matt 24 (2)… the course of the age and the coming of the son of man

Vv 1-3 the disciples questions

To recap. Jesus, seeing his disciples dazzled by the beauty of the temple, punctures their infatuation by telling them that soon the temple will be a ruin – a scattering of stones. Later this prompts a three-sided question; when will the temple be destroyed, when will the age end and what will be the sign of Jesus’ coming? Clearly the disciples saw all three aspects as integrated. Jesus answer reveals the picture is more complicated than they think. Within a generation all the events that precede the end will have in principle have happened. Christ could return within a generation. However, the events described need not be exhausted in the first generation. Time would reveal that the OT practice of prophetic foreshortening is employed where events in the near future foreshadow events in the distant future.

Two points to note: the ‘age’ lasts as long as the church is on earth (Matt 13:39,40; 28:20); by Christ’s coming they mean his second advent which is what Jesus means by ‘coming’ throughout the discourse. It is extremely unlikely that the coming of 24:30 is an exception.

These questions interest us too so we are eager to hear Jesus response.

Vv 4-14 enduring to the end

Jesus answers the three-pronged question of the disciples weaving in pastoral counsel as he does so. He outlines the demanding features of the age. They will be found in the C1 but in every other century too. They are rather disheartening for they are all in one way or another a trial that could collapse faith. They will require endurance.

There will be many snares to lead his disciples astray. There will be false Christs (attractive if you are in a life threatening situation and need a deliverer). The world will be unsettled by wars and natural disasters which may tempt to debilitating fear. But wars, famines, earthquakes and the like are not the end; they are but the birth pangs of the end – contractions pointing to the birth of glory to come. Believers can expect to be persecuted and hated. They will be put to death, The reality is many will crumble under pressure (Dan 11. Many will abandon the faith and even betray other believers (Dan 11:35). False prophets will arise (2 Pet 2:1). Lawlessness will flourish in the church and the world (i Tim 41-4; 22 Tim 3; Dan 7:24, 25). Many will be led astray. Vigilance is called for. It is a time when faith comes under pressure. Jesus does not sugar coat the experience of being a Christian. It will not be easy to be a Christian between the advents [ those who endure in faith to the end will be saved (Dan 11:32, 34-35).

The focus of vv4-14 is ‘the end’. The disciples wanted to know what would be the sign of the end of the age. Jesus impresses on the disciples that the end is some time away and until it arrives that they will face many difficulties – ‘the end is not yet’. Traumatic events (wars, famines and earthquakes) are birth pangs of the end (Isa 13:8). They are messianic woes presaging the end but the end is still future. The birth of the new age was some distance away. His disciples must endure trials to the end for it is he who endures to the end who will be saved. When the gospel is preached throughout the whole world the end will come (Matt 28:18-20). This is an encouragement to world-wide evangelism. Just as Adam and Eve were to multiply and cover the earth so too was the church. In the Acts we read of the church multiplying; it is a deliberate allusion to the creation mandate (Acts 9:31; 12:24). Incidentally, the gospel of the kingdom is no different from the apostolic gospel (Acts 8:12; 28:31).

The canvas is an international one (v7, 9, 14). The gospel will be proclaimed in the whole world. Similar features of the end are found in the OT, particularly in Daniel (Dan 11,12). Notice there is a clear parallel between the first four troubles outlined by Jesus and the first four seals, the horsemen of the apocalypse (Rev 6). Also, in each passage (Matt 24, Rev 6) the fifth trouble is persecution.

Vv15-28 the abomination of desolation

Jesus turns from general features of the age to a specific event. Or perhaps it is better to say ‘events’. In my view (until I am persuaded otherwise), vv15-28 are best understood as an example of ‘prophetic foreshortening’. It seems likely we have two events – one immediate and one ultimate – that are fused or superimposed. In the first instance we have a description of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Instructions are given how (mainly Jewish) disciples will escape Roman extermination. Against C1 convention and instinct, safety lies not in the city but in the mountains. It is touching to see Jesus’ concern for his own. In times of extreme trauma false leaders and prophets arise who are tempting to follow; they seem to offer a way out. They must not be believed. But Jesus probably also speaks to a wider constituency (v17,18…let the one). He speaks to the city who has rejected him and provides for those who will hear a way of escape from ‘great tribulation’. Grace shines through even as judgement is predicted.

Contrary to the futurist position it seems to me that AD 70 is unavoidably present in the Olivet discourse. In v 34 we are told that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’. ‘These things’ are all he has been speaking about in vv4-33 and perhaps especially vv15-28. He has already announced the destruction of the temple and his disciples ask him about it; it seems unlikely he would then fail to discuss it. ‘This generation’ cannot be simply ‘this kind of unbelieving generation’. It must refer to that specific generation alive when Jesus spoke (23:35,36). AD 70 is undoubtedly in view.

Yet we must ask if AD 70 exhausts this prophecy? I don’t think it does. As already indicated it seems as if a dual fulfilment may be involved in vv15-28. Dual fulfilment is not unusual in prophecy. In the OT often a more immediate event served as a model for a more ultimate event. There are good reasons for thinking this mechanism is at work here. Jesus explicitly says he is drawing from the prophet Daniel. The ‘abomination of desolation’ and the ‘great tribulation’ are sourced in Daniel (9:24-27; 12:1,11, 7). However, when we examine Daniel, these events do not belong to the middle of history but to ‘the time of ‘the end’ (Dan 12). They are a time of deep trauma for Daniel’s people that immediately precedes the end. And so it seems that these verses (vv15-28) not only describe AD 70 but describe the very end (Rev 13). This makes sense because while the description in vv15-28 fits into AD 70 it does so a little uneasily. For example, it is hard to see a clear ‘abomination that causes desolation’ in AD 70. And by the time the temple was desecrated it was too late to flee the city. It seems that aspects of the prophecy may belong more readily to a future fulfilment. For the ‘sake of the elect these days are cut short’ makes sense in events at the second advent in a way it doesn’t in AD 70. Not to mention that the coming of the Son of Man ‘immediately’ follows ‘the tribulation of those days’. Only by an unlikely angular meaning of ‘the coming of the Son of Man in clouds’ can this ‘coming’ be shoehorned into AD 70, however, if the text allows for a future fulfilment all becomes clear and the second advent which is the most natural reading, comfortably fits. Carson understands ‘the tribulation of those days’ to refer to general tribulation throughout the history of the church. However, the immediate antecedent is the ‘great tribulation’ (v21) that belongs to the specific time-frame (vv15-28).

And so it seems that AD 70 is a typological fulfilment anticipating an eschatological fulfilment. Paul building on Jesus’ teaching speaks of a ‘man of lawlessness’ who precedes the return of Christ who proclaims himself God and sets himself up in the temple as God who Jesus destroys at his coming with the breath of his mouth (2 Thess 2). It seems that the beast from the sea who demands worship as God in Revelation is Paul’s ‘man of lawlessness’ (Rev 13). The end of history’s man of lawlessness’s self deification in God’s temple (a rebuilt temple at Jerusalem or the church?) epitomises the abomination of desolation: man has become the idolatrous object of worship. Moreover, the Beast, initiates a time of great persecution for the people of God halted only by the return of Christ (Rev 13;17:14; 19:11-21; Matt 24:21). Furthermore this end-time period is particularly marked by Satanic deception. The Beast and False Prophet are able to deceive and do great signs (Rev 13, 12:15, Ps 144 7,8) deceiving weak believers claiming to be Christ. These are the features of this period of ‘great tribulation’ Jesus describes and while they were true in AD 70 to an extent they are also emphatically future (vv24). However, whether AD 70 or the end of the age, what is described is a singularly ghastly time of suffering for Israel and for God’s people (v21; Dan 12:1; Joel 2:2). I assume the final tribulation will be the time of unequalled distress. However, such is the decay in society that the coming of Jesus is provoked. The worldwide spread of the gospel, the suffering of his people and the pervasive decay of humanity compel his return. Wherever the corpse is the vultures will gather (Job 39:30). It is a metaphor of humanity as a rotting carcass ripe for carrion birds. Jesus’ coming will be ‘the great supper of God’, an unclean carrion feast that contrasts with the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev 19:17). These verses of judgement and salvation following tribulation align with Daniel 7,11 and 12.

Vv 29-35 the coming of the Son of Man

If, as argued, vv15-28 permit a dual fulfilment, then the ‘coming of the Son of Man in clouds’ visibly and audibly to those on earth must be the second advent. It is hard to resist this conclusion. From the outset of the discourse the ‘coming’ of Christ was a major focus. The disciples had asked when he was coming and were referring to his second advent. Two other references in the chapter to his coming clearly refer to the second advent (v27, 37). It is unlikely that the coming in v30 is a different event especially since it is accompanied by well recognized features of the second coming. If it is argued that a different word is used for coming (not the normal parousia but erchomai) then it needs to be said that this different word (erchomai) is also used of the second Coming (which none despite) a few verses further on (v42, 44, 46).

This ‘coming with clouds’ is not conveyed as a local event in Palestine. Nor is it an invisible event visible only to the eye of faith that expected the Roman invasion. It is a worldwide event, an event with cosmic activity. The sun is darkened, the moon does not shine and stars fall from the heavens. Certainly, in the OT, this language is sometimes used metaphorically to describe a catastrophic national judgement. The heavenly elements were not actually disintegrating but to those whose worlds were collapsing around them it seemed as if the sky was falling in. Here, however, the cosmic disturbances are probably literal for they appear to describe the ultimate day of judgment. The OT regularly uses this type of language to describe the eschatological day of the Lord, the final day of divine visitation in both judgement and salvation (Isa 13:9,10; Joel 2;31, 3:15; Amos 8:9).

If there was darkness and earthquakes at the cross (a day of the Lord) then literal cosmic disturbances at the final climactic day of the Lord is altogether likely ; escalation from the typical (a localized day of the Lord) to the eschatological is likely to mean that metaphor becomes actual. Cosmic disturbances suggest the canvas is worldwide. If ‘tribes of the earth’ refers to the nations this too points to a worldwide event. Gathering the elect from the four winds suggests a worldwide ingathering. Power, glory and trumpet blasts make this a public event. It is surely the lightening flash from east to west (v27). It’s hardly surprising then that this is the language NT writers use to describe the Second Coming. They have learned it from their Lord.

The sign (ensign or banner) of the Son of Man (Isa 11:10, 49:22), may be a metaphor for his coming as a conquering warrior (Rev 19). ‘All the tribes of the earth will mourn’ is language drawn from Zechariah where it is ‘all the tribes of the land’ who mourn, that is Israel the nation. They mourn in repentance as they look on him whom they pierced. They are saying blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (23:39). The future conversion of Israel may well be what Jesus is describing here (Roms 11). On the other hand in Revelation the broad canvas (every eye shall see him) and the use of tribe elsewhere in the book in a more general sense suggests ‘all the tribes of the earth’ may be appropriate and the mourning in the context of the book be at the prospect of judgement rather than repentance (Rev 1:7, 6:15-17). I have not a firm view. What seems clear is that Zechariah locates this mourning at the parousia and Rev 1 does the same.

Scripture presents the coming of Christ as the day of the Lord (2 Thess 2:1,2). It is possible that a lesser typological day of the Lord is implied in AD 70. It was a day of the Lord for Israel, a day of judgment. It was a divine visitation in judgement through a foreign army. The OT equivalent was the Babylonian invasion. In this sense the Son of Man, as God’s judge, came in AD 70. However the event described in these verses surely is of a magnitude that only the Second Coming can do it justice; to miss this is to misplace something important.

Vv32-35 learning from the fig tree

Jesus urges his disciples to read the signs. The signs pointing to the return of the Son of Man (the arrival of summer). He says when you see ‘all these things’. ‘All these things’ must refer to all the characteristics of the age that he has been outlining. Perhaps they specifically refer to what he has been immediately describing the ‘great tribulation’. Certainly when these days of ‘great tribulation’ arrive then his coming is almost upon us, he (it) is at the gates.

In one sense of course ‘these things’ had happened in the lifetime of the first generation of believers (v34). Since then many believe Jesus could return at any time for there is nothing further to be fulfilled. However, if the ‘great tribulation’ has a dual reference, if the destruction of AD 70 was only a harbinger of an ultimate ‘great tribulation’ then we should still be reading the signs. What seems clear to me is that not only the first generation but every generation should be reading the signs of their age. Certainly the generation suffering persecution under AntiChrist will be sustained knowing that he is near, at the very gate. This is the point – suffering believers hope Christ will return soon. They are encouraged to know he is near – at the very gate.

Notice, the metaphor of the fig tree is about the arrival of summer. Summer suggests the desirable and pleasant. If the coming of the Son of Man in judgement in AD 70 is the focus then ‘summer’ is hardly a fitting metaphor. If the reference is to the Son of Man rescuing his people from end-time tribulation and setting up his kingdom then ‘summer’ is a fitting image.

It would be easy in the vicissitudes of life to doubt Jesus’ words and so we are reminded, in an unstable world, where heaven and earth may pass away Jesus word will never fail, it will never pass away. In an insecure world the one area of solid bedrock is the word of God. We should note too the divine identity that such claims imply.

Vv 36-51 being ready for the coming of the Son of Man

The high Christology of the previous verses balances the observation of ‘no man knows the day nor hour not even the son’. In incarnation Jesus had some limitation to his knowledge within a relationship of divine communication (Jn 5:20, 16:30). Jn 5:20 is interesting because it suggests a staged disclosure to the Son by the Father of his plans as they unfold. On the other hand 16:30 implies a comprehensive knowledge. What we can say is the son knew fully what he needed to know.

More importantly, Jesus is stressing that we must not get involved in speculative date setting. If he doesn’t (didn’t) know the time of his coming then we certainly don’t (Acts 1:7).

The days of Noah has parallels to the Second Coming. Firstly, it was a divine visitation in judgement and salvation. Secondly it was, when it happened, an unexpected visitation; whatever wars or distresses they may have had everyday life was just proceeding as normal. So it will be at the second coming. It will like the flood be sudden an unexpected and create a sharp divide in everyday life. Two people involved in the intimacy of a shared task will be separated – one will be taken the other left. It’s not entirely clear whether ‘taken’ is taken in salvation or in judgement. It doesn’t really matter. If we consider it within the analogy of the flood it may be taken in judgement (swept away). Within what we know of the Second Coming it is more likely to be be believers caught up to meet the Lord in the air. The point is the coming will bring a sudden cleavage.

The metaphor shifts to a thief in the night. Again the coming is unexpected. The householder sleeps and is unprepared for the thief. The challenge or warning is to be alert and watchful ‘for the Son of Man comes at a time you do not expect’. It is those who are ‘ready’ (prepared and waiting) who are taken (1 Thess 4:17).

The metaphor changes again to the steward who is busy doing his master’s business when he returns. By contrast, the wicked servant, seeing his master is delayed acts in all kinds of ungodly ways. He had perhaps said like those in 2 Per 3 ‘where is the promise of his coming’. We read he is put with the hypocrites where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The coming of the Son of Man has dominated this chapter. The disciples asked what would be the sign of his coming at the beginning of the chapter and one way or another it has been in view since. The disciples are told it will be ‘not yet’ and endurance is required. The theme of delay and watchfulness is introduced and will stretch into Ch 25 as Jesus probes how ready we are for his Coming. It is only those ready he receives.


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