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Keys to Our Lord’s Prophetic Discourse, Matthew 24-25
John Hepp, Jr.
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(An excerpt from my self-study course on Matthew)
John Hepp, Jr.
Some of these keys are adapted from Alva McClain’s book, The Greatness of the Kingdom. The title Christ has been changed to its equivalent Messiah.
Matthew 24–25 is the fullest record of our Lord’s longest and most important message predict-ing the future. The same message is recorded more briefly in the other Synoptic Gospels: Mark and Luke. (Luke has some important differences.) He spoke it to a small group of disciples just after He finished His public ministry. They were sitting on the side of a mountain just across the narrow valley east of Jerusalem. Since the place was the Mount of Olives, the message is often called “The Olivet Discourse.” It has to do mostly with the delay before the Lord finally comes back to set up His kingdom.
1. Background to this discourse. By the time of this discourse, the nation of Israel had rejected Jesus as Messiah, that is, the promised King. They had rejected Him both informally (Matt. 11–12) and formally (Matt. 21–23). In contrast, Jesus’ disciples had confessed Him as Messiah (Matt. 16:16–17). After they confessed, He repeatedly assured them that He will even-tually come to sit on His glorious throne and rule (Matt. 16:27; 19:28; 20:20–23). As He had said earlier, He will bring an end to this present evil age and inaugurate the glorious age to come, the kingdom age (Matt. 13:39,43). But first He must suffer.
This discourse comes right after Israel’s formal rejection of the King, recorded in Matthew 21–23. Those chapters begin with Jesus publicly presenting Himself to Israel in His Royal Entry (21:1–11) and taking charge of the temple (21:12–16). Next they relate His public debate with the leaders of Israel, in which (a) they challenge His authority; (b) He tells three parables against them, in part predicting that God will take the kingdom program from them and destroy their city; (c) they ask three questions designed to trap Him; and (d) He asks a question pointing to the Messiah’s deity.
In short, Matthew 21–22 show that Israel’s leaders had formally rejected their Messiah (Jesus) and that He had rejected them. He fully stated this situation in His final public discourse (Matt. 23). In it He pronounced seven or eight “woes” upon the leaders and a terrible judicial sentence on “this generation” (23:34–36). He closed with a lament (23:37–39) showing Him to be the God of Jerusalem and of history. His purpose to save Jerusalem’s children (Israel) had been refused by Jerusalem (“you were not willing”). That purpose would not be fulfilled until His Second Coming (“You will not see me again until”). Instead, Jerusalem’s “house,” referring at least to the temple, would be left desolate.
These events and predictions had upset Jesus’ disciples. As they took their final leave of Jerusa-lem, they wanted Him to tell them more about the temple’s future (24:1). Wasn’t their glorious temple a wonder of the world? Think of its vast size—an area half again as large as today’s St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Think of the enormous blocks of white marble in its walls and columns, the lavish use of gold and gems. Jesus’ response was that not one stone would be left on another (24:2); destruction would be complete. Stunned, the disciples walked silently with Jesus to the Mount of Olives. But once seated there with Him, opposite the temple, they asked Him some questions.
2. The disciples’ questions, 24:3. See also Mark 13:3–4 and Luke 21:7. Matthew records two questions, as follows.
Their first question: “When will this [Greek, these things] happen?”
Their second question: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
NOTE: This question about the sign is just one question, for the Greek has only one article for “coming” and “end.”
Mark 13:3–4 and Luke 21:7 also record two questions but state the second question differently from Matthew: “What will be the sign that they [Greek, these things] are all about to be fulfilled [Luke, to take place]?” At first glance this second question in Mark and Luke seems quite differ-ent from the second question in Matthew. According to Matthew, the sign they request is for the Lord’s coming and the end of the age. According to Mark/Luke, it is a sign for when “these things” of the first question will take place. Can these two versions of the second question mean the same? Yes they can, if the disciples assumed that the Lord would come in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem. If so, we can paraphrase their two questions like this:
Their first question: Lord, you have said you will return to put an end to the present evil age and set up your kingdom. But you have also said that Jerusalem and the temple must first be destroyed. How long will it be before these things—this destruction and your return—take place?
Their second question: What else will happen to show us that the time of that destruction and your return to rule are near?
In other words, the disciples apparently saw a close connection between the predicted destruction of Jerusalem and the Lord’s coming in His kingdom. Possibly they had in mind Old Testament prophecies like Zechariah 14:1–4, 8–9, 12, 16–17. These picture the nations assaulting Jerusa¬lem just before the LORD God comes to save His people and set up His kingdom. But history did not turn out that way in the first century. Jerusalem and the temple were indeed destroyed in A.D. 70; yet the Lord did not return and still has not returned. Were the disciples or the proph¬ecies mistaken? Not if the fulfillment is contingent (depends) on other factors and/or the Lord Jesus’ answers refer to more than one destruction of Jerusalem.
3. The “birth pains,” 24:4–14. See also Mark 13:5–13 and Luke 21:8–19. In the first part of His answer, the Lord primarily warned the disciples not to let anyone deceive them into think-ing that the end has come near. There are many things that “must happen” (Matt. 24:6, dei genesthai—as in Daniel 2:28, 29; Rev. 1:1; 4:1; 22:6) according to God’s plan. Among these things are false Messiahs, wars, famines, and earthquakes. But such things do not mean that the end will come immediately. Rather, they will be the beginning of birth pains (v. 8) that will con-tinue until the end.
It is possible—but unclear in the text—that the birth pains do not begin until verse 7. In that view (a) the “wars and rumors of wars” of verse 6 are local whereas (b) the “nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” of verse 7 are worldwide (birth pains).
Yet another viewpoint is that all things in verses 4–14 are birth pains, but none of them would start immediately. They would start just before the final “great distress” (Great Tribulation) described in verses 15–28. In other words, verses 4–14 would be in the same end time period as 15–28. That conclusion about the timing is not likely, however. Writers of New Testament books apparently believed that the birth pains had already begun (see my discussion of 24:34). That did not imply, however, that the Lord would come immediately. Birth pains may begin long before the actual birth, gradually becoming more intense and more frequent.
Does the expression “birth pains” suggest that a new world will come forth? Possibly so—and we know that the Lord promised such a new world (Matt. 19:28).
In connection with these birth pains, there will be persecution of Jesus’ disciples (24:9–14). These will need to “stand firm to the end” (24:13) of their lives and ministries as they preach “the good news about the kingdom” (Greek, 24:14). By standing firm they show that they are God’s elect, who will share in the salvation of His coming kingdom (19:23–30). Such endurance is the mark of the elect, not the cause of their election. In other words, God does not choose them because they endure, but they endure because God has chosen them.
Both Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 indicate that this good news (Matt., about the kingdom) must be preached to all the nations before the end comes. This is the same gospel (good news) Jesus commanded us to preach “to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Our message concerns both “God’s grace” (Acts 20:24) and His “kingdom” (Acts 20:25). It says that (a) Jesus is the King and (b) mankind’s hope is to share with the King—by God’s grace—in His future kingdom. To preach this good news is the main purpose of our being left in this world in Messiah’s absence.
4. The Great Tribulation, 24:15–28. See also Mark 13:14–23 and Luke 21:20–24. In Matthew 24:21 the New International Version uses the expression “great distress.” However, we will stick with the equivalent “Great Tribulation,” which is better known in prophetic studies. As described in verses 15–28, this will be a time of trouble so great that no human would survive were it not cut short (v. 22). In fact, various Scriptures show us that it will last only three and a half years. During that time false messiahs and false prophets will practice the strongest of de-ceptions on the world, though they cannot deceive the elect (those God has chosen, vv. 23–26).
How will believers in Messiah know that this tribulation is about to begin? By seeing “standing in the holy place [the temple in Jerusalem] the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel” (24:15). They should immediately flee from around Jerusalem to the mountains, probably the mountains across the Jordan Valley to the east.
The expression “the abomination that causes desolation” comes from the Greek version of Dan-iel’s last recorded prophecy (Daniel 10–12). The expression is used in Daniel 11:31 and 12:11. In 11:31 it refers to something done by Antiochus Epiphanes—as also recalled in Daniel 8:11–13. Antiochus was an evil Syrian ruler (in one division of the Greek Empire). In 167 B.C. he put an end to Jewish sacrifices and introduced an idolatrous worship into the temple. This wor¬ship, long before Jesus’ ministry, was the “abomination” that produced much desolation.
Yet Daniel used the same expression to refer to another event that is still future. After predicting in 11:31 what Antiochus would do, Daniel’s prophecy jumped to “the time of the end” (11:35). Here the prophecy merged the figure of Antiochus into that of a final willful king in the end time. “At that time,” Daniel said (12:1), there will be an unparalleled “time of distress” (the Great Tribulation) for Israel. That distress will lead to deliverance, resurrection, and an eternal kingdom (12:1–3). It is in connection with that final distress that Daniel once more mentioned “the abomination that causes desolation” (12:11–13). This time he clearly referred to the last days. Thus, in Daniel’s last prophecy (chs. 10–12) the “abomination” refers to two events widely separated in time, events similar but separate. The first took place long before Jesus’ birth. The second, still future, is the one Jesus referred to in Matthew 24:15.
Having revealed the sign of the tribulation, Jesus emphasized (a) the severity of the tribulation and (b) the danger of deception in contrast to the openness of His Second Coming. No one will have to be told when He comes; it will be as evident as the lightning.
5. Messiah’s coming, 24:29–31. See also Mark 13:24–27 and Luke 21:25–28. These verses describe the Lord’s coming “with power and great glory” (v. 30; cf. 16:27; 25:31) and having His angels “gather his elect from the four winds” (v. 31). This will take place “imme¬diately after” the tribulation (v. 29).
NOTE: We know from 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that both living and dead believers will be raptured (caught up). Will that happen on this occasion when angels “gather his elect” (Matt. 24:31)? Some teachers say no, that the rapture will be earlier. Such teachers usually claim that there will be basic differences between redeemed Israel and the church. Based on those differences, they believe that the Lord will come secretly for believers before the Tribulation. As you see, Matthew speaks of only one future com¬ing of Messiah. There is no evidence there that He will also come secretly. This is true in all the other Gospels. (There is no indication that even the coming in John 14 is sep-arate.) Any evidence of a secret coming must be found in the Epistles, if at all. For more discussion see “Will the Church Go Through the Great Tribulation?”
“The sign of the Son of Man” in verse 30 is probably the Lord Himself. In addition to this sign are the heavenly signs listed in verse 29 (darkening of sun and moon, falling of stars, etc.). Some of this language may be figurative, referring to disruptions of order, as it does in the Old Testa-ment sources. For example, the same expressions are used in Jeremiah 4:23–28 and Ezekiel 32:7–8. These passages describe figuratively, but not literally, Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment of Jerusalem and Egypt.
6. The time for the signs, 24:32–41. See also Mark 13:28–31 and Luke 21:29–33. This section records the following promise (emphasis added), often misunderstood:
“This generation will certainly not pass away
until all these things have happened.” (24:34)
Some interpret this to say that all the signs and the Lord’s coming would take place soon, before the death of the Jews then living. If it meant that, then the prophecy was faulty; because the Lord did not return. To avoid such a conclusion, some conservative interpreters have sug-gested two other meanings for “this generation” in 24:34 (instead of Jesus’ generation):
• the future generation that sees the signs of the end begin. This view assumes that the signs (including the “birth pains” of vv. 4–14) did not begin soon—or even yet. Instead, they will take place only in or just before the tribulation period.
• the Jewish race, destined to survive forever. They understand the following words to mean “will certainly not pass away even when all these things have happened.”
Neither of these alternate meanings, however, can be supported in Matthew. “This generation” is used five other times there, always by Jesus (see 11:16; 12:41, 42, 45; and 23:36; cf. 12:39; 16:4; and 17:17). Each time it means the Jews of Jesus’ day, usually in contrast with earlier generations. Consider its use, along with “all these things” (NIV, “all this”), just before this prophetic discourse. Jesus had labeled Israel’s leaders as “snakes” and “brood of vipers” (23:33), who would persecute more of God’s servants, as their forefathers had done (23:34). This happened during the Acts period. Therefore, they would be punished for “all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth” (23:35). “All this,” He had said, “will come upon this gene¬ration” (23:36). And it did, when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in A.D. 70. To repeat, “this generation” always referred to the Jews living when Jesus said it.
There is no need to avoid this usual meaning of “this generation” in 24:34. Jesus was not pre-dicting the time of His coming but of its signs. By “all these things” He meant events leading to that coming but not including it. The preceding verse (24:33) makes precisely that distinction: “When you see all these things, you know that it [“the kingdom of God,” Luke 21:31] is near, right at the door.” And that is what happened. The earliest believers were right not to expect the Lord immediately (Acts 3:21); because none of the signs had taken place. But quite soon—dur-ing the transitional Acts period—they began seeing the signs. For this reason, New Testament writers from the earliest to the latest expected the Lord to return soon. Here are some examples, beginning with the writer usually considered the first:
• James 5:8, 9 – “The Lord’s coming is near.…The Judge is standing at the door!”
• 1 Peter 4:7 – “The end of all things is near.”
• 1 John 2:18 – “This is the last hour…we know it is the last hour.”
• Revelation 1:3; 22:12, 20 – “The time is near.” “I am coming soon!” “Yes, I am coming soon.”
These writers all expected the Lord to establish His kingdom when He comes: “Messiah Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead…in view of his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1, cf. v. 8). Apparently they considered the signs (“these things”) of Matthew 24:33 to have been fulfilled enough for His coming and kingdom to be near. How could they think so before the Abomination of Desolation had taken place (Matt. 24:15)? Or before the sun and moon are dark-ened and the stars fall (24:29)? Probably because “all these things” did not mean every detail or that everything predicted would be literal.
However we interpret it, Jesus’ prophecy was more complex than it seemed. Like Old Testa¬ment prophecies, it could hide gaps of time and be fulfilled in stages. Thus, no one should set dates. We do well to heed Jesus’ warning that no one but the Father knows exactly when Mes¬siah will come (Matt. 24:36). Most will be completely surprised (vv. 37–41).
7. Be ready for Him to come, 24:42 to 25:30. See also Mark 13:32–37 and Luke 21:34–36. With several comparisons and parables the Lord exhorts us to be prepared for His return. Be ready
• like a houseowner expecting a thief (24:43–44)
• like a faithful and wise servant left to care for others (24:45–51)
• like wise virgins prepared in advance for the inevitable (25:1–13)
• by investing for the Lord the means He has given (25:14–30)
Faithfulness will be rewarded with joyful responsibility, unfaithfulness with utter loss.
8. The judgment by which the King inaugurates the kingdom, 25:31–46. In previous lessons we have often referred to the great prediction in these verses. In it once more the Lord reminds us that He will return to earth to rule in glory. Once more it says that the King will judge. Once more, that the eternal life He will give is to inherit the kingdom. Once more, that the criterion for entering is faith in Him demonstrated in deeds. How have the heirs showed that faith? In love—without even realizing it—that cared for the King’s brethren.