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24. It would be a decisive judgment of God upon a corrupted religion that was being replaced by a church under the new form of God’s covenant.
Consistent with what Jesus said, in 70 AD heathen armies surrounded Jerusalem, the faithful believers fled to the mountains and those who dared to return to the city would have been killed in the slaughter that took place. Most of the Jews who remained in the city were either killed or enslaved. The Temple and its altar were destroyed so that not one stone remained upon another. The sacrifice was ended and its continuing abominable blasphemy was silenced. There has not been a sacrifice made there since this event took place.
But these days were limited, shortened, for the sake of God’s elect. The descendants of the survivors included some who would come to Christ showing that they were indeed among God’s elect, chosen by grace alone before the foundations of the world were laid.
The Coming of the Son of Man
23-26 false messiahs and false prophets deceive many
Jesus continued his warning by announcing that there will be impostors who claim to be the Messiah, but they are not. Matthew 23:23-26 explains.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him.
24 “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.
25 “Behold, I have told you in advance.
26 “If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go forth, or,’ Behold, He is in the inner rooms, ‘do not believe them.
When God acts, Satan quickly offers his substitutes. It is easier to get people to go after something false than to get them to openly reject what is right. It is no wonder that Satan’s main attack on religion is not to eliminate it. Instead he offers all kinds of religion, false religion.
False Christs and false teachers are always among us. Many of them even claim to love the Bible. We need to be on the alert. Not all who claim to be of God really are of him.
The Apostles had to be specially on their guard. Their job was to guide the new church into its independence from Judaism. It began at Pentecost and continued to mature until it was finally on its own after the final demise of the remnants of the temple system in 70 AD.
During that time there were many false Messiahs and false prophets. In his first epistle the Apostle John wrote, “… many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1), and “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now is already in the world.” (4:3).
The disciples had been forewarned. There would be false Messiahs and false prophets, who would call people to follow them. They will even claim to perform great miracles and wonders. But they are not who they claim to be.
To recognize the false Messiahs, they needed to know the true one. In John 10 Jesus warned against false shepherds of God’s sheep. In the first verse of that chapter these deceivers come to the sheep in a way that identified them as dangerous. Their message and lifestyle should give them away. Their words are a “strange voice” compared with the message of the prophets the people should know from Scripture.
In verses 2-4 of John 10, the good shepherd comes in by the door, a way the sheep expect. Jesus came in exactly the way God in Scripture said he would come. People should recognize Him by his teachings and his life. The sheep trust and follow him, they recognize his voice. What He said fit with God’s word. When family members come home they use their key at the front door. They will often call out “I’m home” when they come in to identify themselves. No name is needed, we know their voice. By knowing the good voice, the voice of evil will stand out and be recognized. This is why it is so important to know the Christ of the Bible.
27-28 true and false coming of the Son of Man
Though there will be deceivers, the true Son of Man is also going to come. He will come as a judge of corrupted Israel.
27 “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.
28 “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
There are many comings of God as the judge of corrupt nations in Scripture. He came to judge wicked Egypt, Babylon, and Edom. The prophets said he would come to judge wicked Israel too. Their time of privilege was about to end. In place of the old genetic and cultural distinctions God would fulfill what Israel had represented by expanding her into a Spiritual Israel, the church of the New Testament, which would include all the nations.
Jesus came as the Messiah to Bethlehem to begin his earthly work. He would also come to bring the final destruction of the Temple and judgment upon Israel. And he would come one last time at the end of the ages to judge evil forever.
When Messiah comes he always has a purpose. His comings always reveal truth, and advance his plan. He brings both blessing to his people, and judgment to his enemies. This coming which Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24 will be to judge the corpse of the nation of Israel. She once represented God’s Kingdom on earth. But in her spiritual rebellion she no longer was being responsible to her duties. She was obscuring the truth and misleading many. She was spiritually dead.
The Son of Man will come as the light that shines from the dawn until the setting sun.
The word used for light in this passage is astrapae (ἀστραπή). It is sometimes used in the sense of lightning. Most often it refers to a beam of light like that which shines from the sun. Our similar modern idioms would be “light beam, sun beam or ray of light.” The context in Matthew 24 fits best with this more common meaning than that of lightning.
The verb used here is phaino (φαίνω). It also is a very common Greek word. It means to shine forth, to appear. It does not best translate as a sudden or dramatic flash such as we would associate with a lightning bolt. This light beam shines forth from the East and goes out until it reaches West (literally “the place of setting”).
An accurate understanding of the imagery embedded in these words helps us to understand the prophetic purpose of this sentence. It’s not centrally speaking of the suddenness of the coming of the Son of Man as compared with lightning. The main point consistent with what follows is the pervasiveness of his coming. Like the light of day rising in the East, the beams of light shine over the whole earth all the way to the West. They drive away darkness and bring the light of day to the land. Such is the permeating presence of the Son of Man as he comes in judgment.
This is how the word light is often used when connected with the judgments of God. Just as light drives out darkness and illuminates things so that we can see them, so also God’s judgment permeates all places and exposes even hidden evil. For example, consider John 3:19-20 “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”
When the Son of Man comes in judgment his scrutiny reaches everywhere. It is like the light of the sun which reaches across the land from the dawn until the final setting of the sun in the West.
The corpse in verse 28 represents the dead nation of Israel. In chapter 23 Jesus confronted the religious leaders at the Temple about their spiritual deadness. Here he shows the nation as a dead body attracting the predators, the vultures.
Jesus used the imagery from Jeremiah 7:33-34 “And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. Then I will make to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride; for the land will become a ruin.”
If the carcass is the spiritually dead body of the corrupt nation of Israel, then who are these vultures who gather to pick over her flesh? They are the nations God used as his instruments of judgment.
The Arch of Titus in Rome was sculptured with figures of Romans carrying away the golden table, the seven branched candlestick, the veils of the Tabernacle, and the book of the law. It was made to commemorate the subjugation of Jerusalem in the Roman conquest in 70 AD. The vultures of Rome literally picked over the corpse of Jerusalem and carried off the symbols of the old sacrificial system that was now surpassed by the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Signs of His Coming
29-30 signs in the heaven and of the Son of Man
Israel’s glory will be extinguished.
Matthew 24:29 “But immediately after the tribulation of those days, The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the heavens, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This passage often confuses those unfamiliar with the language of the Bible. They point to the sky and make note of the fact that the sun, moon and stars are still there, shining as much as always. So how then could this verse refer to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem? Since it says that these events follow immediately after the “Great Tribulation” is ended, has Jesus suddenly skipped ahead into a description of the distant future? No, there is a more biblical answer.
These events follow immediately upon the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD.
If we take the terms of verse 29 as well established biblical symbols they make consistent and good sense. Jesus is quoting from Old Testament Scripture. We would expect him to use terms consistent with the inspired writings, terms with which his disciples would have been very familiar.
This language has its foundation in the warning of the covenant made with Moses in Deuteronomy 28. If Israel should turn from living by God’s gracious covenant, curses will come as judgments from Jehovah. Though a more detailed study would further explain the context of the words used by Jesus, a brief summary should illustrate a close parallel and foundation for why this terminology was employed by Jesus in Matthew 24.
Summary statements from Deuteronomy 28 about those in Israel who break the covenant God had made with that nation:
28:25 She will be defeated by enemies
28:26 The carcasses of Israel would feed birds of prey (Mt 24:28) and beasts.
28:29 She will grope as if in darkness (not literal: the light of her glory & security is faded).
28:37 She will become a mockery before the nations for her empty claims of God’s blessing.
28:49 God will send a foreign speaking people to swoop down upon her.
28:52 Her towns and walls will be besieged until they fall.
28:53-57 Her mothers will eat the flesh of their own children (see above on 24:21-22).
29:25-29 this comes to pass because Israel had forsaken the covenant of God.
By the time of Jesus Israel had openly defied the covenant of the Lord, even persecuting and promoting the death of the promised Messiah. So the Lord would bring destruction upon the land.
A covenant always has a witness to its promises, warnings, blessings and curses. In Deuteronomy 30:19 Jehovah tells us that he uses his own creation to confirm the certainty of the Creator’s covenant; “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,”
Heaven and earth were called to bear witness that the glory of Israel depends upon her faithfulness to God’s covenant when enabled by grace. God outwardly blesses us in his covenant by supplying our needs by means of those things which he created for our provision. He sometimes brings his outward and temporal judgments through natural disasters such as the great flood in the time of Noah and the falling of fire from the heavens as he did at Sodom.
This Mosaic language is carried over in the poetic books of Scripture. Ecclesiastes 12:2 describes the fading of the body as old age comes on using the symbolism of the heavens as representing the glory of a person’s life. As age creeps near before death it says, “the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain” Obviously this does not mean a literal darkening of these heavenly objects as each person grows old. It uses the well established language of God’s creation order to represent the fading of the glory of youth.
Similar language is found throughout the Psalms:
Psalm 8:3 The glory of the Creator is manifest in the moon and stars.
Psalm 136:5-9 Describes the glory of God revealed in his mercy; that he made the heavens, the earth, great lights, the sun to rule the day, moon and stars to rule by night. Beyond the physical benefit of these lights in the havens, they are here shown to represent the revealed glory of God.
Psalm 89 is a Psalm of the Lord’s covenant with David.
:5,6,11 the physical heavens declare God’s glory
:15-17 God’s countenance and glory are “as light”
:28-29 the covenant established will continue “as the days of heaven”
:30 But, if they transgress (as Israel did several times) …
:32 God’s wrath will punish them with the rod, with stripes. Yet God will keep His covenant alive (a remnant will remain faithful)
:36 his throne is as the sun before God
:37 established forever like the moon
The same terminology is found in the prophetic books of Scripture.
Joel 2 is quoted by Peter in Acts 2 and was applied to Pentecost. It included a prophetic warning of judgment and a promise of blessing. It described a time of the outpouring both of blessing and of judgment. In Acts 2:28-32 Peter at Pentecost was describing what God was then doing: He was pouring out judgment upon Israel, and blessing upon the continuing true Church of the new era. The special ministry of the Holy Spirit was beginning. Yet notice the symbols of judgment in Joel 2 which are applied to the time of Pentecost at the end of the corrupted Jewish religion and the beginning of the Christian Church era.
In Joel 2:1 God warns that he will bring judgment down upon his holy mountain (Jerusalem). Then in Joel 2:10 he says, “Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark, And the stars lose their brightness.” And in Joel 2:31 he continues, “The sun will be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”
He certainly didn’t mean that at coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or when the covenant Lord brings his judgment against fallen Israel, that the literal sun, moon and stars will stop shining or fall from the sky. This continues the well established symbolism God had already used.
If Peter’s quote of this whole section from Joel had nothing to do with the coming judgment upon Israel in her abandonment by Jehovah and the bringing in of the Gentiles, then why does he quote it and apply it to the immediate issue? If the language is covenantal and uses biblically established symbols, then it means that God was about to judge the fallen covenant nation by removing her glory.
This is the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 23 and 24. We might also wonder how it is that when this all occurs, all who then call upon the name of the Lord will be saved? Rather than imagining individuals coming to Christ after the final judgment falls, it makes more sense in the context to understand this as a challenge to believe on Christ after the temporal judgment falls upon apostate Jerusalem.
Isaiah 13:10 presents God’s warning to Babylon. It uses this covenantal language to show the removal of her national glory in judgment. “For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light.”
Isaiah 24:23 also uses this language to describe the glory of the nations. It’s seen both as it is removed in judgment, and as it is established as God’s blessing upon his chosen nation. “Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, For the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, And His glory will be before His elders.” Notice again the use of the darkening of the moon and sun as a symbol representing the removing of the glory of the nations being judged.
Isaiah 34 contains warnings against the enemies of Israel (34:1), Edom in particular (34:5). It is not speaking of some end-time cataclysm, but of the removal of national glory from those who had troubled God’s covenant nation. Verses 4 and 5 read, “And all the host of heaven will wear away, And the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; All their hosts will also wither away As a leaf withers from the vine, Or as one withers from the fig tree. (5) For My sword is satiated in heaven, Behold it shall descend for judgment upon Edom, And upon the people whom I have devoted to destruction.”
Isaiah 60 also speaks of the “glory of the Lord” in terms of shining light and the rising of the sun. The language of verses 19 and 20 are most consistently understood in terms of this same covenantal language so common in Scripture up to the time of the writing of this prophesy.
19 “No longer will you have the sun for light by day, Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the LORD\ for an everlasting light, And your God for your glory.
20 “Your sun will set no more, Neither will your moon wane; For you will have the LORD for an everlasting light, And the days of your mourning will be finished.”
It would not be consistent with the historical context of this chapter of Isaiah to limit the reference to the final judgment thousands of years yet future to Israel. The theme is not the physical changes which will take place at the day of Christ’s final return to establish the eternal heavenly state. The theme is about the judgments of God temporally upon those who violate his covenant and attack his covenant people. The general principle applies to many of the particular judgments of God and certainly applies to his final judgment. The glory of nations will be darkened. God removes what appears to be the nations light in the world.
Ezekiel 32 warns of God’s judgment which is to come upon Egypt and her Pharaoh.
7 ” ‘And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens, and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, And the moon shall not give its light.
8 ‘All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you And will set darkness on your land,’ Declares the Lord GOD.”
Again, the darkening of the lights in heaven is not to be taken as an end-time cataclysm. It is a symbol of the removal of Egypt’s national glory as a judgment of God.
Amos 8 presents the symbol of the “basket of summer fruit.” The end will come for rebellious Israel as it had for other nations. The time will come when the Lord will spare them no more. Speaking of the impending captivity of the northern tribes by Assyria Amos 8:9 says, ” ‘And it will come about in that day,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘That I shall make the sun go down at noon And make the earth dark in broad daylight.’ ”
Many other such uses of this same terminology for temporal judgments can be found in passages such as Psalm 72, Zephaniah 1:15, Amos 5:20, Micah 3:6, and Habakkuk 3:11.
From these sample references it can be seen that the glory of nations is represented in the covenant language of God’s word as the shining of the light of the sun, moon, and stars. It is also well established that when God removes a nations glory here on earth by temporal judgments, the inspired word uses the language of the darkening of the sun, moon and stars for that nation.
Long ago God judged Babylon, Egypt and Edom. But the sun, moon and stars are still shining and holding their places in the cosmos. If symbolic language drawn from the words God used in his covenant was appropriate for these judgments, how much more appropriate it is for describing the end of Israel’s glory in the time when her corruption caused our Lord to twice cleanse the temple of money-changers, and when she rejected and called for the death of God’s Messiah. God turned from Israel and incorporated the Gentiles into his covenant people through the work of his Apostles.
In the time of the book of Acts the glory of Israel as a nation was already fading. It was finally extinguished in 70 AD when Roman troops destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, and eliminated her earthly power in the Empire. Clearly, for Israel, the sun, moon and stars that represented her glory were put out by God’s judgment.
The covenantal symbolic meaning exactly fits the context and intent of our Lord’s words in Matthew 24:29. All those listening to Him would have been well acquainted with the established meaning of these words in Scripture. The judgment of 70 AD would fall upon the apostate Jews within one generation (Matthew 24:34), while many of those hearing our Lord’s words were still alive.
He will come in judgment, on the clouds
Matthew 24:30 “and then the sign of the Son of Man in heaven shall appear, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn and will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and all glory.”
The translation is misleading in some English Bibles. In the original Greek text the words “in heaven” tell where the Son of Man is, not where the sign is. When his judgment comes to Jerusalem, it comes as his sign to be seen by all. It represents the Lord’s sovereign power and majestic glory which is most openly manifested in heaven.
His coming signals alarm for those who have offended him. All the tribes will mourn. The one they have hated and crucified is coming in power and glory. Judgment is inescapable.
To understand the terms our Lord uses in his answer to the disciples on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24, we must again look to the Bible, not to our own imaginations and experiences. How has the expression “coming on the clouds” been established and used in the inspired word of God? Our concordance to Scripture is a better guide than our meteorological education.
Psalm 104:3 says, “He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind;”
How is God’s power represented in the words of the Psalms? He makes the clouds his chariot. Clouds may appear to be free wisps moving through the skies by forces unseen. Therefore God’s control of all things is illustrated as his taming these wild and independent seeming clouds, making them into his means of charging ahead to accomplish his mission.
When God came to judge Egypt how was his power symbolized? He comes riding on a swift cloud. Isaiah 19:1 “The oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; The idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence, And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.”
The Lord is not a physical invader. He doesn’t need a physical cloud to carry him. He comes as an avenging God. The clouds represent his presence, his powerful control and glory just as they did at the Tabernacle and in the wilderness. The text in Matthew 24 itself interprets: He comes “with power and all glory.”
Christ has come in glory and judgment before, and will come again in judgment and glory. Know him well enough that you won’t be deceived by those who point here and there saying, “Here he is.” They either point to false Messiah’s or are themselves false prophets.
Let his revealing light shine on your life. Be ready to humbly confess and repent when its convicting beam illuminates your neglect and offenses. Don’t run from the light to keep it from shining on your sins, you can’t. You will only prove yourself among the spiritual corpses who will become food for the vultures.
When the prideful glory of the powerful is extinguished, be among those who cheer for the Messiah. Don’t be among those who grieve for their own lost glory.
The Parable of the fig tree
31 “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
32 Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near;
33 even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.
In verse 31 we see that the gospel goes out to all of God’s elect. The messengers of this gospel are called angels. The Greek word used here is angelos (ἄγγελος) which was a common word used in the daily language of that time for “messengers”.
Among the popular classic writings in ancient Greek are the writings of Xenophon. In his military accounts he often speaks of messengers (angelos in Greek) bringing communications from commanders to the front lines of battle. Obviously this term had an ordinary use beyond merely the spirit messengers God at times employs in his dealings with men.
In Luke’s gospel the same word is used when John the baptist sent “messengers” to inquire about Jesus (Luke 7:24). The same term (angelos) is used when Jesus sent “messengers” ahead to Samaria to make arrangements (Luke 9:52). A quick review of this word in the Greek New Testament will show that this is not an uncommon use of the term. It is only from the context that we can tell if it makes reference to a human messenger or to one of God’s spirit beings.
We are justified to look to the context to determine how the word is to be understood here in Matthew 24:31. Who brings the gospel to God’s elect? Is it the spirit beings in heaven? or is it God’s own people here on earth sent forth to spread God’s word? Clearly the answer is the latter of those choices. We as Christians are given that duty, not the spirit beings who sometimes serve as God’s messengers of special revelation and care.
God sends forth his people, the Christians, as his angels, his messengers, to gather in his elect from the four winds (from the four compass directions), and from one end of heaven to the other (from horizon to horizon). These are all very common idioms found in Scripture and in contemporary writings which the original readers of God’s word would know.
The fall of Israel ushered in the “gospel age.” Satan would no longer be able to keep the gentile nations in blindness (as we will later see from our study of Revelation 20:2-3). Jesus said that Satan, the strong man, would be bound so that his house could be plundered. Those held in the grip of sin would be converted to Christ (Matthew 12:29). During the gospel age believers come from all nations, not just Israel. God’s people are sent out as his messengers to gather them in from the far corners of the earth.
A trumpet sound is associated with the messengers being sent out. This was a very common sound to the Jews. In Numbers 10:1-10 the Lord commanded that two silver trumpets were to be made. One sound sent God’s people to march into war (10:9). This was to remind them that it is the Lord who both sends them and saves them from their enemies. Another sound was to announce each feast and the first day of each month (10:10). That’s when special offerings for sin and redemption were made. The year of Jubilee was specially marked by the trumpets announcing the setting free of all who were held in bondage. Still another sound called the people together for corporate worship (10:3). The trumpets represented God’s sending out of his people against her enemies establishing and extending his earthly kingdom. They announced salvation by signaling the feast days and times of sacrifice representing the provision God would make for sin in the person of the Messiah. And they called the people together for special times of corporate worship as a body of believers.
Here in Matthew 24:31 Jesus uses the symbolic sound of the trumpet in all three senses. It is a sending-out-sound as his messengers are sent forth to take the gospel to sinners who though enemies of God were called to him in the expansion of his earthly kingdom. It was an announcement of the sacrifice as the good news was spread that the promised Messiah had come and the final sacrifice had been made. God’s people were to call sinners to this great once-for-all sacrifice to find redemption and eternal salvation. Also, it was a gathering sound. Those who were once enemies of God are transformed by the gospel and brought together to worship and serve as the people of God. Jesus brought together these three ideas represented by the trumpet sound.
Some today teach that this passage is talking about a literal trumpet blast. They interpret it to be a physical sound made as spirit beings gather the elect at the end of the gospel era. But this approach ignores the meaning God has attached to these words in the Bible itself.
The rules we use to study the Bible are important and must be derived from Scripture rather than from our theological or cultural expectations. It is wrong to spiritualize things in the Bible to fit our theology. But it is also wrong to strip biblical symbols of their God-given spiritual meanings to make them fit our theology. There is a simple rule: If a term has a well established symbolic meaning in Scripture, particularly one established prior to the use in question, it should be given due consideration when the context allows. Symbolic meanings not established in Scripture should not be considered unless the context demands it for the passage to make sense.
In the verses that follow, Jesus draws upon another symbol: the fig tree. If we miss the full scope of how God used this term in his word, we may be tempted to resort to contemporary ideas and understandings rather than the one which would come most naturally to those hearing the words of Jesus on the Mount of Olives.
A popular view today is to interpret this as representing the modern nation of Israel. Since 1946 when Israel was being organized as a nation some have imagined that this was the budding of the fig tree. They have counted the years from that date to predict the end of the world. This would only be valid if this passage was primarily given to describe the end of the gospel age. But as we have shown so far, it was not. This view also assumes that the fig tree represents a re-establishment of the nation of Israel as a physical nation on earth, which it does not. We also should keep in mind that the word of God cautions us against setting dates to predict the time of our Lord’s final return in judgment and glory.
So then we are left with the question, what does it mean here? The parable illustrates the point Jesus had been making in this context: a new and fruitful season was to begin. Summer was coming in a spiritual sense for the Kingdom of God. The beginning of the church age would be a growing time for the kingdom. In the latter part of the Old Testament period only the Jews, a small part of mankind, knew the word of God, and only some of them confessed true faith in that word. But in the New Testament era the church is established by the gospel and has spread all over the world. Many more profess the true faith than just those of one nation. This truly began a fruitful summer season. In the book of Acts we see the beginning, the budding of the tree.
Some have boldly attacked this view by saying that in the Bible, the fig tree always represents the nation of Israel. If this was true it would be a compelling argument. But it is not true. In the New Testament Israel is represented by many symbols: a vine (John 15), an olive tree (Romans 11), a lump of dough (Romans 11:16), a flock (many references). When the fig tree was used to represent Israel it was used to show her as a barren fig tree. This ordinary tree, common to those in the region, was sometimes used to represent Israel’s deadness in not yielding evidence of drawing upon God for her strength and blessing. A study of the Bible will show that the fig tree was used to represent various groups. But mostly it was used to represent changing seasons.
God gave us not one but four gospels. By comparing them we get helpful direction in our interpreting such things as symbols and parables. In Luke’s record of the words of Jesus we see that our Lord did not just mention the fig tree in his illustration of the beginning growth season for his Kingdom. In Luke 21:29 there is a parallel account of this discourse. There Jesus says, “Behold the fig tree, and all the trees.”
If the fig was the special symbol of national Israel, Luke makes it clear that Jesus meant all the nations, not only Israel. But since the fig represents no one particular group in Scripture, it should not be made to do so here. No where in this whole section does Jesus say that Israel will become a nation again after her soon and impending judgment by God. It says the exact opposite. Jesus is announcing the end of Israel as a nation.
Leaves are the sign of summer. When the disciples see the kingdom beginning to bring forth fruit they should know that a great season of growth and fruit-bearing is near. That’s exactly what they discovered in the months and years ahead. As they spread God’s message they witnessed the gathering in of the elect from the four winds. The kingdom began a great season of growth. At Pentecost alone, Peter’s sermon gathered in 3,000 believers. As Paul and others went to other nations, a flood of believers swelled the numbers of the church. A fruitful season indeed!
Jesus added, “When you see these things, know that he is near by, at the door.” When these things are seen, this expansion of the kingdom, it will tell them that Messiah is here, at the door. The presence of Jesus is the central hope and meaning of his kingdom. Isaiah said he will be called Immanuel. This name is a combination of two Hebrew words, Immanu-El (עמּנוּ אל). They literally mean, “with us: God”, or as we translate it, “God with us”.
As the kingdom expands, we can know that Jesus is near us in two capacities: as Judge to end the glory of corrupt Israel, and as Savior to gather into the kingdom all who believe from all the nations of the world.
There is a direct time frame set for all these things.
Matthew 24:34 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
This answer and these warnings Jesus was giving were for his immediate listeners gathered around him there on the Mount of Olives overlooking the soon to be destroyed Temple.
This statement again shows a connection with what Jesus had said to the corrupt Jews at the temple in the previous chapter. That set the context for the questions of the disciples. In Matthew 23:36 Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”
The word used here for generation is genea (γενεά). It is most generally translated by our word “generation”. A generation is the time span for one age group to be born and then to pass on their leadership to their own children. It’s an arbitrary time period usually understood as being 20 to 40 years long. Taken literally this means that all these things Jesus had been speaking about will take place within the lifetime of those listening to Jesus that day. If his words refer to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70AD, and the beginning of the expansion of the Apostolic church, then it was all fulfilled within one generation, less than 40 years, just as this passage indicates.
Theological systems which would rather place most of this discourse at the end of the gospel era must try to put this passage at the end of the world. They need to find a different meaning for the word “generation” than “generation.” Two main alternate theories have been introduced:
1. Some propose that Jesus was no longer speaking to the disciples when he came to verse 34. This view says Jesus directed this statement to the generation that would be alive at the end of the world, several thousand years later. But there are serious problems with this theory.
First, in Matthew 23:36, when Jesus said “these things shall come upon this generation,” he was directly addressing the Pharisees alive at the time. He was talking about the corruption of the temple and its soon destruction. Here (in Matthew 24) he was answering the disciples question about the destruction of the same Temple (24:1-3). The larger context militates against an abrupt change in meaning.
Second, in Luke’s account of this same discourse Jesus continually used the word “your” or “you” when describing the tribulation. According to this theory, he really meant “they” or “them.” It is never safe to assume that Jesus could have or should have used better words.
Third, if Jesus suddenly changed the audience to whom he was speaking there should be something in the context to indicate that. There is not. The most immediate local context argues against this invented meaning.
It’s dangerous to interpret the Bible by assuming that Jesus didn’t mean what it seems he said. The only reason to do that here is to make the passage fit a particular theological theory about the end times.
2. A second attempt is to make the word generation means “race” here in verse 34. That would mean that all these things Jesus spoke of will happen while the Jewish race was still around on the earth. But there are serious problems with this theory also.
First, this view is contrary to the whole context of Matthew 24. Jesus was answering the question of his disciples concerning his announcement that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. There is no mention of any future generation of the Jewish people as a race.
Second, there is no evidence that the word generation ever means race. Dr. David Chilton has laboriously examined all Bible references where this word is alleged to mean race. His study reports: “Not one of the references is speaking of the entire Jewish race over thousands of years; all use the word in its normal sense of the sum total of those living at the same time. It always refers to contemporaries.”
Third, when a word has a clear literal meaning that fits the simple reading of a text it should not be rejected without very compelling biblical reasons to do so. If a passage makes sense as it is, and there is nothing in the passage to indicate otherwise, then why look for some other more obscure meaning?
There is only one clear meaning of of the word generation here. All these things Jesus had described would take place during the lifetime of those present and hearing him there on the Mount of Olives.
As we have shown: if each statement is understood in the sense used elsewhere in Scripture, there is no need for speculation or obscure theories putting these things into the distant future. It was all fulfilled by 70 AD when the desecrated temple was torn down by Roman armies in the aftermath of a most brutal and horrible tribulation of Jews who had desecrated God’s temple and called for the execution of God’s Messiah.
Today, all the events listed before verse 34 are past.
24:4-13 The signs of the ages of man since the fall in Eden
24:14 The bringing of the gospel to the gentile nations
24:15 The abominable desolation in the temple by the corrupt Priests
24:16-28 The great tribulation of God’s people in Jerusalem
24:29 The darkening of the Sun, moon and stars (Israel’s glory)
24:30 The coming of the Son of man on the clouds in judgment
24:31-33 Evangelizing the elect from every direction
So is there no message here for us today? Of course there is. We are the heirs of that Apostolic church. The demise of Israel makes us who believe in Christ to be the true and continuing Israel of God. We who believe in Christ are the sons of Abraham. We are “Spiritual Israel”, the continuing covenant people of God.
The gospel continues to go out until all of God’s elect are saved. This is still the season of Kingdom growth. Until all the elect are brought into the church, our job is not done.
The End of the Age
Matthew 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away.”
In verse 35 Jesus, for the moment, looks far ahead in time. He compared the final passing of our present order with the eternality of his word.
In J.J. Perowne’s commentary on the Greek New Testament, Pastor Carr of Oxford writes, “the discourse turns from the type, the fall of Jerusalem, to the anti-type, the day of judgment”
God’s judgments always follow a pattern because they reveal eternal truths. All judgments during the time of Earth’s civilization show the principles that will come together dramatically at the final judgment. This is why many of the same symbols are used as they apply to the various temporal judgments God brought upon his enemies, both those who opposed his covenant people, and those who opposed him from within his covenant nation.
In the lesson of Jesus on the Mt. of Olives, he now brings together the two great judgments which remained: the judgment on National Israel, which would come in less than 40 years, and the final judgment of all mankind, which was yet thousands of years away.
In 70 AD the Son of Man came in judgment to apostate Jerusalem. Israel’s glory was darkened, and her pride brought down. Her Temple had been intended as a testimony to God’s presence and covenant, but Israel had desecrated it in unbelief and disobedience. Therefore, the outward ceremonies were replaced by a greater and more spiritual worship in Christ. The Temple’s symbols and sacrifices had represented the coming of Messiah. When Messiah came its purpose had been fulfilled. God’s presence came to be shown in the people of his church.
Similarly one day, all the world’s glory will be darkened and her pride will be eradicated. The heavens and the earth have stood as a testimony since creation of God’s presence and covenant. In the law, God called the heavens and earth witnesses of his covenant with Abraham and with Moses. But man had desecrated God’s creation and perverted his truth. So there will come a final judgment when God brings an end to the physical heavens and earth as we know them. They will be reformed into a greater reality beyond our imagination from this side of glory. The purpose of the present form of this physical universe will have been fulfilled. It will have declared God’s handiwork and prepared God’s people for eternity with Him.
The present configuration of the physical order will be obsolete when the transcendent order comes. As Peter described it in 2 Peter 3:10 “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.”
This final end of this world was not the primary theme of Jesus here in Matthew 24. To focus on it misses the whole point he is making in verses 34 and 35.
His theme here is this: This whole world order is temporary, God’s word is forever. If his word will outlast the present form of the physical universe, then certainly it remains important to the Apostles, and to the church. The certainty of coming judgment never annuls our present duty to God. Temporality cannot be an excuse for ignoring the eternal.
Though they were about to witness, in their lifetimes, the fall of Israel. Though they would see the Temple forever silenced, the Levitical priesthood retired forever, and their whole thousand-year-old way of life ended, what it all represented will go on. God’s word to them will not end with this temporal judgment of Jerusalem. In fact it will be the job of these very Apostles to guide the church into the new era, and to clarify how the eternal principles of God will function in the age where the once outward form of the Temple became a spiritual temple within the believer’s soul.
The coming of the Son of Man is beyond prediction.
Matthew 24:36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”
Had Jesus changed the subject entirely here when he spoke of the final end in verse 35? Or did he just mention it to illustrate how his word will last forever, then return to his warnings of the soon judgment of Israel in verses 36 and following?
Since what follows are general principles which always apply to those alive when ever a judgment is about to fall it hardly matters. There are no specifics here related to either the soon judgment of 70 AD, or the distant judgment at the end of the gospel age. The details are illustrations of how we ought to live as those who know a judgment is coming, but don’t know when it will arrive.
Every judgment comes in this same manner. It falls unexpectedly. When we studied the meaning of the expression “coming of the Son of Man” we saw that it had been applied to a variety of judgments, not only to the last one yet to come.
This whole section is similar to the earlier lesson of Jesus in Luke 12:35-53, and in other lessons Jesus had already taught. He was summarizing.
His main point is very clear. There must be no attempt to predict exactly when his judgment will fall. Our duty is not to predict when. It is to be always ready and continue in faithful service until that moment.
A comparison with the judgment in the days of Noah
Matthew 24:37-39 “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.”
Jesus was not describing wicked activities here. ‘Eating and drinking” and “marrying and giving in marriage” describe the flow of daily life in the human race as God made it. Life goes on. There is no alarm that goes off to warn you that the end is near.
The world gets lulled into apathy and complacency by the usual. Even in its disobedience and rejection of God it plans to go on with its daily routine forever. It becomes immersed in its business and simply ignores God’s prophetic warnings.
So it was in the time of Noah. We could add: in the time of Sodom and Gomorrah, at the fall of Egypt, at the fall of Babylon, and the foolish confidence of Israel and Judah before their times of captivity. Just as life had gone on before past judgments, so things will be going on until each judgment falls.
You won’t know when the moment will come. Daily things will seem normal. Those who point to changes in the world as signs of the end miss the point here. When confused ministers speak of the signs in Matthew 24:4-12 as if they were signs of the end, they miss the real warnings of a more spiritual nature which should keep us always alert.
We must avoid that kind of distortion of God’s word. Scripture gives us all the warning we need. Wickedness invites judgment. That’s a simple fact that always comes to pass. We shouldn’t expect a special warning of when the moment will fall upon us. Judgment comes as a thief in the night.
Jesus then illustrated that his judgment is selective
Matthew 24:40-42 “Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
Field workers were a common sight, that’s where most men spent their time. Grinding at a grain mill was just as common a job for the women.
This quote helps us appreciate the culture to which Jesus spoke, “In southern Palestine, where there are no mill-streams, hand-mills are to be seen and heard in every village. ‘Two women sit at the mill facing each other; both having hold of the handle by which the upper is turned round on the nether mill-stone.’ (from ‘Land and Book’, p. 526” cited in Carr p. 237).
This judgment should not be made into a “special effects event.” It says nothing about one disappearing in a rapture like moment, and the other left wondering what happened. That’s pure fiction based on nothing in the Bible. When Jesus comes for his church, there will be no one left wondering. The judgment will fall swiftly and all will be aware of his coming.
Jesus is simply illustrating that some will be ready at the judgment and others in the same field and at the same mill will not be ready.
In Luke 12 Jesus used slightly different illustrations of the same idea. Some will not have their lamps lit ready for his coming. In God’s kingdom there are two distinct groups: the children of God and the children of Satan.
When sinners are transformed by grace into God’s family they are at odds with those in the family of evil. This will be true in the closest of human relationships, even for those in the same genetic family.
Luke 12:46 “the master of the slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know…”
Luke 12:53 “they will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
These divisions will be revealed in that final unexpected judgment.
Similarly two workers in the fields or two working a mill will be separated in the judgments of God. Those who belong to Christ will be ready. In the final judgment those who are ready will be with the Lord forever. Those who are not his will not be ready. They will be cast out forever.
Jesus compared his coming with the surprise of a burglary
Matthew 24:43-44 “But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”
As Jesus had taught before, the element of surprise should make a home owner always ready for the thief to come. If he knew a burglar was coming during a certain month or week he would not bother getting ready until that time. But since he doesn’t know, he must always be ready.
Readiness for Christ should not be driven by a concern that only becomes sincere when the time grows close. It should be because we love him and want to serve him now and always. Whenever he comes we will be ready.
This principle is also seen in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6. The times and epochs are not for us to know in advance. The Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. Those looking to a false peace and security will be taken by surprise. But this should not apply to the true Christians. Verse 4 tells us, “You, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief.”
It’s not that we who are God’s children will know when he comes. The point here is that unlike the unprepared who are without Christ the believer will always be ready and not surprised by his sudden coming.
Verse 6 then challenges us, “so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.”
If we are alert and working diligently in expectation of our Lords return and judgment, his return will not find us unprepared even though its moment is unknown.
Jesus concludes with a challenge about our duty
Matthew 24:45-51 “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is not coming for a long time,’ and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth.”
This is the same basic illustration Jesus gave in Luke 12. The imagery is taken from a large estate or household. A slave was given the duty of administering the daily allowance to other slaves. The evil slave who beats those under his charge, is compared with a faithful and sensible slave who serves his master daily.
The punishment is like the one in Luke’s account. The cutting of him into pieces is like the curse of the covenant when Abraham cut the animals into pieces and the Lord passed through them showing that he takes the penalty upon himself in the sinner’s place (Genesis 15:10). When someone does not trust in Jesus as his Messiah who died for him he faces the covenant curses himself. He is assigned a place with the unbelievers.
Either we are among the faithful servants, ready for the master at all times, or we are lazy stewards of God’s creation abusing His blessings for ourselves, and indulging in the pleasures of sin for a season. Such ones are unprepared, and will be overtaken as by a thief in the night.
The fires of judgment have fallen in various ways all during human history. They fell upon rebellious Israel in 70 AD ending her place as those representing God’s Kingdom on earth. This fallen covenant nation was superseded by the Church of Jesus Christ. One day the fires will fall in one final judgment. The faithful show the work of grace upon their lives and will be blessed by their Master when he returns.