by Brad Sherman
Chapter 24 of Matthew is one of the most looked to chapters in the New Testament regarding the future and the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is common for people to read Matthew 24 and assume it is speaking only of the future. This is due in part to the fact that this chapter deals with comments Jesus made and questions the disciples asked which, at the time, were indeed all future. But we will see that this chapter actually speaks of events that would happen with in a few years, as well as events that would take place at least 2000 years later. At the time, the disciples would have had a hard time understanding this. After all, they were still having difficulty grasping the fact that Jesus would have to be crucified and die. They thought that Jesus would immediately assume the throne of Israel and restore the kingdom to Israel (see Luke 19:11).
Shortly following the resurrection, they again thought the time had come for the kingdom to appear (see Acts 1:6). So Jesus told them when, but not in the way they were expecting. He essentially told them the kingdom would appear when the kingdom message had been preached to the whole earth (see Matt 24:14). This is what He meant when He instructed them to be His witness to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:7-8). Only after they had received the Holy Spirit (Jesus had said that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things—John 14:26) and events continued to unfold did they begin to understand Jesus’ perspective on time. This is seen in Peter’s epistle when, concerning the end the age, he wrote, “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 NKJV).
Have you considered that some of the things that we have thought to be future events, may have already happened? Some believe nearly all of the Bible prophecies are already fulfilled. This is a belief that is more common among post millennialists and amillennialists and is known as preterism. But among preterists, there are many different views resulting in full to partial preterists. I admit that I don’t have this all sorted out. The following is simply a commentary on one chapter that will establish the idea that knowledge of history is an essential tool when it comes to understanding Bible prophecy. Now let’s look at Matthew 24 (NKJV) with these things in mind.
Matthew Chapter Twenty Four
1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 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."
This provides a context for the discussion. This prediction is clearly speaking of something to happen very quickly. History records that the temple was dismantled in 70 AD when soldiers under the Roman General Titus did just as Jesus had predicted.
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?"
Here we see that the Disciples asked a very broad question which had to do with events that would come to pass very soon (the destruction of the temple) and an event that we now know would not take place for at least 2000 years ( the end of the age). Therefore, the very nature of the question requires Jesus’ response to cover a time span of at least two millennia. Only by keeping this in mind can we understand the discussion that follows.
4 And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 "For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. 6 "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 "All these are the beginning of sorrows. 9 "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. 10 "And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 "Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 "And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 "But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
In these verses, Jesus relates the general way in which the future would unfold. In fact, contrary to many modern teachings, He says that wars and rumors of war are not the sign of the end (vs. 6) and that we should not be troubled by these things; they must come to pass. He warns of the persecution that His disciples would experience in their own lives (events to come soon) and says many false prophets will arise and deceive many.
Remembering that these comments are in the context of a very broad question, we see that this passage can easily be interpreted as applying to the days leading up to the temple’s destruction in 70 AD as well as applying to the next two thousand years.
14 "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Here, in verse 14, Jesus speaks specifically of the end saying the “gospel of the kingdom must be preached as a witness to all nations” before the end. Some people believe that “the end” Jesus was speaking of here was the end of the Old Covenant signified by the destruction of the temple. However, Jesus statement here about the gospel of the kingdom being preached to in all the world as witness to all nations bears a striking similarity of His response in Acts 1:8. where the disciples had asked Jesus if the kingdom would then be restored to Israel (see Acts 1:6). This question (Acts 1:6) is a reference to the kingdom’s appearing and is thus a reference to the end of the age. Unless we believe that the preaching of the gospel will not produce a great harvest (which I do not), a massive harvest coming into the Church in every nation is a sign of the end and His return.
15 "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 "Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 "And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 "But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 "And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.
Many modern interpreters of prophecy have said that the abomination spoken of here is a reference to the Antichrist who, at a time near the end of the age, will sit in a rebuilt temple proclaiming himself to be Christ or taking the place of Christ. They say that this will be the sign that the great tribulation period has begun. However, a simple comparison of this verse to the same account in the other gospels reveals a different possibility.
Mark tells us basically the same thing that Matthew does (see Mark 13:14). But a look at the parallel passage in Luke gives us what appears to be a specific interpretation of what this abomination of desolation is.
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. 21 "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. — Luke 21:20-21 (NKJV)
Luke replaces the term holy place with Jerusalem, which defines holy place as the holy city, not just the holy of holies or the temple mount. Luke also describes the abomination of desolation as armies. What was considered an abomination to the Hebrews? Gentiles. What brings desolation to a city? The army of an enemy. What then was the abomination that would bring desolation to Jerusalem? A Gentile army. This is what happened in 70 AD. The Roman army composed of Gentiles surrounded Jerusalem and placed it under siege. Was this was the sign that Jesus spoke of, warning His followers to leave town-quickly?
21 "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 "And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened.
The key word in the above two verses is “then.” For then there will be great tribulation...” When? When you see armies surrounding Jerusalem. History records that, due to the siege, the famine was so bad in Jerusalem, that people even resorted to cannibalism, even eating their own children. Those who tried to escape, were caught and killed and often cut open in search of gold that was being smuggled out by swallowing. This was the greatest tribulation Jerusalem had ever experienced.
Jesus had told them not to be troubled by wars, etc., they “...must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (verse 6). It was fair warning that there was definitely going to be a war. Jesus was telling His disciples that when they see the abomination of desolation in the holy place (signs of eminent war—armies surrounding Jerusalem?), they were to flee to the mountains and they were not to expect His return at that time.
23 "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. 24 "For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 "See, I have told you beforehand. 26 "Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it.
Any time there is tribulation, people become very vulnerable and may follow any self-appointed prophet or false christ that may arise. I am sure it was no different during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some may have promised deliverance and tried to gather groups to go out and fight or escape claiming the Messiah would meet them in the desert. But Jesus had warned His followers, “...do not go out.” Others may have claimed to have direction from God to barricade themselves in inner rooms and wait for the Messiah to rescue them there. But Jesus had said, “...do not believe them.” Either of these choices would have been a fatal mistake. Here is why.
For reasons that are not clear, when things were looking quite bad for Jerusalem, the Romans withdrew their siege. The more militant-minded Jews thought the Romans may have grown weak and wanted to pursue them. Others just wanted to stay in Jerusalem and try to get things back to normal. But Christians remembered the words of Jesus and used this opportunity to flee.
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. 21 "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her.— Luke 21:20-21 NKJV
When the siege began, the Christians undoubtedly began to look for their chance to escape but had none. However, when the Romans retreated, those who knew Jesus’warning saw their chance and left. The tribulation was shortened for the elect’s sake, just as Jesus had said and they escaped. We also note that other believers who may have been in Judea (possibly hiding in the countryside) would have also fled to the mountains. However, The Roman soldiers soon came to Jerusalem and a terrible slaughter began as well as the destruction of the temple, so complete that not one stone was left on another.
Therefore, we see that the great tribulation that Jesus warned of can easily be interpreted as a past event that happened in 70 A.D. However, this is not to suggest that Christians have not and will not encounter persecutions and other difficult times. This has been true throughout history. Nor does it mean that similar events will not unfold at the end of the age. Many prophetic events that have historical fulfillment also serve as a shadow of a future event as well. However, it should be pointed out that the tribulation Jesus spoke of in Matt 24:21 seems to be a singular event, due to the fact that He said, “...there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.”
Though the history surrounding the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the words of Jesus seem to indicate that the great tribulation (time of trouble) took place then, there are verses in Daniel that seem to indicate that the great tribulation happens at the end of the age. The reference to the awakening of those who sleep in the dust of the earth (see verse 2 below) is a strong argument that this passage is describing the end of the age.
At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt. — Daniel 12:1-2 (NKJV)
Those who interpret the great tribulation of Matthew 24 as an end time event often point to Daniel 7:21-22 as proof that the it will be at the end time and that things will disintegrate until Jesus returns.
I was watching; and the same horn was making war against the saints, and prevailing against them, 22 "until the Ancient of Days came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom. — Daniel 7:21-22 (NKJV)
However, The reference to prevailing against the saints does not automatically refer to the great tribulation. In a political sense, which was the mind-set of the disciples, the world systems prevailed and continue to prevail today. In other words, political powers, what we call civil governments, will be prevalent until Jesus comes. When He comes, He will abolish all rule and authority to establish His own political dominance known as the Kingdom of God on earth which will not be a republic, or a democracy, but a theocracy.
27 "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 "For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. 29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
In veres 27-28 we see that we are now talking about the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man, as the time when the sun and moon will be darkened and the stars fall from heaven. Verse 29 refers to “the tribulation of those days” which seems to imply an other tribulation at the end of the age. If taken literally, this means the end of our galaxy, our solar system and the total destruction of planet earth. I know of no one who really believes this is the literal case. So we must look for the symbolic meaning of this, according to a common interpretive rule that essentially says: “When things can be taken literal, take them literal, but when things cannot be taken literally, look, for the symbolic meaning.”
The early symbolic references to stars in Genesis refers to the descendants of Abraham. God promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens (Gen 15:5; 22:17). This is confirmed again by Joseph’s dream when he saw the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him (Gen 37:9-10). Here we see Jacob (Israel) and Rachel represented by the sun and moon, and Joseph’s eleven brothers (tribes of Israel) represented by eleven stars.
Since Sun, moon, and stars are sources of light and since the entrance of His words giveth light (Ps 119:30) we can see that the sun, moon and stars ceasing to give light is a reference to the descendants of Abraham (whether natural or those grafted in) ceasing to be the channel through which God brings His Word (light) into the earth. Jesus Himself will be the light of the world. This is confirmed by the description of the New Jerusalem:
22 But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. — Revelation 21:22-23 (NKJV)
30 "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 "And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near; at the doors! 34 "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. 36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.
Verses 30-31 continue the general description of this kingdom period at the end of the age. But remembering that the question asked by the disciples was a broad question that spanned at least 2000 years, we see that verses 32-35 can easily refer to the portion of the question relating to immediate events. It speaks of the armies surrounding Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, things that did happen before that generation passed away. That is why Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” It was simply the Lord saying to watch the politics begin to play out between Rome and Israel, and you would know that the time is near for the abomination of desolation—the destruction of the temple by Gentile armies.Then Jesus spoke to the part of their question that would not come to pass for at least 2000 years.
37 "But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 38 "For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39 "and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.
Here, Jesus is quite clearly referring to the question the disciples asked “... what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" We also see from this that Jesus’ return will not be in a time of global chaos, at least not in the manner as has been portrayed by some, but at a time when people are carrying on life in a somewhat normal fashion, like the days of Noah (eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage). This is not to say that everything will be peaceful. We have had wars and persecutions all through history and they will continue till the end of this age. However, we can see that this does not paint a picture of Jesus coming at a time of world-wide catastrophic events with people everywhere crying out in agony and begging for death.
40 "Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. 41 "Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.
It is a popular view that the righteous will be removed from the earth in the rapture, and will escape the tribulation that is supposed to follow the rapture. But we can see from verses 37-39, the wicked were the ones removed from the earth and Noah and his family inherited the earth. So will it be at the coming of Christ. It will be a time of judgment that comes quickly on the wicked as Christ and His army of saints bring the whole earth under submission to His kingdom (see Rev 19). This is confirmed by parable of the tares (see Matt 13:24-30; 37-43). The tares (those who offend and are lawless) were gathered first to be burned. Then the wheat (the sons of the kingdom) will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom.
Verses 40-41 are actually addressing something a bit different than verse 39. It is not about who is taken (as those who were taken in Noah’s flood) or who remains on the earth. The word “took” in verse 39 which referrs to the flood that took away the wicked, is the Greek word airo which, in this context simply means to remove or take away. One would therefore assume that the word “taken” used in verses 40 and 41 would be a form of the same word, but it is not. The word “taken” here is the Greek word paralambano. It means to receive near, to associate ones self with, or to assume an office. This is therefore speaking of the sons of the kingdom who are alive and remain on the earth at that time who will be received by the Lord and given an office or position of leadership in His kingdom government. This is confirmed by the fact that the twelve disciples had already been told what their office would be, they will be judges judging the twelve tribes of Israel (see Matt 19:28).
42 "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43 "But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 45 "Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? 46 "Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. 47 "Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods. 48 "But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' 49 "and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, 50 "the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, 51 "and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Where verses 15-22 seem to be a warning and an encouragement to watch for the signs of the eminent destruction of Jerusalem, verses 42-51 present a different warning, to be watchful for the Lord’s return. Verse 48 gives us the impression that a long period of time has passed and even the believers may grow weary and stop watching and begin to backslide. This also gives a strong impression of “life as normal,” not a time of world-wide catastrophic tribulation. The reference to the servant (a believer) that was not watching and became cruel, is very similar to the wicked lazy servant in the parable of stewardship found immediately following in Matthew chapter 25, and in Luke 19.
When we understand that the question presented to Jesus spanned at least 2000 years, we also understand that by necissiity Jesus’ answer must do the same. This chapter has not answered every question nor addressed every issue raised in Matthew 24. However, I trust it has served to remove some of the presuppositions that often cloud our understanding as we seek to build a new paradigm of understanding about the future and be equipped to prepare the way for our King and His Kingdom.