This interpretation breaks open the meaning of this much-disputed passage. Be sure to look at the photos in the end. History come alive!
This long section of Scripture is called the Olivet Discourse because Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem proper, overlooking the temple (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:3).
Matt. 24:4-35 are about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, while 24:36-25:46 are about the Second Coming or parousia and the close-out of the age. This destruction was a major event in Judaism and indeed in the history of Israel, and it is unrealistic to expect that Jesus would not say something important about it; he does, in this prophetic message. Not every passage in Matt. 24 is about us today.
This post has a companion piece:
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
Jesus Begins His Prophetic Discourse (Matt. 24:1-2)
1 And Jesus, leaving the temple, was departing, and his disciples came up to him, to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But in reply, he said to them, “You see all these things, don’t you? I tell you the truth: a stone shall in no way be left here on another stone which shall not be thrown down.”
Using two verbs (leaving … departing), Matthew really emphasizes Jesus leaving and departing from the temple. He is making a break from it, for he is about to predict its destruction (vv. 4-35). Then he will talk about his Second Coming (24:36-25:46). Jesus is actually following his denunciation discourse from 23:1 to right now. The disciples are not taking Jesus on a guided tour, for they had seen the temple before. Their real question seems to be: Why would you condemn such a religious structure like this when it embodies in a glorious way everything Moses could only dream of in his temple laws in Exodus and Leviticus? However, Jesus’s answer is firm. The Old Regime and its religious center—the temple—had to be toppled and make room for a new one: the Messiah’s kingship and the global church. Jewish Christians in Matthew’s community have to join it and leave behind the old system.
One interpretation of this long, continuous discourse has dominated the American Evangelical world, particularly the conservative sectors, including the Renewal Movements. This interpretation has tied everyone up in knots. No wonder why the average pastor and Bible teacher avoids the topic of eschatology. “That’s not we do here in my church.” Translation: “Popular Bible prophecy teachers are confusing! Too complicated!” True! They are confusing. And their interpretations are needlessly complicated.
In contrast, this interpretation simplifies things a whole lot. It answers the most elements in Matt. 24-25. It’s refreshing and liberating. I urge all Bible teachers and pastors to carefully read this commentary, which is based on R.T. France’s and David E. Garland’s excellent commentaries. Buy them too. They eliminate the confusion. But for the record, I believe they are wrong in their one assertion that Jesus expected his Second Coming to happen shortly after his ascension. My exegesis of Matt. 24:36-25:46 tells me differently. He taught a “delay” for a “long time.”
In the Olivet Discourse, this interpretation eliminates many difficulties by going back to OT apocalyptic passages (always a good thing to do when studying NT eschatological passages) and translating a few words in their apocalyptic, historical, and textual contexts (another good thing to do) in a few phrases. Context, context, context!
This interpretation is picking up momentum.
It refers to the coming of the Lord, but in a specialized sense. It literally means his coming or arrival, like a king or emperor arriving in the capital of a province. Interestingly, Matthew is the only synoptic Gospel writer who uses the noun parousia—not Mark or Luke.
See my post:
In this section we are not talking about his return in the context of the parousia. France translates the noun parousia as visitation, and so do I. In my commentary, I also, like him, just write parousia. It eliminates the confusion between “coming” and parousia.
Again see my post for a fuller definition:
Two Contrasting Greek Nouns
These nouns also unpack Matt. 24 for a clearer understanding of it.
The first Greek noun which I will translate “close” is sunteleia (pronounced soon-teh-lay-ah) or synteleia (pronounced sin-teh-lay-ah), and it is used throughout the entire NT six times, five times in Matthew’s Gospel (13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20) and once in the epistle to the Hebrews (9:26). It seems to have taken on a specialized sense in Matthew’s Gospel to close out our age, though it is also used in Heb. 9:26 as the end of the age. This word will play a key role in my interpretation of the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24. And synteleia makes a fitting ending of his Gospel: “And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end [synteleia] of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). But we are not there yet.
The second noun telos (pronounced teh-loss) is used six times in Matthew’s Gospel: 17:25, where it means duty tax and 26:58, where it means Peter followed Jesus from a distance to see the outcome of the trial. We’ll look at the other appearances about the end times a little later (24:6, 13, 14). It also appears in Matt. 10:22. If we endure to the end, we shall be saved. What does telos mean in 10:22? The end probably refers to the trials of persecution that last throughout the disciples’ ministry. Or it could mean the time when the son of Man comes, but this coming refers to the end of the temple (see my commentary at 10:23), which coincides perfectly with its use in 24:6, 13, 14. In fact, see v. 13 where it again appears as the end of the temple. (Yes, the telos-end can sometimes also denote the end of the age [e.g. 1 Cor. 15:24], but not in this Gospel.)
In sum, the telos end happens to the temple, not to the entire Age, while the close-out or wrap-up of this Age is denoted by synteleia in Matthew’s Gospel. See vv. 29-31 for more comments.
Two Answers to Two Questions
In v. 3, next, the disciples ask Jesus two questions, and he answers them, sequentially, in two major sections:
(1). When (pote pronounced poh-teh) will these things be? In context, this refers to the question in vv. 1-2 about the destruction of the temple.
(2) And what is the sign of the parousia and synteleia (close) of the age?
Jesus answers the first question in vv. 4-35, and he answers the second question in 24:36-25:46. In 24:36, Matthew transitions to answering the second question with the phrase, “Concerning that Day and hour.” The Day of the Lord often means the Final Day. Matthew shifts from plural “those days” in vv. 19, 22 to “that day” in v. 36. There will be no sign or time marker of his parousia. It will come at a time when no one can predict. So be on your guard!
Further, in v. 36 the Greek preposition translated concerning is peri (pronounced pair-ee), and it is often used to introduce a new topic, when peri begins the sentence or clause (see v. 36 for the references). This use of peri is also reinforced with the tiny connector de (pronounced deh), which we’ll look at in v. 36.
Bottom line: clearly in v. 36 Matthew is changing the topic from the coming-in-judgment on the temple to the parousia or Second Coming or visitation to judge the world and put things right (Matt. 24:36-25:46).
This interpretation enjoys the beauty of simplicity and makes the most sense of the Greek text or the flow of any translation when the text is translated properly. The rest of the commentary on Matt. 24 sets out to explain this two-part prophecy, based on those two questions and two corresponding answers.
Again, see my companion post:
Time Markers in vv. 3-35
They are frequently used in the signs indicating and leading up to the destruction of the temple.
Then: This Greek word is used frequently in vv. 4-35, and almost drops out of view in vv. 36-44 (but see v. 40). It is the time marker tote (pronounced toh-teh). It is usually translated as “then.” It is found in vv. 9, 10, 14, 16, 21, 23, 30 (twice). It reappears in Matt. 25:1, 7, 31, 34, 37, 41, 44, 45, but it either refers back to the parousia in v. 36, or it has the normal function of carrying the story forward inside a parable. But here in vv. 4-35, it is a clear time marker.
Not Yet: v. 6
Beginning: v. 8
Here are those and other time markers or the time sequence of vv. 15-35:
When you see (v. 15) … then (v. 16).
In those days (v. 19) … then (v. 21).
Those days, those days (v. 22) … then (v. 23).
Momentary interruption / clarification: But don’t confuse “those days” (of the destruction of the temple) with the parousia or Second Coming, which will be like a flash of lightning, visible for all (vv. 27-28).
Return to the topic: Immediately after the distress of those days (v. 29) … and then … and then … (v. 30).
When you see … it is near … Parable of the Fig Tree is a temporal sequence (vv. 32-33).
All these things will happen in this generation (v. 34). This clause is the ultimate time marker that serves as the bookend of the first part of his discourse, answering the question about the destruction of the temple, which will happen in this generation.
Finally, you can trust my prediction (v. 35). It shall happen. This clause is another indicator that Jesus has ended this part of his apocalyptic discourse.
Why are these time markers so important? Jesus uses them in the first part of his discourse to indicate clear signs and sequence of events leading up to the destruction of the temple. In the first question, he was asked when (pote) will these things be? And he replies with all those time markers and signs that will happen right in front of the Jews of Judea and the caretakers of the temple.
In contrast, in vv. 36-44 these time markers drop out of sight because those verses are about the Second Coming or parousia, and no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son knows (v. 36). As noted, Matthew shifts from plural “those days” in vv. 19, 22 to “that day” in v. 36. However, the day will look like the days before the flood in Noah (vv. 37-42). The parousia of the son of Man shall come like a thief, when no one expects it (vv. 43-44). No warning, no time markers.
The Most “Stubborn” Verse in the Synoptic Gospels
The one verse that causes the most headaches for certain interpreters appears in all three Gospels and in the same context.
I tell you the truth: this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place. (Matt. 24:34)
I tell you the truth: this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place (Mark 13:30)
I tell you the truth: this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place. (Luke 21:32)
If “generation” were to be translated as “race,” as some propose, then Jesus was declaring something vapid. Of course Jews would not pass away at the time he spoke. Instead, his prediction is about the timing, so “generation” is the right translation, as it is in nearly all other verses where the Greek noun appears.
Now, what are “all these things”? Everything that Jesus had predicted up to that verse (except vv. 27-28, which see, below). Luke 21:20-24 even says that armies will surround Jerusalem. This happened in A.D. 70, when the Roman armies sacked the city and destroyed the temple. The Roman pagans stomped all over the sacred place. committing the abomination of desolation. Those three verses are capstones about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. Jesus’s prediction came true–this (or his) generation, though he died young.
So, that one verse seems stubborn only to those who insist that most or all of the verses before the one “stubborn” verse are about our times–the distant future. No, they are about the destruction of the temple in AD 70, as the rest of this post claims to demonstrate.
Outline of 24:4-25:46
I borrow from Garland, but with modifications, so you can get the big picture.
(I). First Section: When Will These Things Be? (24:4-35)
A.. The prelude to the catastrophe (24:4-14)
1.. These predictions do not herald the end
B.. Warnings to flee before the eruption of hostilities (24:15-22)
1.. Christians are warned to stay away from Messianism (false Messianic movements)
2.. Flee and pray
C.. The destruction of the city (24:23-31)
1.. This section uses Hebrew idiom of a stereotypical, apocalyptic, cosmic cataclysm
2.. It is not the end of the world, but the end of Jerusalem and the temple
D.. The assurance of the certainty to this prophecy (24:32-35)
1.. The fig tree in foliage predicts summer is near
2.. All these things spell the end
3.. This generation shall not pass away until all these things take place
4.. My words are so reliable that heaven and earth would pass away before my words do
5.. Matthew’s Christian community should see the ending of the localized temple age and the beginning of the universal Church Age
(II). Second Section: Six Illustrations or Parables and Interlocking Themes (24:36-25:46)
A.. Six Illustrations or Parables
1.. Days of Noah (24:38-43)
2.. Householder and Thief (24:43-44)
3.. Parable of the Servant (24:45-51)
4.. Parable of the Ten Maidens (25:1-13)
5.. Parable of the Talents (25:14-30)
6.. Parable of the Sheep and Goats and Final Judgment (25:31-46)
B.. Interlocking Themes in Illustrations and Parables
1.. Sudden arrival of someone or something that creates crisis in five parables (24:37, 39, 43, 44. 46; 25:6, 19)
2.. A key figure is delayed in three parables (24:48; 25:5; 25:10)
3.. The exhortation to watch and be ready for unknown time of arrival (24:42, 43; 25:13)
4.. Division of characters into two separate categories in four parables (wise, faithful, good versus wicked, foolish, hesitant, 24:45, 48; 25:2, 21, 23, 26)
5.. Judgment scene in four parables (24:46; 25:10-11, 21, 23)
6.. The sixth and last parable shifts the scene to the final judgment day (25:31-46)
a.. The closing of the age or synteleia
It is to be noted that some interpreters see the final judgment of the nations (25:31-46) not as a parable, except it does contain the metaphors of the sheep and goats. Either way, the themes still stand.
Finally, in my translation, I insert in brackets the words parousia, telos, synteleia, and tote, for clarity.
Now we are ready.
Jesus Answers the First Question (Matt. 24:3-35)
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came up to him privately, saying, “Tell us. When [pote] will these things be? And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
The Prelude to the Catastrophe: These Predictions Do Not Herald the End (4-14):
4 And in reply, Jesus said to them, “See to it that no one leads you astray. 5 For many shall come in my name saying, ‘I am the Christ!’ and will lead many astray. 6 You shall hear of wars and reports of wars. Watch that you do not be alarmed, for this must happen. However, this is not yet the end [telos]. 7 For nations shall rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 But all these things are the beginning of birth pangs.
9 Then [tote] they shall hand you over to tribulation and kill you, and you shall be hated by all nations because of my name. 10 Then [tote] many shall be caused to stumble and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets shall arise and deceive many. 12 Because lawlessness multiplies, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end [telos]—this one shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to the whole world as a witness to every nation, and then [tote] the end [telos] shall come.
Warnings to Flee before the Eruption of Hostilities (15-22)
15 Then, when [hotan] you see the abomination of desolation spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place—let the reader understand— 16 then [tote] let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, 17 and let the one on the roof not go down and take things from his house, 18 and let the one in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 19 Woe to those who are pregnant and are nursing in those days! 20 Pray that your flight not happen in the winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For at that time [tote] there shall be great tribulation which has never happened from the beginning of the world until now, and nor shall surely ever happen again. 22 And unless those days were shortened, nobody would be saved. But because of the elect, those days shall be shortened.
The Destruction of the City: V. 27 Contrasts the Second Coming with This Destruction (23-31)
23 At that time [tote] if someone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ!’ or ‘Here he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false Christs and false prophets shall arise and produce great signs and wonders in order to deceive many, and if possible, even the elect. 25 See! I have told you in advance. 26 If therefore they tell you, ‘Look, he is in the desert!’ do not go out. ‘Look! He is in the storeroom!’ don’t believe it. 27 For just as the lightning comes out from the east and shines to the west, in this way shall the visitation [parousia] of the son of Man be. 28 For where the carcass is, the vultures also gather.
29 But immediately after the tribulation of those days,
The sun shall darken
And the moon shall not give off its light [Is. 13:10; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15]
And the stars shall fall from the heaven,
And the powers of the heaven be shaken. [Is. 34:4; Haggai 2:6; 21]
30 And at that time [tote] the sign of the son of Man shall appear in the heaven, and then [tote] all the tribes of the land shall mourn and ‘see the son of Man coming on clouds of heaven’ [Dan. 7:13] 31 And he shall send out his angels with a great trumpet and gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
The Assurance of the Certainty of This Prophecy (32-35)
32 From the fig tree, learn the parable: when its branch becomes already tender and produces leaves, you recognize that summer is near. 33 In this way, you also, when you see all these things, recognize that it is near, at the doors. 34 I tell you the truth: this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place.
35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall certainly not pass away.”
So Matt. 24 and 25 are all about the end of the temple system, which happened in Jesus’s generation, and then about the Second Coming and the close of the age, which has not yet happened. Now let’s begin the exegesis.
Jesus answers their questions privately. His answer is for the disciples and by extension Matthew’s Jewish Christian community, even to us.
As noted above (Two Answers to Two Questions), the disciples ask him two questions, and Jesus gives them two answers.
(1). When: In context, this refers to the destruction of the temple, which he had predicted in vv. 1-2. He answers this question with all kinds of time markers (see above Time Markers in vv. 4-35). There are no long periods in vv. 4-35, but they will happen quickly.
(2). What is the sign: it will happen like a flash of lightning from one end of the sky or heaven to the other (v. 27), but in fact there will be no specific prior sign as there was before the destruction of the temple.
Let’s contrast Mark’s Gospel for a bigger perspective. In that Gospel, the disciples ask only about the fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction of the temple, not about the parousia and the synteleia or close of the age. So Matthew, whom I have nicknamed the Trimmer, has not in fact trimmed his Olivet Discourse here. He has expanded it to include the parousia and synteleia (close) of the age. And sure enough, he is the only one to use those two terms. The term parousia had already been in use through parts of the Christian community for the Second Coming.
Again see my post:
So this common knowledge of the parousia throughout the Christian communities means that Matthew really is referring to the Second Coming and its aftermath in 24:36-25:46.
However, the only other instance of synteleia is in Heb. 9:26, where it also means the end of the age, but it is not quite as focused as it is here in Matthew’s usage, contrasted with telos. The term generally reflects the “conventional Jewish ‘two-age’ eschatology” (France, p. 896).
Messiahs will arise and claim to be The One. Jewish historian Josephus mentions a Samaritan, Theudas, the sons of Judas of Galilee, the “Egyptian” and various other “imposters.” Whether they claimed to be the Messiah or prophets, they said of themselves that they were divinely inspired and empowered (France, p. 902).
Could they deceive many?
Gamaliel’s speech (he was Saul / Paul’s mentor):
For some time ago Theudas, claiming to be somebody, followed by about 400 men, was killed, and everyone who was convinced by him was dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this Judas the Galilean during the census led the people in a revolt after him. He too was destroyed, and everyone who was convinced by him was scattered. (Acts 5:36-37)
Paul was arrested, and the centurion asks him:
37 When they were about to take him into the barracks, Paul said to the commander, “If it is permitted to me to say something to you?” He said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Then you are not the Egyptian who ignited a revolt and led four thousand men of the Assassins into the desert some time ago?” (Acts 21:37-38)
Wars and reports of war: France translates “reports” as “talks,” so people would talk about wars. This can be alarming for most people. From the 30s to the 60s times were peaceful in the Roman Empire, but there was a local war between Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas, in which the Romans got involved in A.D. 36-37. In Judea the stirrings of revolts against Rome could be included in the reports or the talk of wars. The Romans suppressed the rebels listed in vv. 4-5, and this took some serious military effort. These were unsettling times for those who lived in Israel and neighboring regions (larger Palestine). The destruction of the temple will be the most devastating war of all.
When kingdom rises against kingdom, Matthew is using the language that looks like that of Is. 19:2, which appears in the context of judgment on Egypt:
… and they will fight, each against another
and each against his neighbor,
city against city, kingdom against kingdom (Is. 19:2, ESV)
Jesus simply borrowed the phrasing to indicate that these are political rivalries.
Earthquakes: in Asia Minor in A.D. 61; Italy A.D. 62; in Jerusalem in A.D. 67, and other serious earthquakes at an unspecified earlier date in Israel and the neighboring region (Palestine, as a whole). Local earthquakes are assumed in Matt. 27:51 and Acts 16:26.
These natural disasters are part of normal experience; they are not the signs of the end of the age. Labor pains implies “not yet,” another time marker (“beginning” of birth pangs). These pains are used throughout Scripture to indicate the suffering of nations and cities (Is. 13:8; Jer. 6:24; 22:23; Mic. 4:9-10) in history, not eschatologically. Is. 26:17-18 seems, however, to be eschatological. The NT uses the term birth pang imagery as a live metaphor without a specific historical reference (John 16:21; Acts 2:24; Rom. 8:22; Gal. 4:19; 1 Thess. 5:3). So here the birth pang is the suffering of Jerusalem, which will be more fully described in vv. 15-22 (France p. 904).
This whole environment from vv. 4-14, below, is described in historian Tacitus’s (lived A.D. 56-120) Histories:
The history which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, hostile even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword, there were three civil wars, more foreign wars,, and often both at the same time … Italy was distressed by disasters unknown before or returning after the lapse of the ages … Beside the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy, uncertain and clear (Histories, 1.2, 3, qtd. in Garland, p. 242)
Now Jesus repeats some of his teaching in Matt. 10:34-39. Betrayals will happen, and disciples will be brought into “tribulation” or difficult times (Greek thlipsis and pronounced thlee-pseess). Therefore many will stumble or fall away because of Jesus and their conversion to him in Judea and other Jewish communities. They did not count the cost, even though he warned them.
False prophets will arise in the Messianic communities. Their teachings will lead many astray. In Matt. 7:15 they are described as ravenous wolves. Here is Paul’s description of bad teachers and false prophets in Ephesus, Asia Minor:
29 I know that after my departure ferocious wolves shall come in to your midst, not sparing the flock. 30 And from among yourselves men shall arise, speaking seductive things so as to draw the disciples away for themselves. 31 Therefore, be alert, remembering that for three years, night and day, I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)
Jesus is also warning his communities in larger Palestine through Matthew’s Gospel.
Lawlessness is not just criminal activity but a violation of the law of God, particularly moral law embedded in the Torah (first five books of Moses in the Bible). Teachers of the law and Pharisees were described as lawless (Matt. 23:28) This lawlessness penetrates the soul, not just external behavior.
Love is the key principle to live by (Matt. 22:37-40). Sadly, however, the love of many will grow cold, in the climatic build-up to the destruction of the temple. Here is John confirming how love can be abandoned, mentioned here merely as confirmation.
4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev. 2:4-5, ESV)
The only way to survive is to endure to the end (telos). Disciples endure by remaining true to the kingdom. Salvation comes to those who remain faithful and stand firm in their discipleship to Jesus.
Now what about the proclamation of the gospel throughout the whole world?
The parallel verse, Mark 13:10, which says the gospel must be preached to all nations first, does not help because the verse is placed between persecution and trials (v. 9) and family betrayal (vv. 11-12)! So we have to be careful about a rigid chronology.
For the record, Luke’s version does have the verse about the gospel being preached to the whole world.
The standard interpretation is that this Matt. 24:14 must be lifted out of its textual and historical context and applied to the global missionary effort. Some teach that bringing the gospel to the world will cause the “end.” Or the proclamation does not cause the end but is a preliminary to it.
First, in reply, however, in its textual and historical context, the end means the telos (end), not synteleia or the close of the age. In contrast, in Matt. 28:20, Jesus promises the synteleia or the closing out of the age, which is a fitting capstone on Matthew’s Gospel. “And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end [synteleia] of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). So the commission to preach goes on even to our day, in that verse. (And it is a sure thing that Jesus, in his ascended state, when he commissioned his disciples at the end of Matthew, knew about Australia and North America, but let’s not push too hard or far about this.) Verse 14, in contrast, is not the end of the age, but in vv. 4-35, the telos end means the end of the temple and the religious Old Order.
Second, as the first-century Christians understood it, “the whole world” did not include North and South Americas or Australia, about which the first-century Christian communities knew nothing. The whole world encompassed the Romans Empire and the surrounding Mediterranean world and some points east of Israel. The Greek term world, oikoumenē (pronounced oi-koo-meh-nay), means the inhabited world. The term can describe the famine that impacted the oikoumenē or the world (Acts 11:28). The worship of Artemis is said to have spread around the oikoumenē (Acts 19:27). Col. 1:6 says the gospel is bearing fruit around the whole world (see also Col. 1:23). Rom. 16:26 says the gospel has been known to all the nations (see Rom. 10:18). Paul was planning to go to Spain (Rom. 15:18-24). All the way back to Homer (a Greek poet, whose poems were composed in late 8th to early 7th centuries, BC), Ethiopia was considered the end of the world. The gospel reached the Ethiopian eunuch, and later tradition says the nation was powerfully influenced by the gospel (Acts 8:26-40). So let’s not insist on a clunky, wooden interpretation of oikoumenē in Matt. 24:14. The point is that the Gospel will go outside Jerusalem and Judea, where Jesus was speaking.
Third, Jesus hinted that something (not someone) greater than the temple is here (Matt. 12:6). It is probable that he intended “something” to include the notion that the church is the temple, and the temple is the church. The new temple is the Christian communities everywhere. It’s the end of the Jerusalem temple.
Here’s just one verse about the Church = the Temple
For we are the temple of God, as God has said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16, ESV; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27)
See also 1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:5, which clearly teach the new temple is the church, and the church is the new temple.
So the church / temple brings the gospel to the “whole world” and has succeeded as far as the first-century believers knew, with their limited perspective of global geography.
Objection: But that’s replacement theology! Yes, the church replaces the temple. Objection: Then that’s the replacement of Israel! No, God still has a plan for Israel. He has regathered this nation in 1948, so they can hear the gospel in one location and in modern Hebrew (Rom. 11:25-27). God still has his eye on this nation because his gifts and calling on it are irrevocable (can’t be re-called) (Rom. 11:29).
See my post:
“Then”: it is the conjunction oun (pronounced oon), which connects the previous section with this one. It is not necessarily a time marker, but it does indicate the sequence.
The clear sign that the “telos end” is about to happen is the devastating pollution standing in the holy place. This is a reference to Daniel 8:13; 9:27, 11:31, 12:11, which further referred to events in 167 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and stopped Jewish sacrificial worship and set up an altar for pagan sacrifices (pigs included). However, Jesus applied this imagery to the Roman military. Here is Luke’s Gospel linking the abomination of desolation with the Roman armies:
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and are nursing in those days! For there shall be great distress upon the country and wrath upon this people. 24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and be taken captive into all nations, and Jerusalem shall be trampled on by the nations until the times of the nations shall be completed. (Luke 21:20-24)
The refugee crisis of any time is horrible, as we have seen in the people fleeing war-torn Syria. In a few years, however, these events will seem like a distant memory and forgotten. For Jesus’s time, people back then suffered, and Jesus warns the Judeans to flee. As for fleeing on the Sabbath, it would be difficult for scrupulous Messianic Jews or unconverted Jews. It may refer to the buying of food as one left Jerusalem, en route.
This urgent call to flee can only refer to the destruction of the temple, not the Second Coming and final judgment, from which no one can escape.
Jesus called it the great tribulation, which will never happen like this ever again. This phrase demonstrates that this tribulation is an historical event that must not be transferred to the distant future. It was indeed a horrendous “great tribulation” because Judaism stopped, as it had been practiced from Moses until then, and from then to right now, Judaism has thoroughly been transformed. An epic and epochal overthrow.
Those days were cut short, because the war ended. Who are the chosen or elect people? Recall that thousands of Jews converted to the Messiah (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20). Here, they are the Christian Jews who lived in Judea. If they don’t flee, they will suffer. Church historian Eusebius says that they did flee to Pella, beyond the Jordan River, and northward (Church History, 3.5.3). In 24:24, 31, the elect refers to the people who belong to the son of Man.
Once again Jesus warns his disciples (and the larger, later Jesus communities) against false prophets and Messiahs who will perform great signs and wonders. Josephus records people who claimed to work miracles: parting the Jordan River; the collapse of the city walls, the uncovering of Moses’ sacred vessels and other visible signs and wonders. They are counterfeits, because NT writers expect true signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 4:16, 30; 5:12 and so on) and recognize that miracles can be false or come from false people (Acts 8:9-11; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 13:13-14; 16:14; cf. Deut. 13:1-3).
Matthew now contrasts the parousia with the coming-in-judgment on Jerusalem. The parousia will be like lightning that flashes from one end of the sky to another. It will not be a secret, so don’t believe reports that say the Messiah will be here or there or in secret storerooms hiding out and delivering private words. The disciples had asked what the sign of his parousia would be, and now Jesus—the true Messiah—informs them that the flashing lightning all around the known world (and by extension our world) would be the “sign,” but by then it would be too late. So the parousia of the son of Man needs no miraculous build up or proof. The parousia will end everything that the world had known up to then.
The vultures gathering refers to Job 39:30: “where the slain are, there is he [the eagle].” So this refers to dead bodies. The parousia (Second Coming) will be as obvious as vultures gathering around the slain. The whole context is final judgment.
Note v. 31, which says in that day, which often refers to the final day of this age.
See my post
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Secret Rapture? (I also briefly look at Matthew’s version)
That post argues that being taken away is not a rapture but being hauled off to judgment. So the vultures refer to judgment.
So vv. 27-28 are an interruption that contrasts the Second Coming with the coming of the Messiah in judgment on the temple. The parousia is not the same as the coming in judgment on the temple, because the parousia will be visible for all and indisputable because it closes out this age.
See my post about the parousia:
As noted, v. 27 was an interlude that explains that coming-in-judgment on Jerusalem is different from the parousia. Here in v. 29 Jesus takes back up the theme leading to the destruction of the temple. The following clause cannot refer to the days of the parousia: “And immediately after the tribulation of those days” because the parousia does not involve tribulation of “those days,” but Jesus will say of the parousia “that day.” “Those days” refers to the capture of Jerusalem, from a natural reading of the text. There should be no forcing a template or grid on the normal flow the text. Jesus did not expect the parousia to take place in his century, so he does not give a timeframe because the son of Man does not know that day or even the hour. He does predict, in contrast, that the destruction of the temple will happen in his generation (though he died young). It is better, then, to take temporal connection at face value.
Verse 29 is taken from Is. 13:10. This verse refers to the overthrow of Babylon:
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light. (Is. 13:10, ESV)
And this verse refers to the judgment on Edom:
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall …. (Is. 34:4. ESV)
Since they are about judgment on a nation, it is natural to conclude that Jesus’s words in v. 29 likewise refer to judgment on Jerusalem. Those cosmic disasters symbolize political and national disasters here on earth. If those cosmic disasters happened literally, then nature would not be the same from then to now. Jesus’s words about these cosmic reactions are not literal, either.
See my post for many other Scriptures about cosmic disasters in the context of national judgment and major change:
Verse 27 explains. Jesus is enthroned after his resurrection, and this fits Dan. 7:13-14.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)
The Ancient of Days is God. Jesus was about to ascend and be enthroned on high, sitting next to God. So his coming here in this long passage refers to his ascension and then coming back (invisibly) in judgment over Jerusalem, which happened from 66-70 A.D. In that latter year, the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple (see my photos, below).
The coming here is not the parousia (Second Coming), but erchomenos (pronounced air-kho-meh-noss), which is the standard word for coming.
“And then the sign of the son of Man”: It could be interpreted that the sign is the son of Man himself, which is his resurrection and ascension which happened in the sky or heaven, and in his return to judge the temple. Or it could mean the sign belonging to or about the son of Man. In that case, the sign appears with the son of Man, which is the vindication of God’s Son. The tribes are to see the vindication of the son of Man by his ascension and enthronement and the later destruction of the temple and then the son of Man gathers his people—both Jewish converts and Gentile converts. It is “not a preliminary warning of an event still to come, but the visible manifestation of a heavenly reality already established, that the Son of Man is in heaven sitting at the right hand of Power (26:64)” (France, p. 926). In contrast, the disciples had asked for a sign of the parousia, but Jesus won’t give them a sign, because it will be sudden and unexpected. But in the build-up to the destruction of the temple, there are many signs.
The sign here in v. 30 has to appear before this (Jesus’s) generation passes away (v. 34). Therefore the only sign that will cause the tribes of the land to mourn is, first his ascension / vindication, and, second, the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
“The tribes of the land”: most translations have “earth” because of the noun gē (pronounced gay), but the word is versatile and can mean “country,” region,” “land,” or even “ground” or “soil” (BDAG).
The allusion is to Zech. 12:10-14:
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves. (Zech. 12:10-14 ESV, emphasis added).
In those verses the mourners are the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The Septuagint (pronounced sep-too-ah-gent) is the third to first century B.C translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The noun gē often means “the land of Israel” and not “the earth.” The noun tribes clearly means the tribes of Israel who inhabit the land. This translation makes the most sense in the context. The tribes in the NT most often means the tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 2:36; Acts 13:21; Rom. 11:1; Heb. 7:13-14, and so on). Therefore “the tribes of the land” means that the tribes of Israel will look on him and mourn, if they have eyes to see and wisdom to connect the events.
Or “tribes” could refer to the Jewish communities beyond the “land” of Israel, wherever they were found (Paul reached out to them as far as Rome and probably in Spain). However, the passage in Zechariah seems decisive. So the term means the tribes of the land of Israel.
Now what about v. 31? It says that the son of Man will send out his angels to gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to another. How can this mean a local judgment on Jerusalem?
This verse refers back to Deut. 30:4, which speaks of the ingathering of the scattered people:
If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. (Deut. 30:4, ESV)
For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the Lord. (Zech 2:6, ESV; LXX 2:10)
The trumpet blast reflects Is. 27:13:
And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Is. 27:13, ESV)
Is it too much to claim that the trumpet could have been fulfilled by the Roman trumpets as the army conquered Jerusalem, much like the trumpet blast about Assyria and Egypt? Probably, so let’s move on, but it is worth exploring further in another post (Lord willing).
In Matt. 24:31, the angels denote heavenly beings, “and in this context of the heavenly authority of the Son of Man it probably refers to the spiritual power underlying human evangelization. The ‘great trumpet blast’ which Matthew alone includes at this point also suits a more supernatural dimension to this ingathering” (France, pp. 927-28). Further, the trumpet blast has to happen before Jesus’s generation passes away, the “stubborn” verse, which does not allow an end-time scenario in our days. So interpreting it in light of Is. 27:13 is reasonable and solves the problem that the “stubborn” verse poses.
Verses 29-31, as interpreted here on the basis of the OT imagery from which they are composed, thus speak of the predicted destruction of the temple from a dual perspective. On the one hand, it is a climatic act of judgment, comparable to God’s earlier judgment on pagan cities and nations, but now incurred by the failure of his own people Israel. But on the other hand it is also a symbol of a new beginning, the heavenly enthronement of the Son of Man, on whom, as Daniel 7:14 had declared, will be conferred universal and everlasting sovereignty. (p. 928)
Thus, the interpretation of vv. 29-31 depends on the OT, which is always a wise move, in apocalyptical passages. Jesus will gather a new and inclusive people through the evangelization of the world with the power of angels behind the scenes or undergirding the whole gospel witness, now going on for over 2000 years.
Jesus summarizes his answer to the disciples’ first question (destruction of the temple) in three ways:
(1). As the fig tree in foliage is a harbinger of summer, so also the preliminary events that result in the “telos end” are harbingers (vv. 32-33).
(2). All of these events will happen before this generation passes away (v. 34).
(3). You can trust my prediction (v. 35).
These three points merely clarify the apocalyptic language drawn from the OT and reinforce the tight timeline that spans Jesus’s words here to the actual end of the temple.
The fig tree may refer to Israel (see Matt. 21:28-20), but more likely the imagery is used in order to prove a basic point. (Luke’s version says the fig tree and all trees, so the fig tree here is not about Israel.) As summer follows spring, so also the destruction follows the build-up of events, with the clearest sign being irreversible and too late for permanent restoration: the devastating pollution standing in the holy place. This happened when the Romans stomped all over the temple (see the photos, below)
“it is near”: some translations say “he is near,” but the subject of the verb is unclear and does not suggest a personal pronoun, so the clause is best translated as “it is near,” which I do, because the entire context tells me that the pronoun refers to “the end” (v. 33).
In “this generation”: Jesus uses this phrase in Matthew to indicate a timeframe, not an ethnic group, and speaks that judgment is coming on it (11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:14; 17:17). This is true here. This generation (Jesus’s generation) will experience judgment of the most real kind—the destruction of the temple that will forever change Judaism. It is only a “stubborn” verse if interpreters insist that any or all of vv. 4-35 are about the distant future, even our days. No, they are about the near future, before AD 70 (inclusively counted).
In v. 35, Jesus uses a double negative for emphasis: “My words shall not—not!—pass away.” Jesus proclaims that his prediction can be relied on; and sure enough, the events happened before his generation passed away because the temple was sacked in A.D. 70. He died young, but some people of his generation were alive during the unthinkable devastation inflicted by the Roman army.
Photos Depicting the Destruction of the Temple
I took these photos in June 2001, while in Rome.
The judgment on Jerusalem happened in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple. They stomped all over it; therefore, the abomination of desolation prophesied in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 actually happened within the generation living at the time of Jesus’s prophecy.
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. (emphasis added)
15 Then, when you see the abomination of desolation spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains ….
14 “When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it must not”—let the reader understand—“then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.”
Luke clearly connects the abomination of desolation prophesied in Daniel 9:21, 11:31, 12:11 with the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark add that the abomination of desolation will happen when the Gentiles (Roman army) stand in the Holy Place of the temple, which they did.
The Arch of Titus was built in A.D. 81 by Domitian (ruled 81-96), to honor his deceased brother Titus and their father Vespasian’s victory over the Jews and Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Roman army really did stand in the Holy Place in the temple, where the Menorah and other tools were kept. The abomination of desolation already happened within Jesus’s generation, just as he had predicted.
The Unknown Time of the Parousia (Matt. 24:36-44)
36 But concerning that Day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father alone.
Let’s close this post with the verse that indicates Jesus is changing the subject to answer the second question (the sign of his parousia).
For an answer to the question of why Jesus did not know the day or the hour, click on this post:
Here in this pericope or section, Jesus uses the word parousia twice (v. 37 and 39) Recall the disciples’ original questions (v. 3). Here it is, repeated:
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came up to him privately, saying, “Tell us. When will these things be? And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
(1). “When will these things be?”
In context, the “things” is the temple’s destruction: Not one stone will be left on top of each other. He answered the first question in vv. 4-35, with specific time markers that the disciples can observe with their own eyes and experience (24:6, 9, 15, 20, 23, 25, 26, 33). It happened in their lifetime, before this (or their) generation passed away.
(2). “And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
From v. 36 to Matt. 25:46, he is about to answer their second question. In 25:46, the age will be closed out or wrapped up. No one knows the day or the hour of the parousia, which will launch the final judgment; therefore, Jesus does not offer his disciples a sign.
The Greek preposition translated concerning is peri (pronounced pair-ee), and it is often used to introduce a new topic, when peri begins the sentence or clause (Matt. 22:31; Mark 12:26; 13:32; John 16:9, 10, 11; 17:20; Acts 21:25; 25:18, 26; 1 Cor. 7:25; 8:1, 4; 12:1; 16:1, 12; 2 Cor. 9:1; 1 Thess. 4:9; 5:1; Heb. 5:11; 1 Pet. 1:10). This use of peri is also reinforced with the tiny connector de (pronounced deh). It is an elusive particle, but in this case, “but” is used to contrast this topic with the previously long one.
Here’s Paul using peri de in 1 Cor. 8:1, in his change of subject from marriage in 1 Cor. 7 to food sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor. 8: “Now about [peri de] food sacrificed to idols … (NIV). Similarly, using peri de, Jesus is shifting topics from the destruction of Jerusalem to his Second Coming–two distinct events at widely different times.
Bottom line: clearly in v. 36 Matthew is changing the topic from the coming-in-judgment on the temple to the parousia or Second Coming or visitation to judge the world and put things right (Matt. 24:36-25:46). In vv. 4-35 the temporal connections were clear: “then,” “in those days,” “immediately after,” and “it is near” (and so on). In contrast, in the second eschatological section stretching all the way to 25:46, there is no such temporal connections. Therefore, the “telos end” of vv. 4-35 can be predicted, but not the “synteleia end,” as the brief illustration about Noah and the next three parables will demonstrate (not included in this post, but in the companion post). It will come when people don’t expect it.
Again, see the companion post:
“that day”: it is often used in both the OT and NT of the final day leading to judgment: you can look up the verses online but here are some references: Is. 10:20; Joel 1:15; 3:18; Amos 8:9; 9:11; Zeph. 1:10, 14; Zech. 14:4; Mal. 3:17-18. This is the first mention of a singular day or hour, in contrast to “those days” (vv. 19, 22, and 29) or the timeframe of the Roman war. The singular “day” will recur 24:42 in the final judgment pericope, and both “day” and “hour” in 24:50 and 25:13, so we are tracking the same answer to the second question.
Further, “that day” and “the day of judgment” has already been brought up (10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36). Indeed, “that day” refers to the final judgment without any need to spell out that it is the final day of judgment. And on the final day, the son of Man will sit on his glorious throne and judge all the nations (25:31-46).
Summary and Conclusion
It would be unrealistic to believe that Jesus would not predict the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, in a long prophetic message (vv. 4-35). It was nation-shattering for Israel, where he ministered. And in fact those verses do predict this destruction. Not everything he said in Matt. 24 is about us today, except basic lessons.
As noted, the disciples asked two questions:
(1). “When will these things be?” The context indicates that this question pertains to the destruction of the temple, which they had just admired. But he predicts its destruction.
(2). “And what will be the sign of your visitation [parousia] and the close [synteleia] of the age?”
He answered the first question in vv. 4-35 and his second answer will go from v. 36 all the way to Matt. 25:46, when the age will be closed out or wrapped up.
Here’s a short diagram to illustrate the first question and answer in Matt. 24:4-35 and the flow of the whole Gospel:
First Coming → Resurrection → Coming to His Throne and then Judgment →Telos (End) of the Old Temple
The telos end happened in A.D. 70, the generation that was living when Jesus taught in 24:4-35. His prediction came true.
Here’s a diagram of the second question and answer.
________________← This Age ⸻→ Synteleia of This Age
First Coming ⸻⸻⸻⸻→ Parousia → New Messianic Age
In the second diagram, the First Coming begins the movement towards the parousia or Second Coming. At the parousia, the synteleia (closing) of This Age occurs and the New Messianic or Kingdom Age begins in full manifestation. After the synteleia, a New Messianic Age begins, and you can certainly insert the judgment on the temple in This Age. But that is not the synteleia end. It’s the telos end. In Matt. 28:20b, Jesus promises the synteleia, the closing out of the age, which is a fitting capstone on Matthew’s Gospel. “And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end [synteleia] of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).
Objection: “You’re making too much of the telos and synteleia ends!” Reply: No, I am not. Read both posts carefully. Look up those words in Matthew’s Gospel. Those differences exist. But let’s say that the nuances in those two terms don’t exist. My overall thesis doesn’t stand or fall on them. Contextually, 24:4-35 really is about the destruction, and 24:36-25:46 is about the Second Coming and its aftermath. Check out my exegesis in both posts, particularly 24:34, which, again, says that all things will happen before this generation passes away. What are all things? Everything Jesus talked about before v. 34. There’s no getting around that “stubborn” verse. I believe that my (and others’) exegesis clarifies that verse, if we understand apocalyptic language and imagery, which Jesus was using, in the context of overthrowing the Old Regime or the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple.
See this post for at least fifteen OT passages about apocalyptic, cosmic disasters to indicate judgment on a nation:
One additional point: There is simply no verse in Matt. 24-25 that supports the rapture of the church, distinct from the Second Coming. In fact, all the signs listed in 24:4-35 have already been fulfilled (except the Second Coming in v. 27).
See my post:
However, I would like to point out that the micro-judgment on the temple in his coming-in-judgment on it (24:4-35) prefigures the macro-judgment on the world at the closing synteleia of the age (25:31-46). The first and smaller judgment is a paradigm or pattern of the second and global one. But the two are not identical. The micro-judgment happened two thousand years ago; the truly global one has not yet happened for the past two thousand years (and counting). Therefore some signs are perennial or repeatable over the centuries, like false prophets and messiahs and ravenous wolves lurking on the edges of the Christian community and then entering and attacking. But it is wrongheaded to look for specific signs, unless a moral climate is a sign (of sorts), as it was in the days of Noah.
Once again, this interpretation enjoys the beauty of simplicity by eliminating all (or nearly all) the complications that popular Bible prophecy teachers have been imposing on Matt. 24 and 25 for decades—over a century. Since this tradition has deep roots—not to say entrenched—in the conservative sectors of American Evangelicalism (broadly defined to incorporate the Renewal Movements), these teachers won’t give up their complicated interpretations of a straightforward passage. So I hope to reach and teach the younger generations in the church. They need to prepare for tough times ahead. I’m not a pastor, but I can still have a teacher’s pastoral heart.
The Second Coming can happen at any time! Be ready!
Matt. 24:36 to 25:46–From Second Coming to New Messianic Age (the companion piece to this present one)
Three Options for Interpreting Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 (I discuss two other interpretations)
Luke 17:22-37: Taken Away = Secret Rapture? (I also briefly look at Matthew’s version)