Understanding Matthew 24
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
The teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew 24 are commonly misapplied by people in the denominational world. People want to know what will happen in the future. They don't enjoy having secrets kept from them. This is true whether we are talking about our jobs lasting another year or about important religious matters, such as the second coming of Christ. Many people believe that Jesus has told us when he would return and the signs of that return are recorded in Matthew 24.
To gain a better understand of what Jesus taught, we must first turn to Matthew 23 and see the context of Jesus' statements. In this chapter, Jesus brings numerous charges against the Jewish leaders for their mistreatment of God's Law (Matthew 23:1-32). He then concludes his condemnation by prophesying the consequences of their errors (Matthew 23:33-36). The Jews had killed God's people in the past. Though this current generation thought they were above such misdeeds, Jesus stated that they would continue to kill righteous people. They were not above the misdeeds of their forefathers, they were just as guilty. The punishment for killing God's people would fall upon this very generation.
This is a shocking statement to those who had been expecting a rebirth of the Jewish nation! As Jesus and the disciples were leaving Jerusalem, the disciples were pointing out to Jesus the glories of the temple. Jesus used the opportunity to emphasize his point. He stated the temple would be destroyed - to the point that not one stone would be left upon another. Now to the Jews, such a destruction of the temple could only mean the end of Jerusalem, their nation, and the world. When they had a private moment with Jesus, they asked him three questions: 1) When will these things happen? 2) What will be the sign of your coming? 3) What will be the sign of the end of the age?
As we read through the gospels, we are struck with the fact that Jesus often answers the actual question asked and not the question the person thought they were asking. His answer to his disciple's questions is no different. To the disciples, all three questions dealt with the same event, but Jesus' answer shows there are two events being asked about. In Matthew 24:4-34, he answers the question about the end of Jerusalem. In Matthew 24:36-25:46, he addresses the topic of the end of the world.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
Jesus warns his disciples that the destruction of Jerusalem would be soon. In fact it would occur in their generation (Matthew 23:36; 24:34). The words translated "this generation" do not refer to an age, but to the people living at the time Jesus was speaking. For example, in Matthew 11:16-19, Jesus scolds the people of that generation for not giving heed to John and Jesus. Later, Jesus said there would be some of that generation who would not see death before Jesus' kingdom was established (Matthew 16:28).
The times leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem would be unusual. There would be an increase in the number of wars, famines, and earthquakes (Matthew 24:6-8). The persecution of the disciples would also increase (Matthew 24:9-13). These predictions have been supported by historians of the time period between A.D. 50 and A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed.
In addition to general signs, Jesus gives his disciples specific signs to watch for which would tell them that the destruction of Jerusalem would be soon. Before Jerusalem would be destroyed, the gospel would be preached to the whole world (Matthew 24:14). Paul stated this was accomplished in Colossians 1:23. Just prior to the destruction, the "abomination of desolation", which Daniel prophesied, would take place. In Luke's account of these same matters, Jesus said that the Roman army would surround Jerusalem just prior to the desolation (Luke 21:20). Josephus speaks of a tyrant, named Simon, who slew the priests "as they were about their sacred duties. . . many persons, who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth, to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place . . . fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar . . . with their own blood; till the dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcases stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves." This happened just prior to Titus marching on Jerusalem.
These signs would give those who paid heed to them plenty of advance warning (Matthew 24:32-33). When they saw the signs, Jesus urges his followers to flee Jerusalem as fast as they possibly could (Matthew 24:16-22). He urged them to pray that the time would not come when flight would be hindered, such as during the winter or on the Sabbath when the gates of Jerusalem would be closed. Jesus also warned them not to delay because of misleading statements by people falsely calling themselves the Christ (Matthew 24:23-28). Many people will ignore Jesus' warnings because of these people. However, the Christians have their warning (Matthew 24:24-25). According to traditional history, Christians heeded their Master and not one Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The destruction prophesied, while severe, was limited only to Jerusalem and the nation of Israel (Matthew 23:25; 24:1-2). Descriptive terms are used to show the severity of this destruction which are similar to the terms used for the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:9-11, Joel 2:10) and of Egypt (Isaiah 11:12; 19:1).
Jesus assures his listeners in Matthew 24:35 that these things will happen and God will not alter what Jesus has just prophesied.
The End of the World
Jesus now moves to a new topic, concerning when the end of the world will take place. Unlike the end of Jerusalem, the time for the end of the world is not known - even Jesus did not know when the end will be (Matthew 24:36). Notice that Jesus calls this event "that day." This is the same phrase used by Paul (I Thessalonians 5:2) and Peter (II Peter 3:10-13) in regard to the end of the world.
The end of Jerusalem would be preceded by unusual events, but at the end of the age, the times will appear to be normal (Matthew 24:37-39). Paul said people would be thinking contented thoughts of peace and safety (I Thessalonians 5:3). Nothing unusual would precede the end. No warnings, no signs, nothing to mark the event in advance.
Without advance warning, there is no possibility of preparing for the end at the last moment. Therefore, we must be prepared for the event to happen at any time (Matthew 24:42-45; I Thessalonians 5:4-11). Nor will there be an opportunity to hide from this event (Matthew 24:40-41; I Thessalonians 5:3). This will be a universal judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), whom no one can escape.
Compare the two halves of Jesus' answer to his disciples:
|Destruction of Jerusalem
|Destruction of the World
|The time is identifiable.||The time is unknown.|
|It will occur in "this generation."||It will happen on "that day."|
|The events prior will be unusual.||The events prior will be typical.|
|There will be advance warnings - the example of the fig tree.||There will be no warning - the example of the thief.|
|The judgment will be local - on the nation of Israel.||The judgment will be universal.|
|Specific signs of the coming judgement can be seen.||No advance sign of the end will be found.|
|There will be time to escape the judgment.||There will be no time for flight.|
Too often, people mix the events from the destruction of Jerusalem with the events dealing with the end of the world. This leads people to believe they can predict the end of the world, even though Jesus clearly states that there will be no warning. You will not know years, months, weeks, or even days in advance of Jesus' return. You will not have a chance to make last minute preparations. You must be prepared for the master to return at any moment. Are you ready?