A discussion broke out in an eschatology (end times) class last night over N.T. Wright’s statement in Surprised by Hope that “during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return” (125). One astute student quickly thrust her hand in the air and inquired about Matthew 24. Surely this (and the following passages) was about the second coming of Christ.
I believe Matthew 24 (and Mark 13 and Luke 21) are best understood as Jesus’ prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This fits much of the prophetic themes of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself throughout his ministry. Israel longed for God’s emphatic return to the Temple. They longed for God to judge the enemies of the people of God. But the prophets repeatedly warn Israel, lest she find on that day that she too is counted among the enemies of God (see, at least, Mal. 3:3-5).
This prophetic speech that Jesus gives his disciples in Matthew 24 then serves as a historical vindication of his role as prophet. He read the signs of the times and pronounced that if the people of Jerusalem kept going the way they were going, they would find themselves under judgment, and that judgment would vindicate his warnings.
Let’s look at the text. We’ll investigate Matthew 24:1-35 today, the rest of the chapter tomorrow, and then we’ll slip into chapter 25 as well next week.
1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Indeed, Titus’ armies demolished the temple in 70 AD. Much of the city of Jerusalem was left in ruins, not one stone upon another, as it were.
3 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 close of the age?”
Two notes. First, the Mount of Olives is just east of Jerusalem, and the temple mount is easily visible from there. Second, when the word “coming” is used throughout these passages, it should not be read “return,” but as “entering the presence of God,” a la Daniel 7:13 (“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.”). The question the disciples are asking is this: “When will you be vindicated by God as the King of the Jews, which would of course result in the restoration of Israel?”
4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”
It is important to remember that the Christ, or Messiah, was expected to restore Israel’s fortunes, not least in the political realm. The Christ was expected by many to overthrow the Jews’ foreign oppressors (in this case, Rome). But Jesus’ message all along has been to the contrary. He’s not there to overthrow Caesar’s rule (though it was certainly unjust in many ways), but Satan’s rule, which animated Caesar (and his ilk).
6 “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”
War breaks out between the Jews and the Romans in 66 AD, led in part by the messianic figure Simon bar Giora.
7 “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”
These wars, which broke out in 66, were not simply the Jews v. the Romans, but tensions were high among Jews against the Greeks as well. Indeed, there were plenty of tensions among the Jews themselves.
8 “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. 9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”
This should not surprise us. If Jesus’ disciples stick to his program, they will not join the fighting against Rome. They will declare that Rome is not the true enemy, but another. They will declare that the Jews’ hope and salvation had already come.
10 “And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.”
In this context, a false prophet might be those encouraging their fellow Jews to join in the fighting against the Romans.
12 “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Verse 14 essentially outlines the book of Acts, in which the good news that Jesus is in fact Lord of the whole world spreads throughout the Roman Empire. All of this occurs before these wars break out in Judea.
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”
What, exactly, the “abomination of desolation” refers to is debated, but if it is a sign of coming war, then Jesus’ instructions afterwards make sense. Don’t stick around in the city. Get out fast!
21 “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
Even Jesus can use effective hyperbole.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
We’ve mentioned this already. A false christ would likely be encouraging the revolt against Rome as God’s part of God’s plan to restore the fortunes of Israel.
25 “See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Remember, the coming of the Son of Man is the entrance of Christ into the presence of God (Dan. 7:13). It is his vindication as Lord over the whole world, not just Israel’s deliverance.
28 “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. 29 Immediately, after the tribulation of those days 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.”
When Jerusalem falls to the Romans, it will be as the end of the world for the Jews. Nothing will be as it was. Indeed, the temple is never reconstructed in Jerusalem after 70 AD. Following these conflicts with Rome, the whole face of Judaism undergoes massive shifts.
30 “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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 out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Again our attention is directed toward Daniel 7. Once these events take place, Jesus is saying, people all over the globe will recognize that his words are vindicated, that he was indeed the Christ, that he is in fact Lord over the whole world. If Jesus was right in foretelling this great tragedy, might I need to take a second look at his other teachings and actions?
32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Jesus simply assures his disciples that they can count on the veracity of his prophecy. In fact, they ought to expect its fulfillment within their lifetimes. And, as history unfolded, it did, about 40 years later.