Pp Mark 13:1-37, Luke 21:5-36
Part One - The interpretation of prophecy
1. Prophecy is not pre-written history
2. Prospective and not retrospective interpretation
b. Specific verses and passages
3. Conditional upon the response
Part Two - The application of part one to Matthew 24:1-35
1. The content of the disciples’ question
2. What will be the sign?
a. Verses 4-8
b. Verses 9-14
c. Verses 15-28
d. Verses 29-31
3. When will this be?
4. What were the disciples expecting to happen?
5. Why didn’t it happen within a generation?
a. The unevangelisation of the world
b. The unrepentance of the Jews
6. What should we expect to happen before Jesus returns?
Matthew moves straight into the teaching which Jesus gave concerning the things which were to come from his conclusion of the discourse renouncing the scribes and Pharisees but both Mark and Luke record one final incident in the Temple in which Jesus observes a poor widow putting money into the offering box, drawing the teaching out about proportional giving (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). This passage is outside the scope of the commentary but we should note that Jesus didn’t leave the Temple courts immediately and appears to have sat down there - for a rest or to take in the scene? - before exiting out towards Bethany where both He and the disciples were staying (Mtw 21:17, 26:6) and probably with Lazarus who He’d raised from the dead (John 11:1-44).
The day of the week is probably still Tuesday towards late afternoon and Wednesday will see the band of disciples staying in Bethany until Thursday approaches (if we can retrieve this from the silence of the Gospels) when preparations for the Passover had to be made. It’s possible that the teaching in the Temple has been summarised and put into one coherent form even though it could have spanned two days and that it’s now Wednesday - but these two days are the only possibilities and each has its advantages. Mtw 26:1 would favour it being Tuesday, however.
Finally, though, Jesus left the Temple presumably via the eastern gate - the most logical to have been used if the journey was being taken to Bethany with no further delay. The passage Ezek 11:22-25 may be of some significance here simply because the prophet witnessed the glory of YHWH leaving the Temple and standing on the eastern mountain and Jesus now does just that - both Matthew and Mark note that the teaching which they’ve recorded took place as He was seated on this mountain.
It may be asserted, though, that Jesus had entered the city using the eastern gate and, therefore, this passage which comes before that prophetic fulfilment must be out of order if accepted as a fulfilment (Ezek 43:4). But, as we noted previously, Jesus entered the city and not the Temple following the Triumphal procession and it’s the more likely, therefore, that He entered through the commonly used northern gate into the city before entering the Temple precinct. The Gospels bear witness to His entrance into the city and not immediately into the Temple - this would be impossible if the eastern gate was used (Mtw 21:10, Mark 11:11).
But His leaving via the eastern gate seems not to be in doubt and is paralleled, therefore, by the removal of the glory of YHWH from the first Jerusalem Temple only to be promised as returning at a later date - something which Matthew chapter 24 envisages.
It’s as Jesus is leaving the Temple that the disciples run up to Him and draw His attention to the glory and majesty of the Temple structure (Mtw 24:1, Mark 13:1, Luke 21:5), obviously being impressed by the grandeur of the place. It may seem strange but it would appear that, even though the disciples would have come to this Temple annually (or, perhaps better, three times annually at Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles - Ex 23:14-17), they only realise the greatness of the place as they leave it with Jesus for the final time. Perhaps we should think simply that the disciples’ observations were part of the conversations they were having as they travelled east and it’s mentioned simply because it was the point which Jesus picked up on.
Jesus’ response that the structures which they were speaking about would be destroyed completely would have been surprising to them as they are today (Mtw 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6) and some commentators draw the reader’s attention to a first century belief that the Temple was indestructible because YHWH would see to it that it was protected even in war. There appears to be no contemporary text which mentions this but, if this was the belief, Jesus’ words would have seemed the more fantastic.
Some have drawn attention to the fact that much of the Temple wall which enclosed the precincts is still intact and remains upright and that Jesus must have prophesied incorrectly. But the disciples specifically referred to (Mtw 24:1)
‘...the buildings of the Temple...’
and are quoted as describing their glory by referring to the stones with which they were built along with the structures themselves (Mark 13:1, Luke 21:5 - at the time of discourse, the Temple was still incomplete and would only be finished shortly in time for its destruction) so that it would appear that it wasn’t the outer retaining wall which was being singled out for mention but the structures which lay within the courtyard itself.
Josephus laments the Temple’s destruction (War 6.4.8) commenting that such regret was fully justified
‘...since it was the most admirable of all the works that we have seen or heard of, both for its curious structure and its magnitude, and also for the vast wealth bestowed upon it, as well as for the glorious reputation it had for its holiness’
and his description of the Temple both in War Book 5 Chapter 5 and of Herod’s extensions in Antiquities 15.11.3 should leave the reader in no doubt as to its beauty and grandeur. Even if the author is assumed to have exaggerated in his description (which he appears very fond of doing at points), one can’t help but accept that, when one looks at the outer perimeter left to us today, it must have been one of the largest buildings imaginable in the ancient world. Josephus also records the command to destroy both the city and the Temple in War 7.1.1.
The initial observation of the buildings must have taken place almost immediately as they came out of the Temple (Mark 13:1 seems to infer this) for the next part of their journey would have seen them descend to skirt the Kidron Valley and the structures may not have been easily observable until they at least had travelled halfway round the valley and, perhaps, even started to climb up the Mount of Olives.
So, from almost immediately leaving the Temple by the Eastern Gate and continuing round the valley onto the Mount of Olives which lies directly opposite (Mtw 24:3, Mark 13:3), the statement of the Temple’s destruction seems to have been festering (probably the right word!) in the disciples’ minds.
Perhaps they were afraid to ask immediately, but the two pairs of brothers come to Him while He sat opposite the Temple and asked Him concerning the prophecy to which Jesus gives a lengthy and detailed reply. Their questions were various and we’ll need to accurately identify them to retrieve the answers from Jesus’ reply - which we’ll do in the first section below - but it would appear that Jesus had no intention of volunteering the information which He now gives - neither had he any intention of including it in the public declarations He was giving to the people and nor has He already taken time to draw His followers to one side and explain to them in detail what’s about to happen to the city and the Temple.
There may have been allusions to such an event (Mtw 22:7) and He may openly weep over the city and speak about its destruction (Luke 19:41-44), but it isn’t until this point in time that the disciples respond eagerly to the pronouncement of judgment and request to know what exactly will happen when these things are to take place.
The notes under this heading were taken from my previous web page which I revamped to include it within these notes on Matthew’s Gospel. I will probably also replace those notes with these.
I believe now - as I did then - that Matthew chapter 24 needs to be interpreted not as a catalogue of identifiable events which act like some sort of calendar for the return of Jesus Christ (whether we place them firmly back in pre-history, ancient history on in the near or distant future to ourselves) but, as they were originally intended, as a specific prophetic utterance of what the disciples should expect to see in their own lifetime - if they continued to live through the next forty years (Mtw 24:34).
Although this statement may seem almost unbelievable to many who approach this section, I find some of the things which have been written about this passage equally as unbelievable - ranging from definitive statements that the events took place prior to and ultimately concluded in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, to more positively identifiable events in current world history which pinpoint Jesus as about to return within the experience of the present age expectancy of the believers who read it - some would even be knowledgeable as to when they should pack their suitcases in preparation for being raptured out of the world and into Heaven itself.
Therefore, we should - before we ever try and deal with Matthew chapter 24 (or any prophetic passage either within Scripture or uttered in a present day fellowship) - attempt to come to terms with what Biblical prophecy is all about and answer such questions as whether we should expect what God says will happen to inevitably come about when situations change (the ‘God cannot lie’ theology which is applied to statements which were never meant to be taken as absolutes) and when people to whom the Word of God comes either repent of their ways or slip into disobedience to Him (the ‘once saved, always saved’ theology applied to prophetic statements).
It’s with this, therefore, that we must begin and, ultimately, we’ll only be able to make some general observations about the passage rather than to be able to catalogue the schedule which we should expect to take place before Jesus will be seen to return. Although I’m firmly convinced that Jesus will return to set up a visible Kingdom on earth and that there has to be a resurrection from the dead, I’m not altogether sure that, for instance, there has to be a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem so as to fulfil Mtw 24:15. If that prophetic utterance was tied in with a return of Jesus in 70AD and it didn’t take place, then there is nothing certain about it having to take place at a future time unless prophecy throughout the Bible is nothing more than fixed events which cannot fail to occur. Some prophetic utterances are like this, I admit - the resurrection from the dead being one such - but that not all that God says He will do comes about should make us realise that God’s spoken word is more complex an issue than our simplistic theologies make out.
The passage in Deut 18:21-22 (the full passage runs from verse 15) has long since been taken by believers as the absolute and final word on all prophetic utterances throughout the pages of the Bible - that is, that whatever a true prophet announces as being the will of God must always come about because, in this way, it stands as the test of a true prophet.
In this case, prophecy becomes little more than pre-written history from which there’s no escape and which is inevitable. No matter how much a man would repent or change his ways after receiving the message, God is seen to be bound to have to do what He’s spoken.
As the following sections will demonstrate, however, when we look at the dynamic examples of prophetic utterances either through a human mouthpiece or directly from God Himself, what was declared as about to take place was often postponed, abandoned entirely or changed when it was fulfilled - primarily because, it appears, the people to whom the message came decided that they would do something about their own lives which had brought about the pronouncement, either positively or negatively. And yet, even when a change did come about, people like David still found that the judgment which was prophesied still came about.
Alternatively, there’s a good reason why the test of a prophet is to expect that what’s being declared will come about for there are still far too many believers in the present day who make predictions which are based more upon the events which can be clearly perceived around them or upon what they think that the people want to hear than upon a direct revelation from God.
Deut 13:1-5 also gives a warning that a word which comes to pass is not to be considered as proof of the prophet’s reliability because his words must still be tested out to see whether they encourage the believer to uphold the covenant made with the nation at Sinai. A man or woman who rose up and gave clear predictions about future events which came to pass wasn’t to be followed if he then exhorted his listeners to go after other gods which had been forbidden them.
Under the law, then, it appears that the prophet was obliged to have everything which he predicted come to pass and that his other declarations must also be in line with the commands of the Mosaic Law.
However, as we’ll see below, prophecy which occurred throughout the Bible’s pages was often not fulfilled because a change occurred in the people to whom the message came or that the conditions which were necessary for its fulfilment went disregarded by those who needed to act upon the message and demonstrate their faith in the Word of God.
Throughout all these notes, the return of Jesus is not doubted and is assumed as being the final outworking of the cross, resurrection and ascension - this is never being doubted in all these notes. After all, the resurrection of the dead has to take place if the promise to the first believers is to be fulfilled, not in some mystical event which takes place outside the view of earth’s inhabitants but as an open work on earth once the Created order has been finally subjected back under the authority of Him who brought it into being and, identically, under the authority of God’s original choice of king - that is, mankind in and through the man Jesus Christ.
What is being questioned (if you want to summarise these notes as being a call to a re-interpretation of Matthew chapter 24) are the events which the Church should expect to happen before the event takes place and, more poignant, what the Church can expect to do to hasten the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to establish this visible Kingdom. But, to get there, we must first grasp a Biblical concept of prophecy and leave many of our preconceived ideas behind, allowing Scripture alone to define the criteria which we will go on to apply.
Prophecy (specifically meant to be taken in these notes as the Word that God speaks as recorded in Scripture and then, secondly and equally applicable, as spoken through His servants both today and in times past when what they said wasn’t accepted as being Scripture and, therefore, authoritative) has a great many interpretations attached to it - none more so than Matthew 24 (Jesus’ statements concerning the ‘end times’ - that is, the time immediately before the return of Jesus Christ to the earth following His ascension).
Of seven commentaries that were on my bookshelf as I originally began this study many years ago (I have since ditched one of them because it was too liberal), no two agreed about what Jesus meant! We may have some consensus of opinion when we approach passages such as the Sermon on the Mount (though, even here, there’s a fair divergence of opinion) but prophetic passages seem to stir the imagination and cause simple sounding statements to enlighten scholars ‘by the Spirit’ in ways that contradict what the Spirit has said to another! Is it any wonder that we have such a hard job to make a fundamental statement concerning His return that we can all agree on?
Even more perplexing to me are the discussions that rage on between christians about the exact nature of the time immediately before the return of the Lord Jesus. So heated do these sometimes become that church splits are not uncommon. You would have thought that, if we were even a little measure towards being ‘perfected in love’ we would be able to realise that we should agree that the Lord is returning even if we are unable to agree on how, where or when - and on whether Credit Cards were the first step of receiving the mark of the beast in our skin!
And many ministries have also sprung up around the ‘end times’ utterances which provide such colourful expositions of what will happen ‘soon’ that it makes the more obscure parts of Scripture look pale and ordinary. Many years ago, I heard one such eschatological minister affirm that Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ and, I guess, that until the politician dies he could still be right. But what of those who marched to their deaths in the First World War thinking that this was the ‘War of wars’ and that they were going to oppose the forward advance of the beast in his attempts to possess a reformed Roman Empire?
I don’t intend to enter in to speculation here regarding, for instance, what Jesus might have meant by the ‘desolating sacrilege’ or of what John, much later, may have meant by the ‘number of the beast’ (and will therefore be criticised by these modern day prophets for failing to address the problem!) and I shall be as deliberately vague as possible in my interpretation of any prophetic passage concerning the Lord’s return (thus securing the wrath of a whole load more people). After all, why should I add to an already large body of literature which sees no signs of abating? Perhaps, even, one of the signs of the Lord’s return could have been given by Jesus as a multiplication of books written which catalogue the events leading up to His return?
My aim, then, is to provide a Biblical framework for the interpretation of Scriptural prophetic utterances that is, like my label reads, Scriptural. Some of the colourful interpretations that circulate consistently seem to be missing that vital link with the Bible that’s necessary and so they root their interpretation in modern day imagery and principles which are devoid of sound Biblical exegesis.
At the end of the day it will be seen that, perhaps, there’s very little that can be said about what will happen before the return of the Lord - and, there again, there’s very much that can be said when the Scriptures are thought through positively and allowed to teach us as the Holy Spirit chooses to do rather than us wrestle truth from them that’s anything but truthful.
This may sound like I’m setting myself up as the font of all correct interpretation - which I have not intended to do and which I necessarily shy away from. I am only concerned to try and determine what the Biblical principles are behind prophecy in the first part of my notes here (cunningly called ‘Part One’) so that we might more effectively interpret the end times writings that are recorded for us within Scripture’s pages (that is, ‘Part Two’).
Therefore, to begin with, we must determine the correct way to interpret prophecy.
This will seriously challenge our existing views on the subject and each of us must be prepared to study this subject for ourselves to determine what Scripture teaches. There will be a lot that’s new to the majority of readers of this web page and all I ask is that you read the Scriptures for yourself and see if what I’ve taken Scripture to say is what it really means.
And, I assure you, it will be a challenge to your existing views on recorded prophetic passages as well.
But, the most important tool of the reader is not to interpret Scripture in the light of our present traditional, denominational or individual views - but to allow the plain meaning of Scripture to challenge and change us, to radically transform our own beliefs which are opposed to the clear teaching in the Scriptures. Even amongst many professing Bible-believing christians, there is a dichotomy of views, clear evidence that we’ve failed to allow God to change us through Scripture.
In part one, I’ve had to refer to Matthew chapter 24 in order to show how previous interpretative formulae have not succeeded in satisfactorily giving an accurate understanding of prophecy - but the principles of prophetic interpretation do not depend upon just this one passage and so have supplemented it by referring to OT passages which should be well-known to most believers.
In part two, this framework for interpretation is systematically applied to Matthew chapter 24 in a hope that we can finally begin to realise what Jesus meant and not what we want Him to mean!
Part One - the interpretation of prophecy
When I first became a christian, I believed many things about the ‘end times’ because I was told this was the way things were. Being naturally fascinated by the prediction of what was ‘shortly’ to take place on earth before Jesus’ return, I immersed myself from time to time in the prophetic passages - only to find that things didn’t appear to be the way that people said they were. And why did that church down the road receive the promise of YHWH that they would increase in size and influence in their own area and then close some years later with it unfulfilled?
But, assuming that prophecy was certain to occur and believing that any other belief would be tantamount to denying that God always tells the Truth (that last statement is foundational, by the way, but it was being misapplied to prophecy), I began a study of the prophetic predictions concerning the fall and destruction of Nineveh and went on to look at the archaeological evidence which proved conclusively that it had all happened ‘according to plan’.
So encouraged in my study was I that I turned my attention to the great city of Babylon and did the same thing - only to realise that what God had said would happen didn’t and couldn’t even remotely have been thought to have been fulfilled. Fortunately, I didn’t doubt the authority of Scripture but I did realise that all was not what it might appear to be.
A little while later, I discovered a book called ‘The Fourth Gentile Kingdom’ by C G Ozanne on my local christian bookshop’s shelf. I’ve simply no idea what it was doing there because it was so different from the books that were being sold that I wondered why the proprietor had ever bought a copy for the shop. But it looked intriguing so I got it - and have never seen it in another shop since, I add. I thought that it must have been out of print by now, too, but if you consult the reference section, you’ll see where it can be obtained from.
In the final paragraph of the booklet (excluding the Appendix - pages 83-84), Ozanne catalogued or, better, concluded by summarising his explanation of the Fourth Gentile Kingdom in three points which I began to see were principles which needed addressing if a correct interpretation of Biblical prophecy was ever likely to be achieved.
I seem to remember that I disagreed with Ozanne’s main thrust of his book at that time (but I really do need to reread it - I probably didn’t fully understand it all as I was only a young christian at the time!) but set about looking at the Scriptures to see if the points which he’d stated were accurate and reasonable. After all, if the Bible proved their authenticity, it meant that my problem with Babylon was solved and, even more importantly, I would have to seriously reconsider my entire belief in what the ‘end times’ would see happen.
It’s these three principles that we must begin with and carefully think through before going on into part two and attempt an interpretation of Mtw 24:1-35. After all, it will only be an application of what we’ve stated here and, if part one is incorrect, part two can be ignored as erroneous or, at best, misguided.
1. Prophecy is not pre-written history
In the previously cited book, Ozanne writes (page 83 - my italics) that the first principle upon which prophecy should be interpreted
‘...is that predictive prophecy is not to be regarded as pre-written history. The prophets were told how things ought to turn out, assuming the conditions of their own day, not how they might eventually turn out in the altered conditions of a future day’
In our interpretation of predictive prophecy, we should never assume that what has been predicted is inevitable. When, however, this is assumed, the unswerving method of interpretation distorts the true message of the Bible and can produce erroneous doctrine. After all, if prophecy is regarded as being an absolute statement of a future event that has to come about, then it falls into the category of being a description which would prove God to be a liar if the event didn’t occur. But, if prophecy is always initially taken to be conditional (see the next section), then the perfect nature of God is maintained even when what is announced as about to take place doesn’t within the time window of the utterance - or if it doesn’t take place at all.
This first point may sound heretical and, if you think through the implications of what the statement means, you will see how seriously it challenges and undermines our current belief system - I’ve provided Scriptural evidence for the statement, however, below (for examples of prophecy interpreted as pre-written history see section two below - for examples of prophecy that never came to pass see section three below).
What I’m saying here is that, like prophecy which occurs throughout the Biblical narrative, we shouldn’t think that, for instance, Matthew chapter 24 has to happen. A lot of Bible commentators begin from the standpoint that
‘If Jesus said it, it must have happened/will happen’
thinking to do anything less would be to label Him as merely a man and capable of human error. But when YHWH spoke in the OT, we find the same problems of interpretation if we there slightly rephrase our working statement and presume that what is spoken must have taken place or will shortly do so.
This statement then causes commentators to proceed to interpret the subsequent facts of history in line with the Biblical record forgetting that God also spoke in times past concerning things that were going to happen which never did because of the response that the words were met with amongst the people who received them.
Prophecy is conditional, therefore - even though it may not give any indication that it is conditional - and it should never be interpreted as a record of events before they happen (that is, pre-written history). True, sometimes this is the way of prophecy, but it’s not the inevitable consequence of every utterance that God makes. In the introduction to this section I noted that, as far as I can see, the resurrection of the dead is an inevitable consequence which cannot fail to happen. The reason being that it’s built upon the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave where Paul comments (I Cor 15:23) that such an event sees
‘...Christ the first fruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ’
a verse which also shows that the return of Jesus is an inevitable conclusion to the outworking of His purpose. So, absolute statements are made of future events - the problem we have, though, is that we tend to take all prophetic utterances as absolutes and then expect everything that God’s said to come about regardless of the circumstances in which it’s received.
We’ve taken Moses’ instructions concerning the testing of a prophet too far (Deut 18:21-22) and haven’t balanced these instructions with examples that can be gleaned from elsewhere in the Bible.
2. Prospective and not retrospective interpretation
Ozanne’s second point for prophetic interpretation comes out of the first as does the third. He writes (page 84 - my italics) that
‘...prophecy should never be interpreted retrospectively from the known events of subsequent history. It should always be interpreted prospectively on the basis of what has been written. Many mistakes would have been avoided if this principle had been observed’
That much of Matthew chapter 24 could be made to fit the events of 32-70AD when at last Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the advancing Roman armies after the initial Jewish rebellion, is plain from the widely differing views of commentators. However, this time period cannot account for the entirety of the events here outlined - and that is the important statement. For, either God in Christ gave an account of what was about to take place ahead of time but got some of the facts wrong or else we must account for the passage in some other way based upon other Scriptural principles gleaned from the Bible.
It’s often found that certain twists have to be placed upon certain phrases or occurrences (or, if the commentator is really spiritual, he’ll probably ignore the difficult verses altogether!) so that they fit in with what we know about the subsequent historical events - but the problem with this is that many of these interpretative structures reveal different meanings.
This is the danger of interpreting any prophetic passage retrospectively (that is, by comparing historical occurrences with the previously recorded Scriptural account) rather than prospectively (that is, standing with the original hearers in their culture and looking at the prophecy as they received it to try and understand what they were meant to understand. After all, God doesn’t confuse His friends, He usually speaks to them plainly so they comprehend what He’s conveying to them).
Partial similarities between 32-70AD and Matthew chapter 24 are set out below with quotes from various commentators to show how the passage has been interpreted retrospectively and not prospectively. And this is all too easily done when we know the historical event and can insist that vague statements in the prophetic utterances are paralleled by them. Most of the statements recorded could be multiplied a great many times depending on which commentator was being consulted but the point the reader should note is that the passage spoken by Jesus immediately after His last teaching in the Temple has many such points which are too easily paralleled in the years that immediately followed, to hinder readers from drawing seemingly conclusive parallels.
The two historians quoted (Josephus [37-c.100AD] and Eusebius [c.260-340AD]) lend weight to the commentators’ statements that Matthew chapter 24 is an accurate prophetic statement concerning the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem but the latter suffers from the danger of being a believer in the NT Scriptures and is hardly likely to have recorded anything which he knew to openly contradict Jesus’ statements. Eusebius can be taken to be no more than a selective record of events which support the Scriptures seeing that, unlike Josephus, he wasn’t an eyewitness account and he believed in the truth of the NT writings.
a. General comments
’...Jesus is painting in colours borrowed from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This must be borne in mind...’
‘The Jewish-Roman war which Jesus foresaw had left a shattered and desolate country’
b. Specific verses and passages
Josephus (page 362 line 36 to page 363 line 3)
‘But [the Jews’] chief inducement to go to war was an equivocal oracle also found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time a man from their country would become monarch of the whole world. This they took to mean the triumph of their own race, and many of their scholars were wildly out in their interpretation. In fact the oracle pointed to the Accession of Vespasian’
Note also that Josephus here interpreted Zechariah 14 retrospectively in the light of Vespasian’s appointment as Emperor and his annihilation of the land of Israel which went down very well with the soon-to-be future emperor but which was certainly out of step with the actual content of the OT passage.
(Page 407 lines 20-24)
‘Into Cyrene there slipped an unprincipled scoundrel called Jonathan, by trade a weaver, who persuaded a number of men of the poorer classes to listen to him, and led them out into the desert promising to show them signs and portents’
(Page 147 lines 19-23)
‘Cheats and deceivers claiming inspiration, they schemed to bring about revolutionary changes by inducing the mob to act as if possessed, and by leading them out into the desert on the pretence that there God would show them signs of approaching freedom’
(Page 147 lines 26-31 Pp Acts 21:38)
‘...the Egyptian false prophet. Arriving in the country this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives, and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard’
Acts 5:36-37 also speaks of two false Christs during the years in question.
It appears from the sources that there were many ‘false christs’ who promised great things, of delivering Jerusalem from Roman occupation, of showing great signs and wonders - but they were all false. Jesus actually causes these false christs to span what appears to be two different periods of the ‘end times’ by His separation of their mention into two distinct places (Mtw 24:4-5 and Mtw 24:23,25-26) but most commentators who hold to such a position would harmonise the two passages into just the one prediction which spanned the forty years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.
(Pp Luke 21:9 - ‘tumults’ = civil, internal disorders: the Greek is literally ‘instabilities’ - see Vines under ‘Confound’ Al)
‘The annals of Tacitus tell us how the Roman world was convulsed, before the destruction of Jerusalem, by rival claimants to the imperial purple’
‘...political turmoil will upset the great realm (Rome) from one end to the other, so that Rome will see four emperors in one year: Galba, Otho, Vitellus and Vespasian’
Around 69AD, Vespasian had to return from Israel while marching on the land, leaving his son Titus in charge of the final assault on Jerusalem.
‘If a local and temporary “primary” fulfilment is to be sought, as distinct from a continuous or even final one, then the year of the four emperors (69AD), as the Imperial throne changed hands with astonishing rapidity while all the time the fortified cities of Galilee were falling, would fit well’
The problem with this identification is that it would place the year of its fulfilment just one year before the final destruction of the Temple and in the middle of events which would normally be taken as occurring over a space of a number of years.
After all, the persecution of the Church ‘by all nations’ (Mtw 24:9) and preceded by the words ‘then’ would tie in this period to barely more than a year but, if we were honest to the account in the Book of Acts, we would see that it continued throughout the time that it records and wasn’t limited to that final year.
Earthquakes and famines
‘It is true that during the period 60-80AD famine, pestilence, fire, hurricane and earthquake ravaged the empire, as Renan points out in L’Antichrist’
See also Acts 11:28 which speaks of a great famine being over all the world.
Persecution of the Church
For example, Acts 7:57-60, 8:1-3, 9:1-2, 9:23, 12:1-3, 13:50, 14:22 and so on. Indeed, persecution seems to have fallen upon the Church from a very early time and continued throughout its experience wherever the Gospel was being preached.
False prophets in the Church
For example, II Peter chapter 2. The early Church was plagued with outbreaks of false prophets and their teaching, the apostle Paul also having to contend with those who were setting themselves against the simple truth of the Gospel (II Cor 11:13,26).
Col 1:6,23 - we will have more to say about this in part two but, for now, we note that Paul could have been understood to have meant that the message of the Kingdom of Heaven had been declared to every human being who existed on earth.
The Fall of Jerusalem (66-70AD)
‘...v.15-28 would seem to refer exclusively to the Fall of Jerusalem...’
See also his detailed arguments. The parallel passage in Luke 21:20-24 seems to speak almost entirely about Jerusalem’s fall in the first century when viewed retrospectively.
‘Luke makes it clear that this section of the discourse refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and not to the end time’
The Desolating Sacrilege
‘Whatever the precise fulfilment of Jesus’ warning, it seems clear from what follows that it is in the events of the Jewish War of 66-70AD that He sees the reappearance of Daniel’s desolating sacrilege’
‘...here it fairly certainly refers to the encirclement of Jerusalem by Roman armies (so Luke 21:20 turns the same saying). The Roman eagles, standards of the legions, were held by the Zealots to be just such an abomination...’
‘...the desolating sacrilege, that is, Jerusalem compassed with armies...carrying idol images of their emperor upon their standards’
Eusebius, one of the first Church historians, writes (page 111 lines 16-21)
‘Furthermore, the members of the Jerusalem church, by means of an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the City before the war began and settle in a town in Peraea called Pella. To Pella, those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem’
‘According to Epiphanus, the exit from the city and the flight to Pella began just before the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem (Against Heresies xxix.7)’
Pp Luke 21:23 where ‘upon the earth’ is better translated ‘upon the land’
In Judea, during the time of the conquering advance of the Roman armies, there was an unprecedented time of tribulation - but especially for the inhabitants of Jerusalem - when the armies besieged it. Josephus recounts ample evidence of what came upon the land even though I’ve not here given any references. It’s the general picture which is painted which needs to be captured by a general read of his work rather than any specific events.
The coming of the Son of man
Matfran interprets these verses in the light of parallel OT passages and infers that they refer to the coming of Jesus in judgment to destroy Jerusalem in 70AD and not with regard to the Second coming. He writes
‘...v.29-31 consist of a collage of OT apocalyptic language, which to modern ears sounds like a description of the “parousia and the close of the age”...Yet the events so described are explicitly dated within “this generation” (v.34), whereas the parousia cannot be so dated (v.36)...when the significance of the OT imagery is appreciated, v.29-31 may be recognised as the context virtually demanded, as a highly symbolic description of the theological significance of the coming destruction of the Temple and its consequences’
See also his detailed arguments at this point.
Whatever can be said, either for or against these interpretations, one common thread is there in all - namely, that the passage has been interpreted retrospectively in the light of subsequent history and, to a certain degree also, that the prophecy of Matthew chapter 24 is a prediction that is pre-written history.
Not wanting to be one who says that the passage didn’t happen and holding fast to a wrong theological perspective that ‘if God says it, it must happen regardless’, the commentators need to interpret the verses with reference to subsequent history because, otherwise, the charge will be levelled at them that they’re undermining the authority of God’s spoken word.
To say that God’s spoken word is reliable and certain on the one hand, but that the prophetic word of God which foretells what will happen in the future may not come about is not opposed to what we read in the Scriptures - indeed, as we’ll see in the next section, both are necessary truths which can be drawn from Scripture.
But, concluding, to understand the passage in context means that our interpretation must be prospective - that is, we must stand with the disciples on the Mount of Olives at that point in time, seeing what those words meant to them and understanding what they expected to happen. Only in this way will we be able to truly comprehend the importance of Jesus’ words and the burden of what He was trying to say to them.
3. Conditional upon the response
Ozanne’s third point for prophetic interpretation also follows on from his first. He writes (page 84 - my italics)
‘The third point is that prophecy is conditional on the moral response of the people addressed. When this response was not as the Lord required and demanded...the prophetic fulfilment was inevitably delayed. This explains the repeated postponement of prophecies which, at their first pronouncement, were presented as imminent or soon to be fulfilled’
Simply, then, prophecy is conditional - even when there appears to be no condition inherent within the original statement.
I would go one step further than the quote above from Ozanne, however, for it appears to me that some prophecy will never come about because it’s nullified through the response it was met with when originally given - this would be quite difficult to prove one way or the other, though the examples laid out below go a fair way to demonstrating this. For example, the construction of Ezekiel’s Temple can never come about as far as I can see as the will of God because the prophecy is built upon the context of the Old Covenant still being in force and God will not return to that way of worship because the new in Christ has come. This prophecy has often been used to propose that another Temple must be built before Jesus returns, but that can only be the case if prophetic utterances are pre-written history.
I’m not saying that a Temple won’t be built in Jerusalem - what I’m saying is that only if prophetic Scripture is taken as being pre-written history must such a rebuilding have to take place. Similarly, the course of action outlined by YHWH in Ex 32:9-10 doesn’t seem to be able to be ‘delayed’ but ‘revoked’ because, if He is still intent on the annihilation of the people of Israel, it makes the rest of the OT almost meaningless and His favour towards the nation can only be considered to be a temporary allowance before, at some future time, the descendants of Abraham would all be eliminated from mankind.
Moving on, I’ve included numerous examples below where God spoke a word and yet it never came to pass. Yes, that may shock us. But my intention is not aimed at trying to say that God is not omniscient (or anything else such as that) but that, when God speaks, His words are not to be taken as pre-written history but as conditional utterances that human response can change.
Quite obviously, the salvation of the world through Christ was going to happen regardless of the response of mankind, but not all God’s plans are such as this.
We start with Ex 32:7-14 where God’s promised course of action (v.9-10) was averted (v.14) through the intercession of a man (v.11-13). Notice here that God didn’t say something like
‘I will destroy this people unless they repent’
but that His statement is absolute. The nation had transgressed in a simple matter of being faithful to Him and that deserved to be judged. It was that Moses took it upon Himself to intercede on their behalf that caused God’s spoken word to be revoked.
Similar is the story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4-10). God’s promised judgment (v.4) was averted (v.10) because it met with repentance in the hearers (v.5-9) and yet at no time was there anything in the message of Jonah which even hinted at the possibility that such a thing would take place if they turned from their way of life. It may be reasoned that such a judgment was merely postponed due to that generation’s repentance and that the subsequent people reaped the judgment upon their fathers when they turned back to their old ways but there’s certainly no demonstrative Scripture as far as I can see which says this.
In the southern kingdom of Judah, we’re told of a king called Hezekiah who had two different reactions to the prophetic word from God through His servants, the prophets (II Kings 20:1-7,16-19).
In the first, God tells Hezekiah that his present illness will kill him (v.1), Hezekiah petitioning YHWH (v.3), and God deciding to heal him (v.5). But, in v.19, the king accepts God’s judgment of v.16-18 even though there may have been the possibility that repentance could have altered it. Certainly, it would appear as if the king didn’t learn by that former experience and remained satisfied that God’s judgment would visit a future generation of which he wouldn’t be a part.
But the point of the first passage is that a man’s response to an absolute statement from God which gave no opportunity for the illness to be removed from him, changed the will of God and nullified the certain statement that he would die. Even when the promise isn’t conditional, therefore, it can still be changed by the response of the recipient.
In the days of king Josiah, the priest Hilkiah found the book of the Law of YHWH in the Temple and read it before the king who realised the consequences of the nation’s sin before God (II Chr 34:14-28). His written judgment (v.14,19,21) was postponed (v.28) even though inevitable (v.24-25) because of the repentance of the king (v.19,26-28). Obviously, this doesn’t show that prophecy will always be nullified by the reaction of the recipient to whom it comes but it gives us the Scriptural alternative that it may be averted for a time which could be easily applied to the Matthew chapter 24 passage if taken as initially referring to what was about to take place within the lifetime of the disciples present.
An absolute nullification of the prophetic word seems to be envisaged, however, in Ezek 22:30 where the destruction decreed upon Jerusalem would have been averted if God had been able to find even one man who would have interceded and repelled the judgment (see also Jer 18:5-10 and 26:18-19).
A revoking of the promise of God also took place when the person to whom the promise came did nothing wrong but when the person who was to fulfil the promise did. We read of this in the pages of the Book of I Kings where God’s promise to establish a royal line of rulers from David through Solomon over all Israel (9:4-5) was revoked because of Solomon’s great sin (11:1-8,11) so that his son ruled over only one tribe (11:13, 12:20). But this alternative future wasn’t so much as hinted at even though the positive moral response of the heir was a necessity for its fulfilment (unlike other statements which we’ve considered above).
Just because a believer has a promise of God upon their lives, it doesn’t mean that it will inevitably come about when its fulfilment is dependent upon the response of another who has control over their own freewill and can hinder the purpose of God.
Finally, one of the saddest passages in the whole of Scripture should warn us that the corporate promises of God can be lost by the people to whom the promise is given so that they never see its fulfilment (Numbers chapters 13 and 14). God’s promise to that generation of Israelites in the wilderness that they’d possess the land of Canaan was revoked (14:27-30,32) and He chose instead to raise up the children (14:31) because of the people’s response to the gift of God (13:25-29,32-33, 14:1-4). It wasn’t just that the promise was postponed for a time but that, to the original generation who were given the promise, it was totally lost.
As we’ve seen above, God’s spoken word doesn’t have to contain a conditional clause to make it conditional. Even without such a phrase, it isn’t certain that what God has spoken will come to pass if it’s not met with a proper and fitting response.
Predictive prophecy depends upon the response it receives from the people who receive it whether it be a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ prophecy (naturally speaking). Because a word is spoken by the Lord against a place or people, it doesn’t follow that it has to inevitably come about, for God’s people can intercede to avert His wrath being poured out - or the people may repent. Neither is a word spoken for a place or people necessarily inevitable. If the word isn’t ‘received’ or even if it’s met by a wrong response, then it may never come about or else be indefinitely delayed.
When, therefore, Jesus said (Mtw 24:34)
‘...this generation will not pass away till all these things shall take place’
it was also dependent upon the response that His words received in His people - which we read to be the disciples, believers. Commentators struggle with this phrase and have variously interpreted it - if ‘within forty years’ is meant (the time span normally given to a generation), so the reasoning goes, and presuming that the words of Jesus must be absolute statements that cannot be conditional, then it has to be interpreted so that the statement fits.
Therefore, we get interpretations ranging from
‘All the events described by Jesus must have happened within forty years of them being uttered. Therefore, we must interpret Matthew chapter 24 in the light of that forty year historical period’
‘Jesus will return within forty years of the re-establishment of the Jewish nation [which ended with the year 1988 - so it’s pushed forward to other dates dependent upon years that are considered to be better starting points than 1948]’
The problem is not that Jesus said that it would happen within forty years but that we have taken the utterance as an absolute statement devoid of conditional responses (see also Ozanne pages 45-46 for how an extension of the time scale for the established Kingdom of God was extended even within the short time span of the ministry years of Jesus).
Part Two - the application of part one to Matthew 24:1-35
From the principles laid out previously, it must be determined what the disciples were expecting to happen as the fulfilment of Jesus’ words. Laying aside our knowledge of subsequent history, we must interpret Christ’s words as if we were standing on the Mount of Olives as they’re being spoken.
This is an altogether difficult thing to do and, as the reader will note, I’ve needed to deal with what took place in the following forty years to be able to give some suggestion as to why the ‘coming of the Son of man’ although prophesied as shortly to occur never came about. But, even so, it should be the commentator’s responsibility to attempt an exposition based upon the ‘text in context’ rather than to see it as the product of a later church who wished to interpret the recorded incidents in the context of their own spiritual experience or as merely a pre-written record of what has to have inevitably have taken place or is yet to occur.
This may seem a strange way to go about interpreting prophecy but, if God has something to say to His people, why would He speak to them in words that mislead? True, there are times when God speaks in cloaked language (for instance, the first coming of Christ) but when He’s asked a direct question, He normally gives a direct answer - or says words to the effect that (Acts 1:7)
‘...it’s not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority’
We must begin with an understanding of the disciple’s question, therefore, and attempt to view Jesus’ answer in the light of their question. This has to be the basis of our interpretation of Jesus’ words for they come about as a direct answer to a handful of questions which sprang out of Jesus’ declaration as they were coming out of the Temple that the structures would be totally destroyed (Mtw 24:1-2).
1. The content of the disciples’ question
Beginning an interpretation of Jesus’ answer can’t take place until we successfully identify the questions. Only then will we be able to see how each passage was a direct response to a specific question put forward to be answered while some words will be extras thrown in to illuminate the disciples even further than they wanted.
The following chart defines the disciples’ questions - the ‘yes’ indicates which questions appear in which Gospel narratives.
||When will this be? (that is, the destruction of the temple)
||What will be the sign of Your coming?
||What will be the sign of the close of the age?
||What will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?
(that is, the destruction of the temple)
At face value, therefore, it would appear as if there were four questions if we take each Gospel writers’ separate questions as being unique, but it seems best to take their questions to fall into two specific areas which we’ll deal with in subsequent sections - the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ - though even these seem to have had subsections within them that need specific comment.
Q2 and Q3 are most definitely one question in the disciples’ minds even though we might think upon them as needing an answer that required different things to be said. After all, many would see the ‘coming’ of the Son of man as being the final act of the Church age at which time the visible Kingdom will be set up and all worldly authorities and powers brought back under His control - and the ‘close of the age’ to be a reference to the one in which they were currently living and concluded with the destruction of the Temple in 70AD
However, there’s only one definite article in the Greek which combines both aspects together and so, in the disciples’ minds, we should note that they considered that the two parts were simply different facets of the one concept. It betrays the belief that the disciples thought that both questions would be answered at the same time - that both the coming of Jesus to establish the Kingdom and the close of the age would occur simultaneously or, at the very least, be separated by an incredibly short period of time.
It seems right also to take Q4 as being both Mark and Luke’s attempt at a harmony of the question being asked - or, perhaps better to some, that Matthew has interpreted the single question to represent what the disciples were meaning by their question - because Matthew fails to record the question as they do.
Q4, then, in Mark is nothing less than a summation of Matthew’s more expansive record but based upon their desire to know what was going to happen for the Temple to be destroyed - but Luke should be noted here for, although I’ve stated above that it’s paralleled in Mark, the writer seems more concerned simply to note that the disciples were eager to know what the sign would be when the Temple was to be destroyed as Jesus had just said it would be.
Because the Temple’s destruction is in mind, all the questions should be viewed in this light - that is, the ‘when’ and the ‘what’ have the context of the destruction of the Temple and, even though the disciples may speak of ‘the sign of Your coming’ and ‘the close of the age’, they only do so because of the association in their own minds with the former event.
Therefore, the answer they get is about the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple and, even though we might baulk at such an assertion when, to us, we can’t place the events into our knowledge of the history of that time, we shouldn’t run away to a more comfortable position which places Jesus’ words as meaning that there would be a lengthy delay before all these things were to take place when there’s no indication in the text that such a time scale was possible.
We get statements in the parables which follow that there was to be a significant length of time before Jesus’ coming - for instance, Mtw 24:48 talks about one who says that
‘...my master is delayed..’
Mtw 25:5 states that
‘...the bridegroom was delayed...’
and Mtw 25:19 notes that the return of the master was
‘...after a long time...’
- but these phrases only make sense if they were applicable to the people who were now listening to the answer. If they were primarily meant to have been taken to refer to a period in excess of two thousand years, there seems no point in telling His followers that they should arm themselves with any thought that He may return to set up the Kingdom in their own lifetime and that the length of time they might have to wait would be seen to be excessive.
We need to answer one final question here before we move on, seeing as it will effect the way in which we interpret the answer which Jesus gives. That is, what did the disciples understand by the phrase ‘Your coming’ (Mtw 24:3) which most modern believers now take to mean an event in the future when Jesus will return from Heaven and will judge the earth after a period of intense tribulation?
Firstly, the disciples clearly understood - initially, at least - that Jesus was to set up a visible Kingdom now - Luke 19:11 is a clear indication that, upon their entry into Jerusalem, they envisaged Jesus as accepting the throne of David and to begin to push back the occupying armies of Rome under which the nation served non-Jewish masters.
Not only this but responses such as Peter’s in Mtw 16:22 infer that, whatever else they might expect, they weren’t looking for His death. Clearly, then, the disciples expected Jesus to do something tangible in their own time but they would have also perceived from Jesus’ statement in the Temple to the city of Jerusalem (Mtw 23:39) that
‘...you will not see Me again until you say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”’
and may have thought - just as the Jews had done previously (John 7:35) that Jesus intended leaving the land for a short time before His enthusiastic re-entry into the land and the loud acclamations which would accept him unanimously as King over them.
It cannot be the case that they ever contemplated that there would be a period of centuries before its fulfilment - as Jesus Himself shows - and, by ‘Your coming’, they must have understood the coming of Jesus after a period away from the city (and, perhaps, the nation) to establish the Kingdom in their own time and while they were still living - just as they had expected Him to do at that year’s Passover.
What they saw as imminent, Jesus says is going to be within their own lifetime, but their question implies a going away based on Jesus’ recent statements to this effect to be able to return on the clouds of Heaven. That we’ve changed their question to mean an event which still lies in the future to our present day cannot be what they originally intended to mean.
When Jesus was shortly to depart from them, this was still their commonly held belief for they ask Him directly (Acts 1:6)
‘Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?’
which is met by a statement which says to the effect that they’re to get on with the work that they’ve been commissioned to fulfil rather than to concern themselves with such considerations. Clearly, their understanding of Matthew chapters 24 and 25 had done nothing to change their minds that what they were looking for would happen in their own lifetime - therefore, the context of the passage currently under consideration was accepted by the band of disciples as a prophetic insight into the events which they would themselves witness.
Summarising, we should take the question asked of Jesus to be primarily twofold. Firstly, the disciples wanted to know when the destruction of the Temple was to take place and, secondly, what the sign would be when all the things which they associated with such an event were to occur - including the close of the age and the coming of Jesus to establish the long-awaited Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
2. What will be the sign?
Q2, Q3 and Q4 - Mtw 24:1-31 especially
As we’ve seen, Matthew’s record of the disciples’ question indicates that they asked Jesus concerning when the Davidic kingdom was to be set up with Him as the Lord’s anointed King (mostly interpreted as being the ‘Second Coming’ by commentators and pushed into the distant future for its fulfilment even at the time when the teaching was first given) and the subsequent close of the age that His coming would initiate. Yet both Mark and Luke refer the question back to Jesus’ statement in Mark 13:2 and Luke 21:6 (Pp Mtw 24:2) concerning the destruction of the Temple.
As I noted above, what both Mark and Luke have summated, Matthew has paraphrased to explain the meaning of their question, where the destruction of the Temple was almost inevitably tied up with the belief in the establishing of the Davidic Kingdom visibly on earth and the close of the present age.
There’s definitely a break in Jesus’ statement between Mtw 24:14 and Mtw 24:15 - notice v.9’s ‘then’ which links v.9-14 with v.4-8; and v.29’s ‘immediately after’ which links v.15-28 with v.29-31. But, v.15’s ‘so when you see’ does not necessarily join the two sections together even though many have taken the passage as being one unit which systematically describes the signs which will follow on one from another.
However, it seems wiser not to insist on a break of context because the passage doesn’t make it certain that there is one. And the three-part question (Q2, Q3 and Q4) asked by the disciples is answered over the entirety of Mtw 24:1-31.
Having seen that Q2 and Q3 are one question (see above where we noted that one definite article precedes both questions), it’s surprising to find that the answer to Q4 comes in the midst of their answer if this latter one is to be taken as a totally separate and distinct request (Q2= v.30-31, Q3= v.6,14, Q4= v.15-22). Indeed, if we divide them into four questions, Q4 is actually answered as a preliminary sign that takes place before Q3 can occur.
Therefore, the passage should be considered as one unit and not divisible into separate entities even though it isn’t clear whether, for instance, Mtw 24:15 marks a new time period or simply a continuation of what’s preceded - each part does not refer to a different period of time but represents a single answer to the one question. In the following headers, however, I’ve tried to indicate where the specific answers to each of the three differing aspects of the question is given in my dealing with the four divisions which are normally drawn within the passage.
a. Verses 4-8
None of the three aspects of the question are answered at this point. Mathen describes this opening passage by noting that
‘Jesus now proceeds to correct their mistaken inference. He shows them that not everything that seems to be a sign of the end of the world is in reality such a sign’
Even though many who I’ve heard speak on this subject have excited their hearers by telling them of there being more recorded wars in present day history than there ever have been before (a fact which is partly the result of our better global communications throughout the world, I don’t doubt) and, therefore, that the time of the end is hastening quickly towards them, Jesus actually begins by telling them that these ‘signs’ are actually no signs at all - that is, they aren’t the signs which indicate that the end has arrived. Notice how Mtw 24:6 has Jesus stating that
‘the end is not yet’
and, in Mtw 24:8, that these events are
‘the beginning of the birth pangs’
Even though we often take them as the sign, Jesus warns His disciples that they’re nothing more than the beginning of the end but not the end itself.
Wars, famines, earthquakes and false Christs have been indicative of the entire time since Jesus ascended (and probably for a good while before) and they’ll continue to occur - but it’s not the end. As such, these are not signs of any great importance and the words spoken by Jesus were a warning given to the disciples in order that they wouldn’t be led astray by such things into believing that it was time to pack their bags and get ready to be called up to Heaven.
We must remember that man is a warrior and that peace is virtually impossible unless man is internally changed to be able to live at peace with those around him. Society all too often points the finger at great world powers and accuses them of advancing wars against others when the people would rather have both peace and stability and not live at risk of losing both their own lives and those of their close friends and immediate family.
But individuals betray the fact that they fight those around them - whether it be the neighbour who they don’t like or the company which, they feel, has sold them a product which has failed to live up to their expectations. We have an unkind word for the people we meet all-too-often and condemn sections of society as being opposed to our own group, whether it be a cause of racism (a concept too often misapplied today to undermine another’s position), sexism or, perhaps a word which sums it up in one all-inclusive word, tribalism.
There can never be peace in the world until the war is taken out of mankind, so wars will always continue - whether at a local and individual level or, at the other extreme, on a national level and conducted by the powers over us.
This much, however, is true - there will be wars, earthquakes and famines immediately preceding Jesus’ return (notice Mtw 24:9 which refers back to this passage and which is the introduction to the ‘sign’ of the end) but they serve no useful purpose as indicators that the end is near because they are to continue throughout the age until its close.
Mtw 24:4 is the important verse of this passage and the reason why Jesus tells them first what isn’t a sign. It reads
‘Take heed that no-one leads you astray’
and Mtw 24:6 which repeats the warning that the disciples should take care so that they’re not alarmed by these events.
The disciples are not to be led astray by false Messiahs who would arise at times of great natural disasters and wars, proclaiming that the end had finally come - such events were not the sign of either the close of the age or of the return of Jesus (or, as in the question recorded by Mark and Luke, that the destruction of the Temple was imminent).
b. Verses 9-14
Mtw 24:4-8 serve as a fitting backdrop or piece of ‘stage scenery’ for the sign outlined here that the end is imminent. Even though the believer might be deceived into thinking that an increase of wars and uprisings signals the end of the age, if they understand Jesus correctly then they’ll be unconcerned that such events continue to occur and will look, rather, to events which they not only have some control over or influence to bring about but which is the specific ‘sign of the end of the age’ which is what the disciples asked.
It’s extremely important that we contrast two different Greek words each translated ‘then’ by the RSV but which can mean something very different when they’re used. Our English word ‘then’ can encompass both meanings so it’s important to adequately identify the type of ‘then’ that’s being used.
The first one occurs in this passage (Strongs Greek number 5119) and is defined by Vines as
‘...a demonstrative adverb of time, denoting “at that time”’
The other (Strongs Greek number 1534) according to Vines
with regard to time and other concepts. It therefore becomes very important to be sure whether Jesus is saying specifically that an event will occur as something which follows on from the last event or whether we’re to think of it as occurring at the same general time as that which has just preceded it.
The ‘then’ of Mtw 24:9,10,14 is the first of these two words and means ‘at that time’ rather than ‘next in sequence’. Although we might read the opening word of this passage and conclude that the sign now spoken of as being in the Church is one which occurs after an increase in wars, it actually means ‘at the same time as’ they occur - that is, we shouldn’t expect to see world peace and afterwards this event occur but they’ll go hand in hand.
Therefore the problem parallel passage of Luke 21:12 can be understood as it places our current passage (Mtw 24:9-14) as occurring immediately preceding the former (Mtw 24:4-8). The truth is that Mtw 24:4-8 will occur both before, after and during the ‘sign’ outlined here in Mtw 24:9-14 but it’s only the latter that’s of any real significance. Both these passages relate to time periods (which overlap and intertwine) whereas the subsequent verses relate to specific events - Mtw 24:15-28 to the destruction of Temple and accompanying events, and Mtw 24:29-31 to the return of Jesus Christ.
The events described here in Mtw 24:9-14 are probably what the disciples didn’t want to hear - that all the nations would hate and persecute them. They could, perhaps, tolerate the false prophets who would arise but the positive hatred against them was something that they wouldn’t have wished for. However, it’s at the point when all this is happening that the sign of the end will occur, the sign that indicates that the close of the age is about to take place and, possibly, that the return of Jesus is also imminent.
We read of it in Mtw 24:14 where Jesus is recorded as saying (my italics)
‘And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations; and then [at that time] the end will come’
The worldwide proclamation of the Kingdom message will be the sign that the disciples were asking for to indicate to them that the end was about to come - or, at least, a testimony in every nation of the world and not necessarily to every person.
Notice that Jesus said nothing about the Bible being translated into every dialect or language of the world even though some organisations have interpreted this verse to mean just that! The reader is probably aware of the organisations who have set themselves to translate the Bible’s pages into every known language and dialect in the world, some in the belief that it fulfils Jesus’ words to take the Gospel into all the world. Although this is, yet again, a clear indication that the equation
Word of God = Bible
has been assumed and even though it’s a useful tool in the hands of anyone who wishes to ground an established church in all the truth, Rom 10:14 remains the norm for the preaching of the Gospel where Paul asked
‘...how are men to call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?’
where the proclamation of the Gospel is understood to be not on the basis of seeing (that is, reading) but on hearing (that is, preaching). After all, the Gospel can be brought to a nation even without the Scriptures in the native language.
But, returning to Mtw 24:14, we should note (as I did in my quoting of the Scripture) that the ‘then’ employed in the Greek is the one which means ‘at that time’ and shows plainly that the proclamation of the Gospel in all the regions of the world will be the sign which will indicate that the end will come - and, instead of it just being a target to be reached and then abandoned, it’s while this proclamation is taking place in every nation under heaven that the end will come.
Therefore, the disciples’ commission (Mtw 28:19) to
‘Go...and make disciples of all nations...’
and (Mark 16:15)
‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel...’
is the means whereby the end will come. Jesus was placing the time of the end of the age firmly into the hands of the disciples.
Apathy would not see Jesus return - zeal would.
c. Verses 15-28
Mtw 24:4-14 have denoted two specific time periods which may continue for lengthy periods of time, but here from Mtw 25:15 onwards we see Jesus turn His attention to one particular event, paralleled specifically in the summated question of both Mark and Luke who ask Jesus what will be the sign when the destruction of the Temple is to take place.
The RSV of Mtw 24:15 begins with the words ‘So when’ which need a short comment on before we can briefly think about the passage.
The word translated ‘So’ (and as ‘therefore’ by the AV) is a word (Strongs Greek number 3767) which, according to Matcar
‘...can serve as either an inferential or merely a transitional conjunction...which can sometimes be left untranslated’
but which has no time-linking with the previous passage - that is, if either of the two words translated ‘then’ were used (discussed above), we could say that either the event now described was taught as occurring ‘at the same time’ as the persecution of the Church or ‘afterwards’, but the word gives no such indication of the setting.
Jesus’ word translated ‘when’ (Strongs Greek number 3752) similarly gives us no precise time fix and, as Matmor writes, it
‘...has the force of “whenever”; Jesus is giving no indication of the exact time when what He speaks will take place’
Therefore, we’re left to know the certainty of the event but without a time which relates directly back into the prior sign of the close of the age. As such, the passage seems to hang rather loosely even though it’s normally taken to be fully integrated into the general flow of the passage. It seems best to understand the event as occurring when the Gospel is being preached among the nations of the world (Mtw 24:14) and that the sign of the close of the age will have been fulfilled (and continuing to be so) when the destruction of the Temple is about to take place.
However, if we read the passage here in Matthew carefully, we’ll note that the destruction of the Temple isn’t actually mentioned anywhere - and neither is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem - even though most commentators normally see the implication of the passage to be just that. In Mark’s parallel also (13:14-23) no mention is made but Luke 21:20 states that
‘...when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near’
which is in exactly the same place as Mtw 24:15’s
‘...when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)...’
Although I feel it necessary to take both passages to be referring to one and the same event, Luke 21:24 has often been used to show that Jesus was referring to a destruction of the city which would be followed by the ‘Church age’ in which we now live and which would imply that Jesus had in mind a significantly long period of time before His return (Luke 21:25-28).
Initially, as I’ve noted above, reading the passage in the context of known history could give us such an interpretation for Luke 21:24 reads that
‘they [the Jews] will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’
but, if we think about what it’s actually saying, we would have to wonder just how the Jewish people were ‘led captive among the nations’ following the destruction of the city and Temple in 70AD. Luknol comments that
‘...there is nothing here [in Josephus] to raise suspicions of formulation in the light of the actual experience of 66-70AD’
Although the commentator is defending the charge that Luke compiled the narrative after the events of 70AD were known, they also serve us to see how unlike such an event was when compared with what Jesus said would happen.
It’s possible, therefore, that such a trampling of the city could have been a short - rather than a long - period for nowhere in the passage does it indicate that such a lengthy timescale is necessary. Besides, Mtw 24:23-26 indicates a time period following or ensuing alongside the event in the Temple and, tied in with the statement about ‘the tribulation of those days’ (Mtw 24:29), there’s the possibility that Matthew’s record can allow for a short time period between the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of man (Mtw 24:30).
There’s an additional indication in the prophetic writings of Daniel that such a time period will exist after such a sign is set up within the Temple (Dan 9:27, 11:31) for Dan 12:11-12 reads that
‘...from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up [Mtw 24:15], there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is he who waits and comes to the thousand three hundred and thirty-five days’
a time difference of 45 days where the person who comes to the end of that latter period is called ‘blessed’. Although not demonstrably certain, it’s nevertheless possible that there was to be a duration of time after the sacrilege was set up (or, perhaps, after the destruction of the Temple - the two events are unlikely to be one and the same) until that time when the Son of man would be seen to come (Mtw 24:30).
One final point needs to be made. Mtw 24:27 shouldn’t be taken as being the point at which the ‘coming of the Son of man’ occurs, immediately after the destruction of the Temple or even at the time it was to be destroyed. Rather, Jesus is speaking here to counter the declaration He’s just noted of the false Messiahs and prophets who would arise at this time proclaiming that He’d already returned (Mtw 24:23-26) and instructing the disciples that His return would be so public that they wouldn’t have to be told by someone else.
Rather than insert a ‘return before the return’ (a ‘rapture’ of the church before the final resurrection of all the dead), it’s a statement which says that Jesus’ second appearing will be public and open.
d. Verses 29-31
The opening phrase ‘immediately after’ ties in these three verses very closely to what’s immediately preceded them and points out that the event of the coming of the Son of man seems to be a seamless extension to the tribulation which has surrounded the destruction of the Temple.
If we take the word ‘sign’ (Strongs Greek number 4592) of Mtw 24:30 to be the word which should be paralleled in the question of the disciples in Mtw 24:3 (both words are the same), then we’d get an answer something like that the sign of Jesus’ coming will be the sign of the Son of man in Heaven, something about which it seems to be rather difficult to conceive. Even if we were to look back one verse and anticipate the sign of Jesus’ imminent return to be that
‘...the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaken’
it still doesn’t provide a good interpretation of the following statement that there will be a sign ‘in heaven’ (or, perhaps better, ‘in the sky’) of the Son of man. Certainly now the return of Jesus has taken place but one wonders just what the disciples have made of it. If they anticipated Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem and probably Israel, how could they have expected Jesus to have returned any other way than by foot or on horseback to take the Kingship of the nation?
Surely, they might have expected Him to be the head of a confederated army marching on the city to deliver it from the oppressor, but language like this could hardly have been expected if by Jesus’ ‘going away’ they understood Him to mean something natural like a sabbatical rest or a change of ministry from resident Jews to the Diaspora (I’ve noted this above as being the probability of the disciples’ understanding of Mtw 23:39).
Certainly, Jesus’ comments that His return would be no private affair (Mtw 24:27) are made obvious. It is to be expected that the event will be public and open and that those to whom He comes will see, finally, who He really is demonstrably rather than, as He was amongst them, cloaked in a human body.
Little more needs to be said about these verses except that the resurrection of the dead appears to be clearly spoken of in Mtw 24:31 in words which are echoed elsewhere in the Gospel (for instance, Mtw 13:36-43, 13:47-50). How they envisaged them being fulfilled, however, is difficult to understand unless it was more literal than figurative.
3. When will this be?
Q1 - Mtw 24:32-44 especially
As we saw when we considered the questions asked of Jesus, the disciples only ask one question with regard to time - that is, when will the destruction of the Temple take place? Even though we may care to expand on the question and see it as relating to the coming of Jesus to set up the visible Kingdom, their words make it plain that the ‘time question’ has to do specifically and exclusively with the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus’ reply, however, gives two specific times, each of which have something specific to say to the listener. Firstly, Mtw 24:32-35 dates the destruction within the lifetime of that generation and subsequent to the signs that Jesus has just outlined.
A ‘generation’ should be taken to mean a time period of approximately forty years as Num 14:34-35 specifies - a generation died out in one forty year period of history and this is the best Biblical framework for being able to understand it.
The word is used to denote those who are currently alive in previous passages in Matthew’s Gospel (Mtw 11:16, 12:39, 12:41, 12:42, 12:45, 16:4, 17:17, 23:36) and, upon their demise, a new generation would have expected to have risen in their place. It’s more logical to accept what it must clearly mean here than to apologise for Jesus’ apparent prediction that it would take place within the lifetime of His hearers because it’s demonstrably certain that the coming of the Son of man failed to take place.
Besides, when we read Jesus’ words about all the innocent blood shed on the earth coming upon the religious leadership and His conclusion in Mtw 23:36 that
‘Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation’
we have no such reservations about an interpretation.
Primarily, then, Jesus was predicting the destruction of the Temple within a loose forty year period from that date. But, more than this, the time period is complicated because Jesus says that not just the Temple will be destroyed but that (Mtw 23:34)
‘...all these things [shall] take place’
which is naturally taken to have to refer to what’s preceded it and which will, therefore, include the coming of the Son of man to set up the visible Kingdom (as they would have interpreted His words to mean).
The second mention of time is in Mtw 24:36-44 which specifies that it isn’t possible to either give the precise day or hour when the coming of the Son of man was to occur. Notice here that the specific time is linked with Jesus’ coming back in both Mtw 24:37 and 24:44 and is less concerned with the destruction of the Temple and of the signs which would precede it.
Even though the disciples would be able to witness the signs as they occurred, there’s still uncertainty woven into the exact date of the return, Jesus being more concerned to warn His disciples to be ready than to tell them when they should start packing their suitcases to leave. This doesn’t mean that the date of His return wouldn’t be within the lifetime of that generation - for Jesus has just stated that it will be - but that the precise date will be unknown.
This lack of knowledge has seriously hindered some believers in coming to terms with the harmony between Jesus’ divinity and humanity but, as I’ve noted in several places on different web pages in this commentary, the disciple seems forced to accept that Jesus, although God, never operated out of that divinity but relied as a man upon the provision and direction of the Father to show how mankind was expected to live. Many commentators see Jesus switching to an exercise of divinity as and when He felt like it (for instance, Mtw 9:2) but if we accept this, we are almost pushed away from seeing that what Jesus lived out on earth isn’t attainable because He could fall back on His divinity and all that went with it whenever He chose.
We have to, therefore, see the Son as restricting His omniscience as to the date of His return to the knowledge that the Father gave Him and that it wasn’t the Father’s will that the ultimate time be made known - after all, prophecy is not a prediction of events to the precise day and hour irrespective of other circumstances or independent of a correct response, but is a conditional promise - though the Father must foreknow the time, it’s not necessarily predestined. See my notes on Foreknowledge, Freewill and Predestination).
It’s quite obvious that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was an indication that was to immediately precede the second coming of Christ (Mtw 24:29) along with the sign of the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel (Mtw 24:14 - though this was not a specific event but a continuing occurrence).
Mtw 24:33 (Pp Luke 21:31) says that when these signs come to pass, the disciples would know that the Kingdom of God was about to be set up throughout the earth (or, more literally without an interpretation being placed on it, that the Son of man would imminently be returning).
What this passage doesn’t cause us to infer is that if there’s no Temple, Jesus can’t return - unless, of course, we accept the premise that prophecy is simply pre-written history. If Jesus had announced that He would return within a generation (that is, forty years) and that His return would occur immediately after the destruction of the current Temple, we should note, firstly, that it didn’t happen and then, secondly, look for an explanation of why.
We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the future coming of Jesus to set up the visible Kingdom must take place as the culmination of exactly the same events as it was to follow in the first century. Clearly there’s a delay in it’s ultimate fulfilment but it doesn’t follow that every detail must be fulfilled again before it can take place when the ‘signs’ we accept as being signs aren’t actually what Jesus spoke of as being such.
We’ll shortly go on to consider why the events never took place within the lifetime of that generation but it may be advantageous for us to pause for a moment and to try and simply state what it was that this passage would have sparked off in the disciples’ minds when they first heard Jesus teach them.
4. What were the disciples expecting to happen?
Concluding the first three sections, then, here is a broad outline of what the disciples were expecting to happen. Some may disagree with my interpretation and, to be honest, what is recorded here can only be, at best, an assessment of what was going on in the disciples’ minds. There were probably no two disciples the same, either, even though they would have retained the general words which were being spoken.
The disciples heard that they were not to be led astray by signs that were no signs (Mtw 24:4-8), but when the Gospel was being preached throughout the entire world (with intense Church persecution) this was the time of the end (Mtw 24:9-14).
When they saw the desolating sacrilege set up in the Temple (the holy place of Mtw 24:15) then they were to know that the Temple’s/Jerusalem’s destruction was imminent even though it would not be at this precise time that Christ would come (Mtw 24:15-28). But, after this time of intense tribulation, there would be further signs, this time in heaven, which would indicate that Jesus was coming immediately, gathering His people together (Mtw 24:29-31).
All these things were to take place within approximately 40 years (Mtw 24:32-35) even though the exact day could not be specified at that time (Mtw 24:36-44).
That, then, is what the passage seems to show us when we stand with the disciples on the Mount of Olives and try and understand Jesus’ words in the light of the questions that were asked Him. It’s important to understand that their questions about a visible Kingdom being established on earth with Him as their King was at the forefront of their question even though we know that this didn’t take place within that 40 year period.
This doesn’t prove to be problematical to us, though, because we saw in part one that prophecy is conditional. We have no need to ask the question as many commentators have done
‘How can history be made to fit what we read?’
‘Why didn’t what the disciples expect to happen take place?’
This will be the subject of the next section and, even though we must try and restrict our interpretation to what Jesus has given as conditional, there’s an indication elsewhere in another NT passage that there may be a further condition dependant upon a correct freewill response in man which must be fulfilled before the end can come.
5. Why didn’t it happen within a generation?
It has to be admitted from the outset of our discussion that why these events didn’t take place is far from certain. But, equally so, we may ask ourselves the same type of questions about OT prophetic utterances and come to the same conclusion that there appears to be very little within the texts themselves which would show us why subsequent history fails to identify their perfect outworking.
Even though, as has already been shown, a lot is similar to the subsequent history known to us after the words were spoken, that they weren’t perfectly fulfilled should make us realise that there were certain conditions which failed to be met or reactions which were against what was necessary which has either delayed some of the events from taking place (such as the return of the Son of man), have already occurred and do not need to be fulfilled again (such as the destruction of the Temple) and, perhaps more difficult to be sure about, events which will now never come to pass (because there always remains the possibility that they might).
We can be sure that Jesus will return to set up a visible Kingdom on earth because this is one of those ‘fixed’ events that appears necessary to come about (Acts 1:7) especially as the time framework which YHWH gave to the nation of Israel (Leviticus chapter 23) necessarily culminates in the reaping of a harvest and the celebration that what was once temporary and transient has now become eternal and secure (see my series of notes on the Festivals of Jehovah linked to the home page).
But how that final conclusion will be worked out now that the prophetic utterance has lapsed is not certain and we shouldn’t think that because statements have been made which presuppose certain actions (such as a rebuilding of the Temple) that they must take place. It’s quite true that such events might take place but it’s another thing entirely to say with absolute certainty that they have to take place.
What we want to do here, though, is to consider some reasons why the events of Matthew chapter 24 don’t appear to ever have fully come about. There appear to be two possible reasons for this postponement/abandonment.
a. The unevangelisation of the world
Mtw 24:14 plainly states that
‘...this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come’
and presupposes that the message of the Gospel must be continuing to be preached throughout the nations of the world before it would be possible that the end of the age would be a distinct possibility. Indeed, in the entire chapter, it appears as if this is the only sign over which the disciples had control to effect the return of the Son of man within the time scale of their own generation.
We must note this carefully because, if this is a condition as it would appear, the failure of Jesus to return at the time immediately after the year in which Jerusalem and the Temple were about to be destroyed was something which was partly due to a failure on the part of the believers of the early Church.
This may sound almost heretical to many but I’m not asserting that they failed to achieve the condition necessarily through disobedience but that their target of world evangelisation simply wasn’t reached, partly due to their own misunderstanding for many years that the message of the Kingdom wasn’t to be shared with Gentiles as well as Jews.
Notice some of the events outlined for us by Luke in the Book of Acts:
Some 2-4 years after the initial prophecy of Matthew chapter 24, a great persecution fell upon the Church after Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1). Up to this point, the Church seems not to have attempted to take the Gospel even throughout the length and breadth of Israel - let alone to the rest of the world - for the text plainly informs the reader that they were scattered.
This may be reading too much into this simple statement but we can be sure that world evangelisation was not being considered - much less practised - a few years after Jesus’ ascension.
Then, some 6-7 years after the prophecy, we read the story of Cornelius in Acts chapters 10 and 11. The full-blown evangelisation of the Gentiles and the recognition of their equal standing with the Jews certainly didn’t take place until after this event of the Gentile Cornelius and his household being converted under Peter’s ministry and there being serious objections raised to what the apostle did. One can almost hear the astonishment and bewilderment in his questioners’ voices when they respond to the story with the words (Acts 11:18)
‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life’
James (in Acts 15:14) also clearly shows how this was God’s first visitation of the Gentiles - and that God had to do it in spite of Peter’s hatred of such a possibility. You would have thought that world evangelisation would now have begun apace and that the Church would have dispersed themselves throughout the world to fulfil their commission but it doesn’t appear to have taken place even after the recorded event. It may be that, although they accepted that God was willing to accept the Gentiles, they didn’t consider them to be the main object of their preaching.
It wasn’t until some 19 years after the original prophecy on the Mount of Olives that, in Acts chapter 15, the Jerusalem church finally came to terms with their commission to bring the word of the Gospel to all men rather than solely to Jews for they had to discuss the matter of the relationship of the Law to the growing number of Gentile converts which were being made and whether they should be put under its yoke as the circumcision party were wanting to do.
Paul’s first missionary journey had already taken place by this time and there would have been many believing Gentiles scattered through these parts of the Roman Empire (see, for example, Acts 13:46-49) but a mass evangelisation of the non-Jew seems to have been rare.
In between these last two events of history (that is, 7-19 years after the original prophecy), the ministry to the Gentiles would have begun to gather pace and the fulfilment of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15) began to look a distinct possibility within a generation of the prophetic announcement. It was also during this time that the Gentile church at Antioch came into existence (Acts 11:20-21) though, as is indicated, this was not the norm (Acts 11:19).
We simply don’t know to what extent the ‘world’ was evangelised in the forty year period commencing with the prophecy to the disciples but it would appear that not all the nations were reached within that space of time due to a lack of understanding initially of the equal standing of the Gentiles with the Jews. However, Paul was able to honestly announce to the recipients of one letter (Col 1:23) that
‘...the gospel which you heard...has been preached to every creature under heaven...’
Perhaps it’s better to interpret Paul’s words as saying either that he was confident that, wherever he’d gone, he hadn’t held back from preaching the message or that as far as he was aware, the Gospel had gone out to the four corners of the earth.
Perhaps best, though, is Colwright’s explanation that
‘...in Christ Himself and in the fact of the Gentile mission, the Gospel had in principle already been preached worldwide’
where the open death of Jesus is seen to be the public testimony to the work and message of the Gospel. Whatever the exact interpretation of Paul’s words (and there are many of them), it would appear that, although world evangelisation had been envisaged by Jesus, the new Church had largely aimed for the Jew in their proclamation of the Gentiles until around half of the intervening forty years had transpired.
When we arrive at the events of the Jewish War (66-70AD), we see a world in which the Gospel has gone out widely into the known civilised world but which still hadn’t been brought to the remotest parts of the globe. Therefore, the sign that the close of the age would come (Mtw 24:14) that the
‘...gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world’
had not yet been fulfilled.
b. The unrepentance of the Jews
This second possible condition for the return of the Son of man is not directly retrievable from the Matthew chapter 24 passage but it is, nevertheless, worthy of consideration alongside the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel. In this case, while one condition is in the hands of the Church, the other lies outside their own control and within the freewill response of the Jewish nation.
Romans 11:25-27 has Paul recorded as stating seemingly plainly that the final generation of Israelites will be saved - they won’t be forced to be saved but their freewill will cause them to be saved. But it’s evident that, despite the persistent preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom to the Jews throughout the generation of 32-70AD, they rejected the purposes of God for themselves because of their hardness of heart.
Acts 13:46-49, 18:5-6, 19:8-9 and 28:28 all show the persistent realisation by Paul that the Jews didn’t want to listen, so that he turned his ministry round to the Gentiles in order that the Jews would become jealous, attempting to cause some of them to be saved (Rom 11:13-14).
Mtw 23:39 also seems to infer that there must be a realisation of who Jesus is in the nation as a whole for Jesus comments that the city of Jerusalem wouldn’t see Him publicly again until they proclaimed
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’
a clear indication that, although they may not have fully grasped the implications of the Gospel, they will certainly be looking to Him as their deliverer in some sort of trouble (Mtw 24:29). If we parallel this with Paul’s statement, we get almost a harmony of both and an explanation of each one by the other.
However, that both statements might stand independently of one another is sufficient justification for me not to harmonise them. After all, the latter statement by Jesus could see His return heralded by the inhabitants of the city in the light of their need of a purely physical deliverer rather than have to see their conversion to the message of the Gospel.
At the very least, however, we should see that some sort of return to YHWH through the message of the Gospel is implied in other verses and that, because of the hardness of the majority of the nation’s heart in the first century, there remains a secondary explanation of why the events never fully took place in that subsequent forty year period.
6. What should we expect to happen before Jesus returns?
Finally, we come to the most difficult question of all - what should the present day believer expect to happen before the return of Jesus to earth? Are we to think of the entirety of the passage of Matthew chapter 24 as needing to occur exactly as stated there otherwise we shouldn’t pay any attention to the possibility of the coming of the Son of man?
I’ve already said above that I cannot imagine that some events aren’t fixed as events which must take place - such as the resurrection of the dead and the return of Jesus to set up a visible earthly Kingdom - but that how these come about may be quite different than when they were first prophesied as about to occur.
What I’m saying is that Matthew chapter 24 is dependent upon the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem but, if we accept that the reconstruction of such a building would be an affront to God now that the Gospel has fulfilled the sacrificial system, how could we imagine that such an event must take place before the conclusion of the age?
Rather, I believe we should look to the one clear sign which Jesus gave which was to take place before the end would come - that is, the evangelisation of the world by the Church.
As Jesus said (Mtw 24:14 - my italics)
‘...this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations; and [at that time] the end will come’
It’s up to the church, therefore, to fulfil the commission to (Mark 16:15)
‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole Creation’
and to (Mtw 28:19)
’Go...and make disciples of all nations’
in order that Christ may come. II Peter 3:9 deals with the apparent slowness of the coming of Jesus but, in it, we get an understanding of why world evangelisation is so important before Jesus comes and sits as judge over it. The apostle wrote that
‘The Lord is not slow about His promise...but is not wishing that any should perish’
and therefore He commands His Body to fulfil the calling in order that men may be saved that He may come and set up the visible Kingdom on earth.
The Matthew chapter 24 passage, therefore, seems to indicate that Jesus will not return until the Church evangelises the world. The time of His coming and reappearance depends upon the Church’s response to His commission.
If the three parallel passages still contain all the information needed for us to see clearly the type of Church that will be present immediately before the return of the Lord to the earth, there are certain characteristics that should be noted.
|Falling away, betrayal, hatred
|Wickedness is multiplied and man's natural love grows cold
|Endurance needed for salvation
|Gospel preached universally
In the face of great persecution (Mtw 24:9), falling away (Mtw 24:10 - but there can’t be a falling away until there is a great ingathering), false prophets arising from within the Church (Mtw 24:11, II Peter 2:1-3) and the natural love of man growing cold (Mtw 24:12), the Church will have to be demonstrating great commitment to be able to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom throughout the world (Mtw 24:14).
If this is a clear indication of the state of the ‘end time’ Church (which I believe it will be), it will be unswervingly committed to doing the Father’s will in the face of relentless tribulation and persecution. It will be a strong Church - neither lukewarm, weak, ineffective nor non-existent - one that’s eagerly longing for the return of Christ so that He will come for a Bride that wants to be married and not a reluctant girl dragged screaming down the aisle!
Finally, we need to consider the events in Jerusalem and of the Temple.
Mtw 24:15-22 was to have been a sign immediately preceding Jesus’ return and was dependent upon the Temple still being in existence - Mtw 24:15 speaks of ‘the holy place’ which at that time could only have referred to the Temple courts.
Jesus prophesied on another occasion that Jerusalem would be destroyed by an enemy army and this also necessarily included the Temple (Luke 19:43-44). The writer to the Hebrews also prophesied the imminent destruction of the Temple (Heb 8:13) bringing to an end the old sacrificial rites of the OT which had been made obsolete by Christ’s sacrificial death.
All these statements were made before the Temple was destroyed in 70AD even though some commentators see passages such as these as post-written statements designed to claim a prophetic insight after the events of the past have taken place.
The actual event, then, was predicted if we take the events of known history as being the fulfilment (a dangerous thing to do in itself, as we know).
But it seems inappropriate to consider or conjecture whether the Temple needs to be rebuilt - after all, does God want a return to the sacrificial system that He removed with the fall of Jerusalem? - but certainly there remains the need for the believer to keep their eyes open to see if it is.
The Victorian believers (if my memory serves me right) saw the re-establishing of the Jews in the land of Israel as a sure fire way to hasten the return of Jesus to earth primarily because the prophetic passages seemed to imply that this must take place before it could be expected. They probably also envisaged a rebuilding of the Temple (though I can’t remember that being a part of their belief). But these lack a firm statement by Jesus that there must be a return to the conditions which are inferred from the events outlined but which were never given to the disciples as a sign of the end.
Mtw 24:15-22 are not specified by Jesus as a ‘sign of the end’ but were spoken in answer to the disciples’ question as to when the destruction of the temple would be - and Mtw 24:29’s ‘immediately after...’ refers to the tribulation of those days and not to the event of the Temple’s destruction. The parallel passage (Luke 21:20-24) causes us to infer that no future sign with regard to the Temple (and maybe the inference is to Jerusalem also) is to be sought (however much that might cut across our own understanding of the end times).
The rebuilding of the Temple and the return of the Jews to the land will not hasten the return of Jesus but the evangelisation of the world by the Church will certainly bring it nearer if that condition remains as a continued fulfilment (which I believe it does). The latter must be our objective, then, and not an attempt on our part to instigate conditions which are more assumed than clearly stated.
We know that the last generation of Jews will be saved (Rom 11:25-26) but that doesn’t mean that the Jews will have rebuilt a Temple or that they’ll be a nation once more and resident within the land of Israel (even though the latter happened in part in 1948 but which is now slipping through their fingers like sand by the giving of land over to the Palestinian people).
We must also recall the disciples’ final question to Jesus before He ascended (Acts 1:6 - my italics) which ran
‘Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?’
and the Lord’s reply, paraphrased (Acts 1:7-8), was
‘It is not for you to know...but get on with the work that I have called you to [that is, the evangelisation of the world]’
All our theories of what must take place before the end will come (and that includes the tentative conclusions of this web page) - including the time at which it’s about to happen and the conditions which will see it come about - are necessarily unimportant in the face of the commission to go out into the world and proclaim the message of the Gospel.
Many readers will be objecting to my dealing with Matthew chapter 24 because I’ve given no ‘specifics’ and have failed almost singularly to deal with Mtw 24:36-51 in the main body of notes except for a couple of necessary references.
This has been deliberate, however, firstly because it’s necessary that we attempt a consideration of the passage as a whole and not try to select bits and pieces which we are happy with and which can be placed firmly into what we know about subsequent history but, secondly, in the case of the last sixteen verses, because they represent two plain teaching passages which parallel and explain the subsequent two parables which open Matthew chapter 25.
Therefore, for Mtw 24:36-44, the reader should consult the web page which deals with Mtw 25:1-13 and, for Mtw 24:45-51, they should access Mtw 25:14-30. It seems best to keep these passages together even though they serve well as concluding statements to the answer given to the disciples.
That Matthew chapter 24 has been the subject of too much interpretation at the expense of other, less challenging, passages is certain - after all, we’re probably more likely to have heard a message about the end times and Jesus’ return than we are about His comments concerning the consequences of failing to practice what we hear Jesus say. But, more than this, the passage has been forced into yielding statements which it says nothing about and which prove to be misleading for those who choose to accept them.
For instance, the mention of the fig tree in Mtw 24:32 has caused some believers to see the nation of Israel because, so the reasoning goes, the fig tree is always a picture of the nation of Israel in Scripture. As I noted on a previous web page, this is incorrect and it’s more especially indicative of fruitfulness when the people are present in the land or barrenness when absent.
But, by using this identification, the doctrine that the fig tree’s fruitfulness (that is, the nation of Israel’s return to the land) would be the sign that the events previously described would shortly take place (Mtw 24:33). One preacher even went so far as to positively identify the ‘generation’ of Mtw 24:34 as meaning forty years and then to conclude that Jesus would return by the time forty years were up from the modern day establishing of the state of Israel - that is, 1988!
Perhaps He returned to earth, therefore, and we didn’t notice?! I don’t doubt the preacher’s sincerity - neither do I doubt that the man concerned was following and serving Jesus as He understood Him to want him to - but it surely is time that we stopped attaching our own erroneous interpretations to the passage and then think that we must be right. After all, as I said at the beginning, the seven commentators I began by using when I approached this passage for the first time yielded seven different solutions and theories! Not quite as bad as the proverb which a Jew once told me that wherever you get two Jews, you have three opinions.
I’ve also mentioned above the belief that the Temple has to be rebuilt before Jesus can return, noting that the passage doesn’t make this an inevitable event that must occur - though neither can we infer that it won’t happen. And that goes, as well, for the return of the Jews into the land of Israel, an event to which many christian organisations believe they have the call of God to make it happen. If all the Jews of the world really did return to the land in the next five years or so, one wonders just how it would be possible for the land to accommodate them! Israel is hard-pressed to make enough land available to support itself now (even more so now that land is being given back to the Palestinians) without a multiplication of its inhabitants of tenfold or more.
But one such misunderstanding I want to deal with here before I close the web page, and that concerns Jesus’ statement in Mtw 24:28 that
‘Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together’
Like many of Jesus’ parables, commentators over the years have read too much into the words and supposed that because the Greek refers to a carcass that the judgment visited upon Jerusalem in 70AD must be in view, even though the immediate context refers us to no such event but rather to the return of Jesus to earth - the preceding verses do mention the destruction of the Temple but the verse is offered as an explanation of the immediately preceding statement of Mtw 24:27.
Some have even gone further and taken the reference to ‘eagles’ to refer to the standards of the Roman armies that encamped against Jerusalem shortly before its destruction and which there’s sufficient evidence for in the pages of Josephus.
The only other occurrence of the phrase is in Luke 17:37 but even here the reference is still to what we call ‘the end times’. We’ll need to consider this passage as well, however, in order to deal fully with the intended meaning.
Firstly, the word for ‘body’ in Luke’s quotation (Strongs Greek number 4983) is a general word used for denoting all types of bodies, alive or dead but, in Matthew, the word used (Strongs Greek number 4430) means specifically a corpse or dead body. In our understanding of this phrase then, we must take into account the specific choice of word that Matthew uses and which Luke appears to have chosen to render with a more general term.
Secondly, the word translated ‘eagles’ in many of the English versions (Strongs Greek number 105) is one which can mean either an eagle or a vulture, just as the Hebrew word in the OT can mean either (see Micah 1:16 where the translation ‘vulture’ is the correct one).
But the context of the preceding phrase which talks about a carcass, causes us to inevitably translate the word as ‘vultures’ to give it the right sense. The phrase that we’re looking at, therefore, is to be properly read as
‘Wherever the carcass is, there the vultures will be gathered together’
Instead of opting for the ‘destruction’ interpretation noted above (a clear case of taking a passage and interpreting it in the light of subsequent history regardless of context) we must realise that this verse is only an illustration of a point already made and isn’t a teaching in itself. To wrench it out of its context and impose a teaching upon it that’s alien to the surrounding verses will do injustice both to the Scripture and to Jesus’ plain teaching.
It’s quite possible that the phrase was a well-known Jewish or Rabbinic phrase of Jesus’ day that conveyed a meaning that was as far removed from a literal interpretation as some of our English phrases are such as
‘My feet are killing me’
After all, which one of us would envisage a pair of feet wrapped around their owner’s neck trying to strangle them to death?. Although the meaning is obvious to us, it may not be so to a foreigner trying to learn our language -and neither may a Jewish saying be as simple for us to understand as it was to an ordinary Jew two thousand years ago.
Yet, having said this, the meaning of this particular phrase is quite straightforward - it simply means
‘When or where something happens, you’ll see the evidence of it’
That is, when you see vultures on the ground or circling in the air from a long way off, then you can be sure that there’s a dead body close at hand and, even if you can’t see the carcass, you’ll see the vultures. From this definition, we go on to the two occurrences of the phrase.
In Mtw 24:28, Jesus has just been teaching that His return won’t be a secret one (Mtw 24:26) but clearly evident (Mtw 24:27). You won’t have to contemplate whether He’s come or not, whether someone who claims to be Him really is, but you’ll see His return openly - ‘just like when there’s a dead body’ Jesus says ‘you can be sure the vultures will gather’
When Jesus returns (the dead body), you will see the evidence of it (the vultures). Of course, Jesus isn’t saying that He’s like a dead body - that would be pushing the illustration too far. All He intends saying is that when His return takes place, you’ll see the evidence for it - and this is in keeping with our definition of the phrase that we considered before we applied it to the passage.
In Luke 17:37, Jesus has again been teaching concerning His return. This time He says that there will be (Luke 17:34-35)
‘one taken and the other left’
so the disciples ask Him where this will take place - they obviously want to be there when the action starts happening. But Jesus’ reply at this point is more a mild rebuke than a definitive statement as to where they can expect the event to occur.
All Jesus appears to be saying is that
‘You will see the evidence of it when it happens’
It’s virtually the same as saying
‘Wherever My followers are, they will see it take place’
In conclusion, then, the phrase simply means
‘When or where something happens, you’ll see the evidence of it’
and to understand the implication we must view it in context without writing into our interpretation aspects that we want to believe. Such hasn’t been the case throughout Church history, however, and even today the amazing detail with which Jesus explained what was shortly to happen in our own generation makes one sit up and begin to get excited that, perhaps, we might be the generation about which Jesus spoke (Mtw 24:34 - a wrong interpretation, of course).
Rather, as we’ll see in the interpretation of the last sixteen verses of Matthew chapter 24 and the first two parables of chapter 25, Jesus was more concerned to warn His disciples to be constantly prepared and to continue the work that they were called to do rather than to speculate about the imminence of His return.
The point which recurs throughout these verses is not whether the believer will have the privilege of seeing Him return but whether he’ll have the stamina in case He’s delayed.
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