Matthew 24 - Footsteps of the Lord
When we look at some of the catastrophic events that have happened during the last year or so, we can start to wonder, are we hearing the footsteps of the Lord Jesus approaching? Is He about to come back? Some time ago a tsunami in southwest Asia left more than 200,000 people dead. In Sudan’s Darfur region tens of thousands have died and several millions more have lost their homes. There were hurricanes and floods in Mexico and the southern United States last year and a mudslide in Guatemala that took more than a thousand lives. A massive earthquake in October claimed 25,000 lives in Pakistan. Cancer, AIDS, and other diseases continue to take millions of lives and medical authorities keep raising the spectre of a worldwide bird flu pandemic. So many disasters in such a short time, with fear of more on the horizon; how are we as Christians supposed to interpret such events?
The Bible speaks of the signs of the times, certain events which will happen before Christ returns. We read in Matthew 24 that these include wars and famines and pestilences and earthquakes, the same sorts of things we hear about in the news. Are we supposed to conclude that the Lord Jesus is about to come back? Or are there some signs of the times that have not happened yet?
To answer these questions, I’d like to focus on one passage which deals with the signs of the times in detail, namely Matthew 24. It may be helpful for you to have your Bibles open and follow along as you read this article.
The entire chapter is Christ’s answer to a question which the disciples asked Him. Jesus had just walked out of the temple and the disciples pointed out the buildings of the temple to Him. It was a magnificent structure, originally built after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, but greatly expanded and remodeled over the last forty-six years (John 2:20), thanks especially to the efforts of King Herod. But Jesus did not stop to admire the temple. Instead He predicted that it would be completely destroyed so that not one stone would be left upon another. The disciples were shocked and asked, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”
It is important to notice that the disciples, in fact, asked two questions here. The first question is: when will these things be? That is, when will the temple be destroyed? And the second question is: what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age? We know that the answers to these two questions are very different. The temple was destroyed by the Romans a long time ago, in 70 A.D. But the end of the age has not come yet. In the minds of the disciples, though, these two events were connected. And that is not surprising, when you consider what the disciples had just heard Jesus say in the previous chapter, Matthew 23. In the last words of Matthew 23 Jesus said that He would not come to the temple again until He would be greeted with the words of Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” So when Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed, the disciples probably concluded that Jesus was coming back to destroy the temple.
In the rest of chapter 24 Jesus makes clear to his disciples that they ought not to combine the destruction of the temple with the return of Christ. First of all, He shows them that a number of events would precede his coming. Wars and rumours of wars would take place. Nations and kingdoms would rise and fall. Famines and pestilences and earthquakes would happen in various places. But even these terrible events did not mean that the world was coming to an end. No, said Jesus, all these are only the beginning of sorrows. The word that is translated as sorrows in verse 8 really means birth pangs. It reminds me of what we read in Romans 8:20-22, that the whole creation has been groaning in travail ever since the fall when God subjected it to futility so that it produced thorns and thistles; famines show that creation is being held back from its potential to produce food; earthquakes are the groaning of a creation which longs to be redeemed. The fact that there are earthquakes and famines and pestilences show that Christ has not come back yet.
In other words, these are signs which do not help us to predict when Christ will come back, but they bring us to the conclusion that He’s not here yet. Now, you might ask, isn’t it obvious that Christ hasn’t come back yet? We don’t need an earthquake to figure that out. But remember that Jesus told his disciples that there would be people who claim to be the Christ and they would deceive many. How can they tell that these are false Christs? Because earthquakes and famines and pestilences and wars are still going on. If the real Christ had come, these things would not happen anymore. In other words, don’t think small when it comes to the return of Christ; his return will affect not just Jerusalem or the temple but all of creation. He’s coming on a grand scale. Earthquakes, wars, famines, pestilences, and the rise and fall of empires are events not restricted to the time just before Jesus comes back; they have been happening throughout history and they teach us only one thing: the end is not yet; Christ has not returned. And so we groan along with the rest of creation, longing for the day when death and decay is gone. These signs of the times teach us to say, “How long, O Lord? Maranatha – come back soon!”
What will be the Sign?
The next section of Matthew 24 also shows that much had to happen before Christ returned. Verses 9-14 speak about the progress of the gospel. It would be accompanied by persecution, false teaching, and apostasy and the love of many Christians would grow cold. Notice that Jesus does not predict a mass conversion to Christianity. He does say that the gospel will be preached through the entire world, but as a witness to the nations. In other words, when Christ does come back as judge, the nations will not be able to say that they did not have a chance to hear the gospel; persecution is the proof that they did hear the gospel but rejected it; false teaching is proof that they heard it but twisted its message; the love growing cold is proof that people used to believe but no longer. Only after the gospel has had this response throughout the world, only then will the end come. Again Jesus teaches the disciples that they should not think small when it comes to the return of Christ: the gospel of the kingdom is going to go throughout the earth; all nations will hear the name of Jesus Christ. Christ’s return will have global significance; all nations will be affected by it.
And yet, this sign does not help us to predict the time of Christ’s return either. Already in the book of Acts, the apostles preached the gospel throughout the known world of the time. Paul went throughout the Roman Empire, to Rome, possibly as far as Spain. In one of his letters, Peter passes on greetings from Babylon. Other apostles are said to have gone to India. Very early on there was a church in Ethiopia. And throughout church history missionaries have gone to the ends of the earth, the frontiers of civilization. That work still goes on today. To date, the Bible, or at least parts of it, has been translated into 2167 languages or dialects (see http://www.biblesociety.org /index2.htm). With every generation come new people who have not heard the gospel before and so the missionary task of the church continues until the end comes. Christ does not tell us to preach the gospel so that we can predict his return, but so that we work for his return. This is a sign of the times that puts the church to work.
So the first part of Matthew 24 has to do with the second question that the disciples asked: what will be the sign of Your coming? In other words, how will we know when You have come back? Jesus’ answer is this: there will be people who claim to be the Christ, but don’t be fooled. As long as there are wars and earthquakes and famines and pestilences, and as long as the gospel is still being preached to the nations, I haven’t come back yet and the end of the age is not yet here.
When will the Temple be Destroyed?
In the next part of Matthew 24, Christ goes back to their first question: when will the temple be destroyed? In verse 15 He tells the disciples that they would see the abomination of desolation mentioned by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place. In other words, the temple would be desecrated. Daniel 11:31 predicts the coming of a king who would defile the sanctuary, stop the regular sacrifices, and set up an abomination of desolation. This prophecy was fulfilled already in the days of the Maccabees, in the second century B.C., when a Syrian king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes plundered Jerusalem, invaded the temple, and sacrificed pigs on an altar to the Greek god Zeus. Now Jesus says that the temple would be desecrated again during the disciples’ lifetime.
And what should they do when this happened? Should they conclude that Christ had returned to save the believers? No, said Jesus, they should flee for their lives; it would be a time of great danger not only for Jews who rejected Christ but also for Christians. The judgments that Christ had pronounced in Matthew 23 would come upon Jerusalem; the temple would be left desolate, just as He had said, but the sword of the Romans who brought this judgment would not distinguish between Jews and Christians; anyone who stayed behind would be in danger of death. And that’s why Jesus tells his disciples to flee to the mountains, to run for their lives, not even to try to save their possessions, but to flee the way Lot once fled from Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus announced woe to those who were pregnant or were nursing babies because they would be slowed down in their flight. There are plenty of Old Testament texts which tell what enemy soldiers would do to babies and pregnant women if they captured them. Run, run, run for your lives, said Jesus, and pray that nothing will slow you down, like the rainy conditions of winter or the travel restrictions of the Sabbath. For there would be a great tribulation, a time of terrible suffering worse than anything before or since, and if those days were not shortened, no one would survive, not even the elect.
And yet, as terrible as this tribulation would be, it was not the final judgment. It did not mean that Christ had come back as judge. Sure, there would be counterfeits who would claim to be the Christ. These frauds would even be able to do amazing signs and wonders to back up their claims and they would try to deceive the elect. But Jesus warned his followers not to be taken in by reports of Christ-sightings. When Christ comes back, you won’t have to go looking for Him, because it will be obvious. Christ’s coming will be like lightning that lights up the whole sky. You can’t miss it. Do vultures ever miss out on a carcass? No, they always seem to know where it is. In the same way, people won’t miss out on the return of Christ. What makes his return so obvious? Well, the sun and the moon will stop shining, the stars will disappear, and the stabilizing forces that keep the heavenly bodies in place would be disrupted. Again, the message is, don’t think small when it comes to the return of Christ: it’s an event of cosmic proportions; it will disrupt the entire universe. You can’t miss that.
The Sign of the Son of Man
And when that happens, said Jesus in verse 30, then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens. What is meant by “the sign of the Son of Man”? A sign is something visible, something that people will see. And then the rest of the verse describes precisely what people will see. It says that the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. In other words, the sign of the Son of Man is the Son of Man. If that’s the case, why does Jesus speak here of a sign? Because Christ is referring directly to the question which the disciples had asked Him at the beginning of the chapter: what will be the sign of your coming? In other words, how will we know that you’re coming? And the answer is, you’ll know when you see Me. There will be no advance warning that He’s about to come: He will simply appear.
And that fits what we read in the rest of the chapter. Verse 42 says, “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” And verse 44 adds that He is coming at an unexpected hour. Jesus gives the example of a master who comes home on a day when the servant is not looking for him. He also gives the example of the flood: people did not know when it would come, until suddenly it came and swept them away. So, too, said Christ, no one knows the time of Christ’s return. It goes to show that the signs of the times are not meant to calculate a date for his coming. Plenty of people have used them for that purpose. But they neglect the Lord’s words in verse 44: be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. The signs of the times do not tell us when Christ will return.
Is that really true? Does Christ not give any indication of the time of his return? I’d like to go back for a moment to verse 29. There we read that immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, etc, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear … immediately after the tribulation. Remember that the tribulation here refers to the terrible suffering that took place when Jerusalem fell. So verse 29 seems to suggest that Christ would come back right after the events of 70 A.D. And verse 34 seems to support the same when it says, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” These words seem to suggest that the return of Christ would happen during the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples. Many explainers have taken the approach that all of the events of Matthew 24 have already happened, that the coming of the Son of Man in verse 30 does not refer to Christ’s second coming, but that it refers to Christ coming to judge Jerusalem, that behind the Roman forces is Christ who comes to punish Israel for refusing to believe in Him. However, such explainers have a very difficult time explaining verse 31, about the sounding of the trumpet and the angels who gather the elect from the four winds. Verse 31 is surely about the second coming of Christ.
No Simple Answer
So how are we to explain verse 29, which suggests that Christ will return right after the destruction of Jerusalem? There is no simple answer to this question. This whole chapter is one of the most debated passages of the Bible, simply because it is so hard to make all the bits and pieces fall into place. And yet I think that we can make some headway.
The first point that I’d like to make is that Jesus did not know when He would return. Have a look at verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven.” The footnote adds: “nor the Son, but My Father only.” Now you might argue with me that it’s just a footnote which does not belong in the text, but the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21 do include these words in the text. Jesus says that He does not know the time of his return. And therefore I conclude that verse 29 is not meant to give an exact time for Christ’s return. Jesus did know that his return would take place after the tribulation, but exactly when it would happen He did not know and so He could not tell his disciples, even if He had wanted to.
Then why did Jesus use the words “immediately after the tribulation”? I think that verse 33 gives us a clue: “When you see all these things, you know that it is near, at the doors.” In other words, when you see all these things happening, the desecration of the temple, the great tribulation, and the false Christs leading people astray, then you know that the second coming is near. It’s right at the doors, about to happen. That is to say, the tribulation of 70 A.D. is the last warning sign before the return of Christ. The very next sign will be the sign of the coming of the Son of Man. The great tribulation is the last sign which God reveals to us. There are no more revealed events which must happen before Christ’s return. From then on there is only one message: be ready, for the Son of Man could come at any time. He’s at the doors and He could step in without warning at any moment.
From a historical perspective, when we look back, a lot of things have happened between the tribulation and the return of Christ. Centuries of history have passed since the destruction of Jerusalem. And then it is hard to make sense of Jesus’ words that He will return immediately after the tribulation. But from a faith perspective, looking forward, God has revealed only this: that we need to be ready for Christ’s return. Ever since the destruction of Jerusalem the church has been waiting for Christ to come at any moment. That is the next big event.
In summary, the signs of the times are not meant to help us predict when Christ will return. When we hear of events such as wars, famines, earthquakes, and pestilences, these remind us that Christ has not come back yet. Creation is still groaning in travail, longing for the redemption that will come when Christ returns. So if people come who claim to be the Christ, we know that they are lying: Christ is still in heaven. Does that mean that there is nothing we can do? No. We can join in with the groaning of creation, crying out in prayer, O Lord, how long? And we can go to work in the kingdom of God so that the gospel continues to call out as a witness to the nations. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be missionaries. In Matthew 24 Christ used the example of two men working in the field, of two women grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. It is there, in our daily work, in the field, at the mill, in the office, in the kitchen, on the building site, in the neighbourhood, and at school that we show forth the gospel in the way we talk and act. And when persecution comes and the love of many grows cold, let us endure to the end. If we continue to do all these things, then Christ will find us ready when He returns.