The closing section of Matthew 23, verses 37-39, lamented Jerusalem’s long history of rejecting the prophets and messengers of God. Though Jesus had often wanted to embrace the city that symbolized Judaism, his love was not reciprocated. Matthew 23 ends with the prophecy that Jerusalem’s "house" will be left desolate. Judgment was coming and only Christ’s [second] coming as messianic king could save the city and the Jewish people.
Subject-wise, then, the transition into chapter 24 is a smooth transition. Matthew 24-25 announce the coming judgment and warn the disciples to be prepared for Christ’s coming. Chapter 24 is the Matthean form of what is often called the Synoptic Apocalypse, found also in Mark 13 and Luke 21. These chapters are also called the Olivet Discourse because verse 3 notes that these words were spoken while Jesus and the disciples sat on the Mount of Olives. Matthew’s Olivet Discourse has two main sections: Matthew 24:4-36 and 24:37-25:46. These two large sections answer the two questions raised by the disciples in verse 3. Verses 1-3 provide the setting for this discourse.
The Setting of this Apocalypse - Matthew 24:1-3
The announcement of Jerusalem’s judgment at the end of chapter 23 is followed immediately in Matthew 24:1 by the notice of Jesus coming out from the temple and going away. The gospels provide no record that he ever returned to the temple again. Garland (p. 234) makes this chilling observation, "As ‘God with us,’ Jesus’ exit betokens God’s own abandonment of this supposedly sacred space." He notes the passage in Ezekiel 11:23 describing the glory of the Lord departing from the city and withdrawing to the Mount of Olives.
As Jesus was going out, the disciples were coming toward him to "show" him the buildings of the temple. Historically, the disciples would have known no more about the temple building than Jesus did. Probably this comment is Matthew’s way of mentioning that the disciples were commenting on how impressive the temple buildings were. Such awe then provided Jesus the opportunity to predict that not one stone of these humanly impressive building would be left standing on another stone. This prophecy was very literally fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. Whether than event had taken place when Matthew wrote his gospel or not is uncertain.
The scene shifts to the Mount of Olives, which stands several hundred feet above the temple area east across the Kidron Valley. Anywhere on the upper third of the Mount of Olives would have afforded a beautiful panoramic view of the temple and its environs. With such a view and the words of Jesus’ prophesying the destruction of the temple echoing in their minds, the disciples asked Jesus for further information. They present two questions. The first has to do with when the destruction of the temple will take place. Verses 4-36 of Matthew 24 will provide an answer to that question. The second question asks for the "sign" of Christ’s coming and of the end of the age. In general, Matthew 24:37-25:46 responds to this second question. Though it appears that the two questions have guided Matthew’s division of material in chapters 24-25, there are times in which it is not clear which question is being answered, or if both are being answered by the same words.
Anticipation of the End - Matthew 24:4-14
Jesus’ first response to the disciples’ questions is concern that they not be misled on such a significant subject. It is important that we grasp both Jesus’ concern and his message. There are many in the church in these days who have abandoned interest in and teaching about the end of time because that subject seems to have been dominated by the lunatic fringe of the church. Actually, that is no more the case in our time than it was in Jesus’ time. Speculation about the end of time and apocalyptic warnings and visions were rampant in first century Judaism. But Jesus refused to abandon the subject to the extremists. Carefully he answered his disciples’ question, but his answer does not fit with an extreme preoccupation with end times.
His first response is to downplay the sensational kinds of reports and claims that did circulate in his time and have continued to circulate to our time. The key word in verses 4-14 is "deceive" or "mislead." It appears in verses 4, 5, and 11. The Greek word is planao from which we get our English word, "planets." To the ancient Greeks the planets were deceitful because they looked like stars, but they did not follow a consistent pattern of movement in the sky when compared to other stars. The word was sometimes translated "wanderers" also.
The opening warning is that disciples not be deceived or misled. In fact, many deceivers will come making claims about being the Messiah or knowing the time of his coming or even claiming special knowledge about the signs of his coming. The result of such claims is deception. It is deception because, as Jesus will say later, no one knows the time of Christ’s coming or of the end of time. The result is also deception because teachers claiming to know all the signs of the times have historically changed their interpretations regularly. Whenever one claim that Christ’s coming is very near fails to turn out correctly, such teachers immediately retool to "adjust" their calculations and "reset" the timing and the critical signs. The result is skepticism for it is clear that such interpreters "wander" from interpretation to interpretation according to that which best fits the moment. This habit lessens the credibility of any interpretation.
Jesus then identifies a series of so-called signs: Wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines and earthquakes. However, verse 6 states that such signs do not mean the end is near. Verse 8 describes them as the "beginning of birth pangs." This was common language among the Jewish preachers of end times. They believed that terrible and cataclysmic events would be like birth pangs ushering in the birth of the end of times. Jesus’ point, however, is that such signs are only "the beginning" of the birth pangs. This means that while they are to be taken seriously, they are not as urgent as the people who make much of them would have us believe. Further, thoughtful people have always noted that wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and political disturbances have always happened. Every generation experiences such events, sometimes more than once. Verse 6 states that such things "must" happen. They are part of the progression of human history that God has permitted since the Fall, but they do not directly signal the end.
Verses 9-12 shift to the specific difficulties that Jesus’ followers will face. Tribulation is the first mentioned. The Greek word implied pressure and the early church used the word for all kinds of pressures, persecution, and difficulties that led people to abandon their faith in Christ. Martyrdom and being hated by others are also identified. The flow of the context suggests that these too are not indications that the end is about to arrive; rather they are also the beginning of birth pangs. Lawlessness will increase and the devotion of God’s people will decrease. France (p. 339) describes this as, "a somber picture of a church in decline."
Since Matthew has shown a consistently high regard for the Law (remember Matthew 5:17-20) and because "love" sums up all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-40), the combination of lawlessness and the loss of love are extremely serious. At least one aspect of such failure in the church appears in verse 14. There Jesus notes that the gospel must be preached in the whole world bringing a witness of Christ to every people and nation before the end will occur. At the time Matthew wrote his gospel there was a strong sense of progress and momentum on that issue. The witness of the church was rapidly expanding and most of the great centers of the known world had heard the gospel at least once. But lawlessness and a decline in love would slow, if not halt, the spread of the gospel. Since the worldwide spread of the gospel was necessary before the end, any backing away from the Great Commission would delay the end of time. These words were not spoken to motivate people to soft pedal missions in order to hold off the end of time a bit longer. Rather, they were spoken to motivate people to faithfulness to the Great Commission as well as preparedness for the second coming.
Crisis in Judea - Matthew 24:15-28
The question of the disciples in verse had asked for signs. Verses 4-14 did not directly answer the question, but told what signs were not signs of the end.
Beginning in verse 15 Jesus begins to address the question more directly. The focus of these verses seems to be Jerusalem and Judea. They address the coming judgment against Jerusalem and Judea that will result in not one stone of the temple buildings being left on top another.
Some scholars assume that the details of these verses so accurately describe the events of the Jewish War from AD 66-70 that Jesus could not have predicted them forty years in advance. They argue that Matthew wrote his gospel after AD 70 and placed these words on Jesus’ lips. This view has at least two major weaknesses. The defenders of this view have never suggested an adequate motivation for Matthew to have made Jesus prophesy about an event which was long after his time, but fresh in the memories of Matthew’s readers. If Matthew’s purpose was to make Jesus look good, then he should have placed even more specific prophecies on his lips. This is the second major problem with that view. When compared with other Jewish apocalyptic literature, Jesus’ predictions here are not all that detailed. What he says in Matthew (after verse 2) would have been fulfilled in any war with Rome regardless of how it might have ended up. The problem of specific details is much more difficult in the gospel of Luke than it is in Matthew.
Verse 15 points to the appearance of the "desolating sacrilege" as the sign of impending doom. The King James rendering, "the abomination of desolation" comes quite close to the original expression in Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 of an abomination that makes desolate. In the Old Testament "abomination" referred to any idolatrous affront to the true worship of God. Most scholars are agreed that the references in Daniel referred to the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes who, in 167 BC erected an altar to and a statue of Zeus in Holy of Holies of the temple and offered sacrifices of pigs. 1 Maccabees 1:54 also calls this a "desolating sacrilege."
Jesus’ point is that something as outrageous as Antiochus Epiphanes’ sacrilege would occur again before the end of time. This is an example of the way in which Jesus’ words generally fit the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 but not with precision. Some scholars believe that Jesus was referring to the attempt by the Emperor Gaius to set up a statue of himself in the temple in AD 40-41. However, that event was not directly connected to events of the Jewish war in 66-70. Josephus, the Jewish historian states that the Zealots desecrated the temple in the winter of AD 67-68 but no symbol of idolatry was used. In AD 70 the Romans planted their standards with images of Caesar over the ruins of the destroyed temple. However, this was after the time to flee, which is the point of the following verses. Thus Jesus’ words should be understood as a general statement of the horrifying desecration of the temple that was coming rather than a detailed prediction of a specific abomination like that of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Jesus’ point is that when such attacks against Jewish identity began his followers should flee. Verses 16-20 illustrate the urgency of the moment. Those in Judea were to flee to the mountains. Judea itself was a somewhat mountainous area, but when the desolating sacrilege appeared Jesus’ followers were to flee from the villages and farmland to the more isolated mountains to hide in the caves and rocky crevices. From the time of David (1 Samuel 24:3) to the intertestamental period (1 Maccabees 2:28-36) Jewish people had fled to the mountains and caves in times of trouble. The historian of the early church, Eusebius, stated that in response to these instructions of Jesus, disciples in Jerusalem fled the city and surrounding villages at the beginning of the Jewish war in AD 66. They went to Pella, just east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. There they established a Christian church that remained Jewish in its orientation long after the rest of Christianity had become Greek.
In Palestine most of the houses were built with flat roofs. This was a favorite location both for open-air tasks and for relaxation in the evening. But when the desolating sacrilege came believers on the roof should not take the time to go back inside the house to collect their valuables. Rather they should flee immediately. Likewise, those working outside the villages on the farmland should not take time to return to the village for their family and possessions. They must flee immediately. So urgent was the flight that pregnant women and nursing mothers would be jeopardized by their inability to flee quickly. The terrible nature of that time is underscored by Jesus’ comment in verse 21 that there would be greater tribulation (pressure) than had ever been experienced before in Jewish history. In fact, the time would be so terrible that unless God shortened that time, no one could survive.
The gracious implied promise here is that God would intervene and shorten the time of tribulation so his people could survive. Jesus expresses an important truth of Scripture here. As bad as human evil may get, God exercises a certain control over history to keep his people alive and capable of carrying on the task of witnessing to his plan of salvation.
Such terrible tribulation raises another problem. Religious deception increases as the tribulation increases. False prophets and false messiahs make promises that they cannot fulfill and that God did not authorize. The pain of the tribulation makes believers more susceptible to such deceivers. But Christ warns his followers to not run after such sensationalists. As clearly as lightening is visible flashing across the sky, so the coming of Christ will be visible and clear. Until you have seen him return, pay no attention to others who claim to know his whereabouts.
The Climax of the Crisis - Matthew 24:29-35
Verse 29 continues the sequential unfolding of signs. After the time of great tribulation cosmic signs in the heavenly bodies will take place. The language of verse 29 draws from several Old Testament passages but Isaiah 13:10 provides the closest parallel. The next step will be the "sign of the Son of Man." It is not clear whether this sign is the appearance of Christ as the Son of Man or some symbol of Christ’s return. From early Christian history comes the tradition that this sign would be the appearance of a cross in the sky. However, Jesus does not provide enough details for us to interpret "the sign of the Son of Man" with precision and the literalness of historical details.
Verse 30 also states that all the tribes of the earth will see "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." Most of these words are derived from Daniel 7:13-14. In Daniel the coming of the Son of Man marked the great reversal of fortunes that would accompany the time of judgment. Verse 31 then points out that a trumpet call will signal the gathering of God’s chosen people from the four corners of the earth. By this point the focus on Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple seems to have given way to discussion of signs of the end of time. However, verses 32-35 affirm that the events just described are close at hand. In fact, verse 34 affirms that "this generation" would not pass away until these prophesied events had taken place. If the events are understood to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, then Jesus’ words were true. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was only 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, clearly within the lifetime of "this generation." However, if the events of verses 29-31 refer to the second coming, then Jesus’ words about "this generation" cannot be true. For that reason many interpreters attempt to understand verses 29-31 still in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple rather than in terms of Christ’s return.
The Unexpectedness of His Coming - Matthew 24:36-51
Most interpreters believe that a significant shift takes place in verse 36 or 37 of Matthew 24. From the confident prediction that all these things will take place before this generation passes away in verse 34, Jesus moves to declare that no one except God himself knows the exact time of the coming of the Son of Man. The following verses seem to repeat certain concepts that have already been treated. The best way to understanding these structural shifts is by assuming that the subject being talked about after verse 35 is different from the subject prior to verse 35. The verses prior to verse 36 are best understood in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple while the verses following seem to refer to the coming of Christ and the end of time. After the statement that no one except the Father alone knows the time of that event, Jesus turned his attention to urging his followers to be prepared. His [second] coming will be unexpected and sudden. As a result all diligence should be given to being ready. As unprecedented and unexpected as the flood was for those in the time of Noah so will Christ’s return be without parallel or patterns to enable us to predict it.
The reference to Noah in verses 37-39 also provides a key to understanding the following verses. Though the majority of humanity was swept away by the flood, Noah and his family were saved. The implication is that it is possible to prepare for Christ’s coming and the end of time, not by calculating the date, but by a life of obedience to God’s word. As France (p. 348) points out, in this section there are only two categories of people, "the prepared (and therefore saved) and the unprepared (and therefore lost)."
This point is illustrated in verses 40-41 with two brief pictures of men and women doing the ordinary work of their day. One will be taken and one will be left. The difference is not a difference of work or of situation, but of readiness. No details are given about where each party is taken. The point of these verses is not to answer all our questions, but to point out the sharp distinction between those who are prepared and those who are not.
Verse 43 illustrates the unexpected nature of Christ’s coming. If the house owner had known when the robber would break in he would have been prepared. However, thieves always come when least expected. In similar fashion, Christ’s coming will be unexpected. If we knew when it would occur we could be sure to make preparations in time. As it is the only way to be secure is to be prepared at all times for his coming. Verses 45-51 contain a parable of a servant put in charge of caring for the master’s household. This included feeding the other servants. The master will be gone for a long time, though that detail is not mentioned at the beginning of the parable. The temptation for the servant in charge will be to assume that his master’s return will not be soon and so to abuse the privileges and responsibilities he has been given. Jesus’ point is that blessing will only come to the servant if he is fulfilling his master’s instructions. If he is discovered abusing his responsibility, sudden and devastating judgment will come upon him. In similar fashion, our security lies in obedient service to God. When we violate our stewardship we place ourselves at terrible risk when Christ returns.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 24:1-51. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you to be prepared for Christ’s coming again. Ask him to help you not be caught up in speculations and dates, but in readiness for his appearing.
Second Day: Read Matthew 25:1-30. Now focus on Matthew 25:1-13.
1. What is the only difference between the five wise and the five foolish virgins prior to the coming of the bridegroom? What does this difference suggest about preparation for the coming of Christ?
2. What differences between the five wise and five foolish virgins after the bridegroom came? What does that suggest about the importance of preparation? How severe is the judgment that came to the foolish virgins?
3. What conclusion does Jesus draw from this parable? What application would you make for us today? What do we need to do to be prepared for Christ’s coming?
Third Day: Read Matthew 25:1-30. Focus in on Matthew 25:14-30.
1. What elements in the parable of the talents suggest that the point of it has to do with our stewardship of the gifts God has given us? How does that stewardship relate to the question of readiness for Christ’s return?
2. List some of the gifts/resources that God has placed into our hands. What responsibility do we have for these resources? What ought we be doing differently to fulfill that responsibility?
3. What does this parable imply about what faithful discipleship requires?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 25:14-46. Focus your attention still on Matthew 25:14-30.
1. What picture of God arises from this parable? Are there elements in this parable that you do not like to attribute to God? Why or why not? How does the picture of God in this parable compare with the picture of God revealed in the rest of Scripture?
2. Are verses 28-29 a statement about the future judgment or about present reality in the life of the church or both? Why do you answer the way you do?
3. What is the reward given to the faithful servants? Does that "reward" refer to something specific in heaven or is it a statement about life in the present reality of the church? Or is it simply a device of the parable? Why?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 25:14-46. Now focus in on Matthew 25:31-46.
1. What is the basis for judgment in these focus verses? What insight into the will of God for us in our present lives does this parable give you? Do you believe you and/or most Christians are doing as well as they should in this area of stewardship?
2. How is this parable of the Great Judgment different in thrust from the parables of the virgins and the talents? How is it similar (or even identical) in its main point?
3. What does this parable say about the value and meaning of ordinary and even very needy people? What are some ways you could show the value and meaning of people that you deal with on a daily basis?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 25:31-26:5. Now focus on Matthew 26:1-5.
1. What is the significance of Jesus’ death taking place at the time of the Passover? Read Exodus 12:1-14 if you need to review the original event and significance of the Passover.
2. What is the irony of the plot of the Jewish leaders against Jesus at the time of the Passover? How does their plot reveal a lack of true freedom on their part?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you avoid the hypocrisy of a religious leader who plots evil but postpones doing it until after the worship time in order to not upset people.