This text has been the subject of all sorts of speculation and wild theories about the end of time and the events that will happen at the return of Christ. Many believe in among the brethren that this text is talking about the second coming of Christ. Many believe it refers to other events. But let us put out of our minds what we have been taught about this passage or what scholars have said, and let the text speak. The first thing that we must understand is that each particular gospel had a particular audience that the words were for, especially when considering the synoptic gospels. For example the gospel of Matthew was written primarily to the Jews as an audience, and that is why Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophecies so many times in his book. Mark was written with the Roman audience in mind and that is why it is to the point, powerful, and practical. Luke was written to the Gentile audience. This is important to note because people have run to Matthew 24 and try to begin to explain the events that are taking place. But there is a failure to understand that the things written were written to a Jewish audience and so the signs and symbols would have a meaning to that audience. In short, for us to understand Matthew 24 we need to think like a Jew and understand the Jewish background and mindset. Let us now get into the text.
I. Matthew 24:1-13
Setting the scene
First let us notice what Jesus has been talking about coming into Matthew 24. Jesus has been speaking to the Pharisees and scribes and have pronounced woes upon them and called them hypocrites. But notice also 23:37-39. Here Jesus is pronouncing a woe upon the city itself for the evil that it has committed by killing the prophets and stoning God’s messengers. Now as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, the disciples are remarking about the temple buildings. Now the disciples are not pointing these things out like a tourist. They have been to the temple many times with Jesus. This is not a guided tour. What are they doing? Jesus has just condemned the city of Jerusalem and the disciples are pointed out in essence, “how can you condemn such a noble structure?” Luke 21:5 clarifies for us what is taking place– “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said,…” The disciples are pointing out how the city has beautiful stones dedicated to God. Look at all the gifts dedicated to God. Look at the magnificence of this temple and these buildings are all for the glory of God. Jesus elaborates further in verse 2, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’” Jesus says that not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down. To what is he referring to? The buildings of the world? No, the temple buildings. They are going to be destroyed.
The disciples’ question
Now verse 3 is important to understanding the rest of the text, for if we miss what the disciples are asking, then we are going to misinterpret what Jesus’ answer is. Matthew 24:3, “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’” By the initial reading it sounds like the disciples are asking about the second coming of Christ and what will be the signs about the end of time. Let me show you why that cannot be the case.
First, the disciples did not believe that Jesus was leaving and did not understand that Jesus would be crucified. The disciples did not understand the second coming because they did not understand Christ must be killed in the first place. Luke 18:31-34 verifies that they did not understand the things Jesus spoke about his death. It was not until the resurrection that the disciples began to understand these things. That is one reason why they are not talking about the second coming.
Second, we need to see the other gospel accounts to see what is being asked. Look at Luke 21:7. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Look at the account in Mark 13:4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” Do we see the question they are asking? It is not about the second coming, but when are these stones going be not left upon each other. They understood Jesus’ woe on Jerusalem and understood he was speaking of its destruction. The questions are “When will these things take place and what is the sign to know that it is about to take place?” If we read Matthew we must think like a Jew. The coming of the Messiah was a label for judgment. What is the sign that this judgment is going to take place? And the end of the age does not automatically mean the end of time. It simply refers to a definite period of time or era. The destruction of the temple would certain be the end of an era, the end of the Jewish era. Therefore what they ask is the sign of the end of this period of time. And so these are the questions asked by the disciples: When will these things take place? What is the sign that these things will be fulfilled? Jesus is going to answer these questions in reverse order. First, he starts with the signs to indicate that these stone will not be left upon each other.
Jesus’ response:Watch for false signs (24:4-14)
Jesus now warns that many are going to rise up claiming to be the Messiah who will rescue the people of Israel. Many are going to claim to be the ones who can overthrow Rome. Many will claim to be the power of God. Jesus says do not follow them. They will lead you astray. Jesus says that wars and insurrections will be heard, but do not be afraid because that is not going to be the destruction of these temple buildings. Nation will be against nation and there are going to be problems but all of this must occur before the destruction of the temple buildings.
Tacitus tells us some of the history of the time between AD 30-70. He says “the history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the swords; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time.” Josephus and other historians of the time describe the a very disturbed state of Judea during this time. Massacres of the Jews were perpetuated at Caesarea, at Alexandria, in Babylonia and in Syria. In addition to the trouble in Palestine, the Pax Romana was momentarily destabilized in 68-69 A.D. Natural calamities were happening during this time also. Famine ravaged Judea during the rule of Claudius which we read about in Acts 11:28. More than 30,000 died of pestilence in ancient Babylon, parts of Judea and in Rome before AD 70. There is an earthquake recorded in Acts 16:26. All of this was going on, but Jesus says when these signs are happening, it is not the end of Jerusalem yet. We also see that persecutions would also begin before the coming destruction of Jerusalem.
II. Signs of the Destruction of the Temple
Gospel proclaimed in all the world (24:14)
Notice what Jesus says here in verse 14. “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.” This statement proves to us that this must be referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. In Colossians 1:23, Paul says “if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Now Colossians was written about 61 A.D. And so Paul says that the gospel has been heard by everyone under heaven by 61 A.D. So we have one of two choices. Either the world came an end at about 70 A.D. Then what are we doing alive? Or Jesus must be referring to the end of the Jewish nation, then end of the temple buildings. Jesus said once the good news was proclaimed to the whole world, the end would come. The end of the Jewish nation must be referred to because by 61 A.D., Paul claimed that the gospel had been proclaimed throughout the whole world.
When you see the abomination (24:15-31)
In verses 15-16, Jesus says, “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand– then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Now is this referring to the great tribulation that will happen at the end of time? No, we are talking about signs about the destruction of Jerusalem. So what is the abomination of desolation? Turn to Luke 21:20 to see the answer. Here Luke writes, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Here is the answer. The abomination is the Roman Empire and the holy place must refer then to the holy city of Jerusalem and Jesus says that they are going to cause it to be desolate. When you see the city surrounded by Roman armies, then you will know that the end is here. What were the people to do? Leave immediately. Do not pack, do not go back to your house to get things, because the disaster is going to be the worst the world has seen.
Let us hear from the historians about this great tribulation. Outside the city hundreds of Jews were crucified. Inside, civil war broke out as several factions spent more time fighting each other than the Romans. The temple courts were awash with blood. The blockade had reduced the city to a state of famine so severe that mothers ate their own children. Pestilence, starvation, slaughter and monstrous atrocities were commonplace. By August of A.D. 70, 1.1 million Jews had fallen by the edge of the sword and 100,000 had been led away captive into all nations. A high percentage of the cities population was exterminated and enslaved during the fall of Jerusalem. In verse 29 Jesus is describing the “lights out” for the nation of Israel. These symbols and pictures are used by many Old Testament prophets to described the end of a nation. Here Jesus uses the pictures to refer to the nation of Israel. No longer were they God’s chosen people, now salvation will be offered to everyone on the earth (vs. 31).
III. When Will These Things Happen?
Learn from the fig tree (vs. 32-35)
Just as plants spout leaves and begin to be fruitful tells us that summer is near, so also these signs will note that the destruction of Jerusalem is near. Notice verse 34, “I assure you: This generation will not pass away until these things take place.” Premillennialists take this passage as the second coming and the coming tribulation that will occur after the rapture. If that is true, then that generation must still be alive somewhere. Somewhere there are nearly 2000 year old people. Ridiculous. What Jesus was saying here is that within that generation’s lifespan, these things would happen. It would not be something for a really long time, not far into the future, but shortly these things would happen. Everything else may pass away, but his words about this event would surely occur. There was no doubt.
The day/hour no one knows (vs. 36)
Verse 36 is interesting for not even Jesus knew the exact day that these things would occur. Jesus has listed the signs that would occur when the destruction was coming. The disciples have also asked when these things would be. Give us the year, month, and day. Jesus has narrowed it down that it would be with in their lifetime that these things would take place. But concerning the day and hour, the angels do not know, nor does the Son of God. Only the Father knew when his judgment would take place.
Therefore be alert (vs. 44)
Since the day or the hour was not told to the disciples, they had to be ready at any time for these things to take place, for it will be like the days of Noah. Things in the world will be going on just like they always have, but then the judgment will come. The same is true for the judgment of Jerusalem. Things will seem like the ordinary everyday things, but suddenly the destruction will happen. So pay attention to the signs so you do not get caught in the city.
Rapture or Rome?
Verses 40-41 are used by many to show that this passage is talking about the rapture. I hope by now we have seen that there is no way that this passage could be talking about the second coming of Christ or the end of time. So what does this passage mean? This is talking about what it will be like when the Roman armies come in. Some are going to suddenly be taken by Rome and dispersed or killed, and others if they listen to these words will be and be left alive. This is what it would be like when the Roman armies came. People were going to begin to disperse, many would stay to be killed, and the onslaught would begin.
Now Jesus has described all of these things that will happen as sign to the events of one stone not being left upon another. Jesus is now going to continue on his discussion and describe what it will be like after these things. Notice Matthew 25:1, “then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins.” That is an important word. It is not like the other places like in 24:32, now from the parable or verse 36, “now concerning that day.” Jesus will now describe what the kingdom will be like after all of these things take place.
Everything in chapter 24 is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs that will precede that event. It was a great and terrible event for which Jesus told his disciples to be ready for. The use of apocalyptic language does not need to throw us, especially since we have two other gospel accounts to help us decipher the language found in this chapter. This is how the Lord spoke when referring to a coming judgment upon a nation. He used this same language with the prophets of the Old Testament referring to the surrounding nations, the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah. The same type of language is found in Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation and other places. To help us know what judgment the Lord is referring to in this chapter, remember that Jesus said that the generation alive then would not pass away until all these things take place. Therefore we reject premillenialism that takes this passage out of its context. We reject the great tribulation theorized. We reject the rapture of only saints while others are left behind. None of that is true in this text and is a twisting of the scriptures to destruction.