IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 9, February 28 to March 5, 2000

THE COMING OF THE END
Commentary on Matthew 24:1-51

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



I. THE INTRODUCTION. 24:1-3.

A. Jesus and the Temple. 24:1-2.

Jesus' departure from the temple, visibly foreshadows God's abandonment of the temple to judgment (23:33-39). In calling Jesus' attention to the temple complex (v. 1b), the disciples express admiration for its strength and beauty, as Mk 13:1 makes clear. This suggests that the disciples have not yet comprehended that the temple is to be destroyed (if the thought of destruction is present in Mk 13:1, it seems to be disbelief that such a building could be destroyed, rather than regret that it will be). Accordingly, Jesus makes this prospect very explicit in v. 2: the temple shall be completely demolished, razed to the ground.

B. The Temple and the Consummation. 13:3.

Having abandoned the temple, Jesus now takes his seat on the Mount of Olives (across the Kidron Valley, opposite the temple) - a reminder of his action in 5:1 and an indication (as there) that the forthcoming discourse is delivered by One possessing supreme authority. Cf. 24:35, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." This discourse, unlike the Sermon on the Mount, is delivered in the hearing of the disciples exclusively (v. 3). Mt 7:28-29 has no counterpart at the end of the present discourse; cf. the comments on 13:10-17; and 16:13-20. NB that Jesus' discourse is a direct response to the disciples' question in v. 3. This question makes the closest connection between the destruction of the temple ("when will this happen?"), and the consummation of history ("and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"; a single definite article governs parousias and synteleias, showing this to be a twofold reference to one event). For Jesus too (as we shall see) these two events are distinguishable but inseparable. A knowledgeable, devout Jew of that time could hardly think otherwise.


II. BETWEEN THE ADVENTS. 24:4-14.

In this opening section of the discourse Jesus speaks of certain marks of the entire age between his forthcoming departure and his return. No less than three times in this passage (vv. 6, 13, 14), Jesus speaks of the coming of the end (telos), i.e. of his coming and of the end of the age (v. 3b; cf. the instance of telos in 10:22, together with 10:23 and the comments on that passage). As first manifested, the various phenomena are "the beginning of birth pains" (v. 8). When we view the present prophecy in light of the rest of Scripture, particularly the apocalyptic passages, we learn that these phenomena will intensify as the End approaches (just as a mother's final stage of labor brings the most acute pain).

A. The Rise of False Messiahs. 24:4-5, 11 (cf. 24:23-24).

1. Their design. They shall not claim to be Jesus himself (this name is absent from these vv.). Instead, they shall claim to speak and to work miracles (v. 24) in his name (v. 5), and to complete the messianic work that he began (v. 5b, "claiming, 'I am the Christ'"). Their purpose is to draw people away from the true Christ and bring them under their own power. They shall be too clever to advance their cause by frontal opposition to Christ. Instead they shall do so by imitating the reality (e.g., as John the true prophet appeared in the desert, 3:1, so too will the false prophets, 24:24, 26).

2. Their effect. So cleverly shall they do their work that many will be deceived (vv. 5, 11). Some will renounce the faith (v. 10; cf. 13:21); even the elect shall barely escape being deceived (v. 24) - one reason being that so many people around them will have succumbed. Another reason for the false messiahs' success is that they shall advocate the way of lawlessness (v. 12, anomian, the word used in 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; observe the kinship between the teachers of the law & the Pharisees, and the false messiahs) - a far more attractive alternative (for the present) than the way of radical obedience demanded by the true Messiah (see comments on 7:13-14). On the attractiveness of the false teachers' alleged "new revelations" as distinct from Jesus' traditional (old) teachings, see Gundry, 485-86. An example of a false messiah in our own day is Sun Myung Moon, who calls himself "the Lord of the Second Advent," and who claims to have been sent by God to complete the work that Jesus was unable to finish.

3. The safeguard. The protection against such deceptions, particularly the dazzling visible phenomena (v. 24), is close attentiveness to Jesus' teachings (v. 25, "I have told you ahead of time; cf. 28:20a; Rev 13:1-18, especially v. 11, "He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon"). Such imposters will appear in every generation between the advents: note that "many will come" in Jesus' name (v. 5). 2 Thess 2:1-12 describes the last and the worst embodiment of the spirit of antichrist (1 Jn 2:18) at work throughout this whole period.

B. Wars and Reports of Wars. 24:6-7a.

The whole period will be marked by both the threat of war and the actual outbreak of war, as amply documented in the history of the past 1900 years. Jesus' warning will help disciples keep things in perspective. Such wars are inevitable, he says (which guards us against the illusion that world peace can be attained prior to Christ's return, whether through the UN or by papal appeals or any other means). Moreover, the outbreak of war (even on an international scale) does not mean that the very End is imminent. Therefore let disciples not panic. The Lord of the harvest will allow nothing - not even global war - to thwart his global mission (v. 14; 10:23; 28:18-20). And let disciples beware lest international holocaust divert their attention from, or become an excuse for evading, their prime responsibility of discipling the nations, including those at war (v. 14; 28:19-20). At the end, such war will be intensified, and earthly struggles caught up into the final spiritual conflict between Christ and Satan (cf. 2 Thess 2:8; Rev 19:11-21; 20:7-10).

C. Natural Calamities. 24:7b.

"There will be earthquakes and famines in various places." World history of the past 1900 years, amply confirms the accuracy of the prophecy. The famines result in part from natural disasters such as earthquakes and drought, and in part from widespread warfare (which takes time and energy away from such pursuits as farming). On the worsening of such phenomena as the End approaches, cf. Rev 6-16 (the gradual intensification from the breaking of seals through the sounding of trumpets to the pouring out of the bowls of wrath). Some think there has been an intensification of both earthquakes and famine in the 20th century. On the latter, cf. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. In the larger Biblical picture, natural upheaval and final conflagration become instrumental in the establishing of the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pet 3:3-13; Rom 8:18-25; Rev 21-22).

D. Persecution of Christians. 24:9-14.

As in 10:16-42, Jesus is starkly realistic about the prospects for his followers. They will experience the sufferings of men in general, but many others too on account of their allegiance to Christ (24:9b). The very nations to whom they take the gospel (28:19) will turn against them (v. 9). V. 10 describes the twin effects of pressure from persecutors (which will cause many to renounce the faith and/or to betray fellow believers) and from false teachers. Coming as it does immediately after the reference to anomia, "lawlessness" (v. 12), the summons to "stand firm" (v. 13) is issued in face of "the temptation to escape persecution by taking the antinomian way" (Gundry, 480). Are we witnessing an intensification of such persecution in our day?

E. The Proclamation of the Gospel.

Persecution provides Christians an opportunity to preach the gospel (cf. 10:17-20). Nothing, not even the hatred of all nations (24:9), will prevent the gospel's going forth "as a testimony to all nations" (v. 14). In one sense, this purpose was accomplished during the first century (the commission of Acts 1:8 reached a fulfillment with Paul's arrival in Rome). But in the larger sense, the testimony to all nations continues until God has drawn his elect from every nation (cf. v. 3-1). Once that goal is reached, the End shall come (v. 14b). Persecution, however severe, will not thwart but only aid the mission; and the coming Lord will surely deliver those who remain faithful to him (v. 13), whether by life or by death (v. 9). Christians today possess marvellous gifts of God's common grace (such as satellites and computers) to facilitate intensified global evangelism.


III. TRIBULATION FOR THE JEWISH NATION. 24:15-25.

A. The Focus of the Passage.

Jesus here speaks, as in 23:33-38, of the holocaust that awaits the Israel of his own generation (genea, 23:36; cf. the comments on 24:34), culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. at the hands of the Romans. The following points are offered in support of this view.

B. The Christians' Flight from Jerusalem.

This event of 66 A.D. is recorded in Eusebius, History of the Church III.5.3: "Moreover, the people of the church at Jerusalem, in accordance with a certain oracle that was vouchsafed by way of revelation to approved men there, had been commanded to depart from the city before the war, and to inhabit a certain city of Peraea. They called in Pella." Verse 16, "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains," is the "oracle" on which that action was based (apud Lane, Mark, 468; for another view see Gundry, 482). Verses 17-20 reflect the urgent need for swift flight before the advancing Roman army. "Fugitives will not take time to run downstairs for anything to take with them but will run from roof to roof [most roofs were flat] to evacuate the city as quickly as possible; [and] people in the fields will not have time to go home for their cloaks" (Carson, 501), vv. 17-18. Such a time obviously offers special difficulties to "pregnant women and nursing mothers" (24:19). Let disciples pray that they won't have to flee during winter ("i.e., during the rainy season of flooded wadis and muddy roads," Gundry 483) and the Sabbath ("because of rabbinic restrictions, suspension of services to travellers, and especially inability to purchase supplies and the danger of being identified as a Christian - and therefore exposed the greater to persecution - through travelling on the Sabbath," ibid.). The call to prayer is significant: even amidst events that are sure to occur, God freely answers the prayers of his children (cf. 9:35-38).

C. The Desolation of the Temple.

We recall that the disciples had asked when the temple would be destroyed (vv. 5, 3) - an event which actually occurred in 70 A.D. Observe, furthermore, that this section begins with a reference to "the abomination that causes desolation" (24:15, eremoseos; cf. 23:38, eremos, "desolate"), and its "standing in the holy place." Cf. Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11. In light of these passages, cf. F. F. Bruce on the events of 70 A.D.: "When the temple area was taken by the Romans, and the sanctuary itself was still burning, the soldiers brought their legionary standards into the sacred precincts, set them up opposite the eastern gate, and offered sacrifice to them there, acclaiming Titus as imperator (victorious commander) as they did so. The...offering of such sacrifice in the temple court was the supreme insult to the God of Israel. This action, following as it did the cessation of the daily sacrifice three weeks earlier, must have seemed to many Jews, as it evidently did to Josephus, a new and final fulfillment of Daniel's vision of a time when the continual burnt offering would be taken away and the abomination of desolation set up" (Israel and the Nations, 224; cf. Josephus, Jewish War VI: 94, 311, 316).

D. Events Amid History.

The events described in the present passage are catastrophic but not apocalyptic. In other words, these events occur within history rather than at history's end. To illustrate: What good would it do to flee to the mountains (v. 16) amidst the cosmic upheaval associated with history's end? And in that climactic hour, what difference would the season or the day make (v. 20)? This judgment is confirmed in verses 21-22: (1) The forthcoming tribulation will be the very worst that Jews have ever experienced or ever will experience (v. 21; as the Roman siege wore on, "the horrors of famine, and even cannibalism, were added to the hazards of war," Bruce, Israel, 223, see further 223-25). (2) That tribulation will have a definite end (v. 22). (3) History will continue to run its course once that tribulation is over (v. 21b, "and never to be equalled again"). For further confirmation, see Lk 21:20-24. Despite rumors to the contrary (24:23-26), this event is clearly to be distinguished from Jesus' Parousia.


IV. THE COMING OF THE SON OF MAN. 24:26-31.

A. An Apocalyptic Event.

Beginning at 24:27 there is a shift of language. Now events are cosmic in scale: note the references to lightning (v. 27); to disturbances in the heavenly bodies (v. 29, with quotes from Isa 13:10; 34:4; the "falling of stars" appears to mean a shower of meteorites); and - especially - to the phenomena associated with the coming of the Son of Man (v. 30). The false messiahs' "great signs and miracles" are paltry by comparison (v. 24). "The sign of the Son of Man" (v. 30a), may be equivalent to "the sign of your coming" (v. 3), and thus a reference to Jesus himself (Gundry, 488). More likely, the disciples inquire about a sign presaging Jesus' coming, and Jesus refers to a standard or banner which (with the trumpet, v. 31) signals Messiah's royal descent (Carson, 505, adopting T. F. Glasson's interpretation of v. 30). Cf. 1 Thess 4:16 for a yet greater emphasis on the noise associated with Jesus' return - for the purpose of awakening the dead from sleep.

B. A Public Event.

This is already evident from the apocalyptic signs of v. 29. Moreover, as the lightning "comes from the east" but is visible as far away as the western horizon (v. 27), so the glorious advent of the Son of Man will be visible throughout the world - to all nations (v. 30, cf. vv. 9, 14). Such a manifestation stands in stark contrast to the localized appearances alleged by the false teachers ("in the desert," "in the inner rooms," v. 26). In v. 30 ("the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory"), Jesus witnesses to his deity (cf. Dan 7:13-14); his glory is the Father's glory (16:27; cf. Phil 2:9-11). The clouds reflect his brilliant splendor, and the angels (24:31; cf. 16:27) "swell the triumph of his train."

C. A Critical Event.

Jesus comes both to save and to judge.

1. The salvation of the elect. Jesus' people, gathered "from the four winds" (i.e. from all nations), shall rejoice over his coming, for this marks their final salvation (v. 31). V. 29a recalls not only vv. 15-25, but vv. 4-14 as well. As Carson notes, "the distress of those days" embraces "the entire interadvent period of thlipsis" (p. 505), not just the acute distress of A.D. 66-70 (but see V. below). From all those distresses - especially from the persecution experienced for his sake - Jesus shall deliver his people (cf. 5:10-12). For true disciples the judgment according to works (16:27), shall mean their final commendation (cf. comments on ch. 25; see also 1 Cor 4:5).

2. The judgment of the wicked. "All the nations of the earth shall mourn" (v. 30) over the prospect of being conquered by Jesus' might and judged for their sins (v. 9). The proverb of v. 28 may mean that the Judge will discover the wicked as surely as vultures find a carcass (for other views see Carson, 503-4). For "workers of lawlessness" - whether non-disciples or false disciples - the judgment according to works (16:27) will mean condemnation (7:21-23).

D. A Single Event.

According to this passage (together with 16:27), there is a single, glorious advent, by virtue of which Jesus both saves and judges. There is no warrant here, nor anywhere else in the NT, for the idea of a divided coming - first Jesus' coming for his saints, and then (some years later) his coming with his saints. Observe furthermore that his coming occurs after a period of tribulation (v. 29a), and that the reference to "his elect" (v. 31) is unqualified (i.e. the term embraces Jesus' people comprehensively - not specifically Jews thought to be saved during "the Great Tribulation" between the Rapture and the Coming in Glory).

E. A Sudden Event.

As the day and the hour of Jesus' coming are unknown, it is imperative that his followers remain constantly faithful and watchful (24:36-44; 25:13). See further under VI.


V. TRIBULATION AND CONSUMMATION. 24:32-36.

A. The Immediate Prospect. 24:32-35.

Jesus returns to the subject of 24:15-25, to events which are relatively near - thus the phrase "all these things" (vv. 33, 34). When disciples "see all these things" [described in 24:15-25], you know that it [Jerusalem's destruction] is near, right at the door" (v. 33). If, with NIV mg., we read "he" instead of "it," the verse more closely echoes 16:28, interpreted earlier as a manifestation of Christ's power prior to, and in anticipation of, his Return.

Jesus authoritatively declares (vv. 34a, 35) that "this generation [genea] will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (v. 34b). The term genea refers here, as in 23:36, to the contemporary generation of Jews (cf. its use in 11:16; 12:39-45; 17:17) - not to the Jewish "race" (significantly, of the passages just cited, NIV offers "race" as an alternative only here in 24:34). Does Jesus use the figure of v. 32 in deliberate recollection of his cursing of the fig tree (21:18-19), since the subject here, as there, is the coming judgment on Israel?

B. The Final Prospect. 24:36.

Jesus here refers to the subject of 24:26-31, to the relatively distant event of his Return - so he speaks of "that day or hour." No one but God the Father knows the precise time of Jesus' Return (a fact that should give pause to contemporary prognosticators - lest they confidently make predictions beyond what even Jesus was willing or able to do). Disclosure of that time would encourage inattentiveness to present responsibilities: the call to vigilance, vv. 37-51, flows directly out of the statement of v. 36.

C. The Indissoluble Connection.

While distinguishable, those two events are inseparable. So close are they that the length of the period between them cannot be determined. Furthermore, many of the features of vv. 15-25 may apply also to the intense tribulation immediately before Jesus' Return (cf. vv. 4-14, 29a). Just as "the abomination of desolation" in 70 A.D. is anticipated in the event of 167 B.C. (the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes), so the event of 70 A.D. may in turn anticipate a yet more horrible abomination associated with the last and worst embodiment of antichrist (cf. 2 Thess 2:4).


VI. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE PRESENT. 24:36-51.

A. Attentiveness.

It is vital that disciples (and those whom they teach) pay close heed to what Jesus teaches in this discourse. The reason Noah's contemporaries "knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away" (v. 39), is that they paid no attention to Noah's witness - both the visible (the ark itself!) and the verbal (2 Pet 2:5). Disciples have no excuse for being caught by surprise by coming events, whether the closer ones of 24:15-25 or the more distant ones of vv. 26-31. Cf. 1 Thess 5:4.

B. Sobriety.

Jesus combats potential carelessness and over-confidence by holding before his followers the prospect of judgment. Disciples too are to be judged (16:27). Verses 40-41 illustrate both the suddenness of the Final Judgment, and also the separation which will then occur according to men's relationship to Jesus. It is uncertain whether one is "taken" into judgment (v. 39) or into salvation (v. 31). The central truth is the division which Jesus and his judgment brings about (cf. 10:34-39; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50).

C. Vigilance.

This arises out of that attentiveness to Jesus' warnings, and that sober awareness of coming judgment. The uncertainty of the hour of Jesus' return (v. 36) calls for constant watchfulness. Since it might happen at any time, one must be watchful at every time (24:42-44; cf. 1 Thess 5:1-11).

D. Faithfulness.

Verses 45-51 are addressed to all disciples, but especially to the church's leaders (24:45b, "in charge of the servants"). Leaders who gently and respectfully lead and nurture those under their care, will be given greater responsibility (24:46-47; cf. 25:19-23; 19:28-30). But if an appointed leader (taking advantage of Jesus' absence) abuses or neglects those "little ones" under his care (cf. Mt 18), he gives evidence of hypocrisy (i.e. of the phoniness of his Christian profession) and he shall be threatened with the very judgment in store for those hypocritical Jewish leaders (vv. 48-51; cf. ch. 23).

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