Many have undertaken the task of explaining Matthew 24 the best they know how. To some, Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 explain the end times, the end of the world and how it will all play out. Some believe that Matthew 24 has already happened and has no concern for us. These are two extreme views, so is there a middle ground? What is going on in these passages? We will take a look at the context to determine what Jesus is talking about and what it means for us.
If we jump into Matthew 24, we’ve already made ourselves stumble. To gain a context of what is happening at this time, we need to go back and learn what is happening in Matthew 23. Jesus has just given a discourse about the Pharisees and leaders of that day and pronounced 7 woes upon them. Woes because they do not have the heart for God and they have let their people down by being hypocrites. Jerusalem has failed because of her sins and ignorance over the generations and it’s all going to come to boiling point. In Matthew 24:1-2 it says,
“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples
came up to them to call his attention to its buildings.
‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked, ‘I tell you the truth,
not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”
So what we have going on here is that Jesus has just left the temple, the epicenter of Jerusalem’s sins, and the disciples want him to look at the beautiful buildings. Jesus looks at them and tells them that every stone of these buildings will not be left standing. In other words, the temple is going to be destroyed. This was a shocking statement because Jesus says the temple is going to be destroyed which he had declared just earlier (Matthew 23:38).
So the disciples naturally had questions about such a statement. They come to him privately and ask in Matthew 24:3,
“When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The disciples ask two distinct questions with the second having two parts that coincide. They ask when the temple will be destroyed. They then ask about the sign of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. In the disciples’ mind, Jesus’ coming and the temple being destroyed are all one event that lead to the end of the age, or the end of Roman rule and the beginning of the messianic kingdom.
Jesus offers an answer to their first question, ‘when will this happen?’ He answers this first and his answer goes from Matthew 24:4-35. Throughout this section, Jesus gives the signs that the temple is about to be destroyed and Jerusalem’s fall. This prophetic message sounds apocalyptic with wars, famine, the skies darkening, and earthquakes. This would seem likely that Jesus is describing the end of the world as we think of it. This all makes sense until we get to verse 34.
“truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
Jesus puts a time stamp on all of this. All of these events that Jesus just described will take place in that generation. This means that whatever Jesus described, happened during the time those people were still alive. This could not have been the end of the world since we are still here. This means that Jesus was describing the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem like a master prophet would.
There is a part in this passage that may seem confusing at this point. If all this happened a long time ago, why does Jesus talk about false messiahs and the Son of Man coming in vv 30-31? He describes the Son of Man coming on the clouds with the angels and all this stuff. Isn’t this Jesus returning? It would seem so. However, Jesus is trying to separate the idea of the destruction of the temple from his second coming as the disciples thought of it. They thought the destruction of the temple would mark the end of the age and Jesus would come and reign as King in Jerusalem and reclaim once again. However, Jesus points out this is not the case. People will claim to be the messiah coming at that time but he warns them not to believe them. Don’t go anywhere looking because he won’t be there and you’ll know when he comes (v 27). So Jesus separates the two events. The temple will be destroyed but the Son of Man won’t come yet.
“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.”
Jesus then quotes from Daniel chapter 7 here to talk about Jesus’ reign over the nations despite what happens here on earth. Jesus claims that He will not come during this time so don’t believe anyone who says so. In verse 30, Jesus talks about a sign.
This sign Jesus speaks of is not a sign of his return because later Jesus will say that no one will know when He comes, there won’t be a sign for his return, it will be sudden (v38-39). Because of this evidence, we have to conclude that this was a sign not of his second coming, but the coming of his judgment and rule on the nations, namely for Jerusalem. Also, Jesus gives us that timestamp in verse 34, that all of this must take place during that generation.
After this, Jesus then goes into answering their second question about his second coming. The disciples asked for signs of his coming, but Jesus offered the opposite. Jesus says there will be no signs and no one will know just like they didn’t know when Noah’s flood was happening (Matthew 24:36-39). No one knows when this will happen and no signs will be given.
Jesus warns us to “be ready” and “keep watch” so that we will be ready when Jesus returns. Jesus then gives two parables as he often does to get his point across. The parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the servants and the money. These two parables share the same message: be alert and watchful, and do good during the time we have here. We want to be servants who are doing good work when the Lord returns. Then Jesus describes his return and gathering of the people and ultimately their separation. Some will go on his left and on his right and as Jesus says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46).
Jesus offers us a chance to choose. Will we choose him or choose to reject him like the religious leaders of that day. The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and their judgment was executed. Jesus is still going to return. So will you be ready? Will we prepare and serve him until he comes or will we give up and do what we want? Jesus warns us of his coming but it is up to us whether we receive him with fear or joy.